How legendary actress Fung Bo Bo met xinyao pioneer Liang Wern Fook

“I chose this because I wanted to feel like a bride. I’m destined to be with movies so there’s no need to think about searching for another companion.” — Fung Bo Bo, on her white cocktail dress and flower headpiece -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL
“I chose this because I wanted to feel like a bride. I’m destined to be with movies so there’s no need to think about searching for another companion.” — Fung Bo Bo, on her white cocktail dress and flower headpiece -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Fung Bo Bo, who has been in show business for most of her life, is thankful for fans' affection

Legendary Hong Kong actress Fung Bo Bo has a cameo in Singaporean xinyao pioneer Liang Wern Fook's song, Eve Of The History Exam, which contains a line that goes: "I only know that Fung Bo Bo has played Yang Yuhuan."

Those who grew up in the 1980s may well remember that Fung took on the role of the imperial consort in a 1986 Taiwanese drama series. Others know it because Liang has immortalised that factoid in song.

Fung, through a mutual friend, later met Liang in Hong Kong over a meal, where she thanked him for writing the song and they became friends. When the singer-songwriter held his first solo concert last month, she flew here specially to attend it.

The little history between them points to three things about Fung, who is also known as Petrina: her long, varied career and how different generations of fans remember her differently; the depth of her connection to Singapore; and her ability to make friends easily.

Within moments of meeting her, the genial actress is urging this reporter to tuck into some samosas and a dessert at a cafe in Dorsett Singapore Hotel. And before starting the interview proper, she gets recognised by passers-by a few times and poses happily for photographs, chatting away with them like old friends.

There will be more friendly chatter when she stars in a Cantonese musical, Fung Bo Bo Memories And Chinatown, at Kreta Ayer People's Theatre on June 19 and 20. It draws on her recollections of her previous sojourns here.

Recalling her visit in 1963 to the now- defunct Majestic Theatre in Chinatown to perform, she begins in Mandarin with a flourish: "Let me tell you about history."

In those days, for the price of one ticket, one could watch a movie and a live performance. "I sang and danced half an hour before the movie and I did eight shows a day."

Suddenly realising that was more than 50 years ago, she breaks out into hearty laughter: "I was merely a child then but many people think I must be very old now. They say, 'You were around during my parents', my grandmother's time!'"

Fung, in fact, is 60 and sprightly, and has been acting since the age of three. In 1961 alone, she made more than 30 movies, including the popular Cantonese drama Magic Cup, an adaptation of the story of Aladdin's Lamp.

Life! caught up with her when she was in town last month for the Singapore Chinese Film Festival with her latest film, Wonder Mama (2015).

Her memories are vivid, if patchy, and she relishes the telling of tales from her life. Taking on the part of a zealous fan, she bellows: "Fung Bo Bo, time to wake up and sign autographs!" Her young fans were calling for her outside a hotel where she was staying at 6am, just before it was time for them to head to school.

She cackles at the scene she has just described.

On her second work trip to Singapore, she was 12. She put in 12 performances a day, doing everything from classical dance to new-fangled shimmying.

One memorable show took place on a day when it rained so hard, there were only three people in the hall of the now- defunct King's Theatre. "I thought it was rather pointless to do my routine, so I said into the microphone, 'Do you guys know how to play mahjong?'"

Laughing with gusto, she says she ended up inviting them back to where she was staying for a game.

By the time she was 14, she had made more than 300 films. She later went to study in the United Kingdom, where she met her first husband, Mr Chiu Joi Keung, who worked in finance. She had two sons from the marriage.

After a break of 15 years, she made a comeback in the late 1970s. In the mid- 1980s, she made her mark with a string of historical period dramas where she played classical beauties and China's lone female emperor, Wu Zetian.

Her big-screen return was in the comedy My Family (1986), for which Clifton Ko wrote the script and was also the assistant director. It was also Ko who persuaded her to come out of her 15- year-long semi-retirement to star in Wonder Mama, as a woman trying to deal with the upheavals in the lives of those close to her.

She muses: "The first time I worked with Ko, I was about to be divorced. This time, I just got divorced as well." She divorced her second husband in 2012.

For the musical Fung Bo Bo Memories And Chinatown, she will again be working with Ko as well as Hong Kong-based Singaporean actor-director Garrick Wong, the friend who had introduced her to songwriter Liang. "That's fate, one link connecting to another," she says.

Having gone through two failed marriages has made her realise one thing - that her one true marriage has been to movies.

Pointing to her white cocktail dress with its dramatic flower headpiece, which she had picked for the red carpet before the screening of Wonder Mama at the recent film festival, she says: "I chose this because I wanted to feel like a bride. I'm destined to be with movies so there's no need to think about searching for another companion."

It is a relationship that has seen its ups and downs as she gave her childhood to it, and also earned her steadfast affection from her fans.

She recalls: "My father told me when I was a child that he was not qualified to love me. He said, 'Do your work well and when you grow up, audiences will give back to you what I can't give you today.'"

Fung chokes up and tears start streaming down her face. "All these fans - like the person cleaning the floor earlier - still remember me because of the movies I made as a child. I'm really moved and thankful for all this. Father was right, it's just decades late."

Her father was the late actor-director Feng Feng. When she was studying abroad, her mother dropped the bombshell on her that he was not her biological father. (She apparently asked her mother about it but never got an answer.)

She adds lightly later: "People say that when you're old, you cry when you're happy and cry when you're sad."

There is a dark side to the life of this animated actress. As a result of financial stress and years of depression after her first marriage ended, she attempted suicide in 1995 and took anti-depressants for 18 years. The staunch Christian says she stopped taking them two years ago as a result of prayer.

Sometimes, life can come full circle in unexpected ways.

Empress Wu was made by Hong Kong's Asia Television and Mr Deacon Chiu was its boss then. His son, David, is chairman of Dorsett Hospitality International and, hence, Fung was invited to stay at Dorsett Singapore. Mr Chiu died in March and she laments: "I cried at home when I found out. I started acting at three and worked with so many senior directors and actors that I've seen so many people die. I've been to the funeral parlour so many times."

At this point, her greatest wish is to complete her memoirs. "Even in Hollywood, there hasn't been an actor who's been acting since the age of three and has such a long history in the movies. This is something that is hard to come by."

Her accolades include two Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Supporting Actress for the comedy 92 Legendary La Rose Noire (1992) and the tearjerker C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri (1993).

She is also keen to write, direct and star in a movie about the things she has seen and experienced in the entertainment circle. Another project she has in mind is to do a commemorative music album. She has written some poems about her life experiences, some of which could well be lyrics for songs. And she has approached Liang to compose a tune for her. Looks like she and Singapore are not quite done with each other yet.

"I'm not doing things for the money now. It's so that I can meet old fans once more," she says.

It is for the same reason that she is doing the Chinatown musical. "One good thing about growing old is that you learn to cherish people and things."

bchan@sph.com.sg


MANY FACES OF BO BO

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MAGIC CUP (1961)

Fung Bo Bo was adorable as a child and a generation of moviegoers went gaga over her. In 1961 alone, she made more than 30 movies, among them the Cantonese fantasy drama Magic Cup, an adaptation of the story of Aladdin's lamp, which made her name. Her character's name, as in many other of her movies, was Bo Bo.


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EMPRESS WU (1984)

Before Fan Bingbing and Carina Lau, it was Fung who commanded viewers' attention as the imperious Wu Zetian, China's only female emperor. The drama was hugely popular in China as well. It was her first series with ATV after a run of productions at rival television station TVB.


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YANG GUI FEI (1986)

Her turn as the imperial consort Yang Yuhuan has been written by xinyao pioneer Liang Wern Fook into his song, Eve Of The History Exam. She went on to play yet another classical beauty, Xi Shi, in another Taiwanese drama the following year and saw her popularity on the island rocket.


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92 LEGENDARY LA ROSE NOIRE (1992)

Fung won a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Supporting Actress in this preposterous comedy for playing a disciple (below) of the legendary Black Rose, a fictional heroine of 1960s Hong Kong cinema. She made it two in a row with her turn as Anita Yuen's mother in the tearjerker romance C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri the following year.


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WONDER MAMA (2015)

Fung was persuaded by writer-director Clifton Ko to come out of semi-retirement for this project. She plays a 49-year-old librarian who has to deal with upheavals in her parents' lives and a stay-at-home, unemployed 30-year-old son (played by Babyjohn Choi). She spent two hours on make-up each day in order to look ugly, making her eyebrows thick and uneven and emphasising age spots.

With a hearty laugh, she says: "I'm very happy to tour film festivals with this. If I don't show up at film festivals, people might think I'm that ugly now."