We have every right to be proud whenever Singapore takes the reins in Hollywood, such as in Netflix docuseries Singapore Social and – it goes without mentioning – Crazy Rich Asians. Insider access, though, will tell you that our people aren’t just made up of high SES families who live atas lives. Even so, there’s a lot more nuance behind being rich than just glitz and glamour.
This brings to life Asian Billionaires, a new mockumentary series created by Annette Lee about a fictional rich family in Singapore, coupled with moments of comedic antics along the way. So, we sat down with Annette, as well as the rest of the cast – Gurmit Singh, Amy Cheng and Benjamin Kheng to learn more about the creative process.
1. As the writer and director of this series, what first inspired you to go about creating this work?
Annette: I’d been thinking a lot about the Singaporean identity in recent years and what it means to be Singaporean. And I think ever since Crazy Rich Asians was released, the Singaporean identity almost started to cement into being ‘that one rich country’. I felt that there was some truth to it, but we were also so much more than that.
So I was inspired to write a story that began in front of this backdrop of Singapore that was known by the world – the wealthy class – and from there, reveal more aspects of the Singaporean identity.
2. What were the greatest challenges creating this series?
Annette: I think getting it made independently was itself a colossal challenge. Firstly, I didn’t have the resources of an established company, so I had to put in my own savings and earnings into creating this series, but as an individual there was a ceiling to the size of the investment I could put in as well.
It was also tough working on this project while still churning out weekly shorter videos for my social media channels. Due to the scale of the project, I required a lot of creative energy to coordinate with and align with different departments and freelancers on the creative direction, such as working with my music arranger on creating the original soundtrack, or working with my stylist to create looks for every character. There were days where I was just creatively spent. But I’m glad it worked out, and I’m also super grateful that I worked with an amazing production house, Trigram Media, who helped to manage the bulk of the work, especially on the technical and production end.
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The official trailer of Asian Billionaires
Video credit: @asianbillionaires.series
Lastly, I’d say the most time-consuming challenge for me was writing all five episodes of the series. I could split the work once things started moving into production and even pre-production, and unlike hiring a team to work on different aspects of the series that were necessary to get the project made, having a team of writers was a luxury expense because technically I could write everything if I just spent the time on it. So it was a lonely and tedious journey, and the writing period was half the production duration. Everything moved faster from then on.
3. How realistic do you think the portrayal of wealth here is close to reality, while maximising your artistic licence at the same time?
Annette: I’d like to think it’s as close to reality. I hope. If someone’s a billionaire out there reading this, please let me know okay?
“Regardless of Class” – a documentary chronicling the social class divide in Singapore.
Image credit: Channel NewsAsia
But I must say I recall how a few years ago, CNA published an article about the class divide in Singapore being the biggest divide over race and religion, because many children mention not having friends across different social classes. But I must’ve been in that minority of kids who somehow personally grew up knowing friends and family from across all social classes. I’ve heard stories from them and their counterparts – enough for me to identify the differences as well as similarities between these families and craft a story with my observations.
4. What do you all hope to communicate to audiences as the main message of the show?
Annette: Behind this facade of wealth and opulence, Singaporeans, or just people in general, are so much more similar than we think. Whether you are rich or poor, we all have our own idiosyncrasies, fears and weaknesses, but also our own strengths and graciousness, and we’re all seeking out things in life that are worth so much more than money.
5. You’re one who wears many hats, being a filmmaker, actress and musician. Which areas are you concentrating on this year?
Annette: I’ll definitely say a mix of all. I think this year will be about bringing out the harmony across the various disciplines!
6. What other projects are you working on this year?
Annette: The next project I’m working on is a concert on 16 April at the Esplanade called “Annette Lee: All-In-One” where I’ll be featuring my music and comedy work live! Super stoked for that.
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Trailer for Annette’s concert, All-In-One
Video credit: @annettelee
After that I’ll be working on releasing some new singles, in the lead-up to a new music album, followed by working on the 2nd season of The Ann & Ben Show.
7. You and Ben have been working together quite a bit, with projects such as the Ann & Ben Show. What is it in your working chemistry that allows y’all to collaborate frequently?
Annette: I don’t know, I think we’re both kinda crazy? Hahaha ok just kidding.
Snippet of “这个那个 (The Caifan Song)”, the third episode of the Ann & Ben Show.
Image credit: Annette Lee
I love working with Ben and I think we just bounce ideas off of each other well, and we have complementary strengths. So we also contribute our best ideas and biggest strengths to the projects we work on and through that, we learn a lot from each other too.
From the rest of the cast:
1. For your character, were there any specific people that influenced your take on the show? Are there any rich people that you look up to?
Gurmit: There was no one in particular. I just made up the character as I read the script. Any rich person who helps the needy and the less fortunate has my respect immediately.
My mom’s “ladies who lunch” friends, who used to be part of the Lioness Club.
Amy and Gurmit, who play parents Elizabeth and Paul respectively.
Image credit: @annettelee
Ben: I can’t really disclose the exact person, but Annette and I settled on a particular real son of a billionaire who was the perfect reference point.
2. How did you get on board with the project?
Gurmit: It was Annette’s husband, Raphael, who first approached me. With a gun to my head. The rest as they say is history.
Amy: It was serendipity. I don’t usually read my emails before I go to bed, but for some reason, that night, I did. It was an email from my FLY Entertainment agent about this project. Once I read the synopsis and saw the cast list, it was an immediate “yes!”.
Ben: Annette and Raph floated the idea to me years ago actually. They promised me a good time and Tunglok dinners. But, truth is, I’m honoured to be a part of anything they’re creating, in whatever capacity.
3. What research or preparation did you each do in order to prepare yourselves for your characters?
Gurmit: I had to be mindful at least of how I portrayed my character. He had to be stingy and almost crass yet lovable and fuddy duddy.
Jacqueline Ling from Crazy Rich Asians, played by Amy Cheng.
Image credit: Fandom
Amy: I used my experience, playing a character called Jacqueline Ling, from Crazy Rich Asians, as a baseline. And aspects of myself, the exaggerated version!
Ben: That real billionaire’s son’s Instagram was a buffet for ideas – how he dressed, ate, celebrated himself – but also finding something redeemable and human in him was lots of fun too.
4. How was it like working with each other?
Gurmit: It was the worst! Horrible! Insufferable. Disaster! Ok, now take the opposite meaning of what I just said.
Amy: Imagine being on set with talented and giving actors/comedians, the experience can only be joyful and fun!
Max and Paul, played by Ben and Gurmit respectively.
Image credit: Asian Billionaires
Ben: Gurmit and I always get up to heaps of improv nonsense on set so I can always imagine the hell Annette and the team had to go through in edits. Amy is such a wonderful presence on set and she immediately lifts every scene she’s in. Annette is one of the most intuitive actresses I know and bouncing ideas with her is always crazy fun. Paw, a legend in her own right, is so giving in energy and talent. And I always enjoy working with Fuzz, and watching him go from a mid-scene nap to 100% on camera.
5. The description of this series says that it is about a “typical” family that so happens to be “Singapore’s 1%”. How do you achieve the balance between showing characters that are wealthy while not being stereotypes?
Amy: Having a good script is key – the way the story, characters and lines are developed. Then, my job as an actor, which is to find ways to connect characters with each other, is another! A lot of it too is in the way Annette directed this. She gave us quite a bit of room to improvise, allowing us to own our characters.
Ben: It was a journey for me too; I definitely have my preconceived notions, stereotypes and critiques when it comes to the 1%. But the greatest acting lesson I’ve learnt is to never judge your character. You have to remain truthful and open. And what helps is that there’s a lot in these characters that Annette has written that endears themselves to audiences. It’s still important to critique and create satire about them though.
6. What would you do if you had a sudden 1 billion windfall?
Gurmit: Give it to the cast and they will be so touched they will give their windfall to me so that I end up now with $4 billion. I know, I know. Genius.
Amy: Hire a good wealth manager. Live it up a little. Consult with NGOs to see how some of the money can be put back into society for those who are in dire need of it!
The show’s Instagram page is filled with memes made with stills.
Image credit: @asianbillionaires.series
Ben: A billion is really an unfathomable sum of money. I’d give a good portion of it to community driven initiatives, and then with 0.005% maybe buy an alpaca?
7. Why should people watch “Asian Billionaires” over their usual Netflix shows?
Gurmit: Because it’s like another Netflix show. It just hasn’t been picked by Netflix. Yet.
Amy: For all the fans and followers of Annette Lee and Benjamin Kheng, this is for you! And am proud to say, it’s a homegrown production!
Ben: Watch both! But it’s a fun space to laugh at, and with, the ridiculously rich.
8. What are your thoughts on the rich-poor gap and income inequality in Singapore?
Gurmit: It goes without saying that it is something to always monitor and be concerned about. I always feel that the bigger the gap the more it shows how we have failed as a caring society or effective government. So I am hoping the gap gets narrower by generation in the years to come.
Amy: It’s a complex question which I can’t answer. All I will say is, at grassroots level, we do what we can, to practise awareness and kindness whenever we can. Support can come in many different ways, other than money. In this covid situation we are in, it’s heartening to see a lot of Singaporeans doing just that.
Ben: Social stratification is still plaguing us, and everyone has very differing views when it comes to redistribution policies and meritocracy. I’d wanna keep having good conversations and be part of initiatives that close the wage gap. It’s been trending well over the past two years, but there’s a lot of work still to be done since the turn of the millennium.
The meaning of being rich by Asian Billionaires
Difficult as it may be, we can’t shy away from conversations surrounding income inequality and social divides in Singapore. While art remains to be the main medium of expression towards these issues, it’s especially impressive when they can be taken upon with snappy dialogues and smart, witty humour – a feat done well in Asian Billionaires.
Stream Asian Billionaires here.
Cover image adapted from: @asianbillionaires.series, Annette Lee