SINGAPORE: He has appeared in Singapore theatre productions such as Chang and Eng, done his own comedy shows such as Singapore Boy and The Hossan Leong Show; films such as I Not Stupid and One Leg Kicking; and television programmes such as Under One Roof and We Are Singaporeans. Today, he also runs Double Confirm Productions, naming it after the catchphrase that he came up with as the host of a Channel 5 game show.
Hossan Leong fell into comedy by accident. He became interested in theatre during his National Service days in the SAF Music and Drama Company and started off by doing serious theatre with the Necessary Stage when his colleagues in theatre pointed out to him that he had potential to be funny and a good storyteller.
He went "On the Record" with 938LIVE's Bharati Jagdish about his career and the approach he is currently taking with his craft.
Hossan Leong: When I first started, a lot of my comedy was, well, I wouldn't say “political”, but it was jabs at the establishment, jabs at what's going on in society. And back in the day, about 15 years ago, people loved it, because it was "Oh, you said in public, what we cannot say."
What do you mean you can't say such things? I'm not saying anything wrong. I'm just repeating what you guys say in coffee shops, or what the taxi driver tells me. But people saw it as a rebellion, “Hossan goes on stage and talks about politics. Oh my gosh!”
Bharati: Now, it's a very accepted thing.
Hossan: Now, I don't even have to say it, just read the blogs.
Bharati: But what made you want to do that in an era where it wasn't done?
Hossan: I think it was not just me, but it was also the people who helped me write my scripts. It’s a collaborative process. I think it was also the shock factor that made people go, "You just mentioned the Government." and they get very excited about it. I think it was also because the performer in me wanted to shock people like that. But now, years down, I feel "No need already." My comedy is about observational humour, so, here’s an example. That day I saw this aunty on the MRT train. She was like Michael Jordan. Wah, she came into the train, she rushed for the empty seat and then “pat-pat-pat-pat” the seat like a basketball. But that's a plastic seat, aunty…The patting doesn't make it any cooler. Things like that. So those are the things that I talk about now, and as I think as performers, we have to evolve and move with the times.
Bharati: But if you’re talking about moving with the times, people have in fact become more political now. So why have you chosen to draw away from politics?
Hossan: Because people keep talking about politics now and it's getting to be more of the same, and why would I want to join that stream of conversation? I'd just rather go somewhere else and make you go "Uh, refreshing! Not about politics again.”
Bharati: You said when you started off, you were making jabs at the establishment, and it had a lot to do with the people who wrote your scripts as well. How much did you feel for it?
Hossan: Personally, I think I didn't feel that much, because, to be honest, I don't really bother about the politics of how this place is run. Once in a while, I feel, "Why is this happening?" or "Yes! This is happening!" But I don't think I am a very politically-inclined kind of person, so when those lines were written for me, back in the day, I said them, I performed it, I got a laugh, but intrinsically, it wasn't coming from me.
Bharati: Intrinsically, what comes from you is more situational humour.
Hossan: Yes. It's Seinfeld, it's a bit Ellen-ish. It's that kind of humour.
"SOUL-SUCKING" CORPORATE JOBS
Bharati: You mentioned earlier that you've bombed a number of times. With all the experience that you've had, does it still happen?
Hossan: Frankly, it does. It happens during corporate gigs. When you get invited to entertain and it's a D&D - dinner and dance - for 800 people in a ballroom, where everyone is going, "Yam Seng!" and you're trying to tell a joke. And the same joke gets a huge laugh.
But here, in a corporate setting, no one listens to you, so no one laughs, and you're in this world on your own, on stage, facing this huge ballroom, and just going, "Okay, I'll just continue right now." It's hard.
Bharati: Why don't you reject such jobs? It isn't a very conducive setting for comedy, is it?
Hossan: Not at all. I always tell them, “Please get a girl in a slinky dress to sing 'Girl from Ipanema' or something like that instead. That's all you need.” But they want something different, and for me, it pays the bills.
Bharati: What does it feel like when all this is happening, when no one's really responding in any setting, whether it's the corporate setting or in a theatre full of people who've paid to come and watch the show?
Hossan: Actually it's two different feelings because in a corporate setting, it used to be, and sometimes it still can be, very soul-sucking. You feel so used and dry inside because you're like, "I'm telling you a joke, guys.” People pay money to watch me, and these are the same jokes I use in my routine and people laugh and enjoy it, but here, no one's laughing.
So at one point in my career, I was very angry and bitter, and I did these jobs very reluctantly but they’re useful so I think "Okay, I'll just do." But then it came out in my comedy. My friends started to notice that my comedy became very angry, very bitter. And my friend said, "Why are you still doing it? If you're not enjoying it, you better stop, because it's coming through. You don't want to go on stage as an angry person. And that jolted me back to reality.
I thought "Yeah, you know what? I should do it. If at least one person's listening, one person smiles, that's really all I need to go on." And that changed me around, 180-degree turn. I went, "Yeah, you know what? If you in front there are listening and laughing, this joke's for you." So even if it bombs, it's fine, because three people were laughing. But on stage, in a theatre setting.
Bharati: It's different, you said.
Hossan: It's different. People pay money to come and watch and if the joke doesn't work, I apologise: "Sorry! All right, moving right along! Tomorrow you come back, this joke won't be there anymore.“ I get goosebumps, cold sweat. You wish literally the floor would open up and swallow you, and my bad habit is that then I rush, I start to speak very, very fast. But in my mind, even though I’m talking a hundred miles per hour, it’s like I'm walking through sludge. It's very slow. After that, your audience will go, "We didn't understand a single thing you said, because you went 300 miles per hour." But that's my defence mechanism, I guess.
Bharati: You mentioned the corporate gigs, and how they can go so horribly wrong, and you used to feel you shouldn't be doing this, but ultimately accepted that you needed to. I think it's pretty obvious. It has a lot to do with the fact you can't make a living on art alone, right? And this is why you have to, sometimes, “sell your soul”. How do you feel about that - the fact that it is still so hard to make a living from the arts.
Hossan: I've come to accept it. I mean, all of us have to. A friend of mine who used to be one of the top actors, here in MediaCorp, had to do it, even though he hated every minute and second of it - doing Chinese drama. And then, when he left, he was like, "Yeah! I got my own theatre company now! I'm doing what I really love."
But he just stuck it out over here to make a living, so that he can be happy. And that's what a lot us are doing. But every individual has to find that switch to go: "Yeah, I have to do this to pay my bills, but I choose not to be bitter about it. I choose to find the good things about doing this corporate gig. Like, oh look, free wine!” I'm very, very easy that way.
Bharati: Do you think it can ever become a reality in Singapore – making a living purely out of a career in the arts?
Hossan: I don't think that would be for the majority. Yes, there are people, I think, right now in Singapore, who can survive purely on that. The people who run the theatre companies are surviving on that. You work in a theatre company. If you're talking about freelance actors I think it's very few and far between to have someone going, "Oh, I've got four plays this year, and that's going to do. I don't need to do anything else." - because no, you can't survive on that.
"People keep talking about politics now and it's getting to be more of the same. Why would I want to join that stream of conversation?" Hossan Leong speaks to Bharati Jagdish "On the Record" about the approach he took when he first started out, and why he’s chosen a different approach today. Tune in to the full interview tomorrow at 7:30am and 2:30pm. #OnTheRecord #HossanLeongPosted by 938LIVE on Wednesday, 2 December 2015
HIS PURPOSE: TO MAKE ALL THE AUNTIES LAUGH
Bharati: But if that is the case, can we ever expect to be excellent artists? Can we ever expect to be a real arts hub?
Hossan: No. I think it all depends on the individual, if they really want to excel in their craft, to push themselves to go and do courses. I think sometimes you’ve got to go away and come back, because in other countries, for example, if I get a tour of Miss Saigon, that’s two years. That's a living. I can buy a house, coming home from that, because that's money. We don't have that here. How long does a play last here? Beauty World is going for one month. People say “Wow that’s one month, very long already.” But one month ain't going to buy you a house.
Bharati: What do you think needs to happen to make that kind of thing happen here?
Hossan Leong: I don't think the population can support that anyway. The theatre-going crowd is not big enough. You know, three-weeks in, we're already struggling with tickets sales.
Bharati: What's the problem, you think?
Hossan: I think there's theatre-fatigue. Maybe this year is special because with so many things going on with SG50, people are tired. And people's wallets are shrinking, so if I need to go and see a show, and I have a family of four, or if it’s just me and my partner, it entails dinner, transport, tickets and it can come up to a couple hundred dollars on a night out. That's a lot of money. So if I want to see show A, show B, show C, musical D, as an average person, I can't afford it, so I choose. I will save money to watch Les Miserables. "But what about 'Crazy Christmas?'" “Oh, no lah, I can see them next year. Les Mis comes once in a while.”
Bharati: However, other artists have told me that they think it’s a case of people still not prioritising the arts here as far as recreational activities go. For most, it’s merely a nice-to-have and like you said they also complain that it’s often expensive to watch ticketed performances and they’d rather spend the money on something else. Some of them have money, but they won’t spend it on the arts. But the cost is warranted, is it not?
Hossan Leong: Yeah, oh my gosh, you have no idea. I can safely say that, for my one man show, just me and I don't pay myself, but for seven performances at the Drama Centre, my cost alone comes up to over S$100,000.
Bharati: What are you paying for?
Hossan Leong: Rental, multimedia, copyrights, which is fair enough and ticketing agent. They're all necessary. I can't cut corners, because otherwise I’ll get a less than standard show. Then of course I can't sell tickets at an exorbitant price. People won't come if I did that, and I want people to come to see my show, because it's stand-up comedy, and I want it to be accessible. So people say, "Sell it for S$80." But I think S$80 - who would bother to come to Drama Centre to watch a show, you know? My tickets never go above S$50, so my profit margin drops a lot.
Bharati: But you don’t ask for funding and I wonder if you shy away from controversy. Because I have to say that over the years, I've heard artists complain about all sorts of things - censorship, funding, whereas you tend not to do so as openly. Where do you stand on such issues? As you said, your shows are expensive, so why don’t you ask for funding?
Hossan: I don't want to owe anyone anything. So for all this, I will pay and then I don't have to follow by their rules if I get money from the establishment; but ultimately, they will also give me my rating.
Bharati: Sounds like you feel you're being held hostage to some extent, but maybe to a lesser degree because you don’t take their money.
Hossan: That’s why I don't run a theatre company, because I don't have the energy, the fire, that Ivan (Heng) has, that (Ong) Keng Sen has. I really admire these amazing people, because they stand up and they fight. I feel that I am not cerebrally-inclined to be able to fight and argue my thoughts properly. I'm just an entertainer. So I would lose out trying to argue my point. So for me, I think I won't be able to argue my points clearly enough.
Bharati: You see your purpose as being different from the other artists such as Keng Sen?
Hossan: I think I'm there to make all the aunties happy and smile and laugh.
Bharati: You mentioned earlier that you deliberately keep ticket prices low. How does it make you feel, that in an age like this, when we're supposed to be a bit more self-actualised than before because we've achieved economic success already, many of us are still not prioritising the arts as a part of our lives or making an effort to prioritise it when it comes to how we spend our money as well?
Hossan: I try it from ground-up. I go and give talks at schools and I say, "What do you guys do over the weekend?" They’ll say, "I don't know lah, Singapore very boring ah, nothing to do".
Boring, really? Have you opened the newspaper to the “What's On” section to see what's available for you to go out and enjoy yourselves? They say, "Yeah, but yeah".
There are so many free things that are arts-related as well. You know, exhibitions, concerts. And if you spend a little of your money, you can spend two hours enjoying yourself. But people don't see that. And I think this is the same problem with other countries too, for example, like Australia. They have a very big sporting culture. The money's split between arts and sports. I think it's just a growing stage where we just have to keep educating people.
Bharati: What would you say is an effective way of educating people?
Hossan: I think, in no small way, it is to go into the schools, which we have been doing. Going to schools, doing plays in schools, going to schools to teach Theatre in Education. These are the kids who, over the years, grow up and, it's been wonderful because I was doing a show at Esplanade, and one of the sound-men, fixing my mic says: "Er, you taught me in Sec 1."
And, it's wonderful, to be able to go, "And then what happened?"
He says, "Oh, you know, I really fell in love with theatre because you came into my school in Sec 1, and here I am, doing sound for the Esplanade". So, in no small way, this kind of education does help. So I think we just got to keep at it.
Bharati: I understand that corporates need to be educated as well. You’ve had issues getting what you’re due from that sector as well, haven’t you?
Hossan: Recently, and I was quite upset about it, when someone asked me to endorse a product, 10 episodes to be shot to go on online. And I said, "Oh, yeah. Good. This is my fee". And then they go, “What do you mean? It's too expensive. You theatre actors will accept it for X amount of dollars only what”.
I was incensed. You mean that's how much value you put on “us theatre actors”?
Bharati: Because they think you're used to living as a starving artist, why not exploit it?
Hossan: I was so upset I put it on Facebook. I went, "Friends, Roman, Countrymen! If this person comes to you, this is how much they'll value your work, and what you're worth”.
One thing that will help is to form some sort of union, some sort of an association where the guidelines of payment are met. I think if we have some kind of consensus that this is our minimum and we don't accept anything less than this if you're an actor, then life would be easier. I think this whole industry needs to lift to another level, where then PR companies and clients don't say things like "All right, you do this for me, and I'll give you S$2,000 worth of products". Products don't pay the bills.
Bharati: Unless you help me sell them after you give them to me. You did try though to take action to tackle this issue?
Hossan: Yeah. We tried to form the Actors' Association of Singapore. It became...nothing at the end of the day. It just became a forum group, helping one another look out for jobs, but, ultimately, the jobs are out there. It's just how we get treated as actors.
Bharati: Why didn’t the Association succeed?
Hossan Leong: I think it’s because of the establishment - very, very strict on groups getting together and trying to say something, or pushing something through. Also because of I daresay the apathetic view of people. They think it'll never change. And so they don't want to change it. So a small group of people is trying to do something about it, but if the rest of the industry doesn’t stand behind them, then it's not going to change.
ON TODAY'S AUDIENCE
Bharati: The Singapore audience, I'm sure, has evolved over the years. Plus, we're more cosmopolitan now, so it's not just Singaporeans that you reach out to with your performances. Also, we have greater exposure to international artists and comedians now. How much more challenging is it now, to make people laugh, than it was before?
Hossan: I have to find ways and means to adapt my comedy to this new generation first of all, because the kids who are 20-something now have YouTube. They are YouTubers. Their attention span is so short. If I do a four-minute YouTube video, it's considered too long. One to two minutes, slapstick, whatever, works.
So, I have to learn how to adapt my humour for this new generation, yet not lose touch with the people who have followed me throughout my career. And about the international artists that come here, I think my advantage is the fact that if I do my comedy here, I tailor it for Singaporeans and people who live in Singapore. And they appreciate that. You bring in a brand of American humour or British humour – yeah some parts are really funny, but some people have said to me, “You’re funnier than Russell Peters.” And I was like, “Really?”
Bharati: It’s more relatable.
Hossan: It’s all situational as well, and geographical. But I have to learn how to make my comedy more international. Otherwise I can't go beyond these shores. Even as we speak, I'm trying to get in touch with people, the comedy festivals in Australia. Try and fly a bit further.
Bharati: And what will you do there? Singapore-centric humour may not work.
Hossan Leong: Well, I will have to tweak my humour. It will be Singapore centric - because a lot of people also think we're in China.
Bharati: Yes. Unfortunately.
Hossan: Yeah, I have a show ready to go on the road already - 'Hossan-ah'. I've talked to some people in Australia. A lot of people in Australia... (are actually) Singaporeans.
Bharati: But it'll be nice to reach out to Australians, not just Singaporeans in Australia.
Hossan: Exactly! And then I just have to re-write my humour, to find what links the Singaporeans and Australians together.
Bharati: Can you remember anything offhand, of that show?
Hossan: Yeah. I talk about the national carrier of Australia.
Hossan: Yes, exactly. And how interesting it is that when you call for help, or you push the call button, you get turbulence, because they hop up the aisles.
Bharati: You’re working on fine-tuning this I hope.
SINGAPORE'S "COMPLAIN MENTALITY"
Bharati: When I got in touch with you to set up this interview, you said you're generally very politically correct in what you say in interviews, and it was your work in radio and TV that has taught to be politically correct.
Hossan: I've been brought up to be a very go-by-the rules, go-by-the book kind of person. It's a strict upbringing, but being the impulsive kind of guy that I am, I've gotten into scrapes before on air. There was the whole MRT saga that happened.
Bharati: SMRT took issue with you tweeting that there was a train breakdown before it was ready to release the information itself.
Hossan: Yeah, well, there were 10,000 people stuck in the MRT train stations saying there is a breakdown! I just did it because I thought I was doing a public service. But then you suddenly realise what kind of society we live in that you should not say this in public until you get a press release or a statement. Okay, so you learn it that way, see. The other one was the whole “double confirm” saga as well on TV that you shouldn’t say it because it's not proper English.
Bharati: “Double confirm” was the catchphrase that you used on a game show -
Hossan: On “We Are Singaporeans”. And I thought, 'What?! 'Double' is a word, 'confirm' is a word…”
Bharati: Was that something you came up with yourself? Or was it the producers of the show who did?
Hossan: I came up with it and so season one was when it became a catch-phrase. We hit season two, someone complained.
So I said, “who is this person? Can we speak with this person? Where's the email?”
They said no.
Okay, but who complained? It'll be nice to know, and know the reasons. I think this society lives in this complain mentality. One complaint only, then everyone is up-in-arms. There is a knee-jerk reaction.
Bharati: I understand this extends to the theatre as well. People complain about the performances.
Hossan Leong: Yeah, but for me it’s about who are these people? How many of them are complaining? Have they actually come to see a show? A lot of these keyboard warriors I don’t think have stepped out of the house to even watch the plays that have been put on. But sometimes, all the complaining has maybe come from “somewhere up there” and everything in between jumps.
Bharati: How does all that make you feel?
Hossan: It was frustrating at that point. And I’ve learnt not to go on social media and rant when you're upset. So I got into a couple of scrapes because of that, but now, I’m more level-headed, hopefully. I try to look at it from both sides of the coin.
Bharati: Some people might say it is so frustrating and ridiculous, I'm not going to play by these rules anymore. But you've decided to play by the rules. Why?
Hossan: Well, I've been playing by the rules all my life. You’ve got to play the game in this industry. If you don't play the game, you could be left on the outside very, very easily. Very, very quickly as well. The circle's too small. But don’t play the game with an ulterior motive. You know how some people pretend you're a friend, but actually they're playing this game, and their ulterior motive is to just stab you in the back . You don't play the game with that ulterior motive. You play the game so that you and the community can co-exist comfortably.
Bharati: So you just want to survive.
Hossan: Exactly, I just want to survive, and it's no skin off my teeth, so I make one compromise.
Bharati: Where do you draw the line though? Maybe you haven't reached that stage yet. Obviously you haven't.
Hossan: Yeah, I haven't reached that stage yet, but...
Bharati: But if you had to think about it, how bad would it have to be for you to say, “you know what? Enough.”
Hossan: I think if it goes against what I believe in, my principles. If it’s little things like English is wrong or other things like that, it doesn't bother me, because I have to be part of the game. But I think it crosses the line if it comes to family or friends. If anyone gets hurt emotionally or physically, then it draws the line. Quite nebulous that way, but you know when it happens and your heart gets cut and you go: “No. Stop. Enough.”
Bharati: You said that you were brought up to follow the rules, be quite straight-laced. Yet some might say that what you've done with your life is already quite a daring thing, that a person who follows the rules would never have done what you’ve done - go into the arts, become a comedian, make this your life's work. How would you explain that?
Hossan: I would have to credit my parents for that. I was never academically-inclined.
Bharati: Why do you think that was? Just not interested?
Hossan: Yeah, I was just playful. I mean, all I wanted to do was hide behind the door and scare people when they came through the classroom. Yeah, that's me and I got that from my dad. My dad is a clown and impulsive and rash, but fun. And I think I grew up like that, in that kind of household. And...
Bharati: But you also said there were a lot of rules to follow.
Hossan: Yeah, my mum is very strict. We were a very strict Christian family as well, I went to ACS and it was all about following the rules. So I would like to think my brother and I were well brought-up. One stare from my mum and you’d better keep quiet or else you go home and kenah pinch. So that kind of balanced me, I think. When I couldn't go to university, my parents sent me to engineering school. Ugh.
Bharati: What kind of engineering?
Hossan: Electronics! I had to study the red wire goes where, etc. It was quite scary.
Bharati: And you were not interested at all?
Hossan: No. I had no choice because what was I going to do, you know? My father said: “You better go and learn a trade. Be a technician or something like that. Otherwise, what're you gonna do?”
It was hell! And then, I said I can't work as a technician.
My mum said: “What are you gonna do?” I said that I wanted to be an actor. She said: “What? Actor? What kind of lifestyle?”
So I said, “Alright, mum, dad, just leave me for a year. I will earn my own money. Don't give me pocket money”.
I just forged my way through. Grabbed every job I could, learnt as much as I could, and here I am still today.
Bharati: You’ve said before that you’re a naturally playful person, but clearly you can’t be funny and playful all the time off-stage. Have you had to be funny at a time when it was just impossible to be funny? Because maybe something was going on in your personal life.
Hossan: I've had those experiences. For example, once somebody very, very close to me had to go to hospital. But I had to perform stand-up while that person was lying in ICU and I had to go on stage and say: "Hi everyone! Hey, hi!"
It was the hardest one hour of my life. Just going on like this robot. But that's what you have to do in this business. Everyone says you just leave your personal problems at stage door, you go on stage, do your job, and then you go and pick it up where you left off.
Bharati: So it can be very brutal business.
Hossan Leong: It is. It's very brutal, and that's why the community is so tight. That's why our theatre friends, I count so many of them as dear, dear friends from day one, up till today. I can always call on them, because we've seen each other going through thick and thin.
HANDING OVER THE REINS
Bharati: What do you feel you're still learning after all this time in the industry?
Hossan Leong: I'm learning how to hand over the reins. I'm not going to give up, but I think it's important to train the next generation, and I'm very happy, because I see them, I see the Benjamin Khengs, I see Sezairi, all these amazing young people coming up and being able to sing, dance, act, write music, being talented, and I'm so happy.
But we need to nurture them so that they don't get stifled by the establishment, or by what people think the establishment is, by what society thinks. So I think we should encourage them and let them know that they are of international standard, not just say “oh, they're local singers.” They're amazing. I've heard awful stuff overseas.
Bharati: But that's the thing, Singaporeans themselves don't seem to rate local talent very highly.
Hossan: Yeah, it's “local” theatre, but, my goodness, when we did “The Importance of Being Earnest” in Brisbane, everyone was: "My goodness, this is world-class, this is international, you should bring this around the world.” And we were so proud of ourselves. Finally. It takes someone from overseas to say that we're of international standard. In the meantime, Singaporeans are like “Oh, yeah, yeah. “Local theatre”.
Bharati: How do you think that can be bridged – this gap in perception?
Hossan: The perception I can't change, really. But I can keep encouraging the next generation to be proud of their work. Be very assured that what you're doing is of a calibre that a lot of people can appreciate. Sometimes I see things on Broadway, or the West End and it can't even compare. Like oh, so-and-so on Broadway has a 20-second costume change. In “Dim Sum Dollies”, we do it in 3 seconds, you know? And so we've got to be proud. Pride in our own work, as artistes, and as the audience as well, I think is important.