May 11, 2009
the monday interview with Henry Thia
Popular comedian Henry Thia loves the No. 10 and his fans love him for his funny everyman appeal
Heartlander funnyman Henry Thia is known for his roles as the bumbling, imperfect everyman, but being named one of this year's Star Awards Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes caps a perfect 10 of coincidences.
Decked out in an orange polo shirt and bermudas, Thia - one of Singapore's most recognisable comic faces and better known as 'Hui Ge' (Brother Hui) - leans back in his living room chair and muses: 'There's something about me and the number 10.'
It began in the humble days before the popular comedian got his break in showbiz, when he made ends meet as a factory worker.
He recalls: 'Every 10 years, the factory that I worked for would close down and I would get retrenched. I started at 17, changed factory at 27, and then again at 37.'
But now, at 57, 10 has been auspicious again, with his Star Awards Top 10 honour.
In fact, he first won the award in 1998, almost 10 years ago.
Thia made this year's list, which is determined by public votes, along with partner-in-comedy Mark Lee.
Rubber-faced, dumpy Thia's top artiste ranking caused some eyebrows to be raised, given that most of the others on the list were more eye-candy than eyesores.
The fab faces included Tay Ping Hui and Christopher Lee, male physical specimens two decades and a universe away from chubby 'uncle' Thia.
The fact that he has found fame playing sidekicks rather than heroes is something he had learnt to live with throughout his career.
His wife, Mary, 52, recalls her husband's early years on Jack Neo's popular Mandarin show Comedy Night in the 1990s: 'When he started out as a comedy extra, I would watch him getting bullied and laughed at on screen. Of course, I felt heartache.
'But this is comedy and you have to be professional about it. As long as he was happy acting, I never had objections.'
Life! interviewed Thia at the couple's five-room Sengkang HDB flat, arriving to find him sitting cross-legged on the floor, poring over piles of family photo albums.
Two dogs - a schnauzer and a Jack Russell terrier - skitter around the flat, while a parakeet screeches in the living room. It already feels like the beginnings of a comedy set.
Thia looks up to greet you, then chuckling, shows you several pictures of him and his wife when they were dating, and quips gleefully: 'I was handsome, hor? My wife also very pretty.'
On closer look though, there is nothing about his house that screams the owner is a well-known name in the entertainment industry, except for a safe where VCDs of shows he has done are stashed, and his two Star Award trophies displayed proudly on a shelf.
In person, he is straight-talking and subdued, save for the occasional wisecrack. His face, though still clownish, reveals no trace of that trademark rubber flexibility.
Overall, he still is every bit the heartland uncle you expect him to be. You can imagine him hanging out at your neighbourhood kopitiam, sipping coffee and flipping the day's papers. He speaks in Mandarin peppered with English and Hokkien words.
As the eldest son in a family of 10, Thia has had his share of hard knocks, having worked since his early teens. His family lived in a kampung in Joo Chiat, with his furniture-painter father and mother, a washerwoman.
He attended Presbyterian Boys' School, but fearing for his safety, dropped out in Secondary 2 when the racial riots between Malays and Chinese broke out in Singapore.
The Thia family then rented a one-room flat from the Government in Siglap, where he helped his parents sell prawn noodles at a market.
Even as a child, he says he already had 'showbiz dreams', which started when he came across a foreign film crew shooting in Singapore and saw how lead actors and actresses were fawned over by set helpers.
He says, laughing: 'I thought to myself, 'Wah, I want to be like that, too.' Nobody told me then that you can't get rich acting in Singapore.'
At age 17, he got a job as a textile worker at a Jurong factory. He stayed in a workers' hostel, but the acting bug never left.
On his days off, he would gather with fellow audiences at coffee shops and community centres to catch the latest shows on television of then popular comic duo Wang Sha and Ye Feng, and mimic their antics to entertain colleagues at work.
Thia married when he was 25, and the couple had their eldest daughter, Irene, a year later, followed by two other daughters. The family rented a room in a Siglap flat near his family home.
Fired up by the enthusiastic reaction to his coffee-shop mimickry, Thia answered audition calls he came across in newspapers.
His talent was recognised to some extent as he clinched part-time work as an extra on sets, but sadly, he never landed a major role for the simple reason that he was not able to read or memorise his lines.
He says: 'They would give us application forms to fill and I couldn't understand anything so I would ask the person next to me to fill it for me, claiming I had bad eyesight.'
Through the 1980s, he juggled being an extra and working at a factory, sometimes getting only four to five hours of sleep a day. Shoots were through the night from 11pm till 7am the next day. He would go straight to work, knocking off at 5pm when he could finally rest.
Thia says he was earning only about $600 a month, barely enough to feed his children. His wife helped out by selling prawn noodles for his parents. The couple even had to pawn their jewellery for spare cash.
In 1988, he signed up with Jack Neo's acting school, JI Productions, where he met fellow student and comedy pal Mark Lee.
He says: 'I had to audition for a place, but thankfully, there were no scripts this time. It was all improvisation on the spot.'
He balanced his acting course with his factory job. He would ferry Lee to and from classes, and the duo, riding Thia's motorcycle, would stop to collect cardboard boxes along the way to sell.
Lee, 40, jokes about his relationship with Thia: 'We are like husband and wife. We always took care of each other. Although we were complete unknowns at that time, we were happy just to have a chance to act.'
Things did not take off straightaway even after Thia completed his three- month acting course.
He continued working as an extra in Mandarin drama serials for a few years before Neo, who was looking for sidekicks for his Comedy Night show, spotted him on a set and roped him in.
Says Neo, 49: 'Henry has that born-loser face. He doesn't even need to act because his face is already a show. He could not deliver his lines properly and that somehow became his trademark - bumbling and clueless.'
But don't be taken in by his stage persona, warns Lee: 'In real life, he is actually very sharp. He isn't as 'gong' (silly) as you see him on screen.
'People love him because he has that everyman appeal that they can identify with.'
From bit parts on Comedy Night, Thia took on major comedy roles on the show, which hit its high in the mid-1990s.
He cross-dressed as Ms Lim, an absent-minded woman, and popularised his iconic catchphrase 'Alamak!'.
Among a multitude of other thigh-slapping funny roles from a paparazzo to a constable, his favourite was Lion King, a smart-alec Ah Beng with frizzy locks that would put Phua Chu Kang's curls to shame.
Other opportunities, from movies to television dramas, followed.
At the height of his fame on Comedy Night, he was also cast with other regulars like Lee in Neo's breakout 1998 film Money No Enough. With $5.8 million in box-office takings, it remains Singapore's highest-grossing local film to date.
'I was paid only about $1,000 for that,' reveals Thia, who acted as a kopitiam helper looking for love. 'We had no idea the film would become such a success. At that time, I was happy just to act in a movie.'
Other film credits include Liang Po Po - The movie, also in 1998, and 1999's That One No Enough, about three men in search of sex.
Since Comedy Night ended its run in 2000, he has appeared in a string of local movies from I Not Stupid in 2002 to last year's Money No Enough 2 and his recent leading role in Love Matters as a man trying to revive the passion in his marriage opposite actress Yeo Yann Yann as his wife.
So how does he master his lines now? Thia says he has worked very hard to improve his reading over the years and uses a dictionary.
For English productions such as television sitcom Police & Thief, in which he plays hairdresser Georgie Gan, he enlists translation help from his daughters.
Thia lives with his wife and two of their daughters in their Sengkang home of eight years. All his children are working. Youngest daughter Iris, 26, has married and moved out, while middle child Ivy, 28, is getting married next month.
He has upgraded from a motorcycle to a Toyota Altis and does the occasional getai gig in his spare time. He stays home to rest on his days off.
He intends to continue acting for as long as he can, saying: 'I've been very lucky to be able to do something that I like for a living. I've achieved my dreams.
'When I started acting, my goal was not to become famous. It was more about earning money.'
When pressed to reveal how much he earns, he claims wryly that it is 'about two to three thousand, lah', but declines to elaborate, only saying: 'It's enough to live comfortably by.'
He then declares in Hokkien, tongue- in-cheek: 'Sadly, I'm famous but not rich.'
Ask him when he expects to bag a popularity award again and he shrugs and says with a smile: 'Maybe I'll have to wait another 10 years.'
my life so far
'Just last week, a taxi-driver swerved and stopped by the side of the road when he saw me, just to congratulate me on my award. I was very touched'
Thia, on the attention he gets in public. He was one of the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes at this year's Star Awards
'I was a very bad-tempered person. I got into a fight once with a colleague during my factory days, and I resigned after that, even though the company did not fire me'
On the difference between his real-life character and the easily bullied simpleton he often portrays
'I liked gambling back then. I won a $2,000 lottery but loaned most of it to my gambling kakis. Nobody paid me back. I hurt myself jumping out of a three-storey building trying to evade cops raiding a gambling den once, and since then, I've not gambled'
On vices during his factory days
'Right now, we're promoting Money No Enough 2 in Taiwan. I hope it makes it big in Taiwan because that's a lucrative market. I also wish to train people in acting... But I'm afraid others will laugh at me and say: 'So lousy still want to teach.'
On future plans
'I'll never talk about money when it comes to working with Jack. He helped me break into this industry. I owe it to him'
Thia, on his working relationship with director an mentor Jack Neo. He says cross-dressing was never a problem for him because he loved acting.