Daren Tan criticised for his Cantonese dialect in music video

4 September 2015 / 1 year 1 month ago

Catherine Robert
The New Paper
Sep 1, 2015

The criticisms came in thick and fast for local singer-actor Daren Tan.

Netizens were relentless after the government video featuring him singing in Cantonese about the benefits of the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) and MediShield Life was posted on Facebook on Aug 13.

Comments on the Gov.sg Facebook page ranged from "the Cantonese intonation is the worst I have ever heard" to "horrified by the rendition" to "the Hokkien one was great but this one is epic fail".

The Hokkien version was recorded by veteran getai stars Wang Lei and Liu Ling Ling.

The comments were directed at a series of government advertisements using Chinese dialects to promote the PGP and MediShield Life. 

The ad featuring Tan, 32, sees him putting on a cabaret-esque performance of a song by Hong Kong singer Sam Hui but with adapted lyrics.

Tan told The New Paper: "I expected the criticisms. I knew the pronunciation was a bit off but it was hard for me to record because the words had to fit the melody. The intonation of some of the words were off but I tried to make it as close as I could to how it was supposed to sound while making sure they fit the melody."

The Mata Mata actor admitted that the Cantonese dialect is foreign to him.


Singaporean director Royston Tan, 38, said he specifically chose Tan for the part.

"Daren's smooth vocals, charm and good looks bring the bold, cabaret style of the Cantonese video to life," he explained.

"He is also a dedicated performer. Despite not being a native Cantonese speaker, he put in extra effort to learn the lyrics. He was the first person who came to mind when I scripted the idea."

It took Tan about four hours to record the track.

"It usually takes me an hour, or two at most, to record a track. But for this one, it was one of the longest recordings in my career," he said. With a Cantonese coach guiding him every step of the way, Tan said he did "what he was told".

"I had difficulties because I met my coach on the day of the recording itself," said the winner of Project Superstar. "All I had to do as a singer was to deliver. I just followed whatever he enunciated." Tan accepted his diction was not the best.  "I'm a Hokkien and some netizens just need to know that I'm doing my best to learn another dialect," he said.

Despite the harsh criticism generated, he did not take the comments to heart. He said: "As an artist, you cannot please everybody and being in the media, I guess I am used to criticism.

"The purpose of the ad was to provide good entertainment for the pioneer generation while informing them. So, as long as I get the message across, I'm happy. There is no need to take it too seriously."

The Cantonese video featuring Tan got just over half-a-million views on YouTube. A Teochew version, fronted by getai singer Li Peifen, also got about the same number of views. The Hokkien version received almost 800,000 views

Nervous to play role of Spider Spirit

She is used to playing an aunty on television. But when local actress Liu Ling Ling was told she had to play the feminine Spider Spirit role, she knew it was going to be a tough task.

She said: "I was like, huh, really? I have never done this kind of thing."

But Liu can take comfort in knowing that the Hokkien version of the Pioneer Generation Package video garnered 300,000 views on YouTube in just three days.

"The role was not exactly me but I did what I knew best - I tried to make it funny and entertaining," she said. "I had to be careful to make sure I inserted the right amount of humour because I didn't want to go overboard nor did I want it to be too serious."


The video features Liu and another getai veteran Wang Lei in a spoof of Chinese classic Journey To The West. Wang plays the Monkey King. Liu said the video's success made the 12-hour video shoot and three-hour recording session "very worthwhile".

"My friends who have watched the video said they really liked it. They commented that it's something fresh and out of the ordinary," she said. "I, too, felt it was fresh. I mean, who would expect a 'serious' ad to be this entertaining?"

Hokkien getai star records in Teochew She was surprised when she was asked to record a track in Teochew. "Why not Hokkien? I'm more confident in Hokkien because I am one. I'm not a Teochew," said Li Peifen.

It wasn't the first time that Li was recording a track in Teochew, but it had been decades since she first did it, she added.

"The last time I recorded a track in Teochew was about 20 years ago. I knew immediately that I couldn't pull it off without my Teochew singing instructor."

The 27-year-old getai star said that while the experience "was intimidating", she took the Pioneer Generation Package video project as a challenge. "I was very enthusiastic especially after I was told that I would be recording it in a dialect. "It marked my first official appearance in mainstream music.

"I also couldn't help but think that my grandparents would be very proud of me that I can sing in another dialect."


It took Li about six hours to record the song, which fulfilled one of her dreams.

"I got to be a cheerleader when I recorded the music video. I got super excited when the pom pom was passed to me," she said. "When I was in school, I never got the chance to be a cheerleader but I really wanted to become one."

She thought her chance was over once she graduated and did not expect the opportunity again.

"That just made me more enthusiastic to learn the dance routine," she said. "At least I can now say I tried out being a cheerleader."

His trick is to make songs catchy The brains behind the widely-viewed government ad is Singaporean film-maker Royston Tan (above).

The three videos, recorded in Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew, have been viewed a total of almost 2 million times on YouTube. Tan, 38, told The New Paper:

"I am happy that the fruits of our labour are finally out and we can share it with everybody, especially the older generation."

The trick, he said, was to make "the songs catchy, the lyrics easy to understand and the videos visually captivating".

He added: "It helps pioneers pick up the information about the benefits that are weaved in and remember them better."

When Tan learnt what the ad aimed to achieve, he felt it "was necessary to communicate in a way that piques their interest".

For the Hokkien video, he used a well-loved folklore and mythical character that "pioneers identify with", while the Cantonese music video's glitz and glamour aimed to "emulate the spirit of classic Hong Kong music videos".


The filming of the ads started in March last year. Ministry of Communications and Information senior director Karen Tan said: |

"From feedback and our own surveys, we learnt that many of our Chinese-speaking elderly do not understand English or Mandarin.

"These dialect videos simply explain government policies in their own languages and break down the policy features into bite-sized pieces for easy understanding.

"We are heartened by the positive response to the videos. They struck the right note with both young and old. Many have seen them on YouTube and shared them. 

"We hope that the story-telling elements, combined with catchy tunes and visual effects, will enable more to understand the key benefits of the Pioneer Generation Package."

You can catch the ads on free-to-air TV during non-peak times and on selected cable TV channels that allow dialect programming. They are also shown at HDB Hub, Chinatown Point and on coffee shop TV sets.

This article was first published on Sept 1, 2015.
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