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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

Showbiz

Star turn

The Straits Times | Corrie Tan | Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

Benjamin Kheng grew up enjoying jam sessions with his family and being active in sports.

There is just something about singer-actor Benjamin Kheng that exudes effortless hipster chic.

The 23-year-old sweeps into Costa Coffee at VivoCity with some sort of cardigan-scarf hybrid around his neck. His hair, buzzed at the sides but long and slicked back down the middle, is the sort of with-it hairstyle that would launch a thousand eager copycats. Wooden bracelets clack around his wrist.

One gets the sense that he can't help it. He's just... cool.

"It's time to get rid of this creature," he declares as he runs his fingers through his mop of hair which, by the time you read this, would have been shorn off for his lead role in the army musical Ah Boys To Men.

He will be stepping into the shoes of Ken Chow, the spoilt and naive army recruit whose story propelled the Jack Neo movies of the same name to record-breaking box-office success. The musical runs till May 4 at the Resorts World Theatre.

This moment, it seems, is Kheng's time in the sun.

The guitarist, vocalist and songwriter is a quarter of the fresh-faced indie-folk band The Sam Willows, whose delicate, layered harmonies have travelled from the United States to South Korea, and who have gained a strong following here.

He has also been picking up meaty roles from established theatre companies, including a star turn as Dick Lee in the Esplanade's National Broadway Company in 2012 and as the deeply romantic Romeo in Toy Factory Productions' musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet in February this year.

With his feet planted in both the theatre and music industries, Kheng is the current "it" boy of both - but the affable man seems almost surprised at his own success, armed with a firm grip on reality and a healthy dose of self-awareness.

While he did not start out eyeing a career in the arts, he grew up immersed in it. He says: "My parents were the kind of people who put us in everything to give us a buffet of choices for what we wanted to do in life later on, so I was always one of those kids who had to do everything."

Kheng has warm memories of the jam sessions the close-knit family would have every Sunday while he was growing up. His father would grab a guitar and his mother, younger sister Narelle and him would sing along.

His housewife mother, in particular, had a flair for the arts. She loved drawing and painting, and introduced him to classical composers such as Tchaikovsky and Bach. Kheng played the piano and violin, took speech and drama classes, and also tackled tennis, gymnastics and swimming.

From the age of six, he started training twice a day as part of the selective Swimfast Aquatic Club, run by former national swimmer David Lim. He also travelled to regional competitions while at Anglo- Chinese School (Primary) and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent).

Then, tragedy struck. His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was eight and died after a four-year struggle with the illness at the age of 44.

Measuring his words, he says: "You learn to cope with grief... I do remember her fondly. I was close to her. I would stay up till 3am talking to her about serious stuff, about life.

"It was hard. It was really hard."

He collects his thoughts: "And I - I did lose a big part of me. And I don't let go easily. But it does - it has helped me to take a step back when life gets ahead of me, to appreciate things."

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