Elizabeth Tan is the very role model that she never had growing up.
In 2011, Elizabeth made history as the first-ever Chinese resident on Coronation Street, the UK’s iconic, longest-running soap opera. Since her mainstream debut on Coronation Street, the 30-year-old has continued to dazzle on-screen, including playing a recurring character in Netflix’s highly-acclaimed Top Boy revival.
Most recently, Elizabeth landed the role of Li in Emily in Paris which was created by Darren Star [Sex and the City, Younger, Melrose Place] and drops on Netflix early October, as well as the part of Vera Chiang in the TV adaptation of author J. G. Farrell’s notable The Singapore Grip — which recently premiered on ITV.
1883 Magazine chatted with the bright, young actress about rectifying the racist erasure of Asian stories in media and history, her response to criticisms of how The Singapore Grip portrays colonialism and Asian characters, and why Emily in Paris is precisely what the world needs in 2020.
You’ve said that you first recognized your acting ability when, as a child, you made your father laugh by impersonating the Queen. Can you talk more about your first acting experiences and how you broke into acting?
I’ve always been somebody who liked to entertain. When I was younger, I read stories and I also wrote my own stories so it came from this love for storytelling… I would make-believe with my brother and cast him in roles… and I always tried to include family members and be very entertaining…
I did a little bit of telly here and there, but they were small [roles] and I had my break when I played the Xin Proctor in Coronation Street. It was a notable event… I was playing the first-ever Chinese character on that show which is probably one of the most popular shows in the UK, and it’s been running for 40 years. It has very, very high viewership, over 15 million… [Xin Proctor] was a student that comes onto Coronation Street, and she has quite a big storyline involving two of the other characters who were also very popular characters on the show. I was immediately recognized on the streets, and it meant a lot for the East Asian community, in terms of being represented on a very big show. To me, that was the point where the career seriously kicked off.
As a young girl, you’ve said that the actresses who inspired you were all white, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, which lays bare the dearth of East and Southeast Asian representation in mainstream media. I’m wondering which East and Southeast Asian women — whether family members or other artists — were role models to you throughout your childhood and played a role in your budding career?
There are quite a lot of clever and interesting women in my family and extended family. My mom is a very kind and wise woman. She’s given me a lot of life advice and she’s made me a very grounded person, so I’m always very grateful to her… Even today, I’ll look back on things that she said and her philosophies on… life. My mom is a fantastic East Asian woman.
And then on television now, I quite like Sandra Oh [Killing Eve]… I’d love to see more East Asian characters like that… Like you pointed out, it’s really important for young people to see themselves on screen because it’s very isolating when you tell your family ‘I would love to be an actress,’ but there are no examples of people who look like you on-screen. No matter what race you are, [that experience] can be very disheartening and discouraging. [But] I think things are changing. I’m quite optimistic; I think that we’re having a lot of conversations now.
What message would you like to send young East and Southeast Asian women who are watching you on-screen?
The advice I would give to young [East Asian] people is that if you persevere, I do think that there are opportunities and I think that we might even see some sort of real representation in the future because we are having those conversations now. Ideally, what I would love to see is that we’re no longer even having the conversation, it’s just there… I think with the East Asian [community], [we are] still very, very underrepresented and, therefore, it’s still a major talking point within the community.
Moving into The Singapore Grip which is a period drama. Are you a history buff yourself, and if so, what aspects of history interest you? Before you started filming, did you know about colonial Singapore during WWII?
I have an interest in history. I wouldn’t say I’m a history buff, but I always love learning about aspects of humanity. I think that’s what draws you, as an actor; you’re interested in people and their stories, and because you are embodying characters, you’re also very interested in what drives [them]. History is a wonderful study to inform yourself about humanity because, as they say, ‘history repeats itself’ and to learn about our future, we need to look to our history as well… So, there are lots of lessons to be learned. I think knowing more about history is always a valid way to spend your time.
Whilst we learn a lot at school about European history, British history and even American history, we don’t really get into the finer details and aspects of Asian history and certainly, the fall of Singapore during World War II is a part of history which we did not study in depth. And for me getting into this role, I did have to do a lot of research, [including research on] aspects [of] Vera’s character such as that she was from Harbin. It’s known as the ‘Ice City’; it was very harsh during that time, it was war-torn and it was occupied by the Japanese. They set up this unit called Unit 731 which had… biological warfare weapons and chemical weapons, and they actually had prisoners of war and other people whom they’d capture and use for experiments. I never knew about it until I got this role, and it was such an interesting and horrific part of the war. Even though it’s noted as [one of] the… worst atrocities by the Japanese in WWII, hardly anyone knows about it. And thousands of people died and were experimented on. So, that’s where Vera, my character, comes from. It’s a very harsh background and on top of that, she’s also an orphan and so she’s had to survive through life. I needed to learn about what that would have been like to really embody that character… I did a lot of research on the internet, even talking to people.
It’s really interesting to hear from you about that tragic part of history. I also want to talk about your relationship with Georgia Blizzard, who plays Joan Blackett [The Singapore Grip’s other leading lady and Vera Chiang’s nemesis]. You two have great chemistry on-screen, and I’m wondering how you created that chemistry and what your relationship is like off-screen? I’m assuming you’re probably friendlier behind the scenes than you are in front of the camera…
Georgia and I have a great relationship off-screen, so maybe that helps with the chemistry that you say we have on-screen… There is this energy. I certainly felt it. I think it is a credit to this fantastic story that the female characters are incredibly strong-willed and independent, as both our characters are, so when you have a meeting of these two very driven and powerful women, there is that electricity that you see on-screen. And even when we have scenes with Matthew [portrayed by Luke Treadaway], the… dialogue between Georgia’s character and Vera’s is so nuanced and full of… subtext [which is] really quite compelling… It is that energy, the coming together of two very complex and strong women. I think that it’s wonderful that we get to see that in a historical British drama because sometimes it’s rare to see such characters represented. And also, for my part playing Vera Chiang, it’s wonderful and something to be applauded to see an East Asian female heroine being portrayed with such multilayered and multidimensional features, and attributes of kindness, independence, resourcefulness and intelligence. She speaks so many languages, and she’s managed to survive on her own all these years. Instead of being dependent on a man, she’s actually educating Luke Treadaway’s character, Matthew, and also [taking] a stand. She believes in all these causes like fighting the Japanese, and she’s not afraid. And she’s fighting for the locals… despite her own hardships, she still is willing to fight for others… and tries to improve their situation. She also volunteers as a nurse to help the prisoners of war. So, that’s quite a vivid and multilayered character and frankly, I’m so pleased that ITV and Mammoth Screen have brought this character to life, of course with the help of Christopher Hampton who’s beautifully adapted it. [And] at the foundation [is the] very, very popular and successful novel written by J. G. Farrell.
As reviews of The Singapore Grip are coming in, some critics are praising the show’s satirization of wealthy white people, but others are raising concerns about how the show represents colonialism and Asian characters. For instance, BEATS [The British East and Southeast Asian non-profit media advocacy group] called the portrayal of colonialism ‘breezy and inconsequential’ and said that the show represents Asian characters as ‘exotic dancers, giggly prostitutes’. How would you respond to BEATS and like-minded critics?
Yeah, absolutely. So firstly, I just want to say that the East Asian and Southeast Asian community… is still extremely underrepresented in film, television, storytelling, and media in general, and it is something that… I feel is being addressed and I am hopeful that there will be many more of these wonderful stories to tell. On the idea of colonialism and the criticism there, I’d say that the show exactly deals with that. It is a story which criticizes colonialists and also shines a spotlight on the situation in Singapore during that time [including] the casual racism and poor treatment of the local workers and residents. There’s also the incredibly bad behavior by this central white family, the Blacketts, of being arrogant, self-serving and self-important and not living in a way which is respectful of the locals… The governing of that colony during that time was also full of hubris and arrogance and resulted in [its] downfall which in actual fact shouldn’t have been the case because the British army really outnumbered the Japanese troops, so [there] was that misjudgement… I think it’s really important work and great storytelling.
[In terms of the critique about Asian representation], [Vera] has such great qualities [which] does a world of good for young East Asians all over the world… in terms of representation if nothing else. That’s the starting point. And then on top of that, as I’ve mentioned, Vera is an incredible character because of her independence… She’s a survivor; she’s not dependent on a man, she’s always looking out for others and she has a true kindness of her soul even though she’s been through tremendous hardship. She is also the romantic lead, and I think that East Asians and Southeast Asians in general [will feel] like, ‘Oh yes, I can be a romantic lead as well as a nuanced and complex character with many positive attributes.’ So, I think it holds her up in a very positive light, and it’s certainly doing a lot of good in terms of this rare occurrence where you have a central character who is Chinese [and] not just serving another character’s story but has her own distinct story and her own mind and her own journey. She is causing positive change in other characters such as… Luke and educating him about what is actually happening, how the locals are suffering and about life in general. And also, about the art of making love. Vera [has] a romantic side [and] a passion for love and poetry, and… she believes that making love is a beautiful art. I applaud the fact that this character is here representing the Southeast [and] East Asian community.
Let’s talk about some of the other work you’ve been in recently. In Top Boy, you played Maude who is the girlfriend of female protagonist Jaq [portrayed by Jasmine Jobson]. What do you hope that LGBTQ+ audiences, and all viewers, take away from rooting for two strong queer characters who are played by women of color?
I know! I think that is, again, major steps forward in terms of diversity and representation. I’m so pleased with that show. I really love the casting, the producers and what that show stands for. The character I play in that; she’s a Londoner, she’s gay and she’s having this amazing relationship with another strong female who’s also an ethnic minority. And these are incredibly interesting characters with a relationship that is… complex. She’s concerned about Jaq being involved in the gang and perhaps getting hurt, and Jaq loves her to death but has this bravado… That’s what makes [the relationship] interesting and worth fighting for. And I believe [that] whatever your sexual orientation is and preferences are as you go through the journey of life and as they evolve, these wonderful relationships are sincere and real, and it’s so important to have them portrayed in our media so that, again, people who are of that mindset don’t feel isolated.
I think that is the key for greater peace around the world, actually. Because if everybody is really well-represented, and no one feels like they don’t belong and everyone feels included, then people aren’t going [to] be prejudiced or discriminate against people. So, I think the more inclusive we become in every way that we’ve talked about, in race, in terms of sexual orientation, in terms of how you identify, it’s going to give greater peace in how well we all get along… I really feel optimistic that we can get there because we’re having really strong conversations now and I do believe people are generally open to it when they understand, but I think at the beginning when people are not so open to it, it’s mainly because they don’t fully understand. With greater education and greater empathy, we can make great advancements in these areas because, at the moment, we are seeing a lot of anger and also a lot of unrest.
Absolutely. And moving ahead to your role in Emily in Paris that’s coming up in October, what was it like to work with a star-studded cast and crew including lead actress Lily Collins and creator Darren Star? What can viewers expect from your role there?
Oh, my goodness! [Working on Emily in Paris] is a dream job. We stayed in this very exquisite, extremely high-end, five-star hotel in Paris. I think there were, like, statues in my room. I mean, the spa and the swimming pool area was like the baths in Rome; there was beautiful artwork everywhere, it had a couple of those Michelin-starred restaurants and just an incredible, award-winning bar. It was… like a magical dream. It was unbelievable. You’ve got Darren Star who’s an absolute genius and has such a track record of really understanding the young woman’s journey and making it exciting and vivid and very vibrant… You’ve got some really incredible locations all around Paris… so it’s pure escapism and on top of that, you’ve got a wonderful storyline — following this young American woman as she goes to work in Paris and all the different challenges and adventures she faces — and then on top of that, you have some incredible set designs and wardrobe from costume consultant Patricia Field [ Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada]. And then the storylines… touch your heart.
I’d say [that my] character… [is] a really fun [and] crazy party character which is very different from Vera Chiang, who’s more elegant and subdued. But it was incredible because the character I play is… lots and lots of fun, very confident and slightly mad, but in a good way. And then, oh gosh, Lily Collins is such a joy to work with. She’s very kind, very generous, [and] comes across as… a little princess, I feel. She just has this quality that is so beautiful and graceful, and she has a very gracious outlook toward welcoming people into the world of Emily in Paris. There’s a lot of diversity in the cast… and it’s multicultural, as Paris is… I think viewers all around the world will love it. It’s very, very touching, [and] the scenes that we shot were definitely very funny. And I think that’s what we need now. A bit of escapism because we’re all locked down… and also a good giggle. That’s what we need.
The Singapore Grip airing Sundays on ITV!