To sing like Fong Fei-fei

Royston Tan (second from left) with the cast of 3688: (from left) Liu Lingling, Shigga Shay and Joi Chua.
Royston Tan (second from left) with the cast of 3688: (from left) Liu Lingling, Shigga Shay and Joi Chua.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Royston Tan's new film 3688 centres on a parking attendant who dreams of becoming a singer like her idol Fong Fei-fei

Before director Royston Tan could fulfil his promise to take his parents to a concert by Taiwanese singer Fong Fei-fei, the legendary diva died in 2012.

Now his parents can enjoy Fong's songs, albeit through their son's new film 3688.

"It taught me a lesson: Don't wait, don't procrastinate, don't take things for granted. I failed to keep my promise to take my parents to a Fong Fei-fei concert," says Tan, 38, who is directing his first feature in seven years since 12 Lotus (2008).

Speaking to the media yesterday, he says he would instead be taking his parents, retirees in their 60s, to watch the movie that night.

The musical comedy 3688 revolves around a parking attendant named Fei Fei who dreams of becoming a singer like her idol and namesake.

Tan reveals that there are plans to take 3688 to a few "important" overseas film festivals.

He says: "I'm a little surprised that a few 'ang moh' (Western) countries want to show 3688. It goes to show that Fong Fei-fei's impact is felt all over the world."

Home-grown singer Joi Chua, who makes her movie debut as the protagonist, listened to Fong's songs when she was growing up.

She recalls: "When I was very young, I would always watch Fong Fei-fei on TV. She stood out - there was no one like her. She was so suave yet pretty at the same time. She has a great voice, great songs."

Known for her crystal-clear vocals, Chua, 36, is behind the hit ballad Watching The Sunrise With Me (2004) and snagged a Golden Melody Award nomination for Best Female Singer in 2008.

Still, she felt it was a challenge to belt out Fong's classics such as Knock On The Door and Applause.

"Her songs are tough to sing, they have a great vocal range. I needed to sing them in a certain way. I couldn't sing in my usual gentle style, which people know me for from my ballads. You have to project the vocals and emotions."

The movie also stars veteran getai singer Liu Lingling, iconic singer Rahimah Rahim, actor Brandon Wong and, also making his movie debut, rapper Shigga Shay, who composed a rap number for Fong, known as the Queen of Hats for her trademark couture style.

The 22-year-old rapper, whose real name is Pek Jin Shen, says: "I listened to a few of her songs when I was growing up because my mum was a fan of hers. Royston gave me a timeline of Fong's life events. I did some research online and watched her clips to get an idea. I had to memorise everything and use it in a rap."

For the movie, he and his on-screen mother, played by Liu, a getai star, bonded even before filming - because director Tan made them call each other every day for two weeks before shooting commenced.

Shigga Shay says: "We got to know each other. I asked her about her favourite colour, what she likes to do. We built the relationship from there. There was a scene where I rapped about what she likes."

Ever the joker, Liu complains in jest: "But he called me really late at night - 10pm, 11pm, 1.30am. I wanted to tell him, after midnight no more calls, please."

•3688 opens tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'To sing like Fong Fei-fei'. Print Edition | Subscribe