8/12/96 Lilin puts grit into 'soft power'of TV's new genre
|Sunday, December 8,1996
The Sunday Times, Page 4
Lilin puts grit into 'soft power' of TV's new genre
"We are in a unique situation. You have all these Asian faces speaking in English in a dramatic show on TV, and it is strange and new in Singapore. We are creating a totally new genre.
"We can't be like the Chinese-language dramas, their dialectic is more exaggerated. And we don't have the sophistication of Western TV shows. So we have to find a new niche.
"Because we are a totally new genre, we get condemned all the time. Oh, the scriptwriting is no good, the acting is lousy, and so on."
But the 24-year-old TCS Channel 5 actress says she understands the criticism and is comfortable with it. She takes comfort and, in fact, finds fulfilment in being in "the midst of changing something".
"I cannot say what will emerge out of this eventually, but it has to be something Singaporean, something that is our own."
Lilin has touched on something larger than entertainment here. She has put her finger on a question that has yet to be resolved, and may take a while to resolve: What makes a Singaporean show, or will there ever be a truly Singaporean show?
Television shows are not exactly art, but a people is defined as much by its arts as by its popular culture. And a TV show, no less than a stage play by, say, Kuo Pao Kun, whom I have the greatest respect for, can help define and mould a common Singaporean identity, if it hits the right resonance, and captures the right spirit.
Popular culture and the arts comprise a part of what Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has described as "the soft power" of a nation, that in an age of nuclear deterrence, is what will determine its influence on other nations, and its appeal to people from other lands.
As much as the "hard power" of politics and economics, it will also provide a young nation its identity and help shape a shared destiny for its people. By SM Lee's reckoning, which he reiterated in his speech to university students on Thursday, Singapore may not even be a nation yet.
"People in Singapore have not been shaped into a common mould for more than one generation," he said.
THOUGH they command a large following, and are technically sound and strong, the Channel 8 serials are not the genuine article. There is not much that sets them apart from the Hongkong, Taiwanese or even the mainland Chinese productions, except that they are set in Singapore, sometimes with a more than generous dose of clunking official rhetoric thrown in.
But increasingly, these serials have gone abroad for location shooting, and though this may increase the ratings and make them marketable as videos to Chinese communities all over the world, they may lose even more of what is peculiarly Singaporean about them.
As it is, even in Singapore settings, the characters wear suits almost all the time and speak only Mandarin. If there is a Malay or an Indian character, it is a token one.
I understand fully the constraints on Channel 8 productions. They are Mandarin shows, and there is only so much you can do with a non-Chinese character. Likewise, the weekly Malay drama programme, Sandiwara, on Prime 12.
Could English-language dramas be the answer then, when they find their voice? After all the language no longer beiongs to the English exclusively, and it can be spoken at many levels in the shows, from pasar to American-accented to the Queen's English, so that the whole spectrum of Singapore society can be realistically portrayed. They will also, at the same time, be accessible to a worldwide audience which knows the language.
BUT back to Lilin. If there is something called Singapore grit, then she embodies it. Her sweetie-pie face belies a tough, independent spirit and the dogged drive of an achiever.
She grew up with her family in a kampung in Kembangan, after she was brought up by a babysitter whom she lived with till she was six. Her father was a rubber plantation worker in Johor who came to Singapore to set up his own bedding and furnishings shop. Her mother she calls a "domestic engineer", and she has three elder brothers. Her grandparents came to the Nanyang from China. "So, I'm a first-generation Singaporean," she declares.
As a kid, she was left very much on her own. When you are hungry, you cook your own rice, she cites thc Chinese idiom in Mandarin.
"I was exposed to a gambling culture. I saw how people used money, and how others were used by money. I made sure I would not become a servant to money."
In Temasek Secondary School- she was on the school volleyball team with Fann Wong, who was a year her senior. She was already teaching dance classes by the age of 13 to pay her own way through ballet school.
After her O levels, when she was recommended by an external examiner to go to the well-known (but now defunct) Bush Davies Dance School in Sussex, she scraped together just enough money, together with a bursary from Lee Foundation, for half a year in Englandñ and off she went. She was all of 16.
She ended up staying the whole year to finish her course, after which she beat hundreds of others to secure a place in the Royal School Of Ballet in London.
She came back, got a scholarship from the Loke Cheng Kim Foundation, and was off again to spend three years at the Royal Ballet for a dance teaching course.
"I had a lot less training than the others in my class, so I often went back to the studio after the day to dance some more. I used to dance for 13 hours or more a day.
"I had less than 10 pounds a week. At that time, the exchange rate was $3.50 to a pound. I remember once how it got so cold I had to go to Oxfam to buy a coat that cost a painful nine pounds. Chips were hot and cheap and I otten ate them as dinner while waiting for the bus home."
She waited on tables, and worked in Habitat to supplement those weekly 10 pounds. She graduated with an armful of prizes, as well as an A level certificate, on top of the teaching diploma.
Those were tough years, but she says, "I liked the independence. I liked the passion of dance, and of being fully immersed in the passion, and being among others who shared that passion.
"My senses were more acute, I was awed by the architecture, by the history, by the people. England opened my eyes, opened my mind. I grew up."
BACK in Singapore, she started a dance school with a partner, and also conducted dance classes at the Nanyang Academy of Arts as well as at TCS, where she was spotted by Kenneth Liang, the man behind Channel 5's productions.
She was tried out as a host on a Christmas show and a Lunar New Year special, and then she found herself playing a supporting role in the fairly disastrous Masters Of The Sea and its sequel.
When she was offered a full-time job with TCS and the lead role in Triple Nine she sold her dance school and became an actress.
"I had obviously not reached my peak as a dancer and as a teacher, but life is also about opportunity and timing. Compromise is an ugly word... Ballet and jazz dancing are my passion, but acting has ignited that passion in a different way. It's very different. Teaching was solitary work. Now, I have to work with many people."
I ask if she is a passionate person by nature. "I'm passionate, I believe deeply in love," she says, then adds, "but I'm guided by a sound mind. I am sensible enough.
"Mine is a guided passion, which," she breaks into laughter here, "sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?"
That sounds very Singaporean too, I suggest.
She is also very Singaporean in that she admits she wants to be as rich as Fann Wong, who earns a lot more money because the latter gets to endorse products and gets paid just to grace business functions.
"It is imperative that you earn some money on the side. I'm not paid a lot, so the extra income would be helpful," she says quietly.
We have spent an hour in the ANA Hotel lobby lounge, and now as I walk her to her Toyota Starlet, I say: "You know your job has a shelf life. So, how long do you think yours will last?"
"Well, it depends on what you write," she laughs.
I am easily won over by flattery. And brightness. And grit. And lovely legs. So I am going to stick my neck out and say Wong Lilin is going to be the next big star, after Zoe Tay and Fann Wong.
She will help shape the new genre and perhaps help make it as Singaporean as it can get. Are you listening, advertisers?