- POSTED: 31 Dec 2013 11:00
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As Singapore television celebrates its 50th anniversary, veteran Singapore actress Xiang Yun talks about how she grew up with Singapore television shows, and shares her thoughts on the future of the television industry.
SINGAPORE: Television turns 50 this year.
And nobody is happier to celebrate its 50th birthday than 51-year-old veteran actress actor Xiang Yun, who had literally grown up with local television.
“I remember in the 60s, when I was a child, our neighbour had a television set and I’d stand at the door to watch it. When they closed the door, we (she and her siblings) couldn’t watch.
“One of the happiest moments was when we went to my aunt’s home. There was a nearby community centre and it had a television set, so we’d all go there to watch television once the shows were on,” recounted Xiang Yun, as a smile slowly made its way across her face.
“It was only at the end of the 60s that we got our own television.
“It really harmed my studies because I kept watching shows like ‘The Bund’ and period dramas instead of hitting the books. "
"I still remember once they raised their swords in those dramas, it’d be time for a commercial break,” said Xiang Yun, busting into laughter.
“And at night, my mum would rush us to our rooms, but we’d still hang around at the door and watch television, before going to bed satisfied and discussing the shows the next day!”
The ‘Black and White Club’
Few know this, but Xiang Yun actually entered showbiz when she was still in Secondary 4, way before she took on the iconic role of Ah Mei, alongside late actor Huang Wenyong in the hit 1984 drama “The Awakening”.
She belongs to the exclusive ‘Black and White Club’ of television artistes who have been in showbiz since the black and white era of television here.
“I started out as a trainee actress and was a calafare (extra) in a lot of shows in the early days … when some shows were still in black and white.
“I remember Jack Neo (a Singapore director) was my classmate. He was with the army’s music and dance company."
“I still remember he’d get the bunch of us trainees to go perform for the troops all the time, on the pretext of ‘rehearsing more’!” said Xiang Yun with a chuckle.
Back then, life was hard for trainee actors. They often had to juggle acting classes with work – Xiang Yun worked at a factory by day before heading for acting class at night – and the facilities weren’t ideal.
“There was this old hall. We’d do rehearsals there at night. There was no power, nothing except during at the main rehearsal area. It was dark and creepy!” said Xiang Yun.
There was also very little room for trainees to make mistakes because everything was shot on film at the time.
“You couldn’t even do much editing. Once the camera is rolling, there is no ‘Cut!’.
“If you were not careful and looked into the camera halfway, then it’s too bad. It goes on air!” said Xiang Yun, pointing out that filming schedules were pretty tight as well.
“Sometimes, while shooting a period drama, I’d just sleep with my hairpiece on, because I was so tired from the filming.
“We even had to get our own clothes for shoots. So when you got a meaty role, it was a headache because you have nothing to wear! I had to borrow them from my colleagues.”
“It was tough, but the end products were good,” said Xiang Yun.
Xiang Yun went on to star in a number of popular dramas like “The Awakening” and “On a Journey” in the 80s, before slowly taking on more supporting roles in the 90s, as a new breed of television stars came onto the scene.
Herald of a new age: Zoe Tay in a swimsuit
“In those days, when I joined, the head of drama productions told us we are in the wrong place if we hoped to become big stars.
“It was about the acting. And they’d ask us to read more, learn to play music, to have this cultural depth and refinement, and we did.”
“Of course, things changed later on when we have models like Zoe Tay coming in as actresses,” explained Xiang Yun.
“It became more celebrity driven. It was the dawn of a different age.
“One time, there was a lot of commotion on set when Zoe wore a swimsuit for a shoot.”
“We, the older actors and actresses, all ran out to watch. We were more conservative in our dressing. They (Tay and the stars of her generation) were so bold!” said Xiang Yun with a laugh.
Although she sometimes reminisces about her past dramas and her early years as an actress, the mother of two expressed that she doesn’t feel bitter about being displaced by a new generation of stars.
“I have a different life now. I am a wife and a mother,” said Xiang Yun, who married fellow actor Edmund Chen in 1989.
“I have done a lot of very memorable shows. They are a record of my youth.
“I am enjoying myself now and take pleasure in the other aspects of my life,” said Xiang Yun with a smile.
She added that times are changing in the television industry, as it did when Singapore television became full-colour in the mid-70s, and when actresses made way for television stars adored by the masses, because of the dawn of the Internet age.
Time for renewal
Today, television is being displaced by video sharing sites like YouTube, with people spending more and more time online and on their mobile phones than in front of their television sets.
However, Xiang Yun believes this doesn’t mean that the end of television is nigh.
“This is a very challenging time for television. People have much less time for television and have so many entertainment choices.
“It is an era of change. But I feel relieved that everyone in the production teams are very enthusiastic and embracing this change, finding ways to adapt to it,” said Xiang Yun.
“It is simply a matter of renewal.”
She said the television industry is already evolving new ways of engaging audiences and creating new content that makes use of new media platforms.
As for complaints that the quality of television content is decreasing, she believes it could well be a matter of perception.
“I think it’s not always fair to say that the old shows are always better. Because people tend to be nostalgic and have better impressions of the shows they grew up with,” explained Xiang Yun.
“These shows are also often associated with the times of our lives where we are most carefree and relaxed. When people are at a stage of their lives where they are really busy, they simply have no time to watch television, so it doesn’t leave as deep an impression on them.”
However, she believes that television content-producers still have to work harder to stay relevant to today’s audiences.
“There is a new world out there, and we have to be a part of it,” said Xiang Yun thoughtfully.
“It’s now a matter of how we handle the process of renewal and reinvention, to remain relevant to this new world.”
Xiang Yun and over 200 past and present television celebrities will welcome the new year at the Celebrate TV50 countdown party on Tuesday, at The Float @ Marina Bay.
The event will be broadcast live over Channel 5 and Channel 8 from 8pm, and simulcast on the Toggle Live online platform.