LUNCHBOX #12: Golden Girl of Singapore Cinema, Yeo Yann Yann

(Photo courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2013)

It was at just one out of many similar jobbing actor roles - playing a character in the back scene of a movie - when I first met this heavily pregnant actress walk in and sit herself down exhausted from a morning of shooting. Unassuming and with no airs, she tried to rest while waiting for her call to set. It was obvious she had been working hard so I did not approach her. Cut to 30mins later, now waiting for my call to set, I watched as the magic started - lights, camera, action - it was mesmerizing to watch a complete master at work, measured yet full of emotion, it was obvious she knew exactly what she was doing. I stayed watching for as long as I could…

Today we know the film as the multi-award winning ILO ILO by Anthony Chen and the actress as Yeo Yann Yann, Golden Hourse winner for Best Supporting Actress.

Yann Yann beaming her brightest smile after winning the Best Supporting Actress Award at the 50th Golden Horse Awards

I never got the opportunity to speak to her personally so when SINDIE presented a chance in a lifetime of a one-on-one interview, I could not say no, even if it meant meeting her completely jet lagged - I was not going to miss another opportunity to speak to this amazing actress.

Ivan Choong: I actually first met you on the set of Ilo Ilo.
Yann Yann: Oh? Where?
I: I was a complete extra on the set. I was the one who kicked the dustbin. (pause) You were heavily pregnant then and I was really amazed how you went through that.
Y: It was very fun and everyone treated you like a ‘queen’ so it was ok.
I: It must have been so tough. How did you cope?
Y: Actually, I just go ahead and do it. And whenever there is a chance to rest, I just find a chance to rest. You always see this ‘big’ woman sitting there like a Tua Pek Gong. (Ivan giggles) I always felt like one, cos I could not even cross my legs anymore. All I could say was ‘ya ready?’ ‘you need me now?’ ‘oh sure’ from the place I sat. It felt like I never had such big legs before. (pause) My usual size of shoes is size 6 but on the set, I asked them to buy size 8 and it was tight and my legs were so swollen. But it also inspired me in a way.
I: You know, there is so much that’s been documented about how Anthony changed the script to suit your ‘circumstances’, but at the start, what was it that really pulled you into the role?
Y: I had actually worked with Anthony before in ‘Ah Ma’. And when I saw that film. I saw it on the big screen.  Seeing it on the big screen allowed me to see all the details. And it made me think: ‘Wow I would love to work with him again.’ So basically I just kept in touch. So when he called me, I immediately said yes and flew back here for a day even though I was in the middle of work.

(pause) Then when I got pregnant, he told me he didn’t want me to act in it. I was really really disappointed because I waited for this for a long time. And after he confirmed me as the mother, I also waited for a long long time. There was a time, he wanted to recast the film. We had a chance to meet when he was back from London and he told me he could not find an actress. So I thought to myself, maybe I still have a chance.  I told him, I don’t see any issues with a pregnant mother. But he said his biggest concern is my health. Then I told him the doctor said I have to continue to work. Don’t stop. It’s bad for a pregnant lady to stop working.
I: Cos it’s better not to change any of the routines.
Y: Yes. And when the hormones start stirring you, you may start to think of all sorts of crazy things. So I had to work, and I wanted to work. So I sat there with Anthony, really hard-selling myself. After the session, I told my husband, I have never done such hard sell before in my life.  (giggles) And I don’t regret it!
I: Of course!
Y: After that, he was still considering!
I: Oh wow!
Y: Yes, I kept sending him messages and whatsapping him from KL I was actually working in KL again. During that time, I had a friend who owned a boutique and I would go to her place to try on some clothes, take photos and send him to prove ‘See! I didn’t change much! I can still pass off as working mother.’ I even told him, even if I looked like a fat mother, I am fine too. Then it took me about 2-3 weeks of repeating this before he finally said yes.
I: I see the hard selling worked!

‘Yann Yann is easily one of the finest of her generation of actors from  Singapore/Malaysia and she completely deserves the recognition she has earned for what I think is her career best performance so far in ILO ILO.’
Anthony Chen, director of ‘Ilo Ilo’

Y: And after that, I started eating a lot. I ate and ate all the time. By the time, he saw me, he was like, ’What happened to you?!’
I: But of course, it worked so well!
Y: Yes the pregnancy worked.

Yann Yann on the set of 'Ilo Ilo' sharing a joke with co-star Angeli Bayani

I: I mean not just that, but your expressions and all the nuances. (pause) Did you really think, after shooting it that it would do so well?
Y: Not really. I only thought it was a wonderful film, but I didn’t think the box office would be too good. I never thought about awards, the possibility of being in Cannes, being in Taiwan for Golden Horse, winning in Russia…
I: You’ve travelled the world for this.
Y: Not really. Not all the places. (pause) I spent a lot of time with my daughter cos I have become a mum.
I: Has winning the awards changed you as an actress?
Y: (laughs) I am more experienced in the awards ceremonies now! Hahah!
I: Learning how to walk the red carpet.
Y: Don’t wear a tail. Your cameraman might step on you!
I: That is true! You end up cleaning the carpet right?
Y: That’s what happened to me in Taiwan during the Golden Horse. When you walk down, the cameraman will follow you. There was a moment I turned to the camera. My friend said wow you turned to smile to the camera. I said he stepped on my tail (laughs) and I almost fell! (pause) That’s why I turned.

Dolling up for galas, like acting itself, is also an art (Yann Yann prepares for the Golden Horse Awards here)

I: Do the awards make any difference to the work? Or to you?
Y: To me, I dare to take some rest now for a while. (beat) Perhaps it gives me opportunities to work overseas because it opens up doors for me. (pause) It also shows to many other filmmakers out there in the world that we do have actors you can work with from Singapore or Malaysia. When you look at Asia, it’s not just Taiwan, Hong Kong or China. (pause) I think one of the best things about the win is that I won the award with a local film which also took the Best Film at Golden Horse. (pause) I think it helps keep our dreams alive. And I am sure it gives many other local filmmakers, actors, and everyone who’s in the industry that hope that dreams do come true! That hard work does pay off. (thinks for a second) I felt really grateful and happy when some of the co-actors in the film came to tell me ‘Hey Yann Yann, you really gave us dreams, and makes us feel we can do it.’ (pause) It also shows that as an actor, you don’t necessarily have to go out of Singapore to make it. You CAN work with a local story.
I: I understand what you mean. Many of us in the industry know how hard it is here, not just to get financial support, but socially as well. Many people still see it as not easy to make a living out of this as a full-time job. So thank you for showing us.
Y: I think it’s a collective effort. In fact, any kind of performance, whether film or TV or stage, you cannot achieve anything by yourself. It is the coming together of so many people’s efforts so that we performers can stand there and deliver. We are able to focus on just doing our job of acting out the character because many pairs of hands come together to build this safe platform for you. So we owe this success to everybody.

I: Do you think coming from a local theatre background makes a difference? I know you are from Intercultural Theatre Institute  (ITI) (formerly the Theatre Training and Research Programme (TTRP)).
Y: The school experience really did change how I think. It trained my body and trained my mind. I would say the school process was wonderful. It is what helped me a lot. But I don’t think everybody has to go through the same path. It doesn’t mean everyone has to study. You have to slowly discover what you need and then go for it and work on it.  And give it some time. I think nowadays a lot of people don’t give enough time. Some people may think 3 years is a very long time but actually it is not. There is an old Chinese saying ‘台上三分,台下十年功’ (behind every 3 minutes on stage is 10 years of hard work). I still believe in that, even though I also go through new forms of performing arts.
I: A lot has been documented about you and Kuo Pao Kun’s influence. I have attended some of the classes conducted by people in your class. And it strikes me that not everyone has gone through enough of that kind of training in Singapore.
Y: Yes, training is not enough. After training, you need to search for yourself. And the world is changing all the time.  You need to adapt too. Cos we are never perfect. The craft will never be perfect.
I: Do you travel a lot? Like I know Peter Sau (from you class) has his travelling group.
Y: I wanted to but I could not. But I always try to and I think it is important because with every character that you act, you are filling yourself up with that. So when you are done with that character, you need to throw that away. You have to come back to yourself again. It’s like a glass, you need to empty yourself before new things can be poured in. (pause) Now, my daughter is the one thing that brings me back to normal life. Being a housewife, being a mama.
I: I hope she looks as you as the mama and not the actress.
Y: Yes, I am the crazy mama. (pause) Many people ask me whether I would let my child go into acting. I feel if she wants to, why not? And vice versa. I mean I chose my path. And my parents let me. So why should I say anything different to my child?

I: Speaking about that, you came to Singapore when you were very young to pursue the arts. How did you find the courage do that?
Y: Actually, my mother was so angry with me when I told I her I wanted to go to Singapore to study. This was because before that, I already went to school. I was studying Mass Communications. But my results were very bad and my heart was in performing theatre. That was what I really wanted to do. So it was challenging and I had problems getting the permit to stay in Singapore. (pause) So I met Kuo Pao Kun. He was the one who helped me and I was doing a show with him at that time. Then it continued. And I really bumped around, working with different theatre companies. I know I tried very hard then, but no matter how hard I tried, I was not able to achieve what I wanted in my mind. Or achieve what the director wanted. So one day, Pao Kun asked me if I wanted to go and study. I thought it was not a bad idea. But I said I didn’t have money. He said ‘Don’t worry, I am going to set up a school. You just wait.’ So when he finally set up the school, he asked me to come for an audition. I went and I got in. But I didn’t have money. So he said he will write me a recommendation letter and asked me to apply for a scholarship. So I told my mother and she was like ‘no.’ ‘What is this? There is no certificate, no degree or anything.’ (pause) And you know, when you are young and stupid, you are lazy to explain. (pause) My brother actually dragged me aside and said ‘I support you’. So I went ahead. (I really want to thank Lee Foundation and Georgette Chen Scholarship).

‘Singapore Dreaming was probably the first feature to give Yann Yann a really meaty starring role. She definitely blew us away during the audition and on set. She brings a combination of sincerity, intensity and intelligence that is hard to find. We're so happy to see she's finally getting the adulation we've always known she deserves. We're very honored to have been part of her journey.’
Colin Goh, co-director of ‘Singapore Dreaming’

I: When I speak to a lot of actors who are starting out, I see that many actors are still going through the exact same struggles.
Y: Yes. But at the same time, it helps with life-experience building. I remember when I was studying, the campus was in Jurong East. I used to stay in school till 3 or 4 am. just to go through my English text because I was so bad at it. I am a ‘Chinese-act’, so it was a struggle. So I had to use a lot of memorization. Even now, if you ask me to do a Shakespeare, I might have to memorise it to get the rhythm. You know every language has its own rhythm, Mandarin and English are so different. And because I stayed near school, I walked home and I am back in school at 7am again. (pause) I had a certain do or die kind of feel at that time.  It was like if I can’t make it, forget about going back to Malaysia. (laughs)   
I: Do you think that sets you apart from the rest?
Y: I think actors work very hard. You think we are always hanging out and having coffee? Haha. We are actually all hiding at home, memorizing the scripts and doing our homework.  (pause) But we have fun too! When we are in the rehearsal room, we put away our scripts that play a bit with each other. That’s why it’s called ‘play’. So our job is fun too, even though it is sometimes frustrating. (pause) For certain…. Ok, maybe I speak for myself, I play with a conscious mind. You are very into it but at the same time you are very conscious.
I: That reminds me of a comment a senior actor mentioned. She mentioned that ‘These days, in a normal production, rehearsals are four weeks flat, unlike the older days when there was more time to rehearse. So she feels something is lost. Do you agree with her?
Y: (In thought) I think it depends on the type of production. Probably before the four weeks, actors already have time to do their homework, instead of during the four weeks. So they have to get their lines down before the four weeks. (pause) Actually for me, I can’t. I have to walk around. I have to get the momentum before I can get my lines. Sometimes, it’s my body, or my hand that I remember. Sometimes, it’s the emotion that I remember. Or my co-actors. I can’t really memorise the whole thing until I get the scene.
I: You went from theatre to film. How different are these two for you?
Y: Actually I don’t find it that different. You always have to go into a character and then come out.  (pause) I think there is also a difference in energy level. If your audience is this small, you don’t have to talk that loudly but the amount of energy used is still there.
I: So you don’t really have a preference between the two.
Y: I love performing.

Yann Yann, through the years, in film...

as Mei in 'Singapore Dreaming'

as Big Papaya (right) in '881'

as Michelle in '18 Grams of Love' 

 as Jia Li in 'Love Matters'
as Zhu Er in 'Being Human' 

as Zhung Li Chun in 'Petaling Street Warriors'

as Hwee Leng in 'Ilo Ilo'

I: Do you miss going back to theatre?
Y: I would love to go back sometime. It’s a place that really gives you time to rehearse, think and take in a lot of things, a lot of people’s ideas. In the rehearsal room, everybody just loses themselves, without being selfish. In films, the rehearsal time is shorter. A lot of time you are lonely, doing your own preparations. In Ilo Ilo, we had many rehearsals, but still not as much as theatre. In theatre we can spend 8 hours a day at theatre to perfect something. And at the end on stage, nothing is perfect. We need to go from the starting point to the ending point. Everyday, you find new things.

(Yann Yann is currently the only actress in Singapore who can do both drama and comedy really well.)
Han Yew Kwang, director of ‘18 grams of Love’,’When Hainan Meets Teochew’ and ‘Rubbers’

I: If given the chance, would rather act in English or Mandarin?
Y: If I can, I would like to do both. (pause) Especially, in Singapore and Malaysia, it is important to be able to use both English and Mandarin, because we are both multi-lingual countries. My Malay is not very good but I try to at least hold two languages well. I worked very hard on my English. Every day for half an hour, I would be reading to my teacher. There was this teacher from ITI(TTRP) who was willing to help me for half an hour every lunch time. And recently when I called him, he told me my English didn’t go too bad.  I was like ‘Thank You!’ because I haven’t been speaking English for a while. When I am Malaysia, most of the time, I am speaking Mandarin or Cantonese, for TV and film. People around me there don’t really speak English. Only when I am back in Singapore, then I speak, but it’s also Singlish. And people who speak proper proper English to me have already left the country! (laughs) But your tongue becomes lazy. And some of the scripts. You really cannot perform in Singlish! Our Mandarin also has an accent and in some scripts, you also cannot perform in that accent. (pause) I kinda miss Pao Kun’s plays because you always have people who speak different languages. It’s very rare in Singapore these days.
I: I think it’s good that you know what you are doing and love what you are doing. And you don’t happen to want to try other things like directing right?
Y: Somebody said to me before ,’Just act properly la!’ It was a cold, deadpan statement and I accepted it! You know, ‘can act, just act la!’ So basically, just do what you think you like now. (pause) I really like, love acting. I actually decided that I love acting when I was 27.

I: Having been an actor for so long, what would you consider the most difficult part of your career?
Y: (in deep thought) Of course, there were difficult times. Like you go to the bank and you realise there is only $10 left, and you can’t even draw out the money. (pause) But you always have friends who come and help. Like my high-school friends. We still keep in touch. We used to live together and whenever there was someone in need, pockets nothing, we would help. It’s just how we went through that period of time. And you keep your life very very simple. Even now, I keep the feelings of it. (pause) My teacher told me something, This is the teacher who helped me with my tuition. He said ,’Save some ‘Fuck you’ money’. With your first job, you save money. And when you find time when you really want to rest, just say, ’Fuck you.’
I: (laughs out loud) That’s a very good one!
Y: A lot of ITI(TTRP) students know who said that. (pause) I mean freelancers, I myself, I have been a freelancer for 16 years now, still save money.
I: I started in the industry late, and my instinct was to take everything single job that you can squeeze into your calendar. And then after that, you realise you just cannot do it physically.
Y: Yes, you need to take time to rest. (pause) Some people ask me… Wah Yann Yann you rich, you no need to work? It’s not that. I don’t mind living a very simple life. When I need to rest, I rest. Don’t force yourself to do. If you don’t feel anything for this project, then don’t do la. Don’t force yourself, because I see a lot of people do and whine, and end up being unhappy about what they are doing. It’s unfair to yourself and unfair to the production too. When you have the chance to rest, just rest. It’s really luxurious for us here. I mean, many people in L.A. have to double up as a waitress. Here, we don’t have to. We can teach, we can do many other things.

I: What would you say is the most important thing that new actors should learn?
Y: I think at the beginning you actually don’t have time to think about rest. You just have to do and do and do.  And don’t do just for the sake of doing, Examine yourself. We are always examining ourselves. That’s what we learnt in school. Where’s you body? Your hand? Your legs? How do you stand? You body is your tool. And because you need the money to survive, just take it and do it with a full heart, and be thankful that somebody wants to work with you.
I: There is one question, we ask all our guests on LUNCHBOX, so I would have to ask you as well – Would you starve for the sake of art?
Y: I did! (beat) I really did. (laughs) Well, not for the sake of art. I think I was young and silly, but I really really enjoyed what I was doing. And I wasn’t even thinking whether I was starving or not. My mum actually thought I was starving. But it doesn’t matter whether you are in arts or not, when you are starting to work, or when you are studying, a lot of people are starving too, for the love of what they were doing at that time. So I did and I think many other people did too.

Having completed the interview, I can only say I remain if not am more in awe of Yann Yann. She was gracious, open, honest and unassuming - ready to share stories and lessons with a newbie like myself. I will always remember this interview and am sure I will continue to watch her career go from strength to strength. Perhaps I can hope that one day I might even have an opportunity to share screen time with her, but nevertheless for now I am very grateful for I have learnt much from a true actor today - I have also learnt to start saving some fuck you money! 

Photos by Mohan Deitrich
Transcribed by Jeremy Sing


Ivan Choong (who conducted this interview) is a singer, theatre actor, academic, teacher, volunteer, budding entrepreneur, and last but not least, SINdie contributor. Always staying close to the performing arts, he can be seen in various stage productions, short films and the odd TV commercial thrown in. It would have taken a natural disaster to try to stop him from meeting and speaking to Yeo Yann Yann. 

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