Standing up for his fellow men: An Interview with Tosh Zhang

Photos by Mohan Deitrich

About a month before the release of Ah Boys To Men 4, on an ordinary afternoon, at a corner in the new MediaCorp campus, actor-singer-rapper-vlogger Tosh Zhang reflects on the not-so-ordinary turn his life has taken since he took on the role of Sergeant Ong. Away from the rowdy banter of his fellow 'Ah Boys', we uncovered some truths and pearls of wisdom from a very young but determined mind.

Jeremy (SINdie): So…….. how was shooting Ah Boys to Men (ABTM) 4?
Tosh: It feels very different from ABTM 3 because this time round it is more fun and it feels like we have nothing to prove, mainly because I guess this is the fourth instalment and our audience has watched us through the years. So, this is like a reunion. Plenty of good vibes all around. In ABTM 3, we were trying to portray the Frogmen and there were a lot of physical demands. So this is much more relaxed and there is a lot more comedy. It is Jack Neo in his element.
Jeremy: I hear you play a bigger role this time.
Tosh:  Yes. You actually see more of Sergeant Ong, as in his background. Previously, you only see him tekan recruits. He will appear for a few scenes and then disappear. So this time Jack thought it was time to…
Jeremy: Tell your story.
Tosh: Haha yes.
Jeremy: Is the film told from your point of view this time? Just like ABTM 3 was from Maxi’s point of view?
Tosh: That’s right.
Jeremy: So how was it like playing a bigger role?
Tosh: Playing a bigger role this time was quite stressful for me because unlike last time, apart from portraying a sergeant, I need to show a more human side to the character. Like when I'm at home with my grandmother, I can’t be in that zone anymore and I have to be ‘Alex at home with his grandmother’. At the same time, Jack also didn’t want me to be too human. I still had to maintain a certain type of sergeant vibe, but more human.
Jeremy: And you are a reservist sergeant….
Tosh: Oh that’s another thing, I cannot speak to the boys like how I used to because it’s more of a friendship thing now. So sometimes I would be too Sergeant Ong and other times I would be too friend. So I had to find a balance.

Jeremy: What were some of the highlights of the shoot? Anything funny happened?
Tosh: The biggest highlight of th shoot was not really any particular scene. It was more the feeling that I got when I was back with the boys and Jack. I have not worked with Jack for about two years. Over that time, he was working on Long Long Time Ago and other films. I didn't really hang out or see much of him over the last two years. We did meet for dinner once in a while. But now that I am back, it gives me a lot of nostalgia, working and hanging out with the boys. So it is a very good feeling.
Jeremy: How is the feeling working with Jack now compared to previously?
Tosh: There is certainly an expectation from him because we have grown and are more experienced now. He would expect us to know certain things so you can't screw up because you have been doing this for five years. In part 1 and 2, if you didn’t hit the light or the camera properly or if you forgot your lines, he will be ‘ok, let’s do it again’. But now, if you do not hit your mark or cause him to have more takes, then he will come down more harshly on you. So there is the expectation. And I think it is good because it keeps all of us on our toes. We can get very rowdy on the set and we sometimes disturb each other or are not serious during the take. So this keeps us in check.

Jeremy: Of course, we all know about the new female character. So how was it like working with her?
Tosh: Oh she is amazing and I feel like she portrays the role very well
Jeremy: Is she also a reservist personnel or an army regular?
Tosh: She is a full-time regular female officer, so she is very on the ball, the very garang type. And she meets this bunch of reservist guys who do not really care, so there is the conflict and tension in the air. She will look at us as ‘uncles’ but we will be like ‘We are not uncles!’ So the interaction is quite funny.
Jeremy: Her name is Apple?
Tosh: Apple Chan. She is very funny and she is quirky as well. She does not give off that vibe when you first get to know her. But she turned out to be actually very funny and very down-to-earth.
Jeremy: Is this her first time acting in Singapore?
Tosh: I think she started in Singapore, then she went back to Hong Kong to develop a career. But she's very much Singaporean because she's been living here for 20 years so she is very localised. The way she speaks.and her mannerisms are all very Singaporean. But the moment she speaks in Cantonese, she is like a complete Hong Konger.
Jeremy: I guess you cannot catch what she is speaking.
Tosh: I can’t speak Cantonese.
Jeremy: Oh what dialect are you?
Tosh: I am Hakka but I can’t speak Hakka. I can speak a bit of Hokkien.

Jeremy: How do you think you've changed as an actor from ABTM 1 and 2?
Tosh: I guess now I feel really more inside the character. I actually learned this from my other films like The Lion Men and My Love, Sinema. In ABTM 1 and 2, I felt I was portraying someone whereas in My Love, Sinema, I actually became that person. I threw myself away and really got to live a person's life. So this time, for the experience that I got from previous films, I was able to ‘be’ Sergeant Ong this time rather than ‘play’ Sergeant Ong.
Jeremy: I realised you have not really been typecast. So that’s a good thing! All the roles you play in different films are quite different.
Tosh: That was why I wanted to play Ah Qiang in My Love, Sinema because it is extremely different from Sergeant Ong and it felt very good doing the role.

Jeremy: Is Sergeant Ong in ABTM 4 less serious and funnier?
Tosh: Yes, he is. He tries to be more brotherly with the boys but there are also other times when he has to be more serious and sometimes the boys don't understand him.
Jeremy: Do you remember the very first scene you shot for ABTM 1 and 2?
Tosh: I think the very first scene was when I entered the bunk and it was the first time the boys settled down in the room and everyone was messing around and I made them do push ups. It was the scene I walked in with Alvin and Luke. I will never forget that scene because when I first watched it at the gala, it became a slow motion scene and the cinema audience went ‘wa’ during that moment. It was quite an unforgettable feeling and that was when I realised cinema has the power to transform a moment into something like this.
Jeremy: A few of the crew members were quite surprised with your acting in the scene because before that you were usually quiet on the set but in the scene you were not only scolding the recruits but doing in a rather naughty and sarcastic way.
Tosh: Actually a lot of it was imitating my own sergeants because I had a lot of, for the lack of a better word, guai lan sergeants. Like when they scold you, they are a bit sarcastic, a bit passive-aggresive.

Jeremy: Were you nervous when you were about to start your first scene?
Tosh: Yes, I was actually shaking before that. When the camera was there, lights were ready, Jack was sitting there and then the assistant director shouts ‘Sound. Speed’, there is the pressure. But after a few takes and Jack shows you how the scene turned out on the monitor, you feel a sense of fulfillment.
Jeremy: You know, looking at your YouTube videos and looking at Sergeant Ong, it’s a bit of a mismatch. How did you feel when you landed the role of Sergeant Ong?
Tosh: At that time when I landed the role, I was actually one week away from starting my studies in Melbourne. So if I were to defer my studies, it had to be a good role. I guess I was really taking a risk then because what if the film didn’t do well? I will be wasting my mum’s money as she had paid for the semester already, including accommodation and everything else. On hindsight I guess it was the right decision. Of course, initially my mum was really against it. She was like ‘You are a video editor, you are a videographer, you are not an actor. And there are so many people who have acted in Jack Neo’s films already. You better think carefully about it.’
Jeremy: How does she feel now?
Tosh: Now she is very supportive of me and she will always turn up at my events and sometimes, even when she turns up, she doesn't tell me. I will be talking to the emcee of the event and at the corner of my eye, I can see her. So she is very proud of this and she even keeps whatever articles she sees the papers. She is a very hip mum. She is 53 and she uses Instagram.
Jeremy: So before this you never harboured any thoughts of acting even when you were studying video editing at Republic Polytechnic.
Tosh: There was this year, I was doing a film project in which I was both the actor and director because I couldn’t find people to act and I didn't have much money to hire actors, so I just tried acting. When the film was completed, all of us in my team including myself agreed that I cannot act. When I saw the final product, I really thought, I will stay away from acting haha. (pause) As for me vlogging on YouTube, I was thinking, I am not really acting, I am just creating a character or an alter-ego of myself for the internet. So I just went all the way and even used vulgarities. It’s like being in a zone when you are recording the video.
Jeremy: I know some of your bedsheet designs by now from the videos.
Tosh: (laughs) My mum would ask me who are you talking to in the room for so long? Come outside and have lunch.
Jeremy: Does she know what’s a YouTube video?
Tosh: In the beginning, she was like ‘Why you go and post all these funny things and people are laughing at you?’ But now she understands.
Jeremy: I also saw in a YouTube video that you will be going back to vlogging. How’s that coming along?
Tosh: I will be spending the year after promoting ABTM 4, creating my own content, not just for YouTube. I feel over the last five years, I have been doing a lot of industry work, so I want to do some things to fulfill myself as well.

Jeremy: Are you more a dog person person or a cat person?
Tosh: I am a dog person I guess. I like them both the same but I don't really know how to approach cats sometimes. Cats have a very different personality. Dogs are more welcoming. Cats, some of them are very tame and chill and there is not much I can do with them. Of course, some others are quite aggressive.
Jeremy: Who are some of your role models? I know a lot of people look to you as a role model for the younger people, how do you feel about that?
Tosh: I do get very stressed when people say that. I don't feel like I am like a good role model because I also make mistakes. But sometimes I actively try to inspire the youth in a good way so I guess I am trying to be a role model in those times but at the same time I want them to know that sometimes I will do some things that are, just being myself and you might not like. So it is stressful to be in that role model position.
Jeremy: I guess it is part and parcel of being a celebrity, there are perks and there are restrictions also.
Tosh: In fact, I don't even like to be termed a celebrity especially if you identify yourself with it too much or become too comfortable in that zone.
Jeremy: You know nowadays there are so many terms people have come up with - influencers, social influencers and some even call themselves celebrity influencers! It’s so confusing!.
Tosh: And some of them are very young kids as well, 15 or 16! (pause) I think it is a sign of the times.  Now it is much easier to get famous compared to the past when you need to go to radio, TV or print. With social media and the Internet, as long as you have a phone, you can just take a video and post anything or write anything. Andy Warhol once said something like this ‘Everybody will be famous for 15 minutes’ and I can see that it is happening now. You see a lot of these 15, 16 year-old kids having 100,000 to 200,000 followers. So in a sense, they are celebrities or public figures in their own rights.
Jeremy: Back to the question, who are your role models?
Tosh: The first person that came to my mind is Muhammad Ali. He inspires me because he was not only a world champion but at the same time he stood up for the people. When the US wanted to send him to Vietnam to fight, he questioned ‘Why am I sent by white men to kill another coloured man I don’t hate?’  I think in the US during those times, for a black guy to be able to say that meant a lot for his community and I feel like this makes him the people's champion. I would like to have that element in myself. I might be mainstream or I might be Ah Boys to Men but I will also want to speak up for people when the need arises. (pause) Sometimes people around me will tell me I shouldn't say this or that, if not I will invite controversy or negative press. I should just keep quiet and let the thing tide over. But I feel sometimes if I don't say something and I get too used to being docile, then I will lose who I am and become…
Jeremy: Another M………. actor.
Tosh: (laughs) Many actors I know are not like that. They have opinions but sometimes there is industry pressure. (pause) My other role model is Jackie Chan. I hope that when I reach his age I can still be doing films. When I lose my motivation I will look to Jackie Chan for inspiration. After so many years he is still so passionate and wants to do everything himself. He is also the biggest actor in the whole world because he is big in China, Europe and America. And if you go to Africa and the kids see him, they will call his name!

Jeremy: I would now like to pick you brain on a few social issues. First, do you think President Halimah should stay in her HDB flat in Yishun or the Istana?
Tosh: I feel it would be better for her to stay at the Istana. I am not sure how the residents would feel, though I think if I live in her block I will be very happy because that will be the safest block in Singapore. I know sometimes it would be inconvenient, for example, if you are rushing for work in the morning and she is leaving at the same time with an entourage. You end up having to wait for the lift. I think there are good sides and bad sides but I feel a president should stay at the Istana.
Jeremy: What do you think about legalising gay marriage in Singapore?
Tosh: I feel every country in the world should do that. To me, it is unnecessary for anyone to care about who somebody else wants to be with or want to have a relationship with. It’s like I am sitting at the Kopitiam and want to eat Hokkien Mee and I am unhappy that you want to eat Sze Char. It will be like ‘Why you eat Sze Char, why you don’t like Hokkien Mee. But I like to eat Sze Char what.’ In that sense, I think Taiwan is very a progressive country.
Jeremy: More young people are getting agnostic. Do you think it is important to have a religion?
Tosh: I don't personally believe in religion but I believe in God, some greater power up there, but I don't particularly associate it with any religion. I wouldn't say I'm a scholar but I have read the Koran and the Bible, portions of it. I have watched documentaries about the Mormon bible and I even have a friend who was a staunch Mormon so I got the book of Mormons from him to see what it's all about. I am interested in religion because I guess people are religious because it is an answer for them to what happens in the afterlife. Many people fear where we will go after we die, so religion fills that void. But personally, I feel all these books were written by men. So it cannot be the word of God. It is written in our essence. You will know that it is wrong to kill your mum and you don't need a book to tell you that is wrong. So I guess all these come from inside us rather than a book that has been passed down over centuries. Many kings and emperors have put things inside these books to control the populus.
Jeremy: Wow. I never saw this coming from you. (laughs) Next, what do you think about the Shrey Bhargava incident?
Tosh: (laughs) I felt it got blown out of proportion. I actually know Shrey and we have hung out together in Zouk. He is not like a bad guy. I just feel that episode was blown out of proportion and personally I really don't feel he did it to create publicity for himself. It might be a reaction to what was said at the audition. Maybe having the majority privilege, I don’t really understand what minorities have to deal with or what Indians deal with on a day-to-day basis in a Chinese-majority society.
Jeremy:  Lastly, more and more people are walking around naked in Singapore. What do you say to that?
Tosh: (laughs) I would say good. I think it is a good thing though I am not sure whether they are mentally unsound. In the most recent one, he was wearing Timberland boots, so perhaps there is a plot twist and it was part of a Timberland campaign haha. But it was but quite funny and I guess things like that make Singapore more interesting haha.

Jeremy: Finally, have there been low points in your career over the last five years?
Tosh: I think the lowest point was last year because last year in the first six months of 2016, I didn't really get any engagements and when I was doing ABTM, I was used to getting back-to-back work projects. So I pretty much had a holiday for the first half of 2016. But it made me question my relevance, am I becoming ‘out of sight, out of mind’? But thankfully, it picked up again soon after. I guess that's the thing about being an artist.
Jeremy: In your upcoming videos next year, which Tosh will we see?
Tosh: I think I will not try to be politically correct. Neither do I feel there is an obligation to be controversial or to spice things up. I just want to be genuine  If I really feel this way about something, I will say it.
Jeremy: With your video editing background, do you ever want to direct a film eventually?
Tosh: Yes, that is still my ultimate goal.
Jeremy: What kind of stories or styles interest you?
Tosh: I like the films of Quentin Tarantino. He has a very edgy style to him and I really really enjoy watching his films. I also like Jack Neo’s films before I knew him especially lot of his early works. He knows a lot about Singaporeans and can reach out to their hearts and mind. He really speaks from the Singaporean perspective. I hope next time, when I get to direct, I can be Quentin in a way and also Jack in another way.
Jeremy: Like be a Quentin Neo?
Tosh: Haha. I guess a balance of both. I like Quentin Tarantino for being able to be artsy and yet commercial at the same time. It is a very difficult place to be in but I hope to be like that.

Interview by Jeremy Sing, who incidentally worked on set Ah Boys to Men 1 & 2.

Catch Ah Boys to Men 4 islandwide now!
The movie has already collected $310,000 on its opening day over 85 screens in Singapore.
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