Xiang Yun: I want to keep acting until my memory fails me

38 years in the business and Xiang Yun’s passion for acting is still going strong. What keeps her going?

Revisiting Xiang Yun's 38-year acting career
Revisiting Xiang Yun's 38-year acting career
21 Jun 2017

Revisiting Xiang Yun's 38-year acting career

Photos: Dion Tang, Channel 8
Videos: Charlene Chong


Few actors can say they’ve witnessed the growth of the TV industry in Singapore, with the exception of Xiang Yun who belongs to the first batch of artistes that signed on with the TV station in the early days. She remains as the “last one” standing today, after her peers have “all moved on” and remarked, in her interview with Toggle, that she signed her contract even before fellow veteran actor Chen Shucheng did. 

As someone with 38 years of acting experience (and she’s showing no signs of stopping!) under her belt, Xiang Yun’s affectionately known to many and looked upon as the ‘first generation Ah Jie’ in Singapore’s acting industry - right up to this very day. The mother of two may not have the superstar glamour package such as the likes of Zoe Tay or Fann Wong, but she has her fair share of fame and weight, and stands in a different league of her own.

We witnessed firsthand how much she is adored by the public during a cruise trip last year for the filming of long-form Channel 8 TV series Peace & Prosperity. The 55-year-old was surrounded and fawned by swarms of middle-aged aunties and uncles, who most likely came from a generation of TV babies that grew up watching her shows in the late 80s and 90s.

Everyone was eager to chat up Xiang Yun, from the staff at the Duty Free Shop where the cast and crew were filming, to the families dining at the restaurant during mealtimes. Both the young and old wanted pictures with her either for keepsake or - in their words - “to show to mum and dad.” And she reciprocated positively, obliging photo requests one after another, treating everyone with equal parts dignity and respect.

For many, her affability is relatable. Despite her seniority in the industry, she radiates a kind of endearing charm beneath her maternal demeanour, and therein lies the appeal of Xiang Yun and why she’s like an “evergreen” trend that never goes out of style. That, coupled with the fact that she won the Evergreen Artiste award for the aforementioned TV series at this year’s Star Awards is further proof that Xiang Yun still has what it takes.

(Continued on the next page: Xiang Yun talks about aging and her retirement plans)

Xiang Yun with an old outfit she used to wear for 'The Awakening'
Xiang Yun with an old outfit she used to wear for 'The Awakening'
21 Jun 2017

Xiang Yun with an old outfit she used to wear for 'The Awakening'

During our hour-long interview with her, the actress spoke fondly of her early days of acting. Her eyes lit up when she recounted memories spent on set star-gazing with her co-stars, trying to “locate the Big Dipper” while lying on tatami mats during their outdoor overnight shoots and waiting around for long hours “just to get the right lighting for two frames of shots.”

After all these years, her enthusiasm for acting has not waned and she expressed a deep longing to continue being a bridge between audiences and TV shows, especially in the face of increasing competition from overseas productions.

“The only thing we can do now is to strengthen our capabilities, we hope to establish a special relationship with viewers such that when they turn on the TV, they’ll have an urge to see what shows Mediacorp is showing,” she said. “That is a beautiful connection [between us and the viewers].”

Meanwhile, she’ll keep trying to do what she does best – acting, acting, and acting. Until she can no longer remember her lines, Xiang Yun wistfully added.

Time has finally caught up with her – it shows and she knows it, but retirement is something that has yet to cross her mind. “Although I’ve been trying to maintain my appearance, I’ve realised in recent years that my health and physical appearance are no longer like it used to be,” she mused. “I am getting old and I’m embracing it.”

“I’ll try my best to keep my mind active and I will continue acting until the day comes when I can’t remember my lines.”

What is one drama she hopes to reshoot if given the chance to and why does she think her daughter inherited her “character’s” bad temper? Read on for more as we revisit some of Xiang Yun’s most memorable roles and shows.

The Awakening (1984)
The Awakening (1984)
21 Jun 2017

The Awakening (1984)

“For our (her and Huang Wenyong) era… we never saw ourselves as stars. A lot of people would say we’re the first generation Ah Ge and Ah Jie, but we never thought of ourselves as Ah Ge and Ah Jie. We didn’t think we were very popular, we just felt very busy [with work]. I remember when we were celebrating one of the drama anniversaries - when Wenyong was still around - that realisation only dawned on us when we were given a recognition [for it].”

L-R: The Unyielding Butterflies (1985), Men of Valour (1986)
L-R: The Unyielding Butterflies (1985), Men of Valour (1986)
21 Jun 2017

L-R: The Unyielding Butterflies (1985), Men of Valour (1986)

“I’ve been very fortunate to be given the chance to wear so many beautiful costumes… I do miss filming period shows, the atmosphere and approach are different – but you need the right director for it… because period shows are all about the right backdrop, timing and frame… we used to be very particular about such things that’s why we can spend an hour trying to adjust the light just to get the best shot of a person smiling.”

Painted Faces (1987)
Painted Faces (1987)
21 Jun 2017

Painted Faces (1987)

“If I had a chance to do a drama all over again, I’d choose Painted Faces. I took on two roles in this show and played the roles of both daughter and mother. When I did this character, I was only 24 years old. It was not easy playing an immoral mother and it was not easy playing a daughter who had to shoulder the responsibility of supporting the opera troupe. This is a very rich character and I specially learnt Teochew opera for this show, I started from the basics and gradually grew to love it.”

Immortal Love (1997)
Immortal Love (1997)
21 Jun 2017

Immortal Love (1997)

“I had a few grievances when I was doing this [makeover to look like a centenarian] (see right image) because I spent 3 and a half hours in hair and makeup and when the show aired – no one could tell that it was me because they couldn’t recognise me. Plus, my voice was dubbed over so nobody knew it was me at all. At least I can say that I’ve been there, done that.”

Around People’s Park (1998)
Around People’s Park (1998)
21 Jun 2017

Around People’s Park (1998)

“We were filming this drama during Chinese New Year and there were a lot of small stalls in Chinatown. I would wear Ah Hua’s outfits to do some shopping and whenever I was at a store, scrutinising its goods, the stall owner would tell me: ‘Hands off! Don’t touch my things!’ because they thought I was a loony. I was upset initially, but after I thought about it, this was a successful makeover because they couldn’t recognise me. Ever since this role, I could do all kinds of shows. I think this was an acting breakthrough for me.”

My Home Affairs (2000)
My Home Affairs (2000)
21 Jun 2017

My Home Affairs (2000)

“I was pregnant when I was filming this drama... At that time, if you were pregnant, your contract will be nullified and I was actually very worried that I would not be able to return to this industry if I left. I really love acting. Coincidentally, the executive producer, Kok Len Shoong, told me she had a role for me, and I decided to be honest with the production team because my tummy would get bigger as filming went by… She told me, it’s okay and that they would alter my outfits if I didn’t mind. We shot [this drama] until my stomach was seven months big and you could even tell that I was rounder on camera.

“This was a role I really enjoyed playing, I really like it. But I think it was because of this show my daughter is just like me (laughs), she’s good at scolding people too. I remember I had to quarrel with my onscreen husband played by Huang Shinan for one of the scenes and I was so agitated, I slammed the wardrobe and when I did that, I felt my abdomen tighten, like the baby was going to come out. I quickly told myself to calm down.”

The Challenge (2001)
The Challenge (2001)
21 Jun 2017

The Challenge (2001)

“I won an award (Best Supporting Actress at the 2001 Star Awards) for this role and I played Vincent Ng’s mother. I am really thankful because while this is not a meaty role, there was room to develop the character… this show was even shot in Shaolin temple in China.”

Holland Village (2003)
Holland Village (2003)
21 Jun 2017

Holland Village (2003)

“I was told by the producer Kok Len Shoong that she thinks I'm not suitable for this role because the character is constantly scolding people. When I heard that I was really upset because of the lack of confidence in me, even before I did the role… eventually, I decided to just let it all go [and dived into the role]. I would even scold people when I was home (laughs). I didn’t know acting would bring about a breakthrough for me in life too. Ever since that role, I could do everything.”

Double Happiness (2003)
Double Happiness (2003)
21 Jun 2017

Double Happiness (2003)

“’Jiaxi’ is a very detestable character, but this is yet again another breakthrough in my career – I had to act as a villain and I was constantly beating people. But she has certain cute traits to her as well and as actors, as long as we are able to see that in our characters, every role is rich and interesting.”

The Little Nyonya (2008)
The Little Nyonya (2008)
21 Jun 2017

The Little Nyonya (2008)

“The reason why I kept winning awards boils down to people like Kok Len Shoong and director/producer Chia Men Yiang. Sometimes we can get lazy at acting, especially for the veterans, so we have to keep learning – just like how the director constantly reminded me that I played an ill-fated character. She allowed the character’s mindset and behaviour to take root in my mind and helped me achieve another breakthrough. I also learned how to slowly own a character and make her ‘me.’ Chen Hanwei is one such actor who belongs to this category – his acting is superb and he’s able to quickly assimilate himself into every role.”

The Score (2010)
The Score (2010)
21 Jun 2017

The Score (2010)

“I had a bed scene with Terence Cao, and it was a very hilarious scene filmed in Lion City Hotel (which is now demolished) on a very small bed. When we set off I was really nervous – I wore a nude tube top to protect myself, but I couldn’t stop laughing when the cameras rolled. On the other side of the camera, you could see seven to eight people squeezed in a corner, it was hilarious.”

Peace and Prosperity (2015)
Peace and Prosperity (2015)
21 Jun 2017

Peace and Prosperity (2015)

“When I was filming Peace and Prosperity, everyone would gather together and chit chat, and this is a lesser-seen occurrence these days… because the show spanned 170 episodes, I was able to actually form relationships with the cast and we behaved like a family on set.

“When I was filming this show, I realised that it was not just the actresses that weren’t eating – the actors were not eating too. The world has changed! In our era, everyone would be eating non-stop – and we would be binge-drinking and eating. I still remember director Lin Mingzhe needed a few servings of rice, Edmund (Chen) had to order double portions of noodles… Nowadays, actors struggle to even finish a plate of noodles. I’ve even seen some actors eating only the vegetables and throwing away the rice. This is a really strange phenomenon.”

The Lead (2017)
The Lead (2017)
21 Jun 2017

The Lead (2017)

“I was required to act as a 20-something year old actress from the 80s all the way to when she’s in her 50s. It was too painful! But I’m still grateful the producers believed I could do it. But I can’t fight nature, I really am getting old… I hope to never have to act like a young lass again, I want to be myself.”

WATCH: Xiang Yun: I never saw myself as an 'Ah Jie'!
WATCH: How did acting change Xiang Yun's personality?


The Lead airs weeknights, 9pm on Channel 8; watch it on Toggle-It-First or watch past episodes on Toggle

Related:
Chen Hanwei: I used to be a 'difficult' actor

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