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Actor Dai Xiangyu’s first meal back in Singapore was popiah – with extra chilli

SINGAPORE – Chinese actor Dai Xiangyu, formerly known as Dai Yangtian, moved to Singapore in 2007 after he was discovered by a talent scout in Shanghai in 2006.

His first accommodation, he said, was a helper’s room in a Thomson Road condominium.

“I was in my early 20s and did not have much money, and the rent was really high, at $800 a month. I lived like that for two years,” he said.

“Most people assume actors have lots of money, but that is definitely not the case when you are a newcomer. It never bothered me, and I was just happy to have a safe place and comfortable bed to come home to after long days of work.”

The 38-year-old’s disarming humility and straightforward personality came through right from the start of the interview.

While not necessarily politically correct, his candid answers were refreshing and he did not shy away from any of the questions posed.

He also made it clear to the hair and make-up artist from the beginning that she had free rein over his hair and face.

“Acting is just a job to me,” Dai said matter-of-factly. “Even me sitting here right now, getting make-up on my face and chatting with you – they’re all part of my job. Given a choice, the introverted me would never choose to do all these.”

If he is not working, he will be at the gym in the morning or at the park chatting with old men to hear their life stories.

“To be honest, I think that’s work too,” Dai said. “Even though I’m curious by nature, learning how others live and struggle helps me add depth to the roles I play. I’m willing to do anything and work really hard to make sure I excel at my job.”

If he were not an actor, he believes he would have been a businessman or an entrepreneur.

“I’ve always been great with numbers, and since my late 20s, I have been collecting watches, not just because I like them, but also because I really enjoy being able to resell them for a profit,” he said.

His preferred brands are Patek Philippe, Richard Mille, Panerai and IWC Schaffhausen.

Dai’s good taste is not restricted to just timepieces. Other luxury brands you will see him shelling out for are Fear of God and Louis Vuitton.

“I don’t want to spend time thinking about material things, but I make sure I’m well-dressed and comfortable,” Dai said. “So when I have Fear of God and Louis Vuitton in my wardrobe, I don’t need to overthink.”

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As for his grooming regimen, he keeps it simple.

“I use whatever cleanser my wife (Chinese actress Chen Zihan) or a make-up artist gives me, and that’s the only skincare product I use. I work out daily and I think that’s my best beauty advice,” he said.

But Dai was all excited when the topic of food came up.

The self-professed foodie admitted the food in Singapore was one of the best things about living here.

He had lined up his meals over his three-day promotional work trip here and his first meal was popiah. “I really missed popiah and I like it the way the locals do it – with more chilli,” he said.

Dai had returned to China to restart his career from scratch in the early 2010s, despite becoming a household name in Singapore.

About 15 years ago, he played a Japanese photographer in Channel 8 blockbuster drama The Little Nyonya.

“That was what my manager asked me to do. He felt I was not being smart or strategic in my decisions,” Dai said.

“The local media started referring to me as an Ah Ge (Big Brother in the acting scene), but that term made me feel like I’d hit a plateau.

“I believed I still had much to learn and grow, so I decided to move to China. I was only 30 years old then.”

In Shanghai, he did not get a single acting gig.

He said: “Two years was a long time to not work and, of course, I was worried about my financial situation, but I also did not want to give up trying. I changed my birth name from Yangtian to Xiangyu for better luck, and it didn’t help that I refused to take on supporting roles.”

His hard work paid off, and Dai is now recognised in China, with over 2.5 million followers on Weibo.

Some fans have even paid to be on the same flight as him.

However, he is careful with his image as there is close scrutiny of Chinese artistes due to recent scandals.

“Nowadays, after filming with female cast members, I head straight to my trailer and not speak to anyone to avoid being caught on anyone’s smartphone camera. It’s so easy for the truth to be misconstrued.”

In his newest television series Sisterhood on iQiyi, Dai plays the lead as a young gangster in mid-1930s Singapore.

Does he find it intriguing that his career and life are often deeply intertwined with Singapore? 

“I don’t think it’s fate. I made that happen through my decisions and hard work – coming to Singapore to work and succeed, and then returning to China as a newbie actor,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“I’ve always wanted to take the stories of Singapore, especially the television shows I’d worked on, such as The Little Nyonya, to China, to expose the Chinese production crew to the amazing history of Singapore. I think I’ve come full circle with my career and accomplished what I’d hoped to achieve.”

This article first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The August 2023 issue is out on newsstands now.

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