The youngest producer for hit movie Crazy Rich Asians is a former cell group leader in City Harvest Church who came to church when it was at Hollywood Theatre at Katong. She has pursued her dreams in Hollywood, California, because the Crossover showed her it was possible.
At her lowest point, Janice Chua stepped off a plane in Beijing with a twisted ankle that hurt and had swelled up so much, she was convinced she had broken it.
“It was my second year in Beijing, doing international film sales. I was definitely overworked. I wanted to move on to a new, more creative job, but there really were no open doors,” she related. “One company I wanted to work at rejected my application.
“I was on a business trip in Busan. That [terrible] day, I fell down a flight of stairs at the train station when I was rushing to take the train from Busan to Seoul where I had to catch my plane back to Beijing. I had no time to seek medical treatment; I boarded the train to Seoul and then boarded the plane back to Beijing. When I arrived in Beijing, my left ankle was twisted, I couldn’t walk anymore. I was so exhausted I fell asleep on the couch.”
Thankfully, a friend from Singapore showed up the next morning on a visit. “My ankle had grown so big by morning, but I had no money—literally no spare cash—to go to the doctor. So, there I was, scared, desperate, thinking ‘I have no future, my ankle is swollen, I have no healthcare…’” recalls Janice. “My friend dragged me to the hospital and paid for the whole thing. The doctor was worried that I had fractured my ankle, but it turned out to be just my ligament that was hurt. But to this day, when I’m tired, my left ankle always gives way.”
That week she was unable to walk, Janice’s friends had coincidentally planned to visit her. “Every day I was crying, ‘I want to go home! I don’t want to do this anymore!’ My friends did a very practical thing for me: they nursed me back to health. They paid for every meal, took taxis everywhere with me. By God’s grace, two weeks later I got an offer at Beijing Galloping Horse. So if I had given up and gone home that week, I would never have gotten that job, and I would never have met John Penotti of Ivanhoe Pictures.”
Penotti is the President of Ivanhoe Pictures, who hired Janice in 2015. Ivanhoe Pictures is the American film company that produced Crazy Rich Asians, the movie based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling book about the scion of a wealthy Singapore family who brings his unsuspecting American girlfriend home to attend his best friend’s wedding.
“So, I was in Beijing for three years since 2012,” recounts Janice. “2012 was an interesting year—between 2010 and 2012 was the time the Chinese were going international. I could go to China because they were looking for bilingual executives and I happen to fit the bill. The US was definitely interested in China but they didn’t have the ability to go; it takes a lot of courage to go to China. It’s a different ball game, a new world; they do commerce, but they do it differently.
“In 2015, Ivanhoe Pictures was looking for executives to help them in China, people who were bilingual yet understood Western culture. I guess Singaporeans are borderline Western, and I can speak and write Chinese quite well. We were working on a project together—Beijing Galloping Horse and Ivanhoe—and a year later, I resigned and when Ivanhoe found out that I was going to leave, they were like ‘Why don’t you come to LA?’”
Janice went from not being able to pay for a doctor’s visit to becoming an associate producer on the biggest Hollywood romantic comedy since 2015’s Trainwreck. Projected to make US$20 million, Crazy Rich Asians has grossed over US$171 million in America and over US$59 million (worldwide gross of US$230 million). It cost a modest US$30 million to make.
It would seem a no-brainer to go from Beijing to the heart of global entertainment, Hollywood. But the decision was not such an easy one for Janice.
“I was already so happy in Beijing [in 2015],” she says. “I had a community, and my friends were all there and I loved my apartment. But I had a very good teacher who was also a mentor: Terence Chang, the producer of Mission: Impossible 2, he said, ‘Janice, there are not a lot of executives in the future who would have work experiences in LA and China.’ He pointed out that if such an opportunity comes to me, I should go, and really learn what it’s like to do things the proper way, what the fundamentals of production are. And if I want come back to China one day, I can always come back.”
She found her motives challenged by a fellow churchmate, who said to her, “Janice, are you staying because you’re afraid of trying new things? Or are you staying because you’re really happy here?” I was slightly afraid because I had already did one move—from Singapore to China—and now I would be moving again but to a country far, far away from Singapore. And I thought, in LA it’s very competitive, I’d always have to prove myself, so why try to fix something that is not broken? But when he asked me that question after all that Terence had said to me, I decided to go to LA.”
ONCE UPON A TIME AT CHILDREN’S CHURCH
Today, Janice is a confident, athletic young woman with a perfect smile who stands tall and sports a bouncy head of hair—she could easily pass off as a Hollywood star.
She spent her early childhood in the void deck of the Housing Development Board flat in Bukit Batok where her parents—a taxi driver and a waitress—lived with her and her sister.
“I was 11 when a teacher—Teacher Esther—from Children’s Church found me at the void deck with my sister,” Janice recalls. “She invited us to service at [City Harvest Church at] Hollywood Theatre. My sister went first, then I started going.” In the 1990s, CHC would conduct outreaches to children in lower income areas and bus them to church every Sunday, and offer support of all manner.
“My parents are not believers, but my mom just thought that it’s good to have someone help to take care of her children during the weekend,” Janice smiles. “By 12, I had to graduate to cell group and attending main service. I was in church at the time when I went from being a child to a teenager. I was saved in Children’s Church, but going to main service felt like a second salvation—when you’re a kid you don’t really know what it all means, but when you go to the main service. everything becomes more serious. Then there was this thing called cell group and it was there I learned what Christianity is—my cell group leader then, Yating, was great. It was then I decided, okay, this is not just a Sunday school thing, it’s a lifestyle. And I’ve been in church since then.”
Janice sings high praise of CHC’s children’s ministry, now called Harvest Kidz. “Our children’s ministry is very effective,” she says. “My math was so bad, they got me a tutor to teach me, my sister and another kid in Bukit Batok, and we each paid like, five dollars a month, which was crazy for the amount of help I got. I passed my PSLE math that year. I think that’s why my parents let us go to church, because they worked and there was no one at home to take care of the kids. Children’s church had bus service to church, tuition ministry, we made new friends, and they even gave us snacks! I was like ‘What is this world?!’”
In gratitude, Janice started serving in the then Children’s Church when she was 13. Serving became a lifestyle: she was part of the CHC choir between 14 and 18, and from 19 to 23 years of age, she was a cell group leader. It was then that she made the decision to pursue her dreams in China, and passed her group to another leader.
When she was back in August for the Singapore premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, Janice took the opportunity to attend service at CHC and also to catch up with her cell group. “I was 19 when I started leading them, and now 10 years have passed. Some of them are married, one of them is pregnant—we’ve had a decade of friendship. Seeing old friends reminds you of who you are; they also reflect how you have changed—that is something I find surreal.”
HOLDING ON TO HER FAITH
It’s not uncommon for Christians who leave their country and go and work in a foreign land to fade away from their faith. So, it’s refreshing to hear how Janice has struggled for and worked hard to keep her faith alive. She candidly says she had been away from God for a season, but she always found a way to come back.
“When I went to Beijing, I attended this international church called Beijing International Christian Fellowship,” she says, adding that she served at the church’s ministry for children. “The international churches can only accept foreigners. That’s the criterion for getting the license. In the local church in China, the message is more controlled. [I encountered] different denominations, not everyone practises speaking in tongues. And I believe in speaking in tongues, but i also have to believe that God works differently through different vehicles and different people. And if that is what the church is called to, then, fine.
“When I went to LA, it’s the same thing—not every church is like City Harvest, but God is not City Harvest,” she says of the revelation she received living in America. “When you serve in a ministry, or go to Bible School, it’s very easy to become a professional Christian. But being in LA was when I realized God is not City Harvest and City Harvest is not God.”
At the service she attended in August, Janice heard CHC’s executive pastor Sun Ho preach on bringing the Kingdom of God down to earth by letting one’s felt reality influence his or her external circumstances. That message resonated with her. “One of the challenges being abroad is getting used to a church that is not City Harvest,” she says. “That’s why I feel that Sun’s message last week was so timely. Because if the Kingdom of God is within me I can go anywhere. I love the church, I love my leaders, but I cannot limit God and church to a box.”
Being in the entertainment business is difficult for a Christian, because the value system in the industry is diametrically opposed to Christianity. Janice admits it’s a struggle.
“When the environment is very toxic, you don’t know if you’re too nice and that’s why you can’t get ahead,” says Janice, adding that being a Christian influences her decisions and behavior. “Christian values may not be something big and obvious but it’s in the little, everyday decisions: Who am I? Am I comfortable doing this? I must say my bosses have been great so far, and I’m very privileged that way. I’ve had, as my friend Jessel Yam calls it, the favor of God. But when you’re out there hustling and networking, it’s very easy to lose track.”
The 30-year-old points out that CHC is a unique environment. “It’s very community-based, there’s a sense of accountability. But when you’re out there on your own, you’re no longer a cell group leader, you have no one to inspire, no one above to report to, it’s a different story.”
Fortunately for Janice, she is able to maintain close ties with her Singaporean friends from church, and that helps her stay rooted. “I always keep in touch with my first cell group leader Yating. She checks in on me once in a while; she visited me in Beijing and when I’m in LA, we text each other. When I go quiet, she’ll ask ‘What happened to you?’ I also stay in touch with my best friend from my first cell group. These are the people I talk to when I have real issues with God, when I have real questions.”
As her spiritual gravitational system continues to propel her, Janice is now attending a small church in Los Angeles called Epicenter West LA. “I like that church because everyone is around my age, though some of them are married,” she shares. “I like the lifegroups—their version of cell group—which is very discussion-based. Every time I travel, they check on me and I make it a point to email them to let them know for how long I’ll be travelling for, when I will be back, etc—I try to have some form of accountability.”
For Janice, having grown up in a “radical church like CHC”, she finds the habits and beliefs she had had for so many years as a City Harvester challenged at times. “It’s easy to mistake certain beliefs as convictions. And convictions are not convictions until they are tested. Suddenly, when you’re launched into the world… you panic!” she says with a laugh.
She counts among her best friends Jessel Yam, CHC’s music director, and his wife Jieyi. Janice and Jieyi were friends during their secondary school years, when they both participated in the Parade of Schools at Emerge, a cheerleading competition that was a staple of CHC’s annual youth conference. Janice and Jessel were classmates at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Film and Media Studies department. As it turned out, Jessel and Jieyi met, fell in love and got married.
“During our years of Emerge, there was an emphasis on youth leaders,” remembers Janice. “Pastor Kong talked about Daniel becoming a young minister of Egypt, and how everyone could do something, just like Sun was doing the Crossover. I remember one service, when I was in film school, Pastor said he believed the next generation will do greater things. Maybe there was some kind of naivety or idealism, but I was like, ‘Yeah, man!’ At home, our parents would tell us not to pursue the arts or film because it is not realistic. Only in church, they tell you todo something with your talents and pursue your dreams! That’s the empowering part!”
Four months ago, Janice quit Ivanhoe Pictures, at the height of hype for Crazy Rich Asians. “There was no good reason to leave, but at the same time I knew something in me was not satisfied,” she says. “One night I was meditating and praying, and I asked myself ‘Why am I staying?’ At that point, I felt empowered to move on, and I resigned. My bosses were shocked, of course. A month later, Jessel and Jieyi came to town—they had just been to Bethel Church in Redding for a study trip with the CHC leaders and staff. When you have old church family members hang out with you, you’re reminded of a few things that used to come naturally when you were in CHC. Jessel was like, ‘You need to exercise the gift of faith. If you’re a child of God, He will provide.’”
Janice had no concrete plans, no concrete job offers, just an overwhelming instinct to strike out. “I came back to Singapore this trip and it was just so overwhelming—the movie was so well-received, I didn’t know what to do. Now there are people who want to meet me and talk about possibilities. Jessel was like, ‘Just claim it—it’s the favor of God. Don’t think about it, just claim it.’ I’m anxious, but I’m very hopeful about the future,” she says.
Going back to Sun’s message about the Kingdom within the believer, Janice says, “I’m at a crossroad; it’s an exciting time with Crazy Rich Asians doing well—I’m speaking to different people and there are some possibilities I’d never thought about. So, Sun’s message was very timely, especially when at the last part she said Moses asked God, ‘Who am I?” and God said ‘I will certainly be with you.’ It’s funny because God didn’t really answer the question, but it’s like God just wanting to hang out with Moses, and with us—that’s really powerful.”
WORKING ON CRAZY RICH ASIANS
The opportunity Janice had with Crazy Rich Asians was, quite literally, unique to her. Like Joseph, Daniel and Esther in the Bible, it appears God paved the way for her to be exactly where she was supposed to be, doing the work she was equipped to do.
“As an associate producer, I work for one of the main producers; I am performing on behalf of him, in his role,” explains Janice. “We’re a team of five producers and I’m at the bottom of the producer food chain.” The main producers on the movie were Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games), Brad Simpson (World War Z) and John Penotti (Hell Or High Water).
“The work involved script development, and that is exciting because what you develop on paper will be seen on screen,” adds Janice. The script was written by screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli. “To me, this opportunity was rare because the material itself was such a combination of American tone and humor but set in Singapore, a place where I grew up. I gave a lot of input because I know Singapore: I know what this means, what that could be—I was helpful in that way.
“Also, I never knew speaking Hokkien would one day pay off!” she chuckles. “In fact, I never thought that speaking Chinese would one day pay off either! Part of my job was also discussing how much Singlish we would use, because well, you don’t know whether people will understand Singlish, and if it’s true to their character? Does that character speak Singlish? So these are the creative decisions I got to discuss on set.”
For Janice, one of the greatest perks of being associate producer on Crazy Rich Asians was working with Nina Jacobson (who was the President of Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group before she set up her own company Color Force, and produced The Hunger Games movies) and director Jon M Chu (Now You See Me)
“Having disagreements and agreements with Nina was monumental for me in my development career,” says Janice. “To have a glimpse into how she processes, and also to be able to lend my knowledge to things like, ‘Is this Peranakan? Is this Chinese? Can we do that? Does this sound authentic? It was very creative work: a combination of my knowledge, my understanding of Singapore, my skills set.
“One of the first few things we did in Singapore was to go to hawker centers. I was tasked with the responsibility of buying food. Because according to Jon Chu, our cast and crew need to enjoy this, then we can shoot it well. These are the things that make the film good. You always wonder, ‘Does this actually work for the film?’—in the creative field it’s very hard to draw a line and I love doing it!”
Being the “food” person in the production team, Janice felt that the food scenes in the movie (the newton food centre and the much-talked-about kitchen scene during the Young house party) were a “beautiful love letter” to Singapore.
“That kitchen is a combination of old stuff and new things, because we are talking about a family that existed since the 1800s—old money—so you still see steamers and woks next to new kitchenware. And to see Eleanor giving instructions to her kitchen helpers, that’s a very nice reflection of Singapore. I think we nailed the hawker centrescene—Singapore Tourism Board should be very proud of us for introducing a hawker scene in a Hollywood movie! Singapore is indeed one of the very few cities where street vendors get Michelin stars. I think that’s the truth.”
Of course, there were tough moments on set. Being the youngest on the producers’ team, Janice experienced self-doubt more than once. “Everyone is so experienced so it’s like a masterclass every day! A lot of times you don’t know if you make sense or not. I take things very hard upon myself so whenever I make mistakes, I go down a rabbit hole in my mind. But sometimes, you don’t know you’re wrong until you are wrong, so you always have to try.”
Crazy Rich Asians being her first big Hollywood movie, Janice naturally felt intimidated and stressed out at times, such as “when people ask you cultural questions, I’m like ‘Oh I cannot screw this up!’ They are so detailed, so they would ask questions like ‘Is the color right?’ While we want authenticity, sometimes you want to be creative about it, and sometimes I wonder how far I can push it…
“But it’s fun!”
Despite the stress, Janice says she has learned a big lesson. “I have learned to stop and smell the roses. The cast and crew were so great. Jon Chu is a very collaborative person and Nina Jacobson is so nurturing and John Penotti is so trusting—I realized I was in a very safe environment.”
“I love creative work so I still want to produce, to see a production through,” says Janice. “But I care more about certain things now: I want to feel equal, I want to have ownership, I want to feel like there’s openness to work with others. So, as an independent producer, I can do that. I’m praying and waiting for confirmation. I don’t mind working for one more company, because I feel that going corporate is a good way to help you learn how to build your company in future. But if I go to another company, it would be the values and the culture that I would pay more attention to: how would it help me grow as a person anda professional.”
Janice is fully aware she is in an unusual position, because while she is not all that experienced, “to be an associate producer at 30 is crazy! I cannot believe it sometimes. I joke about it to my leaders from Victor Wong’s zone that if I die now I actually wouldn’t mind because I’d be frozen in good memory!”
Being alone in Hollywood, carving out a career, requires great tenacity. Being a Christian doing that requires much more than human strength.
Janice leans on her anchor verse, 1 John 4:18 which says “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.”
“That to me is the biggest driving motto,” says Janice. “To translate that into terms my friends can understand, ‘Don’t make decisions based on fear’. Because love is inspiration, love is hopeful, love is empowerment. I realize that whenever I’m confused I always go back to that: first, let me compartmentalize why am I scared and what am I scared about.”
Janice embraces the full experience of living the life she really wants, even though it is not without pain. She accepts it as a fact of living out her faith.
“Moving causes a lot of disruption in my life; I’ve had relationships that failed because they didn’t survive the move,” she shares. “I wanted to move but the other person couldn’t move, so it failed. In America, I was travelling so much, the person I was with was like ‘I love you, but I cannot handle this.’
“It’s great to live under an open heaven to receive revelations from God, but sometimes you don’t because if God were to offer everything to you, then why do you have to live life? I feel like it’s a combination of divine intervention and some tough love. Some things you just need to go through: I’ve had to move to different countries twice. There are some stupid mistakes I made, some mistakes I learn from.
“I always imagine if I had stayed in Beijing—I would never have worked on Crazy Rich Asians. I think people are resilient and we often make the best of every situation, so maybe if I had stayed, I will have reached a certain life lesson later, or maybe I’ll see life very differently now.”
As she embarks on the next stage of her exciting life, Janice says that it was Sun going out and doing the Crossover in the early 2000s showed her the possibility existed.
“I now know it was very tough for Sun,” says Janice. “I remember when Pastor Kong said that we wanted to launch Sun into the Crossover, the thing that struck me was, ‘Yah, why can’t you be a Christian and also a pop singer? Why are people so against the idea? Why is it that as a pastor, you couldn’t do something else? I think the problem was, there was no precedent and so people couldn’t see it.
“But now we’re seeing it in Hollywood, and Australia. Perhaps it’s a timing thing. It’s now that a movie like Crazy Rich Asians can happen.
“So, I just want to thank Sun for being the pioneer,” says Janice. “She’s been a great inspiration in my life. I think without her, I would never have imagined making a film in Hollywood!
“And now I’m reminded by Sun that my internal reality must permeate and affect my external reality so I will try to do that.”
Janice Chua’s 4 Ways To Survive A Career Overseas
Be patient because you don’t know if it (what you’ve decided to do) is a moment of foolishness or a moment of pure courage. Also, we give up because we are so impatient. You don’t know when the breakthrough will come—it could come very quickly.
Be curious, so that you can keep learning—not just knowledge. Learn about life, learn about people. I think the biggest difference between LA and Asia is that in Asia, there is no work life balance. In LA I have time to go to museums and galleries, and I realize I’m inspired by art and that makes me more creative.
Just be fearless. Don’t make any decisions based on fear. Take a second to imagine and plan your steps.
Imagine! A lot of us stop because we cannot imagine. But the Bible says that if we can see it, we can have it right? So, imagine! Imagination is free, guys, it’s free!