By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Playing a Chinese mother in America—vivid, domineering, but secretly vulnerable—seems like child’s play to actress Pamelyn Chee. And by this point, it may well be. But to get there, she started acting as an actual child.
Chee, playing in Eddie Huang’s film “Boogie,” now available for home viewing, got her start in a Chinese dance troupe, playing a little duck. She followed up as a teen, playing one of the female leads in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” She remarks, though, that she much prefers the screen to the stage, because of the intimacy cameras can pick up.
“I was born in Singapore but we’re actually Shanghainese,” Chee remembered. “My grandfather smuggled himself on a junk boat from China to Singapore when he was a teenager… My best memories are the countless hours spent playing volleyball. I was a competitive volleyball player for about 20 years. If I could be a pro volleyball player, I would probably never be an actor.
“Also, the smell of spices in food. In Southeast Asia, everything is cooked with an intricate balance of spices. The layering of the flavors is very delicate and subtle, and I really miss that.”
Acting in Singapore went reasonably well, but Chee caught a lucky break when casting director Heidi Levitt needed to fill a part for Wayne Wang’s “Princess of Nebraska,” circa 2007. Leavitt found a highlights/audition reel Chee had posted on YouTube, and sent for her. Other parts in both film and TV followed, notably a starring role in “Grace,” a supernatural-themed show for HBO Asia.
“Acting seems like a good way to maximize your time on earth, because you get to live a thousand lives in one lifetime. Maybe you can see it as a form of temporary reincarnation. You become someone else… It’s an exhilarating feeling when the new body and the new rhythm click into being.
“I also want to know and experience the truth and only the truth, I’m okay if it’s ugly. This has always guided [my] acting—the unpalatable truth. The illogical truth. The truth that comes from the gut.”
“Boogie,” the directorial debut of Tawianese American actor and comedian Eddie Huang, tells the tale of Alfred “Boogie” Chin, a promising Chinese American teenage basketball player torn between cultures, role models, and his options to exercise his talents. Chee’s agent got her the chance to send in an audition reel, and Chee jumped in.
“I knew exactly who this woman was. So I translated the script into this half-Chinese, half-English lingo that she spoke with, that Eddie ended up keeping in the film, threw in a bunch of cussing and yelling, a whole ton of cigarette smoking, and sent in my tape. Casting called back the next day saying Eddie loved my tape and the contract was signed a few weeks later. I think what really happened was that I was lucky—my vision of the character matched with his. The universe of the character I created resonated with him.
I had eight aunties on each side of the family, so basically I had 16 different versions of crazy to pull from. I remembered when I was young, my aunties got into a fight, and one of them pulled out the heavy-duty sewing scissors… and tried to stab the other sister in the eye. They had to be pulled apart. That was where I started with this character. She’s a landmine, don’t step on her or she will take you down.”
Asked about future plans, Chee says she is up for just about anything.
“Everybody seems to wanna be the hero but I really love being the nightmare. Tyrants, monsters, demons—send the script my way!”
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.