Chinese First Lady's reunited with musician friends here

An old photo of Mr Ang Lam Seng, then Zhong Yi Traditional Orchestra's conductor, with a young Ms Peng Liyuan, taken during her visit to Singapore in 1987. Members of the orchestra who met Ms Peng Liyuan included (from left) Mr Ang Lam Seng, Mr Lim B
Members of the orchestra who met Ms Peng Liyuan included (from left) Mr Ang Lam Seng, Mr Lim Bee Wah and Mr Lee Kway Liang, who are seen here with a photo they took with Ms Peng years ago, a booklet from the 1987 musical recital in which she performed in Singapore, and a gift set. The set, which the First Lady presented to each musician during her recent trip here, comprises a double-DVD compilation of Chinese folk songs performed by her, her photo and her autograph.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
An old photo of Mr Ang Lam Seng, then Zhong Yi Traditional Orchestra's conductor, with a young Ms Peng Liyuan, taken during her visit to Singapore in 1987. Members of the orchestra who met Ms Peng Liyuan included (from left) Mr Ang Lam Seng, Mr Lim B
An old photo of Mr Ang Lam Seng, then Zhong Yi Traditional Orchestra's conductor, with a young Ms Peng Liyuan, taken during her visit to Singapore in 1987.PHOTO COURTESY OF ZHONG YI TRADITIONAL ORCHESTRA

She asked to meet the 15 she had performed with in 1987 during her recent state visit here

An unforgettable experience of a lifetime.

That was how Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan described her first visit to Singapore in 1987, when she performed in a vocal recital at the Singapore Conference Hall and got to know members of the Zhong Yi Traditional Orchestra.

She had asked to meet the 15 musicians she had performed with during her state visit here with Chinese President Xi Jinping last weekend.

"The moment she stepped into the room, she looked at us and said that she recognised every single one of us, and remembered the instruments that we played," said Mr Lee Kway Liang, who plays the cello.

The private meeting, which lasted about 40 minutes on Nov 7 morning at St Regis Hotel, was a casual gathering of old friends who had not met for more than two decades.

PERFORMANCE JITTERS

She was already quite a household name by then, both in China and here in Singapore. When we were asked by Mr Tan to perform with her, we started rehearsing weeks in advance. As an amateur orchestra, what if we couldn't match her standards?

MR ANG LAM SENG, then the conductor of the Zhong Yi Traditional Orchestra


GOOD MEMORY

The moment she stepped into the room, she looked at us and said that she recognised every single one of us, and remembered the instruments that we played.

MR LEE KWAY LIANG, a retiree who plays the cello

"We spoke about whatever came to mind. Some of us like to joke and poke fun at each other, and it made Ms Peng very happy when we made her laugh," added Mr Lee, a retiree who is in his 60s.

They discussed things like the performance of traditional Chinese music and calligraphy, and Ms Peng encouraged them to pass these skills on to the next generation.

All members, except two who were not free, turned up for the reunion. They shook hands with her, and each received a box containing a special two-DVD compilation of Chinese folk songs performed by her, as well as her photo and autograph.

Back in 1987, Ms Peng, with four other youth singers from China Central Television, was invited to perform here by the late Singapore tenor Tan Buck Siak. She was then 24 and had just won a national youth singing contest in China.

"She was already quite a household name by then, both in China and here in Singapore. When we were asked by Mr Tan to perform with her, we started rehearsing weeks in advance. As an amateur orchestra, what if we couldn't match her standards?" said Mr Ang Lam Seng, then the conductor of the orchestra.

The group spent about five days rehearsing with Ms Peng ahead of their shows over three days. It was the first time that singers from China were invited to perform here and tickets were sold out.

After rehearsals, the musicians would go with the Chinese singers to shop or run errands, and they often had dinner or supper together.

"Ms Peng had a very gregarious personality and got along very well with us. She was open and honest about her preferences, and had no airs," said Mr Ang, who is now retired and in his 60s.

The musicians recalled that she admired the island's beauty when she first arrived and was keen to explore the place. In particular, she wanted to see what everyday life was like for most Singaporeans.

In fact, the first Housing Board flat she visited was Mr Lee's five-room unit in Everton Park.

The group kept in touch after her first visit through letters, and cards on festive occasions.

She invited them to her graduation concert when she completed her studies at the Chinese Conservatory of Music around 1989 but they could not go. She returned to Singapore in 1990 and 1993 to perform at the Singapore River Hongbao Special, where she met them.

They took her on an MRT ride, to hawker centres to sample yong tau foo, one of her favourite local dishes, and visited the Nanyang Technological Institute, which in 1991 became the Nanyang Technological University.

She was even game enough to try durians in Queen Street, pinching her nose while taking the first bite. As she was here over the Chinese New Year period in 1990, she also visited their homes to see how the festival was celebrated here.

As Ms Peng began cutting back on public appearances while her husband's political star rose, they gradually lost contact.

But last week's reunion with Ms Peng reaffirmed their friendship.

"Ordinary people like us could have been easily forgotten, but we must have left a deep impression on her," said Mr Lim Bee Wah, a retiree in his 60s who plays the erhu.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Chinese First Lady's reunited with musician friends here'. Print Edition | Subscribe