Tian Tan is one of those Kiwi legends that, like those crunchy bits in a serve of hot chips, pop up here and there but always leave a memorable impression. An actor, Tan has appeared in such productions as The New Legends of Monkey on Netflix, and the hit web series Baby Mama’s Club. Many will also know him as Main Man Tian Tan from his videos on Facebook and Youtube, where he posts comedy sketches and life advice. Indeed, several of his sketches have been used by Air New Zealand for their in-flight entertainment system. With such a pedigree, it was only inevitable that I would seek him out for his take on life.
Catching up with him on video chat, I raise the ways in which audiences have received his persona on-camera. A cursory read of comments on his channels reveals that Tan is often regarded as something of a role model for Asian diaspora youth. Although growing up Chinese in New Zealand has its challenges, Tan is nonchalant about his childhood, despite having gone to a “mainly white school”. He recalls “There was a lot of intimidation. [Pākehā] have a whole lot of power over you.”
Nevertheless, Tan has never been inclined to view his experiences through the lenses of difference and discrimination. A proudly self-made man, the vicissitudes of life have only served to refine how he responds to its difficulties. “I got more in touch with myself and who I am,” he reflects.
Tan has never allowed himself to become a prisoner of identity. Still, he has not been afraid to tackle such issues in the roles he has taken on. I bring up the time he starred as the MC in Flat3 Production’s viral video GIRLFIGHT (Asian vs Polys) from the web series Friday Night Bites. Depicting a rap battle between the young Chinese women from Flat3 and the protagonists of Baby Mama’s Club, the sketch is the second most popular video on Flat3’s Youtube channel, though its liberal use of ethnic insults shook a few feathers. However, Tan sees the power in minorities having a bit of a cheeky dig at each other on their own terms.
“I think sometimes when you don’t talk about the things that are on your mind, and you have these implicit kinds of subtle microaggressions, I feel like that does more damage than just bringing out the stereotypes and stuff. When you actually bring out these things to the table, it’s almost like it’s not a big deal. But if you’re holding yourself on a high horse and popping your chest, and anyone says anything to you remotely offensive, then you get really triggered and you have anger. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good way to deal with different races.”
To Tan, this relates an important life lesson. “When you hold yourself and you put your vulnerabilities on the front line, then nobody else can hurt you anymore. Once you’ve accepted your own vulnerabilities and who you are, then you become invincible.”
Despite the popularity of the GIRLFIGHT sketch, Flat3’s most viewed video continues to be one that firmly has Tan in the spotlight as the hero. GUESS I’M COMING TO DINNER, a titular and thematic riff on the 1967 American flick Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, has Tan playing the role of a young man trying to impress the parents of his white girlfriend. As the parents unrelentingly lay on that particular brand of nauseating upper middle-class casual racism that so many of Tan’s fans can relate to, Tan’s character goes on the offensive with savage and hilarious consequences.
Though no less full of gumption in real life, he recognises that different types of haters deserve to be treated accordingly. “Obviously, if it was real life and I was dating a white girl and her dad did have racist microaggressions, you know, like obviously her dad is an important person in my life. Because my heart is important to me, then it’s worth dealing with it.”
I quip how age has progressively given me a shorter fuse and praise Tan’s restraint, in response to which he is characteristically philosophical. “I wouldn’t say [age has made me] more angry. If anything, I’ve just become more aware of what I’m willing to deal with and what I’m not willing to deal with. I know when it’s time to fight, and when it’s not a good time to fight. Because I think, you know, if you’re getting angry, the only person that’s harming you, is you. But knowing when to confront someone or to deal with someone, and when to not, I think that’s a very useful distinction to make with your life.”
Concurrently with the success of other exciting New Zealand productions putting Asian and Polynesian casts and themes front and centre, such as The Mooncake and the Kumara and opera The Bone Feeder, Tan was also receiving attention as club henchman Aaron (a.k.a. “Mulan”) in Baby Mama’s Club, which ran from late 2016 to late 2017.
“I think the whole collaboration between Polynesians and Asians, it’s not really been done that very much. So I think it’s really cool that it’s kind of finally happening, you know? It’s like the whole Rush Hour thing, like black people and Asian people collaborating and I feel like the New Zealand version is like brown people and Asian people. So I think it’s a really cool thing that is gonna happen, especially because Season Two of Baby Mama’s is coming out soon.1 And there’s a lot more, I guess, of me and the boys (costars Italia Hunt and Lauie Sila), so there’s a lot more Asian to Polynesian interaction. And I’m really excited to see how that’s gonna play out and what people will think.”
Though Kiwi experiences have informed much of his work, Tan has plenty of fans overseas as well. “I think if you extrapolate per capita how many fans I have in New Zealand, then I would probably have the most amount of New Zealand fans but it’s just the fact that the US and Australia has more population that I have more fans from those countries.”
Regarding whether it is Asian diasporas that have driven these fan bases, he says, “A lot of my content I make on social media isn’t necessarily about me being Asian, you know, like minus that one video I made about shit people say to Asians. I’m just trying to be me, and I just happen to be Asian.
“I’m hoping that’s enough to just motivate people without me explicitly shoving it into your face. I think that’s a huge issue that the world has. Like, they create such an ego through their race, their identity, their job, or whatever, it makes them less themselves, you know. [It] kind of takes away from [their] true power.”
As for taking his career internationally, Tan says “I don’t know about a tour, because I don’t know if people care enough about me. But like acting, I think, yeah, eventually [I’d like to go global]. I feel like New Zealand is just a starting point for me. Once you do it in New Zealand you can move, you know, to like Australia, to Canada, and to the States, to London or to the UK and stuff. So I feel like, yeah, I’m really happy being in New Zealand right now, and I’m trying to make a living and career here. But I feel like I’m kind of bursting at the seams. And I really wanna get out soon, you know.”
In early 2018, Tan gave a keynote talk an event for Future Dragonz, the country’s leading network for young Chinese professionals, in which he mentioned how pain is a source of inspiration for him. He elaborates further on that concept. “I think the best content that writers ever write is from their own experience. And usually it’s through the suffering that I find makes the most visceral kind of content. And like, for me it’s like whenever I go through [an] uncomfortable situation and do something funny, and do like a funny skit, I mean, for me that’s almost quite therapeutic. And I find those skits are the ones I enjoy making the most, and [the] other ones which really resonate with a lot of other people, because people would’ve experienced a similar kind of pain.”
In an age where sources of pain are legion, it is the everyday things which stand out to Tan. “It could be anything. I made a whole video on [how] I hate it when people say ‘how are you?’ That’s one of my favourite videos I ever made. And it was just the little pain from, how are you?, so many people were like ‘oh my God, you know, me too, you know, I hate that question.’”
So does his secret lie in his everyman appeal? Tan believes it’s slightly more complex than that “Yeah, but not trying to be relatable…I think it’s not my secret, I think if you think about why people like anyone, it’s because they are themselves, and they have a certain distinctive personality that differentiates them from other people.
“You know, if they were just like everyone else, then no one is gonna follow them. And that’s all like, they’re trying to be different, and be unique or be weird. It’s like, everyone is weird. And if you find that and present that to the world, you just literally be you, like people that are naturally as weird as you will find you and love you. But if you hide yourself because you’re afraid of what people are going to think of you or judge you, then no one is gonna find you. And no one is gonna follow you.”
I wonder if it is how Kiwis are themselves, that explains some of Tan’s popularity. As a nation that likes to identify with the underdog, do such cultural inclinations affect how people see Tan, and for that matter, influence his material?
“I don’t know, I didn’t think about whether or not New Zealand affected me in that way. But for what it’s worth, I really like how down to earth New Zealand is and how humble it is. I think a lot of my personality now does come from being in New Zealand you know, whereas if I grew up in LA I think I’d be a different person.
“Most of my audience is from the States…it’s not me being universal. It’s like, if you’re being authentic, like being truthful, authentic is a universal thing. And whenever someone else finds someone that is truthful and authentic, and they like them, then you make a connection. You know, that’s literally how connection gets made. It’s like why kids [so easily] make friends with another kid, because they’re just themselves and they’re just connecting with who they are, heart to heart, soul to soul. I feel like if anything, that’s one thing that I constantly try to do online is just to be me.”
Of course, financial security can be a challenge for those in the performing arts. To help pay the bills, Tan had formerly worked as an influencer for companies such as Huawei and ASUS. So how’s that holding up?
“Not as much now, I’m kind of over influencing at the moment. I feel like my following is very all over the place because in the past I feel like I’ve done all these different things, and have scattered audiences from different segments. At least on Facebook, I feel like no one really knows me super well except for a small minority, so right now I just really want to be me and try and cultivate a following even if it’s not as big, that really understands and appreciates what I do.
“But when it’s a small minority [the content’s] not gonna have lots of views and go viral and stuff so I feel like at the moment while I’m trying to like rebrand myself or restart myself as being truthfully me, I don’t want to take any influencing jobs because I feel like I won’t do them any justice.”
Instead, Tan has been experimenting with offering one-on-one coaching calls, providing advice on relationships, mental and physical health, and life in general. Advertising on his Facebook wall, at this early stage he is doing it for free. “I found a few and I’m gonna start putting out more content related to that soon. Because there were some good calls and I really want to share some of the stuff that happened but at the moment I’m just focusing on trying to do the keynote thing where I’m talking about the stuff I leaned from trying to do social media. But when that’s done I’ll probably go back to the coaching things a lot more.” Despite his youth, Tan’s certainly got wisdom to share. It will be exciting to see what the future holds for this Asian talent.
1 Season 2 was released in late November 2018