“I’ll have the fried kway teow please,” I said as slowly as I could manage, in the stifling tropical heat of the hawker centre, eager to have my first taste of Singapore’s trademark cuisine.
“What you want ah?” came the sharp, and to my unattuned ears, completely indecipherable reply.
This was not going well.
As the line started to build up steadily behind me, I assumed that simply by speaking louder, I could make myself better understood.
“Fried kwaaay teow,” emphasising the “a” sound in what would prove to be a futile attempt to enunciate what was otherwise unpronounceable to me.
The matronly proprietor of the fried noodle shop, growing increasingly irate, shot me back a quizzical look.
“Eh, you want popiah (a Singaporean radish-filled wrap dish) go over there, you can see I have a lot of customers here or not?”
My lunch companion, by now unable to stifle her laughter at my inability to order the iconic dish, decided to step in, “Aunty, two char kway teow, no chilli, eat here.”
“Ah, why your friend don’t say? He ang moh or what? But he don’t look ang moh leh.”
Before I could express my indignation, my lunch companion dragged me aside as others in line for the rice noodle-based delicacy shot me evil glances for holding it up.
“What was that all about?” I protested.
“Aiyah, nothing lah. Your accent lah. The poor lady can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
“What accent? My accent is not that bad.”
“Are you kidding? I’d say the number of locals who can understand you are in the minority.”
“But I spoke English and I was told that’s the lingua franca of Singapore.”
“It’s not what you say that’s a problem, it’s how you say it. It’s your accent.”
Having just arrived in Singapore after most of a life spent growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, I was determined to assimilate in a way I never quite had been able to in America.
After all, growing up as one of only two Asian kids in a small town on Florida’s Atlantic coast, I was for the first time in my life, surrounded by people who looked like me, surely, I would want to sound like them too.
Assimilation is in many ways a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, new emigres are often eager to adapt to the ways of their adoptive countries, but on the other hand, there’s a part of each and every one of us that clings to our identities, a concept that’s becoming increasingly plastic given greater global mobility.
Growing up as an Asian kid in a predominantly white town, I remember ladies coming up to me in the local Ponderosa and asking to touch my hair because it was so shiny and black.
Naturally, I took no offense to it at the time, there were certainly benefits to being the local Asian curiosity (such as an extra-large scoop of vanilla at the ice cream parlour).
Nor would I take offense when kindly strangers told my mother, “Your son speaks such good English!” as if I was some freak of nature.
I would always manage a, “You’re not too bad yourself lady,” before my mother would embarrassingly pull me away.
And perhaps more significantly, when I opened my mouth to speak, I sounded like everyone else in Daytona Beach.
Given how I had grown up in Daytona Beach instead of being a transplant like my parents were, my thick southern accent was a function of prolonged exposure to other Floridians, for whom any other accent would have been inscrutable.
Yet it was this very ability to assimilate in America that would prove to be an Achilles heel on my return to Asia—no one could really understand me (not that I could fully understand them either).
Undeterred, I tried my best to shake off my southern drawl and pepper my speech with suitable local colloquialisms, when a German friend one day remarked to me, “You’re pretty good at code-switching!”
“Code-switching? What’s that?”
As it turns out, code-switching is something many of us do, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Whether it’s an attempt to sound more Singaporean so I could sample local dishes with minimal fuss, or a Singaporean trying to sound more anglicised, outside of America and other countries where English is the native tongue, most people code-switch.
Since the concept of codeswitching was brought to my attention all those years ago, I’ve grown more conscious of it and noted those who tend not to at all.
Americans would never attempt to change their accents, whereas I have noted countless Singaporeans and others from Asia try to sound more “American” or “British” when speaking with their white friends as if they wouldn’t be able to understand them otherwise.
And while it may be true the Singaporean accent can be impenetrable at times, does codeswitching to sound more American or British actually take away from the Singaporean identity?
Surely there aren’t a lot of Americans trying to sound like Singaporean people speaking English (although there are far more American children trying to sound Australian thanks to the hit animated series Bluey).
Recently there was a small furore when American mothers, concerned their children were starting to sound like the Australian-accented Bluey from the animated series, suggested an Americanised version of the cartoon be created, as if there was something objectionable about the Australian accent.
The concern as it turns out, wasn’t so much that kids would behave like Australians, Bluey is a very wholesome cartoon, but rather they would sound more like Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter.
This is why it may not be a bad idea to introduce the concept of code-switching.
To be fair, actors do it all the time—whether to play a character from a different country or even from a different era, code-switching is to acting what butter is to bread.
With the progress of time, I’ve come to accept the necessity of code-switching.
When I return to America, I return to sounding like an American, and while I remain in Singapore, I try my darnedest to sound Singaporean, neither of which I feel diminishes either my Americanness or my Singaporean-ness.
We live in a globalised world where accents are a feature, not a bug.
An accent, whether organic or adopted, can help assimilation for the speaker and also the listener.
And while an adopted accent can be jarring on the ears of a native speaker at times, the recipient should appreciate the effort being made at code-switching.
In a world where we increasingly choose the people, places, culture and histories we most identify with, surely it is within our grasp to also select the accents we most associate with as well?
So, here’s to code-switching for those who can do it. And for those who haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it.
Just don’t forget to switch back from time to time y’all.
This is not a promo for a TV show or film.
Features with actors are usually about film or TV projects but the current strikes in Hollywood may inevitably be putting the kibosh on many future cover stories. Daniel Wu can’t talk about his recent media productions but he can talk about everything else, even the strikes and why they’re occurring.
“It’s a repeat of what happened on Spotify several years ago,” Wu says. Just before he jumped onto our Zoom interview, he was organising his residual checks. For all the projects that he had worked on, the shows that are on streaming pay pennies on the dollar. “You put your music on Spotify and you get a penny for 1,000 plays. The creator gets almost nothing back for their content. Musicians can make that money back by touring but not actors. There are no other avenues for us to earn a living except when we make films or TV shows. That’s what is at stake at the moment, hence the strikes.”
It’s a complicated affair and it’ll take more than a cover story to break it all down but here it is, in a nutshell: the Writers Guild of America (WGA)—a union that represents screenwriters working in Hollywood—is striking because residual deals from streaming platforms (Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+) are below acceptable living wages. There’s also the contention about the use of AI to replace writers.
The WGA strike coincided with the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike. Again, this is due to unfair streaming residuals and the replication of their likeness without compensation via AI. These combined strikes have postponed this year’s Emmys; productions for, both current and future projects, were shuttered; films and TV shows that were already made were adjourned to later dates. Todd Holmes, an entertainment industry management professor at Cal State Northridge, based his calculation on the last WGA strike in 2007 and estimated that it might cause a USD3 billion dent in California’s economy.
While Wu may not be vocal on his social media platform (“I don’t talk about too much about the strikes on IG because everyone else has already said what’s needed to be said.”) but he is very much a union man.
“I’m totally for the strike, even though it’s a bummer that we can’t work now. But this is too important for the whole industry to shape what the future is going to be for everyone.”
With the ongoing strikes, you’d think that Wu would have loads of downtime.
You’d be wrong.
Before the pandemic took a stranglehold on the world, the actor, Sung Kung—he of the resurrected Han from Fast and the Furious franchise—Brendan McGrath and Wu formed Student Driver. It’s a lifestyle brand that hypes all the positives of car culture; a tongue-in-cheek take on the student drivers in America—recognisable by the yellow caution sticker on the back of their cars. It’s a jab at the noob-ness of a tire tyro but it’s also the label’s philosophy that no matter how experienced or good you are, you’re always learning. That essentially, you are a student.
Kang and Wu realised that they could leverage their celebrity to promote Student Driver. “It wasn’t for any narcissistic reason,” Wu quickly adds. “If you look at our IG accounts, we’re trying to show what we’re into and what we’re passionate about. We wanted to inspire people and use Student Driver as a place to gather like-minded people.
"You put your music on Spotify and you get a penny for 1,000 plays. The creator gets almost nothing back for their content. Musicians can make that money back by touring but not actors. There are no
other avenues for us to earn a living except when we make films or TV shows. That's what is at stake at the moment, hence the strikes."
It became a meeting place for car enthusiasts from all over; a crossroads where racers mingle with designers, mechanics and the like. “Student Driver became much bigger than just selling stuff,” Wu says. “It became a community where we are learning from one another.”
Wu always wanted to have his own line of merch but there was never a compelling reason for him to do so. He didn’t want to see things happen for the sake of it happening.
Take his only directorial project. Titled, The Heavenly Kings, it was a mockumentary about the Cantopop industry in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t enough to cover a fictional band for the film, it had to feel real. So, Wu created a fake boyband called ALIVE with Terence Yin, Andrew Lin and Conroy Chan. For the next 18 months, Wu orchestrated press tours, live shows and even released an EP, all the while directing the film.
No one, aside from the main cast and close collaborators, knew about the project. Not even the press, a majority that felt betrayed when the truth was disclosed after the film’s release. For their efforts, The Heavenly Kings garnered Wu a Best New Director award at the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards.
“I think directing is one of my strengths,” says Wu. “I think that came from my architecture background; I look at the bigger picture instead of just focusing on one part as an actor.”
Celebrity and being an actor are often mistakenly conflated. One can lead to the other but each occupies their own space. Wu never set out to be a celebrity but he never set out to be an actor either. In 1997, he travelled to Hong Kong, wanting to witness the country’s handover to China. At his sister’s suggestion, Wu took up modelling and months later, the director Yonfan saw Wu in a clothing ad and wanted him to star in his film, Bishonen.
Have you ever loved something so much that you don’t want to ruin it by interacting with it? That was Wu’s reasoning for turning down the role. “I love movies so much that I don’t want to screw it up with my acting.”
But Yonfa pursued and eroded Wu’s apprehension. Bishonen afforded many liberties to Wu in film and TV. With an impressive oeuvre of films under his belt, Wu still finds the fame that comes with being an actor strange.
That’s why he still keeps in touch with his best friend Ian Urban. Since 12, Wu and Urban have been thick as thieves. “He was a big part of my formative years,” Wu says. “Keeping him and people like him in my life, helps me stay grounded. Reminds me of where I came from.”
Urban and Wu lived in the same area so they carpooled to school. They took Spanish (and were failing it as well). They were heavily into the arts. Urban was the reason why Wu got into cars and racing.
That love for cars abated when Wu moved to Hong Kong. The country was never conducive to racing and vehicles were expensive to begin with. “Can you imagine modifying them on top of it?” Wu asks. “And modding is technically illegal there.”
When he returned to the US, the first thing Wu did was tap on Urban, who was a driving coach for the Audi Club, and another family friend, who was an instructor for another track day events group.
They would head to track day events, where Wu would learn how to race on the track. He adapted to it quickly. For the five years that he was back in the States, he did as many track days as he could. Eventually, he climbed to the top 10 per cent of fastest racers on the track.
In the Bay Area, Wu shared a garage with Urban where they built and worked on cars. Down from where they are, is Patrick Ottis Co. that restores vintage Ferraris. Wu and Urban would pass by the garage all the time but they were afraid to enter, “because the cars in there are worth millions, right?” Wu says.
“One day, we were walking by their garage and Tazio [Patrick’s son] was out front and said hi.” They started talking and he gave them a tour of the place. A friendship bloomed over their shared interest in building cars and endless hours at the race track. That soon morphed into a mentorship when Wu learnt to race professionally. Eventually, they embarked on their first endurance racing programme. Committed to a whole season, their first race was a two-hour race at Sonoma Raceway. The next was a night race at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. As soon as darkness blanketed the sky, Wu freaked out. But as he acclimated to the conditions, Wu managed to place third. “The moment I stepped out, I felt this happiness of finishing and not crashing.”
"When I first met him, he was 48 or 49. That was 22 years ago. And now he's 70. To me, the time that my wife and I have been together doesn't seem that long. It zips by. The last 10 years that my daughter has grown, that has gone real fast too."
He credits it to his martial arts training, which he still practises three days a week. Wu likens racing to being on a film set. “The director could be screaming at somebody, things are going slow, they are losing light... You can’t pay attention to that.” He frames it as “finding that calm”. When night falls and the dust kicks up to obstruct your vision, stick to the technique, stay calm and trust yourself to get through the chaos.
For the NASA (National Auto Sport Association) Utah Sunchaser race, Wu had to compete in an LMP3 model, a car that he hadn’t raced the night before. Starting at 6pm, the six-hour race runs until midnight. When Wu was in the driver’s seat, he discovered the headlights were aimed to the right... but all their turns were to the left. He couldn’t see the bends so sometimes he’d swerve too late or too early; driving his car off the track.
It’s almost enough for anyone to throw in the towel but Wu knew his team depended on him. Win or lose, he needed to shake to do better.
If racing on the track is fast, living a life is quicker. Especially, when death is present at the periphery. Wu’s near-death experience with a burst appendix in 2019 was a “wake-up call to live in the moment”. Years later, when he was at his father-in-law’s 70th birthday party, “I did a mental calculation,” Wu says, “when I first met him, he was 48 or 49. That was 22 years ago. And now he’s 70. To me, the time that my wife and I have been together doesn’t seem that long. It zips by. The last 10 years that my daughter has grown, that has gone real fast too.”
That’s why he’s not working as much as he used to. He allocates a certain amount of time per year for work and spends the rest of his time on the things that matter.
Both his parents have passed. Wu posted an image of his father, opining that he would have been 94 this year. I mentioned that he’s almost a spitting image of his dad. “Hopefully my hair stays longer than his,” Wu says jokingly. “I think he went bald in his 20s, so right now, I think I’m doing okay in that department.”
Other than their looks, they also shared a common passion for a fancy family car.
In 1988, Wu’s dad retired and as a gift to himself, decided to purchase a Porsche 911. This felt truly odd to the 14-year-old Wu, as his dad had never been interested in cars and for the frugal family living in Berkeley suburbs, that was an absolute extravagance.
At the car dealership, his dad gave Wu carte blanche to pick out a hue for the exterior (“I picked the weirdest colour because that’s the kind of person I am.”) and Wu asked if they could add a whale-tail spoiler (“A regular 911 doesn’t come with a tail but a 911 Turbo does.”). His dad acquiesced to both suggestions.
The Porsche became a thing that father and son would talk about often. While his dad rarely drove it—and if he did, it was only on the weekends and within speed limits, the car rides spent with him were moments to connect. This experience also cemented his passion for cars.
Currently, the Porsche sits in the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA to coincide with Porsche’s 75th anniversary exhibition. “He kept the car really clean,” Wu says. “Even when I took it over 10 years ago, it still looked brand new.” But the automobile on display will be far better purposed when Wu takes it back and takes it out for a drive. “It’s a nice way to memorialise and think about my dad.”
During Covid, when his daughter, Raven, was in primary one, Wu had to oversee her home distance learning. She was enrolled in a Chinese immersion class and Wu underestimated how little she had absorbed from the module than he originally hoped. “I got a little angry and said, how come you don’t know that? As the words came out of my mouth, I could hear my dad’s voice.”
Wu had to pull back, assess the situation with Raven and figure out the right way to go about it. “Having a kid made me re-evaluate how to strike a balance between how I was raised and how I need to raise her. I’m still stern but I usually edit the first thing that comes to mind and try to say them in a better way.
“I don’t want my kid to be scared of me. I don’t want her to be afraid to talk to me, to ask me for advice. My relationship with my dad was better later in life but in my younger days, I’ve never confided in him about anything.”
It’s being judged by his father’s standards that halted Wu from being open. He didn’t think he would understand. Even when Wu started acting, his dad would ask when was he going to get a real job.
"I'm not an expert and I've never tried to present otherwise, which is why I have an issue with people saying, oh, your life is perfect, blah blah… No, I make mistakes everyday. Things that I could be better at and that includes being a father. I'm trying my best. You're not successful all the time but you try to be better."
It wasn’t until many years later that his dad visited and stayed at a 12-hour shoot where Wu was. At the end of his set, his dad patted Wu on the shoulder and simply said, “You work really hard.”
“That was huge to me,” Wu says. “He was finally accepting what I do.” For Wu, parenthood is a progression. “I’d do what my dad never did: apologise. I’ll tell my daughter what I just said was a little too much. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you upset.” His kid might not grow into the person he expects her to be but that’s something that Wu says he has to deal with.
“I’m not an expert and I’ve never tried to present otherwise, which is why I have an issue with people saying, oh, your life is perfect, blah blah… No, I make mistakes every day. Things that I could be better at and that includes being a father. I’m trying my best. You’re not successful all the time but you try to be better.”
Which is such a refreshing thing to hear from a celebrity or actor, whatever. That as a parent, I’m painted less of a monster, and that the world is more forgiving. We have no idea where the finish line is. All of us, on this road of life, trying to get to our destinations; headlights in the dust and darkness.
We may never reach that stage of enlightenment. But we are alive and there is always the prospect of learning from our pasts.
Photography: Kigon Kwak
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Jungle Lin
Producer: Yu Guoran at APEX Communications
Production Assistant: Lu Jiang
Executive Producer / Casting Director: Even Yu at APEX Communications
Grooming: David Cox
Lighting Assistant: Kim Minju