You may see him laughing heartily on the big screen, but behind that positivity is a man who has gone through plenty of hardship to become a successful professional in the entertainment industry today.
Growing up, Jaspers Lai was bullied in school.
By his own admission, the 33-year-old actor-cum-comedian and scriptwriter wasn’t “as ‘man’ as the other boys” when he was in Secondary school. His peers called him names, wrote unpleasant things about him on the furniture in classrooms and even burnt him on his hand and knees with a lighter.
“That got me really hurt, but I didn’t dare to tell anybody. I was afraid to resist. More often than not, a lot of us accept this state, that it’s okay to bully me because I’m different.”
That experience is still etched in his mind even though years have passed. So when he was tasked to write a script in a scriptwriting class offered by MM2 Entertainment, he thought of addressing the issue of bullying and added his personal experience and feelings into it.
It eventually became the script used to produce the hit movie starring Mark Lee and Jaspers himself, Number 1.
The movie is about a middle-aged man, Chee Beng, who reluctantly took up a job as manager of a popular drag club, Number One, after he was retrenched by his previous company and failed to land a job despite several interviews.
Chee Beng, portrayed by Mark Lee, eventually ends up performing in drag as well to support his family.
The movie has garnered immense success, receiving two nominations for the 57th edition of the Golden Horse Awards – widely deemed as the Oscars of the Chinese language film industry. The award ceremony will be held on Nov 21 in Taipei.
Mark is up for best leading actor, while Number 1 is also up for best make-up and costume design.
Jaspers, who is now in Taipei undergoing quarantine ahead of the awards ceremony with Mark and director Ong Kuo Sin, told Youthopia via a Zoom interview that achieving the nominations was a huge honour.
“Personally, we have already done our best. [Whether we win it or not], I have no regrets and my objective of this trip is to really enjoy, to see the world, to meet new friends. Of course, if the movie got any awards, wow, it will be like Christmas came early!
“I can’t ask for a better wrap up for Number 1, other than attending the Golden Horse Awards. It’s really an honour to come this far as a team,” said Jaspers, who added that Number 1 has already succeeded in delivering the message of being accepting, tolerating, understanding, compassionate and loving.
For Jaspers, achieving success with his first film script has been vindictive of his efforts to ‘make it’ in the industry.
Since young, he’s always had the goal of working in the media industry to perform, bask in the limelight, get people laughing and excited, as well as to inspire and influence others. But with no family members in the media industry, his parents were resistant to the idea of him being an artiste and objected fervently.
Being the persistent and stubborn person he is, Jaspers got in touch with an artiste management company at 18 and borrowed $800 from his mum to attend a training course.
“I was part of the programme to train as an artiste and that route itself takes about five years. I burnt all my weekends when I was 18 years old, until I was 23. Every Saturday and Sunday, I’ll go for singing, dancing, acting, hosting courses and even watch movies to pen down my thoughts,” Jaspers shared, adding that current Mediacorp actors Romeo Tan and Andie Chen were among those in the course too.
But towards the end of those five years, the company closed down and he was left in the lurch. Five years of hard work went to a waste just like that – leaving Jaspers without a single line or role in TV shoots and commercials.
Realising he had to take everything into his own hands, he started to take on gigs no matter how big or small.
He also fulfilled his parents wishes by attending the National University of Singapore to do programming in the School of Computing. During the last semester, he went for an audition, landed a role in Jack Neo’s Lion Men and was eventually signed to a contract as an artiste.
Yet, his career stalled pretty quickly.
“I had days when I had no jobs. There were a lot of uncertainties… shooting one movie every year was not going to help me survive,” said Jaspers.
A chance encounter with a Facebook post about a scriptwriting course got him interested and thankfully, that turned out very well.
“I was really scared [to be writing the script for Number 1] because I haven’t written a full-length script before. But I told myself I need to challenge myself,” Jaspers said.
“Scriptwriting is a really difficult process. It was hard to choose what to write, what story to tell.”
Number 1 ended up being a very personal story because apart from incorporating his experiences of being bullied, he also added an unique experience he had at 18 years old.
“The very first club I went to, it was actually a drag club. I was very intrigued because I never thought at 18 that such a place existed in Singapore. Everyone was so hyped up and excited there. If you go to a normal club, everyone tend to keep to themselves, dance by themselves, drink by themselves [among their own group of friends],” explained Jasper.
“At the drag club, everybody was so united in watching the performances. That’s why I wanted to share such a story, as I don’t think a lot of Singaporeans know that such a place actually exists.
As to how Mark came into the picture for Number 1, Jaspers said he was working on the script while filming another movie, Wonderful! Liang Xi Mei, when Mark found out about it.
Immediately, Mark told Jaspers he wanted to act in Number 1 and even contacted the company to ensure that he had a role in the movie.
Mark’s performance as Chee Beng certainly surprised Jaspers, which is why the young artiste believes the Singaporean veteran deserves to win the best leading actor award.
“He’s really brilliant and amazing… It was a difficult process to act as a drag queen because of the number of layers of clothes we had to wear, sometimes up to six layers. But Mark never complained, never once took off his wig or six-inch heels, always delivered his lines and was always on point.
“A lot of the cast complained [about how tiring it was] but he never scolded us and led by example. That got me thinking as an artiste, what kind of example I should be setting for the future generations,” stated Jaspers.
“I really take my hats off towards him. He really deserves this nomination and definitely deserves the title.”
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