Interview: Jennifer Tse

Since returning to Hong Kong from a sheltered Canadian upbringing, Jennifer Tse has lived in the shadow of her famous show business family. Now that she has two films under her belt, the paparazzi spotlight will shine on her. Yet idolising her brother Nicholas as she does, she remains keen to to talk about him, as we discover

There are a million girls in Greater China who would like to get close to Nicholas Tse and his sister is one of them. At 28 Jennifer Tse, who is now launching a career as an actress, is two years younger than her famous brother but geography and constraints imposed by Nicholas’ demanding schedule have kept them apart. And the brother is not as overtly affectionate, emotional or loquacious as the sister. As Jennifer tells us with amusement, when he called long distance from Hong Kong to Canada to wish her happy 18th birthday the gesture was so unexpected that “it took a full five minutes to persuade me it was really him on the line!”

The siblings were born in Hong Kong to the celebrated show-business couple of Patrick Tse and Deborah Li, but raised primarily in British Columbia by an aunt – the family emigrated when Jennifer was three but Tse and Li soon returned, finding the Canadian lifestyle too laid back. A sporty girl, Jenn loved her adopted land. Her 12th year proved a watershed, with her parents separating and Nicholas leaving for boarding school.

She was obviously lonely – she notes how her “childhood was not normal” and she missed out on traditional family moments like putting up the Christmas tree together – but as a young woman Tse seems remarkably upbeat, confident and well adjusted. “I’m not easily scarred,” she confirms. A trait that will no doubt come in handy as she begins her own climb to show business stardom.

"The director's point of reference was that every time I kill someone I should cry. Which wasn't as hard as everything is a tear-jerker for me; I even cry tears of joy at concerts!"

At the time of our shoot in early August, Tse had just finished filming her second movie, and one in which she has the lead female role. Called Naked Soldier it is an update of Wong Jing’s 2002 Naked Weapon which starred another sexy up-and-coming actress, Maggie Q. “I’m very much fully clothed [in a leather jumpsuit if the film poster is any indication],” says Tse drolly when asked about the title.

She was thrilled to get the part, as it is martial arts/action film; Hong Kong-Hollywood crossover names Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen are the star and action director respectively. Tse may be new to kung fu – she practised martial arts for six weeks before shooting – but she is athletic, professing that sport – tennis, volleyball, basketball – is  the only thing she has ever excelled at. She also jokes that her childhood spats with her brother – “we fought a lot” – proved good training for this role.   

Although far from a trained assassin, Tse could identify with one aspect of her character’s personality. “I’m the killer with a heart, which I thought was nice because I’m a very sensitive person. The director’s point of reference was that every time I kill someone I should cry. Which wasn’t too hard as everything is a tear-jerker for me; I even cry tears of joy at concerts.”

With Philip Ng, one of her brother’s best friends, and her boyfriend of two-and-a-half years Andy On in the cast it was “like a family on set”. Sammo Hung, however, was a formidable presence. “Filming with him was so intimidating,” she says awestruck. “It’s like he’s this invincible figure, who walks with such an air of confidence that you have to take a few steps back when he approaches, as you don’t want to invade his space.”

 

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Tse enjoys the process of filmmaking immensely. She also sees it as a privilege: “Even though it might be a 29-hour shooting day, there are 100 people on set and everyone is focused on making you feel comfortable and making the most of your potential. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.” It is a homecoming of sorts for her and has brought her closer to her famous family.

“I didn’t pay much attention to the show business part of my parents’ life when I was growing up, but now I have something to contribute at the dinner table. I also understand a lot better what my brother has been going through since he was 16. Until recently I never understood the calibre of his fame.”

Jenn clearly idolises Nic and wishes they were closer. Talking about her relationship with On, another of her brother’s good friends – whom she praises as “such a sweet and simple guy” - she reveals: “When they go for a boys’ night out I tag along to get a glimpse of my brother.”

Her debut film outing last year was the Manfred Wong-Raymond Yip project Bruce Lee, My Brother, starring Tony Leung Ka-fai and Aarif Lee. “Raymond Yip was very fatherly, so thoughtful and caring,” she remembers fondly. “There were several first-time actors on set, so he said it was his responsibility for us to have a good experience, so as not to deter us from making acting our careers.”

The film brought her unexpected recognition – a silver award for best new actor from the Hong Kong Film Director’s Guild. (Nicholas received best new actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his first picture, Andrew Lau’s 1998 Young & Dangerous: The Prequel.)

The self-effacing young actress sees the prize as an honor and a nod to her family. “Just for this community of directors and respected elders to honor me was amazing. I guess they somehow feel this affinity with me as they always say things like ‘I watched you grow from a baby until now.’ The best part of the [award] night was to meet them and especially [Andrew] Lau Wai-keung as he worked with my brother. Their opinions make me want to improve.”

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"Now I have something to contribute at the family dinner table. I also understand a lot better what my brother has been going through since he was 16."

It is important to Tse that she is good at her new job. She has taken some acting lessons – though when she told her father this he laughed, advising “you don’t need to learn, you just go in and do it, you learn from experience”. Her parents are supportive – “my dad cuts out everything printed about me, it’s very cute” – and perhaps a little surprised that it took their daughter so long to commit herself to show business.

She studied psychology at the University of British Columbia and was initially reluctant to relocate to Hong Kong until a friend reminded her that it was a golden age for Greater China. “My friend said Hong Kong was the land of opportunity and I thought that was very true. Life in Canada was so comfortable that five years would easily pass and you’d have done nothing.”

Upon her return in 2007 she was offered an analyst’s position at an investment bank. “After the interview, it hit me; did I really want to do that? I’m adaptable and I learn quickly on my feet, but I hadn’t found my passion or zest for life.” She turned the job down and banking on her family name soon began to make a living as a celebrity model.

It wasn’t until she walked on the set of Bruce Lee, My Brother that the passion for which she had been searching kicked in. “I felt honored that brands would pick me [to model at their events], but I don’t have the height [to be a catwalk model] and they are so many beautiful girls out there. I had to bring seven-inch heels not to stand out like a sore thumb.” She reflects, sagely: “I don’t feel I’m anyone yet; I won’t feel that until I’ve contributed something instead of just getting it because of my family name, though I’m not ashamed by that at all.”

 

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When we spoke, the Tse family was very much in the news as Nicholas' marriage to actress Cecilia Cheung was on the rocks (the couple announced their intention to divorce in August, 2011). Jennifer appears to take all the publicity and paparazzi probing in her stride, seeing the constant intrusion as part and parcel of show business.

“Before it confused me,” she says. “I was only Nic’s sister or my parents’ daughter, so who would be interested to read that I had an avocado sandwich at Cafe Landmark and dropped a piece of it on the floor? There’s so much more than this to report in the world. But now I understand the relationship between celebrities and the entertainment press is about give and take, and they are just doing their jobs.”

Two divorces in one’s immediate family might put off a less resilient or sentimental soul but Tse is undeterred. “True, the statistics for celebrity couples staying together is crazy, but I’m a hopeless romantic,” she says with a grin. “I believe love conquers all. There are bound to be hard times, quarrels in any close human relationship, but it’s the effort you put in that’s important and makes it work.”

"I don't feel I'm anyone yet; I won't feel that until I've contributed something instead of just getting it because of my family name."

She is thankful that her parents’ marriage ended amicably and the couple remain “great friends” – “Dad calls Mum’s new husband [retired pilot W.S. Kong, a.k.a. Uncle Kong] out for golf. My dad’s very gracious, a gentleman and very playful, nothing gets him down. My mum’s more like me, sentimental.”

Now that she is making her own mark, does she feel resentful that the tabloids only want to ask about her more famous and sensational brother? “No, Andy and I are super stable so what is there to write about us? If I put myself in the media’s position, I would probably ask about Nic too. He is always breaking new ground; he’s silently involved in a ton of charities; he’s deserving of that kind of concern. If I’m a vehicle for this, it’s fine. In fact I often learn what he is doing from them. It’s endearing to know that people want to know the tiniest details about him.”

  • Styling: Anson Lau
  • Hair: Ray Chan of Ray Chan Hair
  • Makeup: Kamen Leung

More pictures of Jennifer Tse are available in the Gallery.

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