Five Questions: Lenne Chai
Lenne Chai is a Singaporean photographer and director who’s worked with some major clients such as Canon, H&M, Puma, Universal Music Group, Teen Vogue, among others. She’s worked in Singapore, Tokyo, and most recently finished up a stint in Los Angeles where we met up for our interview.
We were introduced through a mutual friend and I was lucky enough to show her around my beloved L.A. We talked about photography, music, art, ate some lovely food, and even attended a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony by the L.A. Philharmonic at the Disney Concert Hall. Oh, and she also answered Five Questions. Meet Lenne.
What’s your greatest accomplishment?
That’s such an intense opening question!
Me: Oh, they’re all intense. [Laughter]
Lenne: It’s not necessarily my greatest accomplishment, but it’s an ongoing, slow climb to my ultimate goal of becoming the photographer that I dream of becoming. The fact that I’m from Singapore, and that I grew up in a family and an environment that was devoid of fashion, and managed to survive in the industry this long is an accomplishment that I’m proud to acknowledge.
What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever had to do?
Living in Japan alone was quite a hardcore challenge. I was only 21 and I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know that they don’t speak English, I came from this very naive Singaporean mindset like, “Every international country in the world speaks English. I’m from an Asian country, why not Japan?” [Laughter] Discovering that was rough. Everyone in Singapore lives with their parents, so I’m so used to having someone help me with my laundry, or doing chores, small things like that. Having to deal with those things alone in Japan was tough.
Me: How did you get through it?
Lenne: There was a lot of Googling. [Laughter]
There was one time when I tried to make something nice for my ex-girlfriend. I tried to make her pumpkin soup and I didn’t realize how hard it was to carve a pumpkin. She came home to me crying in the kitchen because I couldn’t get the skin off the pumpkin. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do! [Laughter]
OK, OK. On a serious note… When I started out as a photographer—and even until now—I don’t really get any help. I never had a mentor. I tried asking people if I could assist them and they weren’t keen because I was already getting jobs very early on, so it was a conflict of interest. When I wanted to learn how to use studio lights, I had to buy studio equipment and start my own studio and just figure it out from scratch. It was really time-consuming. A constant uphill climb.
How do you define being “in love”?
Love is not about a feeling, it’s more about compatibility and the willingness to keep that relationship going. More than anything else, that’s being in love. If you want to try and work things out with this person who’s making your life really difficult, that’s true love for sure.
Me: Have you been in love?
Lenne: A couple of times.
Me: You’ve been able to get to that place where you wanted to work it out?
Lenne: It’s not hard to like someone. It’s not hard to see someone who’s intriguing and cool and beautiful and good looking and I want to be in a relationship with them, but I rarely have that motivation to want to stay in a relationship with someone and make it work. Especially for someone like me who travels so much.
Me: What’s your breaking point? When do you say it’s over?
Lenne: I usually think, “Do I see myself being with this person for the rest of my life?” If I can’t, then I’ll call it off the next day.
Me: How do you determine that? It seems like such a huge decision to make in a moment.
Lenne: Well, if I ask you if you could spend the rest of your life with the person you’re dating now.
Me: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I gotcha. It’s not like you have every answer, but you know it’s worth a shot.
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever experienced?
The kindness of strangers. It’s cliche, but it’s true. I travel so much on my own. I think of all the bad things that could have happened to me, but instead I’m constantly meeting people who are so kind. They make my travels so much better. Even meeting you in my first week in L.A. Things like that are amazing.
Me: Do you have any specific experiences that stand out?
Lenne: I’ve definitely been through a lot of situations where I think that I’m so lucky. For instance, there was one time we were shooting a music video in China. It was our first night there, my first time in China. We lost our way on the way back to the hotel and we couldn’t find a cab. When I called the hotel and told them what happened, they were immediately trying to think of solutions. I sent them our pin-dropped location and they sent a chauffeur to come get us. But it took a long time. Then later on—do you know what a tuk-tuk is?
Lenne: The electric scooter/taxi thing. Right, so it pulls up in front of us and offers us a ride, so we’re like, “Yes! Yes!” I called the hotel and I thought they’d get angry at us because their car was on the way, but when we spoke to the hotel person, all she said was, “I’m so glad you worked it out! Get back safely!” Just so nice.
Even our driver where we were shooting our music video, he was Tibetan, and he invited us to his home. He recommended locations to us and brought us places that he thought were good to shoot. He climbed a mountain with us even though he didn’t want to. But he came up the mountain with us just to help us carry our gear. He paid for his own admission. Things like that. And when we tried to give him a tip, he wouldn’t take it.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
I do know that every particle in our body is essentially stardust. Even when we decompose, we’re going to go back to the universe in other ways. Will we ever truly be gone? I don’t know about that. I feel like it’s something so out of my control if I get to stay or not. Even when I’m gone I don’t think I’ll miss anything. You can only make the most of whatever’s happening right now. That’s what I think about in my life. If I’m too scared to try this now, then when? I only get one shot, one opportunity.