There's no business like Beng business

SINGAPORE - When stand-up comedian Sebastian Tan was growing up, he often had to sing Hokkien songs with his family - something that made him sulk despite having an excellent singing voice. "Singing in Hokkien was not cool to me then. I wanted to be more ang moh (Caucasian) and sing only English songs," Tan, now 40, recalls.

The young Tan took instead to singing songs from Broadway and West End hits such as The Sound Of Music, The King And I and My Fair Lady - an inclination the rest of his "Hokkien-spewing" family regarded with consternation.

That habit, he admits, also made him the family outcast. His father was a timber merchant, his mother was a seamstress, and his three older brothers were "all ah bengs" growing up with him on their grandfather's pig farm.

Of course, the existential irony is that the stand-up comedian now makes a successful living out of blending Hokkien songs with Broadway melodies - earning the moniker Broadway Beng and reaping the stage rewards for it. The Broadway Beng revue is one of the most successful comedy franchises by theatre company Dream Academy, which also produces shows for Kumar and the Dim Sum Dollies.

And it will return to the stage early next month for the fifth time with new skits, new songs and new back-up chio bus - the Hokkien term for "sexy women", a term he insists he uses "affectionately and not disparagingly".

Broadway Beng has come a long way in establishing himself as the quintessential hybrid Singaporean, one who can comfortably straddle East and West - or perhaps, in his case, not always so comfortably. On stage, at least, Tan loves to play up the cultural confusion that comes from loving both cultures and enjoying "rice (East) and potato (West) equally".

He also gets a genuine kick out of bulldozing notions of what an ah beng is - a routine that his many diehard fans certainly appreciate. "People like to think of ah bengs as being unrefined and uncouth. But I want to show the world that you can also be a cultured and couth beng," he says smoothly, before turning momentarily wide-eyed and asking: "Couth - there's such a word in English, right?"

Yes, there is.

Tan, who once performed in West End's Miss Saigon as the title character's fiance, will be singing more than a dozen Hokkien-meets-Broadway medleys together with a supporting cast that comprises TV comedian Judee Tan, radio DJ Denise Tan, acclaimed actress Siti Khalijah, and popular musical performers Mina Kaye and Jacqueline Pereira.

The girls will also play various roles as Tan re-enacts scenes from his growing up years when he was struggling, Singapore-style, to find out what his true identity was in a country so open to a multitude of influences.

Ultimately, his struggle to come to terms with being a showtunes-loving beng is simply a metaphor for being yourself regardless of what society wants to shape you into - a standard feel-good message that would appeal to just about anyone.

And to make sure that many of his "heartlander fans" will be able to enjoy the revue, Tan and Dream Academy are keeping their ticket prices as low as they can. This year's show is priced from $15 to $77 and staged at the more modest Drama Centre, compared to higher prices of the previous show staged at the Esplanade.

Tan reveals: "I find it very therapeutic to talk about my life and sing songs on stage. I get to work out my issues in front of an audience, and I don't need to see a shrink like other people. Performing is physically draining, but spiritually refreshing."

Broadway Beng: Benging You Back To Basics plays at the Drama Centre, National Library from 10 Oct to 27 Oct at 8pm as well as 3pm matinees on weekend. Tickets from $15 to $77 are available at Sistic.

Get The Business Times for more stories.