Local TV stars find fame home and away

Local TV star Elvin Ng was mobbed by eager fans recently - in Cambodia.

The 33-year-old actor was in the country for a fortnight earlier this month and he was treated like quite the superstar.

Upon arriving at the airports in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, hordes of Cambodian fans showed up waiting for him, hoping to snag a photo or an autograph. As he was leaving the country, they showered him with gifts and made him a cake.

Who knew he would have such a following there?

Ng admits to Life! he was just as surprised as anyone by the "overwhelmingly warm reception" he received there.

"It was quite an experience - everywhere I went, people recognised me and wanted to take pictures with me. They were also very open with their affection, hugging and kissing me - I was quite taken aback," he says with a laugh.

He was flown in for two things: to hold a fan meet, at which 70 members of his local fan club Elvinology Cambodia turned up, all dressed in identical T-shirts printed with his name on the back; and to film a miniseries, The Jade Elephant, a Cambodian-Singaporean TV co-production.

Ng is the leading man - and only Singaporean - in the Khmer-language programme, which is slated to air on Cambodian TV channel CTN later this year. He says: "I had two bodyguards and a personal assistant follow me everywhere to make sure I was okay.

Between takes during filming, I was also quickly shuttled to a car so I could rest in the air-conditioning. It was crazy."

Some may find it bizarre that a home-grown actor would be such a big deal overseas, particularly in a country such as Cambodia, where neither Mandarin nor English is the first language.

But Ng, whose dramas such as Breakout (2010) and Together (2009) have aired there in Khmer-dubbed versions, points out: "The Cambodian audiences really know Singaporean stars, they follow Singaporean TV dramas."

The head of Elvinology Cambodia, Ms Thina Rida, says she has been a fan of Ng's ever since she saw his drama Love At 0°C (2006) on Cambodian TV.

The 22-year-old says: "I like him because he gives great performances, is friendly, kind, handsome and shows good behaviour with fans. I really love him when he acts shy."

Cambodia is not the only surprising overseas location where Singaporean stars have amassed a fan following.

In recent years, other emerging non-Mandarin-speaking markets such as Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have all been broadcasting Singaporean TV drama series and that has boosted interest in Singapore's home-grown celebrities.

At the Star Awards in April, a new award category was introduced to reflect the growing regional appeal of Singaporean stars - the Most Popular Regional Artiste Award, which celebrates the stars who are the most popular in several territories.

Actress Jeanette Aw nabbed the award for Cambodia, Rui En won for Indonesia and Malaysia, while Yvonne Lim took the award for being most popular in China.

Mr Paul Chan, vice-president of MediaCorp's branding & promotions, TV, says: "The awards are 100 per cent fan-voted and offer a way to interact with our regional audiences. They also serve to spotlight the artists who have made an impression with their works overseas."

For decades now, Channel 8 dramas have been distributed in Malaysia and China, both of which make sense, given that Malaysia shares a similar culture with Singapore, while China audiences share the Chinese language.

From the 1980s to the 1990s, Singaporean stars such as Li Nanxing and the late Huang Wenyong were all popular figures in Malaysia and China.

Now, Mr Tang Yun Leung, vice- president of content distribution (studios) at MediaCorp, says the company also sees good prospects in other South-east Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, as these markets "are opening up fast and present potential growth opportunities".

He adds: "Our dramas are mostly set in a cosmopolitan city and yet still retain a strong Asian flavour and values. For countries specifically in South-east Asia, cultural similarities also play a part to connect well with our audiences."

In such countries, Singaporean dramas are broadcast either with local language subtitles or are dubbed in the local language.

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who has research interests in popular culture in East and South-east Asia, is also of the opinion that local productions such as The Awakening (1984) and The Little Nyonya (2008) not only offer intimate insights into Singapore's past, but they also "have familiar historical themes that the region shares as well".

The Awakening, starring Huang, detailed the trials of Chinese immigrants to Singapore in the early 20th century, while The Little Nyonya was centred on an extended Peranakan family whose tales span over 70 years and multiple generations in Malacca and Singapore.

Dr Liew adds that there is another possible reason for Singaporean dramas' success in the new markets: lower distribution costs.

He says: "Singapore dramas could also be significantly cheaper to acquire than their Western and East Asian counterparts. This is a crucial factor for filling up the airtime of TV networks in developing countries, such as China in the 1980s and Cambodia today."

When asked, MediaCorp would only say the distribution costs vary on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Tang says: "We are constantly looking at expanding our markets overseas, not just for revenue generation but also to bring our dramas, artists and culture overseas to showcase Singapore to the world."

To that end, MediaCorp says it has stepped up on the promotional push for its content in these markets, especially in the past two years.

Actor Pierre Png has travelled to Jakarta, Indonesia, a couple of times over the past few years to meet fans. The 40- year-old, whose drama C.L.I.F. 2 (2013) has aired there, says: "I think the fans in Indonesia have this natural curiosity about me because I'm Peranakan. They are curious about how much I am Chinese and how much I am Malay, so it's been really interesting meeting them."

Actor Desmond Tan, 27, who attended a MediaCorp-organised promotional event in Jakarta in November last year, says his Indonesian fans are "very chatty" and that "they shout their lungs out to tell you they love everything about you".

The star, whose romantic drama 96°C Cafe (2013) has televised there, has also received gifts from them in the form of handmade cards and local Indonesian snacks.

For Little Nyonya star Aw, all she has to do is show up in Cambodia to be besieged by fans. The 34-year-old actress tells Life!: "I made a personal trip there early this year for volunteer work. Everything was pretty low profile, but I was recognised once I arrived at the airport, so I had to be escorted out through Customs. In fact, the locals recognised me everywhere I went.

"Towards the end of my trip, I posted photos on Facebook and it was immediately picked up by Cambodian papers."

Office executive Chanda Khat, 23, has been a fan of Aw's since she caught her drama series The Champion (2004), which was broadcast in Cambodia a year after its debut in Singapore.

Ms Khat says: "I still follow local celebrities, but Aw is my top favourite foreign celebrity because she is a very nice role model for me. She is very good at acting and is also very friendly."

So it would seem that as much flak as some Singaporeans like to give their own stars and dramas, home-grown artists are making quite a mark overseas.

Tan sounds even more ambitious: "I believe our local show business will one day make waves like K-pop. Maybe one day, the term 'S-pop' for Singaporean pop will be coined."


This article was first published on June 26, 2014.
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