TV's good old days gone with Huang Wenyong

29 April 2013 / 3 years 5 months ago
Source: The Straits Times

A youthful army officer with a thick early 1980s fringe flashes a megawatt smile - radiating an earnest, honest-to-goodness charm - as he greets a recruit in the barracks.

This fleeting scene from the first Chinese drama serial here, 1983's Army Series now immortalised on YouTube - gave audiences their first memorable glimpse of Huang Wenyong.

A year later, the much-watched historical drama serial The Awakening turned the slim kampung boy from Kuala Lumpur into the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation's (SBC) first leading man.

He was then 31, playing the dignified, weather-beaten coolie Ah Shui opposite a wide-eyed 22-year- old Xiang Yun.

In those early Chinese dramas, which would amass nearly one million nightly viewers here by the end of the 1980s and be exported to more than 30 countries including China, Australia and Mauritius, Huang was everywhere.

He was the titular Son Of Pulau Tekong (1985) who encounters hard knocks on the mainland; the handsome Outward Bound School instructor in The Happy Trio (1985); the simple-minded, impish lorry driver in the well-acted ensemble drama Samsui Women (1986), about the lives of female immigrant construction workers.

His death from lymphoma last Saturday - an illness he had kept under wraps from all except, his family and closest friends - is a symbol of the passing of the golden age of Channel 8 drama serials, which have struggled to get that same number of viewers with the onslaught of cable TV in the last 15 years.

The 1980s and the first half of the 1990s were the heyday of SBC Chinese dramas.

Their original story arcs created a buzz among viewers hungry to see their lives and histories captured every evening on the goggle box.

Talented and hardworking actors like Huang - working on punishing filming schedules at a time when lucrative product endorsements were not yet within the grasp of TV stars - fleshed out these stories, accompanied by infectious theme songs written and sung by xinyao (local Mandarin folk music) pioneers such as Eric
Moo and brothers Li Weisong and Li Sisong.

The effect of these dramas was particularly seismic because prior to the formation of the statutory board SBC in 1980, its previous entity Radio Television Singapore had a minuscule budget, producing only occasional one-off local dramas and screening Hollywood or Hong Kong programmes on repeat, to the extent that it was dubbed "Repeat Television Singapore".

SBC's then-general manager Cheng Tong Fatt, who set up the Chinese drama unit, needed to find a way to make money.

He hit on the idea of making, low-cost local drama serials that could reel in viewers and draw advertisers.

As Mr Cheng, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Culture revealed to me in an interview a few years ago, he went for Chinese rather than English dramas because he felt it was more difficult to compete with Hollywood.

TV producers and scriptwriters from Hong Kong were hired and they eventually passed on their skills to Singaporeans.

And so it came to be that I grew up on a diet of early Channel 8 drama serials.

Although I was an English-speaking convent schoolgirl at the time, these stories were anything but foreign to me.

To this day, my friends and I can still belt out the hit theme songs of kopitiam drama Coffeeshop (1986), composed and sung by Moo, and Good Morning Sir (1989), a comedy about a madcap teacher (played by actress Chen Liping) whose favourite phrase was the exclamation "ai yo yo".

The show had a jaunty theme tune penned by the Li brothers.

The late 1980s and 1990s were also the height of Singapore Chinese drama's soft power around the region.

Younger Caldecott Hill stars like Jeanette Aw or even Zoe Tay may cut little or no ice with viewers in Malaysia and China, but Huang's face can still be found on advertising billboards in Kuala Lumpur suburbs populated by Malaysian, Chinese.

In China, those above 35 remember the likes of him and Li Nanxing because their shows went over while China's own TV stations were languishing and closed off to drama serials from Taiwan and sometimes Hong Kong.

Huang was by no means the oldest of that pioneer batch of full-time artistes.

He was 60 when he died, compared to, say, fellow veteran Chen Shucheng, still spry at 65.

But cancer is merciless, and his was the first star to be dimmed.

What made his sudden death all the more poignant - and inspired eulogies from MPs, co-stars and ordinary Singaporeans alike - was his constant, faithful presence on their TV screens over the last 30 years.

Other leading men of the 1980s would drop out of the limelight, such as Lin Mingzhe of Growing Up (1984) fame who left acting in the early 1990s, or The Flying Fish (1983) heart-throb Wang Yuqing who left in 1995, made a comeback several years later and now acts only part-time.

The composers and singers behind the theme songs of these dramas have moved on to bigger things.

The Li brothers now write songs for Asia's biggest Mandopop stars such as Hong Kong's Jacky Cheung, Singapore's Stefanie Sun and China's Jane Zhang.

Moo is based in Beijing and judging Chinese reality TV singing competitions.

However, Huang never left SBC, which, became the Television Corporation of Singapore and then the privatised MediaCorp.

Through the years, he transitioned seamlessly, and gracefully, from romantic lead to supporting roles along the spectrum of henpecked husband and nitpicky uncle, acting in a total of more than 100 Chinese dramas and sitcoms.

Age did not dampen his boyish Peter Pan glow and he remained a favourite among viewers.

In 2000, he bagged Best Comedy Performer at the Star Awards playing a lottery-striking taxi driver in Don't Worry Be Happy.

He was also the only artiste to be nominated for the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes every year since the awards started in 1994, although he won only once, in 2011.

He has also been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award this year, for playing the odious Chou Pi Ren in the 2012 period drama Joys Of Life.

A consummate professional and loyal workhorse to the end, he filmed his last role as Chen Liping's onscreen husband in the Chinese New Year drama It's A Wonderful Life at the end of last year, despite looking gaunt and having shed 10kg from undergoing chemotherapy in secret.

In a moving eulogy to him posted earlier this week on Facebook, which has since received more than 24,000 likes, veteran actress Xiang Yun recalls Huang's devotion to his family as well as his, unstinting dedication to his work, slogging on set through many a Chinese New Year holiday at the company's request.

She looked up to the older actor, a former Chinese language teacher who became her friend.

"I have become forgetful in recent years and it was Wenyong who reminded me about a lot of things.

Now that he is gone, the forgotten memories will stay forgotten, life must go on," she wrote in Chinese.

For those who grew up watching his drama serials, his passing is a reminder of our mortality - as well as of a younger, more hopeful version of ourselves when the world seemed alive with possibilities.
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