PENANG-BORN THEATRE actress Chee Kai An plays “Kim Alternate” on the Broadway Revival National Tour of “Miss Saigon” – the musical tells the tragic tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover. Penang Monthly catches up with the rising star fresh off her tour to talk about growing up as a third-culture kid and fulfilling her Broadway dreams.
“As a perfectionist, things going wrong can throw me. I had to learn to get over mistakes quickly and carry on.”
Third-culture kids are people raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of the country named on their passport for a significant part of their early development years.
Kai An identifies as a third-culture kid. She has lived in Penang, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Los Angeles and New York, having moved to China with her family when she was just two years old. In Shanghai Kai An’s family lived as expats, despite being ethnically Chinese; they resided in a gated community of international migrants and Kai An attended an American international school. To keep their children entertained, her parents signed them up for music lessons during the school holidays.
It is this early introduction that helped Kai An develop her passion for music. She learned to sing (initially aspiring to be an opera singer) and play instruments, and was even selected to perform during George Town Festival 2012. That was the first time Kai An began seeing herself as a performer. This confidence boost encouraged her to pursue musical theatre while in Shanghai, starring as the lead in several school musicals.
Journey to Miss Saigon
Kai An as "Kim" in Miss Saigon, 2018-2019.
After completing her studies in Shanghai, Kai An moved to New York City to pursue a musical theatre programme at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. “It was a massive transition; but not exactly the vibrant experience I had imagined from TV shows. I suffered from culture shock at first,” she explains. Her programme at NYU Tisch was not diverse or international, and even American-born Asians would discuss things she could not relate to. Luckily, the multicultural city made her feel somewhat at home, and gradually, she began to assimilate into her new way of life.
At 17, Kai An auditioned for Miss Saigon, having previously fallen in love with the songs from the musical, and as a “young Asian girl who liked to sing”, Kai An felt the role of Kim was made for her. The audition process took six months, and after anxiously waiting for a response, she was instead greeted by their public cast list – without her name on it.
Heartbroken, Kai An went on to complete her studies; but opportunity soon came knocking again when she stumbled upon a call to audition for the Miss Saigon National Tour. “But I realised that I had missed the date,” she says, adding that instead of lamenting, she quickly emailed a new recording of the songs she had sung for her previous audition and ingeniously titled it with the subject “RE: Call-In Kim Appointment 1 Materials” as if they had asked her for the recordings. By some miracle, she was invited for the final callbacks.
“My entire world blew up for a second,” she laughs, “maybe they’d kept my information on file and referred to it? But I’d like to think initiative and exhausting any means necessary helped.” She booked a flight back to New York City, and after three full days of dancing, singing and work sessions, on top of a month’s agonising wait, she landed the role.
Having felt a “mixture of competitiveness and extreme insecurity” during the audition process, Kai An attributed her success to two things: “Firstly, my faith. This is what I trust, regardless of what happens, I will be fine. I always pray before I go for auditions and when I go onstage. And secondly, I have become less hyper-aware. When I first auditioned at 17, I wanted it too badly – I was too desperate. It’s hard to get past the blocks of comparison with other people who can probably do what I do better. It cut me off from being aware of the room, of what my body was doing and my artistic impulses. The second time around, I knew that if I didn’t get it, it’ll hurt but I’ll be fine.”
Life on Tour
Concordia International School Shanghai, 2012, as Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
As part of the ensemble, Kai An understudied the roles of Kim and Gigi, and was usually given about two hours’ notice to replace the lead. She had to be prepared at all times: “As a perfectionist, things going wrong can throw me. I had to learn to get over mistakes quickly and carry on.” On a particular two-show day, she played Gigi in the morning and Kim at night. She loved the challenge, “it was such fun to do that under pressure.”
After a year, Kai An was asked to serve as “Kim Alternate” for two months. As an understudy, she performed scenes with the ensemble, but as Kim Alternate, she was to play Kim for two shows a week, as well as a simplified role in the ensemble for six shows per week. Performing from an array of perspectives, she says, was an excellent learning experience.
Building on the admirable work of her legendary predecessors Lea Salonga and Eva Noblezada, and contemporaries Emily Bautista and Myra Molloy, Kai An says she would infuse her own impulses and justifications of Kim’s words and movements during performances. “In acting school, I was taught to not think of the ending before I began. After listening to the music over 400 times, I forced myself to be present and trust that my preparation would find its way into my performance.”
Alongside physical training, Kai An also worked with the directors to explore Kim’s psychology within the music underscoring. To understand Kim’s sacrificial nature, Kai An’s love for her own family informed her performance. “My family is the most important thing in the world to me. They help me feel motivated to carry on, and I would do anything to keep them safe and healthy.”
To further inspire her role as a nurturing mother, Kai An drew upon her protectiveness for her younger sister and the lengths her own mother would go to to give Kai An opportunities. Reflecting on the way her mother would “always fix my clothes or to touch me to make sure I’m there,” Kai An would replicate these physical interactions with the child actor, making sure they feel comfortable with her on stage.
Above all, Kai An relates intimately to Kim’s feeling of being displaced and lost in big cities, and how she has had to make a home of her own in foreign places. “Kim’s strength has inspired me to survive ordeals in my own life. I would always treasure the times I played the role,” she reminisces, adding that despite the lack of diversity in college, the Miss Saigon ensemble was quite the opposite with a cast of Asians, Caucasians, African- Americans and mixed-ethnicity people. “It is encouraging to see their success in the industry.”
Lessons Going Forward
NYU Tisch, 2016 - Elevator Heart, A New Musical.
Kai An now auditions full-time in New York City. “Perhaps the best advice I’m able to offer is to put yourself in the best possible position for success. Work really hard – train in artistry and consistency. Show up when you need to. Be prepared for challenges and do not be scared of them. On a conceptual level, I know it’s a cliché, but when you fall down, know that you can get up again. I, myself, am still learning every day that no failure is absolute, and every time I mess up and make a fool of myself, it takes a lot of mental power to shrug it off and soldier through.”
To avoid comparison, Kai An also limits her social media use. “No one but yourself can ever truly see the full story, so stop scrolling further when you know it’s messing with you. And remember to be kind – so much of being an artiste is tied to the quality of who you are as a person.”
Although she loves the large-scale, full-orchestral experience of Miss Saigon, Kai An says she wouldn’t mind dipping her toes in contemporary music. Whatever she chooses to do next, Kai An’s star is certainly dazzlingly bright.
Melissa Chan is a lawyer-in-training in the UK with a passion for musicals, stories and learning about people from all walks of life. She enjoys speaking to a diverse range of fellow Penangites, analysing their different perspectives and sharing their voices with the community.