IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Bo Bo just wants to make you smile

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 7, 2013

At 58, former child star Petrina Fung Bo Bo is still very much a child and a star.

She laughs loudly, girlishly and unceasingly at the slightest things that tickle her, and she is entirely comfortable being at the centre of attention, even when she is approached for photographs by fans every few minutes during this four-hour interview with Life!.

"I always tell my sons that for these strangers, to chat with them for just a few minutes, translates to a lifetime of happiness for them," she says.

Earlier this year, she surprised everyone at one of her two sons' birthday celebrations by showing up in massive clown shoes.

In between loud chortles, she says in a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese: "It has patchwork and the front of the shoe is really, really big, and my son had no idea I would turn up like that. He was shocked, but I thought I'd create some fun."

The Hong Kong star says she never had a proper childhood before as she started acting professionally from young and is therefore only making up for lost time.

"I never played games when I was a kid, so I can finally play now," she says, before bursting into maniacal laughter.

Slapping the table in front of her repeatedly in delight, she adds: "You could say that I'm catching up now."

During the entire interview, the veteran actress is playful and easily excitable, talking so animatedly that it is as if everything fascinates her.

She barely notices the fact that her voice is thundering throughout the canteen or that her arms are flailing about so wildly that she almost knocks over her cup of coffee (not that she needs coffee for energy).

At her photo shoot afterwards at the Singapore Press Holdings' rooftop garden, she gamely strikes multiple poses, including gongfu stances. At one point, she pushes aside a hedge of tall heliconia plants and steps in among them, before pointing her hands to the sky in dramatic fashion.

"Is this shot cute?" she asks, before suddenly running out of the bush and suggesting to the photographer to shoot her as she "skips down the pathway".

"It'll be like I'm walking down this journey of life," she says in between schoolgirl giggles. As if her outfit - a casual orange T-shirt and jeans, accessorised with a pair of large owl earrings and an orange newsboy cap - was not youthful enough.

She was in town on a personal trip to visit a group of four Malawi orphans, who were in Singapore for the past month on a school exchange programme.

She heard about these teenagers, aged 15 to 17, from a social worker friend last month, and requested to meet them in person.

"They can speak fluent Mandarin and are also so interested in Chinese culture and gongfu, and I was just so moved when I heard about them that I felt compelled to come here and meet them in person."

The orphans speak Mandarin as their original caretaker at their orphanage back home was Taiwanese. Fung adds: "I was inspired by them, but I also hope to inspire them. Knowing that they are orphans, I wanted to tell them that they should never give up on themselves and know that they can do anything."

She pauses, then adds proudly with a grin: "I mean, I already started paying taxes to the government at the age of seven. So why can't these kids do anything they want?"

She began acting at the age of three in the movie The Odd Couple, when the big-eyed, sweet-faced girl was cast by accident.

She had followed her late actor father Fung Fung to the set one day and was suddenly asked by the director to replace the film's original child actress, who had been "too naughty".

That kickstarted her film career and she went on to act in more than 100 films by the age of nine, becoming one of the most well-known child stars of the time.

"All I knew at that time was that I would have to work and work and work. One movie was over, and then it was time to do another one," she says, sounding matter-of-fact.

Some of her most famed movies include The Stormy Night (1960), The Magic Cup (1962) and The Mad Bar (1970).

One of her favourite childhood roles was the one in The White Dragon (1968), in which she played the cheeky male character of Little White Dragon at the age of 14.

"I played a boy in that movie and I did some gongfu too, so I really enjoyed it. I just really liked that role and, until now, I remember that I had fun with that movie," she says.

The actress adds that she started watching her older movies only in recent years.

"When I watch them now, I don't ever think that the little girl in the movies is actually me. But I will think, 'Wow, this girl is so smart - she knows how to cry on cue and she can really act," she says eagerly with a laugh.

Growing into her 20s, she also took on memorable TV roles such as the title characters in TVB's hit series Yang Gui Fei (1976), ATV's Empress Wu (1984) and Taiwan's Xi Shi (1987).

"I played all these really iconic, strong female characters in Chinese history and I really enjoyed those," she says proudly.

These days, she acts only occasionally, when a project catches her fancy.

She says cheekily: "If I'm not interested or don't want to take on a certain role, then I will tell the director that I don't know how to play that part."

Her last film appearance was a cameo role in Ann Hui's 2010 movie, All About Love, in which she played a lesbian.

This year, she will be filming two Hong Kong films: Mama Eva, in which she plays the title role of a mother whose daughter (Fiona Sit) is marrying a French man, and My Daughter Named Love, where she will act alongside Siu Yam Yam, 68, and Kenneth Tsang, 75.

"These days, I really just take on roles if I like the script or if I want to work with the cast and director. Now that I have so much time on my hands, I want to spend that time doing things that make me happy."

Three years ago, she moved from Hong Kong to Penang, where she is now residing with her Malaysian architect husband Yoong Siew Chuen.

"I find it very peaceful in Penang and I really want to find a place with a slower pace. I don't want to be one of those people who wander around the cities so tired and frustrated and with no energy," she says.

Her sons, aged 32 and 30, and six grandchildren live in Hong Kong.

"I fly over there as often as I can to see them. Whenever there is a festival or celebration, we will also go to one another's homes and celebrate together."

Otherwise, she keeps up with her family through social media and communication apps including Whatsapp and Viber.

With a laugh, she says: "I have so many Whatsapp messages every day. The first thing that I do when I wake up is to read my Whatsapp messages. I also have Instagram and Weibo - I keep up with these things, you know."

Chuckling, she whips out her phone to show this reporter: "You see, look at all my chat groups and all the pictures we send one another.

"I take pictures of everything because I tell my sons that they can know what I've done in my life after I die. At my age, you never know what will happen."

What she does not give enough of to her sons, she admits, is time.

"When I'm out on the streets with my sons, I end up talking to my fans more than to my own children. They always complain to me that I am giving too much time to strangers."

Given her extreme friendliness, it is surprising to see her turn visibly irritated when she is asked about whether she is in touch with the rest of the "Seven Princesses", the label given to her and six other starlets of the 1960s.

Other than Fung, the group is made up of her older sister Fung So Bor and actresses Sum Chee Wah, Connie Chan Po Chu, Josephine Siao Fang Fang, Nancy Sit and Wong Oi Ming.

Sounding slightly angry, she says: "'The Seven Princesses was just something that the movie companies came up with for film promotions. Don't you know it's just for marketing purposes? The movie companies like to make it seem like we're all very close, but we weren't really like that outside of work.

"I'm not interested in answering this question about them. I am Petrina Fung Bo Bo, I am my own person."

She turns away with a slight pout and looks almost like a petulant child. But the pout just as quickly dissolves when yet another passer-by comes up to gush about how good the actress still looks and then asks for a picture.

Smiling gleefully, Fung says after the snap: "Don't forget to send me the picture on Whatsapp."

yipwy@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 7, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/