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Wed, Jan 28, 2009
The Straits Times
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Call me a Toa Payoh boy
by Stephanie Yap / Photos courtesy of Tay Ping Hui

In one of the earliest interviews Tay Ping Hui gave to the press when he was just starting out at MediaCorp, then known as Television Corporation of Singapore, he said: 'I want to be the No. 1 guy on both TCS 5 and 8. I certainly hope James Lye and gang will be very, very afraid.'

Ten years later, it seems the actor, 38, has made good his promise.

After all, Lye has long retired from show business to go into banking and Tay, though still largely focused on Channel 8, is indisputably an A-list star.

He is currently filming the drama serial The Ultimatum, along with other boldface names such as Zoe Tay, Fann Wong and Li Nanxing, and has consistently been voted one of the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes during the annual Star Awards.

Yet, it is thanks to arrogant remarks such as the above that he was voted Turn-Off Of The Year in 2000 in The New Paper's Flame Awards, along with other incidents such as rudely correcting a Hong Kong presenter's pronunciation of his name at the 1999 Star Awards.

With his siblings (above, second from right). His eldest brother owns a computer solutions company, his second brother works in a bank and his younger sister works in a computer firm.

Though it has been several years since he has gotten heat for his remarks, it is still with scepticism that you meet him at Tatsuya, a Japanese restaurant at Goodwood Park Hotel. However, in person, he is warm and unpretentious, his self- deprecating sense of humour making him a fun person to chat with.

'I am quite boring,' he announces with a deadpan look, citing the fact that his favourite activity is having dinner with friends, especially a group of eight, mostly married with kids, whom he has known since secondary school.

'My partying days are over, I have learnt the virtue and beauty of a four- hour dinner with friends.'

Indeed, one of the first things that strikes you is how, well, sedate his lifestyle is. The third son of four children still lives with his parents and a dog in their five-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh. His father is a retired senior bank officer and his mother is a housewife.

'Yeah, I know a lot of people think it is weird. But as the last kid who is unmarried, I have a duty to be with them,' he says. His eldest brother owns a computer solutions company, his second brother works in a bank in Hong Kong and his younger sister works in a multinational computer company.

'I do not think my parents need me to be home all the time. They just need to know that I go home every night and I am safe. Of course, I cannot have wild parties - not that I do,' he says.

It is obvious that the bachelor is very much a family-oriented man. He is close to his siblings and fondly recalls them sharing a room while growing up.

'My brothers took the double-decker bed and there was another bed with a pullout mattress. I slept just inches off the floor, so if they jumped down or rolled over, I would get crushed,' he says, with a laugh.

This humble upbringing is why he still chooses to live simply, even though he can easily afford his own place.

'I grew up in Toa Payoh. I am a Toa Payoh boy. I am a HDB hobo,' he says with a grin.

Tay during his army days

'If I work hard, I should try to experience the finer things in life but I should not become a snob just because I have a bit more money. You should remember your beginning, however humble it is, and not try to hide it.'

Seemingly without any false modesty, he adds: 'I am not some super celebrity, I am not a Hollywood star. It is important to remain grounded because it is easy to lose your head in this industry.'

Then what was with all those reports of him being arrogant previously?

He says slowly: 'I did not understand what all that fuss over me was about. I was just this guy who had just joined the industry.

'I can handle criticism, they say there is no smoke without a fire, so I take criticism as a chance to re-evaluate myself. And sometimes, yes, to a certain extent, some things I say might sound arrogant. So I moderate myself.'

His friend and fellow actor Ix Shen, 38, who first met Tay about 18 years ago when they were both models with agency Mannequin Studio, says: 'My first impression of him was that he was not friendly but once you get to know him on a personal level, you realise he is very charismatic.

'He has his own opinions and is not afraid to voice them but perhaps, some people get the wrong impression.'

These days, Tay says although he is more careful with his choice of words, he still believes in speaking his mind: 'I would like to think I have remained the same since day one. I will still speak my mind, I will not try to be politically correct all the time.

'But what I have learnt is that sometimes you need to be a little tactful, say things in a different way, not be fake but rather, take into consideration how other people think and feel.'

Failed A Levels, but went to NUS

Oddly enough, his sense of confidence can be traced to a failure.

During his primary and secondary school days at Catholic High School, which his father and two brothers had attended, he was a versatile student who took part in many extra-curricular activities - joining the scouts, being a librarian and playing basketball, where he was vice-captain of the school team.

He also did well enough in his studies to enter the Special stream in secondary school, where he took Chinese as a first language.

His close friend Leonard Koh, 38, a lawyer who has known Tay since they were in Primary 1, says: 'Let's just say it was not so clear that he would be a super star. He was tall and a bit pudgy. It was only in secondary school that he developed his looks and the girls started chasing after him. He was very accomplished and with his height and looks, he did not have a shortage of attention.'

As for childhood ambitions, Tay had several ideas but acting was never one of them.

'I wanted to be a teacher or a lawyer and for a very short but intense period, I wanted to be an astronaut. I had watched some movie, Star Wars or Star Trek, and thought it would be cool to float in outer space,' he says with a laugh.

However, things got derailed when he went to Catholic Junior College and stopped paying attention to his studies. He ended up failing his A levels.

'I thought it was a rat race and stupidly I rebelled by not studying. I slept at the papers. I sat there and did not write anything,' he says, adding that the school did not allow him to repeat the year.

‘We are a traditional family. Every Chinese New Year on the first day, my siblings and I still kneel in front of our parents, wish them Happy New Year and get a hongbao from them’ On his family background

He says candidly: 'At that point in time, I was not very mature. When you are that age you think, the world is so big, why are we stuck here handling exams? It was just too boring.'

But during his national service, where he served as an army officer, he had a change of heart.

'I realised I needed to vindicate myself. I had let my parents down. They did not kick the s*** out of me but they were quietly disappointed,' he says.

Thus, he spent the year after national service studying for his A levels at a private school: 'I also had to prove to myself that I could do it if I wanted to.'

This time, he did well enough to get into the arts faculty of the National University of Singapore, where he studied political science and economics.

'I am glad I took a detour because it taught me a lot about life. I realised nobody in this world owes me anything,' he says.

That said, he encourages his fans to learn from his mistake.

'If they stay out late and wait for me, I tell them to go home as they have better things to do,' he says, referring to when fans wait for him after shoots or events.

'I ask them about their results and tell them to study hard. I think they should not waste their time like I did.'

Addicted after junkie role

Tay's first brush with show business happened during his army days, when he was approached on the street by ex-model Seraphina Fong, director of Mannequin Studio.

Though uninterested in it as a full- time career, the teenager decided to do it part-time for the financial freedom.

Tay (second from right) with his basketball teammates in Catholic High School when he was about 14.

'The money was good and I was happy to support myself as I did not want to take money from anyone, including my parents,' says Tay, who earned enough to put himself through the private school and university.

Despite the glamour of the modelling world, he disliked partying.

Mr James Ong, 32, a marketing manager who met Tay and Shen when they were all with Mannequin, says: 'We found a common interest over Chinese tea. The three of us would usually go to a jetty with a Bunsen burner, brew the tea, appreciate the view and chat.'

It was as a model that Tay caught the eye of scouts at MediaCorp, who approached him after he graduated from university. However, he had his sights set on the corporate world.

He says with a laugh: 'I was not interested then because I thought acting was not a stable job and I did not think it was that difficult. You just pretend, right?'

Instead, he spent two years as a pro- ject manager in an interior design firm, then he became the general manager of the Singapore franchise of Subway, the American sandwich chain.

However, in 1997, he decided to leave as he was interested in pursuing an MBA in the United States. He was doing research on schools when MediaCorp again contacted him, this time with an offer for a single episode in a drama.

He decided to give it a shot.

'The commitment level was not so high because it was a single episode as opposed to a full-time contract. I decided to try it, such as skydiving or bungee jumping, something you do once in your life,' he says.

He played a drug addict and by the time the shoot wrapped, he was hooked on acting.

'The director managed to help me dig within myself and I discovered certain things about myself emotionally. I thought, 'Hey, this is fun,' ' he says.

Still, when MediaCorp offered him a full-time contract, he did not agree immediately.

'I still did not consider acting a proper job,' he says. However, after consulting a few close friends, he decided to make the leap. 'Almost all of them told me that at that point in my life, I was not married and had no loans to pay off, thus it was the time to try something different, get off the beaten track,' he says.

He admits that he sometimes imagines what life would have been like had he stayed in the corporate world.

'I have a parallel universe where I am this corporate bigwig, where I am happily fat and have a family,' he says, laughing yet sounding a little wistful.

But his is not a life of regrets.

He says: 'I act out my parallel universes in my job. I have been a corporate bigwig, a doctor, a policeman and a crook.'

With a cheeky grin, he adds: 'It is fun to be the bad guy, how else can you do all the bad things and get away with it?'

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 26, 2009.

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