Ah Boys go to China

Two actors trek through China, bartering 50 Singapore products for food and lodging

Wang Weiliang (above) and Tosh Zhang trying to barter objects they brought with them to China.
Wang Weiliang (above) and Tosh Zhang trying to barter objects they brought with them to China.PHOTO: STARHUB
The actors making teh tarik.
The actors making teh tarik.PHOTO: STARHUB

Travel across China in 50 days without cash, with only 50 Singapore products to barter in exchange for food and accommodation.

This is the wacky premise of a new StarHub reality travel show, Mission S-change, featuring familiar Ah Boys To Men cast members Tosh Zhang and Wang Weiliang.

Armed with just sleeping bags and essentials, the duo try to pay their way through the Middle Kingdom with half-a-century's worth of Singapore products: from childhood games such as chapteh and five stones, to more valuable food products such as bak kwa (pork jerky). Their journey takes them across three different provinces in China: Shaanxi province in the north-west, and Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in the south-west.

Filming for the 13-episode series, which airs from Tuesday, began in January. In Lijiang, Yunnan province, where the shoot began, it was snowing heavily.

Zhang and Wang were unable to find accommodation one night and had to sleep in a tent in a basketball court. The temperature on Lijiang's Jade Dragon Snow where they camped that night? -2°C.

Wang says half-jokingly: "All our free time off the set was spent falling ill."

The 50-day journey was broken up into separate trips and the duo are set to wrap up filming by the end of this month.

Mission S-change is among the first batch of Public Service Broadcast content created under the Media Development Authority's Public Service Broadcast Contestable Funds Scheme. Launched in July 2012, the scheme funds local television shows which promote Singapore's culture and identity.

StarHub said Zhang and Wang were chosen for the programme as Singapore viewers would be able to identify strongly with their personalities. That, and the fact that both are young and fit enough to take on the rough journey.

Still, they have had to contend with homesickness and the language barrier on their mission.

"My Chinese is a lot weaker than my English, so I had to rely on Weiliang to communicate most of the time," explains Zhang, 26, a Republic Polytechnic graduate who also raps in English and Hokkien.

But even Wang, 28, found it difficult to convey what they wanted because of the local dialects.

Bartering for over-the-counter items such as train tickets also proved nearly impossible.

Certain items such as bak kwa, however, made good trades because of their high value. For examples, the boys traded bak kwa for horses to ride up a snowy mountain in Lijiang, which usually costs about RMB380 (S$82), and for accommodation in small villages.

While they are followed by production crew members, the two have no cash on them and everything they get must be through trading. The crew shadowing them are not allowed to interfere or bail them out.

Zhang and Wang agree that the programme has been valuable in teaching them more about China and Singapore's cultures.

"When you barter with people, you need to know exactly what you offer to them to make it sound worth their time," says Zhang.

"There was this time that we were trying to trade Nonya souvenirs for a piece of artwork, and we had to explain to the locals what Nonyas were. A lot of research and background knowledge is necessary."

Seeing China and its people first-hand was also a valuable experience, as they found out that what people see on social media and what they see in real life are two different things.

"We've met many hospitable and generous people, who were more than willing to give us a place to stay," says Wang. "Social media usually chooses to focus on the worse side of Chinese people, so it's nice to be able to see that not everyone in China acts the same way."


Mission S-change will air weekly on E City (StarHub TV Channel 111/825) on Tuesday at 8pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Ah Boys go to China'. Subscribe