UNTIL A COUPLE OF weeks ago, few people would have disagreed that Dada Chan Ching was one of Hong Kong's most promising young actresses. The 24-year-old, who won best supporting actress prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in the bawdy Vulgaria, seemed to have a bright future ahead of her. But earlier this month, Chan announced she was quitting the industry. Her decision was a complete surprise, and the news sent shockwaves through the local blogosphere. It remains unclear why she made such an announcement.
Her rise to success was as quick and unexpected as her departure. She made her name as a lang mo (pseudo-model). Nobody seemed prepared to take her seriously outside of modelling - especially when her reputation was down to her E-cup bosom, an attribute that received so much attention that it became her first nickname in the business. "In the past, I wasn't especially confident about being a model," she told me back in June. "I thought I was lucky. I just went along with it."
Chan turned to acting when her modelling career began to stagnate. Few pseudo-models have made the transition to the big screen, although Chrissie Chau Sau-na and Angelababy Yeung Wing have earned respect as legitimate actresses in the past few years. But Chan was lucky again: her looks got her picked for roles in 2011's MicroSex Office and Lan Kwai Fong, and she was noticed by top director Pang Ho-cheung, who cast her in the popular comedy Vulgaria. Chan was nominated for best supporting actress at Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival for her performance; she went on to win the same award at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April. Suddenly, she was an up-and-coming movie star.
Chan has three films out this summer. She plays the lead in two, Tales from the Dark 1 and Hardcore Comedy, and has a cameo in the third ( SDU: Sex Duties Unit), produced by Pang.
In retrospect, Chan did look exhausted when we met in mid-June to talk about Hardcore Comedy. About 15 minutes into our conversation, she seemed to freeze and stare into the middle distance. "Damn, I'm actually really tired," she apologised, recovering after several seconds of silence. "Sorry, I really can't think about anything now. My mind is stuck. I'm sorry." Her assistant explained that she had been sick, and Chan promised a follow-up interview. It didn't happen.
Just after midday on August 8 the actress posted a short message on her Weibo account, saying obliquely that she was "fed up". At 9.55 that night, she followed that by announcing to her million-plus followers: "Life is tiring and gossip is a fearful thing. Pressure and pain, they all come at once. Due to problems with my family, emotions, health and relationships, I've made the decision to quit my work as an actress and to return to my original life. I'm only an ordinary person, so please let me have an ordinary life. Thank you everyone for the support along the way. Thank you, Lord."
Chan posted one more message the following morning, stating that she had been advised by her doctors to suspend all of her onscreen work because of her "emotional disorder and psychological condition".
She added: "Now I only want to be a simple person: work at a job that I don't need to dress up, spend time with my family, keep learning and improving myself, be with a man who loves me and belongs only to me, and dress in simple but not revealing outfits. I'll laugh and cry, and eat and drink with my family until we grow old together."
Apart from a short WhatsApp message to Apple Daily on August 9 which said she's in a "much happier" place having made the decision, Chan has since stayed completely silent on social media. She didn't show up for her planned jobs, although she did do some additional shots for Pang's Red Spider Lily on August 10.
Her vanishing act stunned her manager, Celia Sie lim-chi, who had been kept in the dark. Her protégé has largely refused to talk to her since she quit. Sie has gone on record saying that she will consider taking legal action against Chan for breach of contract. The damages are expected to be in the millions of dollars.
Rumours about her deteriorating psychological health - supposedly brought on by her new-found credibility as an actress - have abounded for some time, although Chan's decision still comes as a surprise to those who have met her in a professional capacity.
When Chan and I met for our interview in June she had nothing but gratitude for Sie, who signed her when her modelling career was stagnating. "In the three years since I began as a model, I experienced the shockwave that is the lang mo culture," says Chan, who started working as a part-time model when she was just 17.
"I did many different kinds of commercials, from chocolate and cameras to drinks and banks. But then for a time, I had no offers at all - my career was at a standstill. I had thought about going abroad to study, or maybe working in other fields. But finally, I met my current manager. She used to be an actress, and our personalities are very similar. It's fate I signed with her."
Since she signed with her manager, sexiness has come to define Chan, whether in her two photo albums, or her various film projects. Chan saw it all as mere "stepping stones" in the bigger picture of her career.
"The photo albums drew a lot of media attention," she says. "I had done some swimsuit photos as a model, and I actually didn't feel that would be a problem at all. As long as you can personally accept that, then it's fine. I see it as part of my job."
Despite the inevitability of being cast in roles which demand little in the way of clothing, Chan's film career had started to become distinguished enough to be worthy of envy of many an aspiring actress.
"The most important point is that I will give my all to the script to bring my characters to life," she said. "You do what needs to be done to become your character. I think, as actors, we need to make sacrifices. We can't have too many reservations."
When I interviewed her, Chan came across as an ambitious woman with clear goals in mind. "There is a consensus between me and my management to continue to look for improvement," she said. "We will try out new things, and keep looking for a path that is exclusively my own.
"I have tried many things, like working as a programme host, as well as singing and acting. But when I tried acting, I discovered that I really liked it. I feel that it's the right path for me, and one that is good for my long-term career. I can see how I will improve at it along the way," she said.
"When I was a model, I didn't have to do any self-promotion. But when you become an actor, you need to care about other aspects of things. So nowadays, not only do I have to enjoy acting, I also need to brush up my interpersonal skills, because they are just as important."
Going AWOL and abandoning ongoing projects are probably not the best ways to achieve that aim. Since her last public appearance at the pre-shoot celebration for Lan Kwai Fong 3, in which she was originally signed to star, Chan has alienated enough of her regular work partners - her manager, Lan Kwai Fong series director Wilson Chin Kwok-wai, and her contracted advertisers - that any future comeback might be difficult.
Lan Kwai Fong 3 was scheduled to have started shooting by now, but Chin has been forced to remove Chan's storyline, and extensively rewrite the film. The filmmaker didn't hear from his lead actress for days, let alone see her.
"Dada has already started working on other jobs," Chin wrote on Weibo on August 11, referring to Chan's continued participation in Red Spider Lily, "which proves that she didn't quit because of her physical condition. She's using the sympathy she gets from that claim [to mask what is really] a selfish, political decision."
When I last saw Chan at a sneak preview screening of Hardcore Comedy on August 3, she was in good spirits. In what could possibly be the last meet-the-audience session of her film career, Chan showed a down-to-earth nature by being the only cast member to go into the audience and give out souvenirs.
It's obvious that Chan loved her fans, and the feeling was apparently mutual. The model-turned-actress had been enjoying a shining career that was there for her to lose. And many believe she just did.
The making of Dada Chan
(2011) Microsex office
For her first speaking role, Chan put her cleavage to work in this woefully written comedy co-directed by theatre veteran Jim Chim Sui-man and Lee Kung-lok. Playing an office executive with an interest in S&M, Chan's supporting part was further let down by the paper-thin script and Putonghua dubbing.
(2011) Lan Kwai Fong
Chan got her first starring role in this ensemble drama set in Central's nightlife district. She showed good chemistry with her then boyfriend Gregory Wong Chung-yiu (above with Chan) in a very hot bedroom scene. The duo were set to return for the third instalment of the series before her announcement.
A star was born with Chan's award-winning turn in Pang Ho-cheung's hilariously naughty comedy. Presumably playing a parody version of her former self, Chan (pictured right with Chapman To Man-chak) is a lang mo with a heart of gold and an all-conquering fellatio technique, which earns her character the nickname of Popping Candy.
(2013) Tales from the dark I
Chan's first project after winning her best supporting actress award was also her first time playing a fully clothed character. As the lead in director Fruit Chan Gor's segment in this horror triptych, the actress demonstrated her range by playing a vengeful ghost coming back to haunt the people who had wronged her.
(2013) Hardcore comedy
In what looks to be her last headlining project for a while, Chan plays a hedonistic girl who spends a night travelling around town with William Chan's nerdy character (above with Chan), who has been tricked into delivering psychedelic mushrooms by his friend. The actress did nothing to embarrass herself in this gritty outing, although it's probably not the best way to end a career.
Hardcore Comedy opens on August 29