Actress Joanne Peh rebuts criticism about her Mandarin accent on Channel 8 series

Actress Joanne Peh says her manner of speech on TV drama Dream Coder is how she would speak with husband Qi Yuwu and daughter

Some viewers called Joanne Peh out for trying to sound like a mainland Chinese speaker in Channel 8 series Dream Coder.
Some viewers called Joanne Peh out for trying to sound like a mainland Chinese speaker in Channel 8 series Dream Coder. PHOTO: CHANNEL 8

Singaporean actress Joanne Peh is back in a television drama after a two-year-break and speaking discernibly different Mandarin on Channel 8 series Dream Coder.

On online forums and her Facebook page, some viewers called Peh out for trying to sound like a mainland Chinese speaker. But Peh took to social media to rebut critics, saying she is a "Singaporean speaking proper Mandarin".

In an interview with The Straits Times, Peh, 33, says: "I wasn't trying to speak with an accent, nor do I think the way I speak makes me sound like I come from China.

"Now if I was playing a Singaporean Ah Lian, it could be out of character, but I play an educated Singaporean woman, so I don't see what the issue is."

Her manner of speech on the show is similar to how she would speak with her actor husband Qi Yuwu and one-year-old daughter at home, adds Peh, who is expecting her second child.

Her character is a mother of one, who starts working at a mobile app development firm after her cheating husband leaves the family.

So what exactly does it mean to speak proper Mandarin?

According to Associate Professor Lee Cher Leng, a Chinese linguist and deputy head of the Department of Chinese Studies at National University of Singapore, proper Mandarin involves using standard grammatical structure, which is internationally acceptable and understood.

She adds: "Pronunciation and accents may vary depending on the country the person is from."

Associate Professor Ng Bee Chin of Nanyang Technological University's division of linguistics and multilingual studies adds: "A community tends to make a language its own by infusing its features into the language."

After watching a clip of Dream Coder, Prof Ng noted that Peh is "speaking a variety of Mandarin Chinese that is widely used in Singapore" and she occasionally adopts pronunciation features associated with Mandarin typically spoken in mainland China.

The bilingual Peh believes "speaking good Mandarin" involves having the right pronunciation, using correct vocabulary and forming proper sentence structures, which was what she was trying to achieve in Dream Coder.

While some viewers point out that Peh picked up an accent only after spending some time in Beijing with China-born Qi after getting married three years ago, The Straits Times' TV reviewer Foong Woei Wan noticed that the actress' speech in contemporary dramas starting evolving years ago.

She observed that Peh spoke with a "true Singaporean staccato rhythm" in 2011 series A Tale Of 2 Cities, peppering her sentences with "lah" and "lei".

A year later, in 2012 drama Pillow Talk, Peh's pronunciation was slightly different. Ms Foong says: "The way she said some words, you could imagine a Taiwanese or northern Chinese saying them too. Which is not that different from what she's doing on Dream Coder."

For instance, Peh uses sentence-final particles not commonly used in Singapore in Dream Coder.

Ms Foong says: "She goes, 'ni kan shen me ya' (what are you looking at ya), which may sound foreign to some of us, instead of, maybe, 'ni kan shen me ha' (what are you looking at ha). It's not that new, but maybe people are noticing now because she has been away and she married a China-born actor."

Perhaps Peh started tweaking her Mandarin back then because she had already set her sights on venturing beyond the local market.

But these days, she admits that speaking Mandarin without a Singapore accent could open doors to overseas opportunities.

"The professionals from the larger film markets will usually look at the work we've done. Unfortunately, Singapore actors with Singaporean-accented English or Mandarin just won't work for them."

Local actor Andie Chen, 31, had to make adjustments to his speech when taking on acting projects in Taiwan a few years ago.

He worked on his diction by taking classes. He also learnt that certain words are pronounced differently, such as garbage is read as "la ji" here and "le se" in Taiwan.

Ultimately, an actor's job is to craft the character to fit its background. He says: "It really boils down to what your character is, where he is from. It is about the backstory of your character rather than focusing on speaking proper Mandarin."

• Dream Coder airs on Channel 8 on weekdays at 9pm. The series is also available on Toggle.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline ''I'm a Singaporean speaking proper Mandarin''. Print Edition | Subscribe