Singaporeans in Taiwan looking for their big break in showbiz

Cheryl Wee on how she has matured over the past six months living in Taiwan, where she had a cameo role in political parody show Crazy Party (above).
Cheryl Wee on how she has matured over the past six months living in Taiwan, where she had a cameo role in political parody show Crazy Party (above).
Cheryl Wee (above) on how she has matured over the past six months living in Taiwan, where she had a cameo role in political parody show Crazy Party.
Cheryl Wee (above) on how she has matured over the past six months living in Taiwan, where she had a cameo role in political parody show Crazy Party.
Dawn Yeoh is now filming a MediaCorp sitcom, 118. She appeared in a Taiwanese TV charity show (above) in August to raise funds for victims of the gas explosions in Kaohsiung. -- PHOTO: CATWALK
Dawn Yeoh is now filming a MediaCorp sitcom, 118. She appeared in a Taiwanese TV charity show (above) in August to raise funds for victims of the gas explosions in Kaohsiung. -- PHOTO: CATWALK
Dawn Yeoh (above) is now filming a MediaCorp sitcom, 118. She appeared in a Taiwanese TV charity show in August to raise funds for victims of the gas explosions in Kaohsiung. -- PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Dawn Yeoh (above) is now filming a MediaCorp sitcom, 118. She appeared in a Taiwanese TV charity show in August to raise funds for victims of the gas explosions in Kaohsiung. -- PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Nat Ho, on Taiwanese entertainment programme Showbiz (above centre), has to keep in shape as his sculpted figure is being marketed as a selling point. -- PHOTO: VELOCE ENTERTAINMENT
Nat Ho, on Taiwanese entertainment programme Showbiz (above centre), has to keep in shape as his sculpted figure is being marketed as a selling point. -- PHOTO: VELOCE ENTERTAINMENT
Nat Ho (above) on what he misses about Singapore. -- PHOTO: NAT HO
Nat Ho (above) on what he misses about Singapore. -- PHOTO: NAT HO

Could they be the next Stefanie Sun or Christopher Lee? A new batch of Singaporeans is trying to break into Taiwan's competitive show business.

Actresses Cheryl Wee and Dawn Yeoh signed with Taiwanese talent agencies earlier this year, while singer Nat Ho released his latest album in Taiwan in October.

They follow in the footsteps of Singapore's golden couple Fann Wong and Christopher Lee, who are signed with Taiwan artist agency Catwalk.

Singaporean singer-host Huang Jing Lun, who got his break on Taiwan's popular singing TV contest, One Million Star 3, has carved a niche for himself on variety shows with his slow-paced way of talking. He is signed to Taiwan agency, Gin Star Entertainment.

What does it take to make it in Taiwan?

Mr Clean Hsieh, Gin Star's director of artist management, says the key to Huang's success is his can-do attitude. He says: "Huang is one of our rookies who is doing not too badly. He doesn't restrict himself to being a singer and is willing to try all sorts of performances, be it acting or hosting."

Of course, being talented is a surefire way of getting recognition, for instance, Lee with his recent Best Actor win at the Taiwan Golden Bell award - Taiwan's version of the Emmys - for his role in TV drama, A Good Wife (2013).

Ms Sammy Fan, Catwalk Shanghai's general manager, says of Lee: "He is a very professional actor with a good work ethic. He is never late for work. He is humble and friendly, and has substance. His natural acting has been acknowledged by the Taiwanese audience."

Singapore singer Kelly Poon, who was based in Taiwan from 2007 to 2011, had a taste of the tough competition for screen-time on variety shows with motor-mouthed artists.

To perfect her round Mandarin tones, she bit a wine cork while reading out Chinese newspaper articles daily.

Poon, who is now in China to promote her latest EP, Miss Kelly, recommends that reserved Singaporeans come out of their shell and broaden their social network in Taiwan, which could lead to more exposure.

She says: "You never know, an artist may need to bring along a friend for a guest appearance at a variety show and she may just ask you to go along."

But no matter what country the artist is from, he must possess one quality to make it big  in show business -  individuality.

Miss Maggie Yang,  director of Artist Management at Taiwan-based Veloce Entertainment, says: "Individuality is most important, so that an artist doesn't get buried and lost among the sea of talent out there."

nggwen@sph.com.sg


NAT HO, 30, SINGER

Singapore singer Nat Ho, 30, got his first taste of superstardom in Taipei last month when hundreds of students screamed for him at a school concert.

"I was a bit nervous because the students don't know who I am. Performing at school concerts really makes me feel like a superstar. It feels really 'shuang' (good in Mandarin)," he says.

"The crowd comes alive when you sing. The student leaders had to create a human barricade to prevent the students from lunging forward."

He is currently touring schools around Taiwan to promote his latest album Second Male Lead, which was released in October. It includes the dance tune Lonely Detective that made it to the Top 10 of Taiwan's authoritative Hit FM Hito Chinese Pop chart for four weeks in October and last month.

It is the fruit of 18 months of labour - dance training, Chinese lessons and hours spent at the gym to get six-pack killer abs - since he arrived in Taipei last April with two suitcases.

Ho left a TV acting career in Singapore to ink a nine-year contract with Veloce Entertainment, a Taiwan-based talent agency backed by Singapore investors. He says: "I've never lost sight of my dream, which is to sing."

He got his break in show business in the inaugural season of Singapore Idol in 2004. He did not renew his contract with TV station MediaCorp when it ended in 2010.

The bachelor is clearly at ease in his newly adopted neighbourhood in Taipei. When this reporter meets him there, he recommends the quaint Backpackers Cafe in the East District of Taipei for the interview.

Chowing down a hearty brunch, he says candidly: "Over here, they are selling my abs, I hate that. But that's what the market calls for. It sucks because I like to eat. I'll just have to go to the gym tomorrow."

It is no wonder that he has to keep in shape. His sculpted figure is a selling point and can help garner eyeballs for newspaper articles, like those in tabloid Apple Daily. He says: "That's the way the media works. The content is okay, just that the headline can be pretty sensational."

Ho, the older of two sons, says: "Some conservative people back home might wonder what is happening to Nat Ho. Everyone is just trying to do his job. It's a symbiotic relationship between the media and artists." His father is a 57-year-old part-time polytechnic lecturer and his 55-year-old mother is a tuition teacher.

He says life in Taiwan had not always been glamorous. He spent his first year in Taipei living in a cramped hostel with fellow trainees who shared the hope of making their showbiz debut. There were showcase tests for company executives to determine if hopefuls would make the cut.

He is now a recording artist, but he says he has had no income for the past six months. "I've released an album but I'm still a rookie. When you go on variety shows, you get the standard fee of NT$1,350 (S$57), enough to cover only transport, hair and make-up costs. I've been digging into my savings, which is dwindling rapidly."

Still, he happily shares his frugal living tips. He cooks his own meals with a pressure cooker, stays home to watch Netflix dramas and splits the monthly rent of about $1,000 with his housemate, Singapore actress Dawn Yeoh, who is also based in Taiwan.

Ho misses home and plans to be involved in Singapore  show business when the  opportunity arises.

So what does he miss most  about Singapore? He says: "My cat. I can Skype with my family, but I can't Skype with my cat."


DAWN YEOH, 28, ACTRESS

Once burnt by a very public contractual dispute with her former Japanese manager, Singapore actress Dawn Yeoh had become wary of signing with an agency and was planning to manage herself.

However, her long-time friend and celebrity hairstylist David Gan stepped in and linked her with mega Taiwanese management agency Catwalk.

She says: "David advised me that it was not the best thing to manage my own career. He could see that I was struggling so he introduced me to Catwalk and I had a chat with the managers."

The 28-year-old ended up signing in April with the agency - which has Singapore's Fann Wong and Christopher Lee, and Taiwanese model-actress Lin Chiling in its stable.

Yeoh had wanted to end her 10-year contract with agency Future Stage in 2009, which led to the public dispute. It was later resolved when the contract, which she signed at the age of 18, ran its course and ended earlier this year.

Now, she shuttles between Taipei and Singapore. Looking every bit a star in an elegant checkered dress and with well- coiffed hair, she waltzed into the Antoinette cafe at Palais Renaissance for the interview last Friday.

She made a memorable first impression on Catwalk executive Sammy Fan, which led to a contract deal.

Ms Fan, general manager of Catwalk Shanghai, says: "When I first saw Dawn at Passion Hair Salon, I was drawn to her pretty eyes that made her look mixed. She has very defined features.

"With her experience and passion for working in entertainment, she was a Singapore artist we looked forward to signing."

Beneath Yeoh's soft-spoken exterior is a burning ambition to succeed. She says: "My friend Nat Ho and I believe that Taiwan is a good training ground and launching pad into Hong Kong and China.

"Casting directors and production houses will look at the Taiwan market when searching for talent," says Yeoh, the only daughter of a 58-year-old technician and 56-year-old housewife.

So far, she has snagged appearances at fashion and beauty events in Taiwan.

She took part in a TV charity show in August to raise funds for victims of the gas explosions in Kaohsiung that happened in July. Alongside Taiwanese singers Elva Hsiao and A-lin, she helped man the donor hotline, where she got a taste of Taiwanese Mandarin.

She says sheepishly: "When I picked up the telephone, I had to ask for their names. I thought Mandarin wouldn't be an issue. One donor said 'Mu Zi Li', I thought it was his name. But he was actually vocalising the strokes of the characters in his surname."

The slight language barrier is just one of a few obstacles she has to overcome. The bigger issue is the competition, which she says is "more aggressive" at casting calls.

"I tend to warm up really slowly. Plus, it's a new environment, so I tend to be very shy. I don't speak up that much, so it's a disadvantage for me. The competition is very loud," says Yeoh, who is in talks to act in Taiwan dramas and films.

She is back in Singapore to film a 190- episode MediaCorp sitcom, 118, till June next year. She also acted in the movie Standing In Still Water that screened at the Singapore International Film Festival, which ends on Sunday.

Though she may have career ambitions, she feels the pressure to settle down. In 118, she plays real estate agent Zhang Keke, who starts to panic about getting married as she nears 30.

Yeoh says: "As I was reading out the lines, I totally felt for the character. I'm getting that kind of pressure from my parents and my grandma has told me to go for matchmaking.

"I will just let nature take its course, no point rushing. Just like the character I play, I don't believe in divorce. He must be the perfect one before I decide to get married."


CHERYL WEE, 27, ACTRESS

Singapore actress Cheryl Wee, 27, has always had to live with the baggage of being the daughter of hair and beauty mogul Jean Yip.

Things may seem better now that she is starting afresh in Taiwan after signing with Taiwanese management agency, Gin Star Entertainment, in June.

She is adamant that she has always been the one charting her own career path.

"I cannot change people's perception. I've never got any pageant awards or singing and acting opportunities because of my mum. I did feel the weight of the baggage initially, but when I acted in local dramas, Mata Mata and The Caregivers, I didn't feel it anymore," she says with a hint of resignation during an interview at a cafe near her Taipei home last month.

She can take heart that Gin Star Entertainment - which manages popular variety stars such as Chen Han Dian and Singapore's Huang Jing Lun - was impressed by her performance in the first season of local police period drama Mata Mata (2013).

Mr Clean Hsieh, Gin Star's director of Artiste Management, says: "The main reason we decided to sign Cheryl was her performance in Mata Mata. She pulled off a convincing portrayal of her character by balancing her boyish and feminine sides."

Still, Wee sounds a tad frustrated at having to explain herself, such as how some viewers thought she snagged a song-and-dance segment at the last two StarHub TVB Awards (2013 and 2014) because of Jean Yip Group's sponsorship of the event.

She adds that she has always maintained her relationship with Hong Kong's TVB since becoming the first runner-up at the broadcaster's Miss Chinese International Pageant in 2012. Her former manager was the one who liaised with the TVB production crew.

But she perks up when talking about her Taiwan experiences - a packed schedule of Mandarin- language classes, dance training and acting classes taught by acclaimed thespian Ann Lang Tsu-yun.

Wee was also lucky to have a cameo role on three episodes of prime-time Taiwanese political parody show Crazy Party (Feng Kuang Da Men Kuo). For instance, she played the secretary of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe portrayed by veteran Taiwanese comedian Tai Chih-yuan.

Her excitement is palpable as she recalls the experience on set: "In Taiwan, it's very different. There's no script given beforehand and you get only a rough outline on the day of the shoot. Everything is very impromptu and they make changes on the spot. I have to up the tempo of my reaction."

She is not losing sight of the show business scene in Singapore. She will return home early next year to shoot season three of Mata Mata and a Chinese drama for MediaCorp.

Cherishing her past six months in Taiwan, she says: "I've grown a lot and opened my eyes to a lot more things than if I had stayed in Singapore.

"Training in acting and dancing is just a very technical aspect. Getting used to life without your family, feeling homesick for the first two months I was here - going through all this in real life will help me emote better when I act or sing in future projects."