Casting young actors fluent in Hokkien for dialect series Eat Already? a challenge

Elvin Ng speaks Hokkien as gambling addict Ah Bee in Eat Already?
Elvin Ng speaks Hokkien as gambling addict Ah Bee in Eat Already?PHOTO: TRIBAL WORLDWIDE SINGAPORE

It was tough finding an actor to play a gambling addict in dialect series Eat Already? Elvin Ng was picked eventually

Casting a young actor fluent in Hokkien to front upcoming dialect series Eat Already? proved to be a challenge.

The drama's scriptwriter, Ms Kao Lie Boon, had to converse in Hokkien with a number of candidates before picking local actor Elvin Ng, 35, for the job.

Ms Kao, 41, says: "Most of the actors we spoke to had difficulties speaking Hokkien fluently. I spoke to Elvin, I made sure he really knew how to speak Hokkien before recommending him to the director."

The info-educational drama series - which weaves in information about government schemes and subsidies - is directed by Royston Tan and will premiere on Friday on Channel 8.

Eat Already?, which is a direct translation of the common Hokkien greeting jiak ba buay, was conceptualised to better communicate government policies to seniors. It is a collaboration between the Ministry of Communications and Information and television station Mediacorp.

The last dialect series to be aired on TV was Cantonese serial The Brothers, starring Chow Yun Fat and Carol Cheng Yu Ling, in the 1980s. The move to phase out dialect shows was in line with the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which was introduced in 1979.

The new 10-episode half-hour weekly drama will air during the designated dialect slot on Channel 8, on Fridays from 10.30am to 12.30pm. The slot airs dialect operas or dialect programmes approved by the Media Development Authority. Dialect commercials about government schemes have also been broadcast in that slot.

Channel 8 star Ng jumped at the opportunity to act in Eat Already? and take on his first Hokkien-speaking role, as gambling addict Ah Bee. The story revolves around his widowed mother Ah Niu Sao (Li Yinzhu), who has to work as a coffee shop cleaner to support her sons.

As enthusiastic as he was, Ng was initially worried that he was not up to the task.

He says: "I thought my Hokkien was good. I speak to my grandparents in Hokkien and recall hearing Hokkien songs in my dad's car as a kid. I could sing along, even though I didn't understand the lyrics.

"After I read the script, I realised it was really complex. I felt like giving up, but I persevered. I had to spend hours working on it. Veteran actors like Marcus Chin could ad-lib, but I couldn't do that. I had to memorise my script in advance."

Director Tan, 39, devised a fun way to practise the dialect with Ng.

He says: "I would record a question in Hokkien and Elvin would have to record the reply in Hokkien.

"Whoever spoke Mandarin or English midway would have to pay a fine of $5. I think Elvin ended up paying a larger fine," says Tan, who is Hokkien, with a laugh.

Casting the senior characters was much easier, as he could rely on an older generation of actors who are familiar with dialects, such as Li, Chin and Wang Lei.

Rattling off Hokkien lines was a piece of cake for seasoned getai host Wang Lei, 55.

He says: "Dialect is my homeground. The director gave us the freedom to express ourselves as long as we kept to the gist of the script."

Veteran actress Li, 66, confesses to needing some effort to slip into her first Hokkien-speaking role, although she grew up in a dialectspeaking environment and picked up Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and Hokkien.

She says: "Acting in Hokkien is not necessarily easier for me. After all, I've been using Mandarin in my career of more than 40 years. It was a good chance for me to act in a language that is familiar and nostalgic."

Actor Chin, 62, who speaks fluent Hokkien although he is Hakka, says: "The beauty of dialect lies in the vivid expressions. Some dialect phrases have that extra kick, compared with a Mandarin phrase with the same meaning."

Madam Tay Chu Lang, 61, a technician in a food company, says she is looking forward to watching Eat Already? Her only gripe is the inconvenient timing of the telecast.

She says: "I watched the trailer and it felt like I was transported back to my childhood. When we turned on the TV in the past, the actors spoke in dialect. Now, all the programmes are in Mandarin.

"I will record the show because I'll be working during the day. I don't know how to go online to watch the show. They should air the show after working hours, or have repeat telecasts on weekends. This way, more people can watch the drama."

•Eat Already? premieres on Friday at noon on Channel 8. The series is also available on Toggle.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Wanted: Young actor fluent in Hokkien'. Print Edition | Subscribe