Breakout star is a great-grandmother

Madam Ng Suan Loi is living proof that age is no barrier to fame.

The jovial 79-year-old Kelantan-born freelance actress, affectionately known in the industry as Jing Jing Ah Ma (Hokkien for grandmother), is hit local movie Long Long Time Ago's breakout star - and its oldest cast member.

In director Jack Neo's latest film, a nostalgic paean to the kampung days of 1960s Singapore, Madam Ng plays Ah Ma, devoted mum to main protagonist Zhao Di (Aileen Tan) and wife of grumpy Si Shu (getai veteran Wang Lei).

The real-life great-grandmother - she has five children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren - is not exactly a rookie in local cinema, having played supporting parts in Neo's I Not Stupid Too (2006) and Boris Boo's Filial Party (2014).

But it is Long Long Time Ago that is finally putting the septuagenarian in the spotlight.

"After this movie came out, I realised I have fans," she told The New Paper in Mandarin at her Woodlands flat last Friday.

"These days, youngsters will come up to me and exclaim, 'You are the Ah Ma in Long Long Time Ago!' and ask to take photos with me."

She said of her most memorable fan encounter: "Just the other day, we held a charity screening for elderly folk and a young man who was coordinating the event remarked to me in disbelief, 'How can you be almost 80? You are so fashionable and youthful'.

"That made my day."

Long Long Time Ago, which is showing in cinemas, is resonating well with audiences.

It topped the local box office over the long Chinese New Year weekend, earning $1.65 million in six days and beating star-studded blockbusters such as The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas To Macau III. (See report, right.)

Madam Ng said she did not have to audition for the role of Ah Ma, as Neo offered it to her after just one costume fitting.

And despite the huge 25-year age gap between her and on-screen husband Wang, 54, the duo share a palpable chemistry as a bickering old couple.

"When I first found out that Wang Lei was going to play my husband, I did find it a little weird, as he is really a lot younger than I am," she admitted.

"But I soon brushed such thoughts away as Liang Dao (referring to Neo) would jokingly say, 'Anyway Wang Lei looks old mah'. I've also received my fair share of comments that I look young, so that balances it out.

"There were times when Wang Lei would pretend to complain that he is very suay (unlucky in Hokkien) to be paired with an elderly woman, but it's all for fun and laughter."


Like most of the other cast members, Madam Ng spent two and a half months on location in Ipoh.

"All of us became so tight-knit, like a real family. Even till today, Aileen Tan still calls me Ah Bu (Hokkien for mother) whenever she sees me.

"The interesting thing is, although I am the oldest on the set, by the end of the shoot in Malaysia, everyone fell sick except me!"

Madam Ng, who owns a snacks stall selling banana fritters and chicken wings at Woodlands Centre hawker centre, as well as a blogshop selling handmade batik clothes and bags, had a late start in showbiz.

When quizzed why she didn't start acting earlier, she said matter-of-factly: "It was just not possible; the thought of it did not even cross my mind. Growing up, life was tough."

She never got the chance to receive a formal education. At the age of six, she was already working in a rubber plantation in Malaysia to earn pocket money. At 19, she married a Singaporean, relocated here and has been a housewife since.

"It was only when I was in my late 50s, early 60s, that one of my sons-in-law signed me up for an acting course at MediaCorp. That kickstarted my interest in acting," she said.

Thanks to the success of Long Long Time Ago, Madam Ng is able to command higher fees for her short film acting projects. She has starred in local short films such as Ten Thousand Bowls (2014) and Ah Ma And Me (2015).

"For short films, I used to be paid $350 for around half a day of filming work, but I think I might not be able to accept this rate now. It has to be higher. I am all for supporting young, aspiring film-makers, but unfortunately, I cannot spoil the market," she said.

She will hit the big 8-0 next year, but Madam Ng shows no signs of slowing down.

"I'm game to take on all kinds of roles. The only roles that I won't take are the ones that require my character to die! I'm superstitious."

This article was first published on Feb 15, 2016.
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