I felt like something magical had just happened.
I was sitting in Oon Shu An's dressing room at the Drama Centre, on an afternoon a few days before Chinglish was to open. In Pangdemonium's production of the comedy by Chinese-American David Henry Hwang (the same man behind M. Butterfly), the local actress plays Xi Yan, the vice minister of culture for a small Chinese city. A femme fatale of sorts, the character's an intelligent and patriotic individual in a story about an American businessman who comes to China and learns about guanxi — otherwise known as the business term for the act of "you scratch my back, I scratch yours". She stars opposite household theatre names Adrian Pang, Daniel Jenkins and funny woman Audrey Luo, as well as Mediacorp artiste Guo Liang.
But no, that magic didn't lie simply in the presence of Oon alone. We had been acquainted previously and while I was well aware of her brimming talent, speaking with her alone wasn't about to set off fireworks — until she broke out a Chinese accent. Hold it, a mainland Chinese accent. It was right after I asked if her character spoke in an accent apart from her Mandarin-speaking lines.
"Yes," she replied distinctly, with all the inflections of a Chinese person in that one word.
A guffaw escaped me. I loved the way Oon managed to keep a straight face, although you could tell her almond-shaped eyes were alit with cheekiness. I learned that she hired a Chinese tutor to help with her lines, both speaking them and understanding their cultural context. When I asked what her Mandarin-language efficiency was before she engaged a tutor, she laughs.
"I'll tell you what my Chinese teacher said to me in junior college," she said, this time without the accent. "When the results (for Chinese) came out, he said to me, 'Wah Shu An, C5! Not bad ah?'. So that will give you an indication of what my Chinese is like."
I then asked if she could do the rest of the interview in character, and she obliged. I left the Drama Centre with a few more laugh lines around my mouth, and a belly ache to boot.
It'll be hilarious watching you speak in a Chinese accent.
[in a Chinese accent] It's a very funny. It's quite interesting because we were talking about it. Is that China people everywhere, all speak different kind of English. You know? It's like if you go Korea, most of English is very US accent. It is a very American. So China is sometimes...sometimes is American, sometimes is not sure from where.
I feel like something magical just happened.
Thank you, thank you very much. So it's er like we say, the China, even the China people, they thinking, all the China person speak English very different. You can same circle friend and all speak different, because of kind of show you watch. The kind of book you read. Is all affecting the way you think. And affecting the way you speak.
You should just do the entire interview in that accent.
You want me to do it in a China accent? It's much pleasure mine. Because I like speak this kind. Sometimes I start, and the people wanting me stop, stop, please stop.
Because it's irritating. It's stop playing accent, I cannot thinking what you saying. But I thinking sometimes it's fun. You know, you start and it's like I cannot stop. Like now I speak in a Singaporean accent, it's boring.
Is it hard to do?
Is not hard. Is fun, is so much fun. Is sometimes you see lines is difficult cause you thinking how I plays this in different way. You know, how I do this different every day. Cause sometimes you learn accent and then the line everyday same you know is boring. So I was thinking how do I change a bit. How do I make real yes, even with accent.
Have you done other accents in the past?
Let me think. When I young, I study the acting and the sometimes do Shakespeare. And also when you young and you in Singapore, you doing play, people thinking you must speak like British you know, speak properly. So that is the kind of strange pseudo English accent I use to do when I younger. Then as I growing up, I make it a point in thinking, how make it more Singaporean. How make it more real. Not real, but suited to my reality. So I thinking more that. Other accent, let me think. I sometimes do a good Malay accent but no body ask me to do a Malay show.
Can you give the next answer in a Malay accent?
[in her own accent] Okay I'll try. Let me switch back to a Singaporean accent first, then erase the China accent, come back to reality okay lets go.
So apart from the obvious language challenge, what other challenges were there in the role?
[in a Chinese accent] Ok is a difficult, because the Malay accent is sort of need...
And I'm Malay, so extra pressure.
[in her own accent] You know I can scold a few things very well in Malay.
Merepek ("nonsensical") and bising siol ("it's so noisy"). Ada udang di sebalik batu ("A person says one thing while harbouring hidden intentions behind their words").
That's a deep one actually.
[in her own accent] Thank you, thank you. If you teach me a Malay phrase I could probably learn it.
Back to Chinglish. What other parts were difficult?
[in a Chinese accent] What other stuff? Is having love scene. Is I can tell? (she gestures to the Pangdemonium media representative) I think is because a big romance. A big part of story.
So romance is a big part of the story?
Ok I tell...I tell this. Maybe we no say who romance with but we say has romance and when has romance, got kiss kiss. I think that was a bit difficult.
But you've done intimate scenes before. You were a porn star, for God's sake!
[in her own accent] Yes, but never on stage. It's very different! Because on stage you have no close-up to cut to! On film, you can do a close-up on the face and no one knows what's happening at the bottom right? But here, you can see everything! Generally, I don't really like making out scenes.
Back to language. I read somewhere that you watched a Chinese show to help you master your accent.
Chinese Dream Show is a show where people from different parts of China come with a dream they want fulfilled. If the audience votes for them, they get the chance to move on to the next stage. It's simple things like "I want my brother to be able to go to school." Hearing the stories of these people I found quite inspiring.
Because I think that xenophobia in Singapore has been slightly on the rise and I think that's a natural reaction for a small country with limited resources. Actually, any country in the world: Once you get a huge influx of people who you feel might be taking away from your life, you don't feel protected and survival instincts kick in — and that comes out in different ways. So I really love that show because anytime you get to see a different race, a different country or a culture that's so different to you, and you see more of the people and what they're like, it opens a different part of you, you know what I mean?
Chinglish is showing at the Drama Centre Theatre from now till 25 October.