He's back in drag
Jack Neo reprises role as cheapskate auntie Liang Ximei after 15 years
Director-actor Jack Neo is back in drag as his cheapskate auntie character Liang Ximei from Mandarin variety show Comedy Night.
Neo, 56, will reprise his role for new Chinese dialect variety series Happy Can Already!, which premieres on Dec 2 on Channel 8, and will air every Friday at noon.
The 10-episode series, a collaboration involving the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), Mediacorp and Neo's J Team Productions, aims to educate seniors on government messages on topics like retirement, health and active ageing.
It is Singapore's first dialect variety series, and will include a mix of Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew.
Around 200 seniors gathered at the official launch of Happy Can Already! at Kreta Ayer Square in Chinatown on Monday (Nov 14), where Neo appeared in character as Liang Ximei, complete with his signature wig, glasses and garish bright green blouse.
Comedy Night aired from 1996 to 2000, and made Neo a household name through his characters Liang Ximei and the elderly Liang Popo. Two spinoff series, Liang Ximei and The Return Of Liang Ximei, aired in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
Neo told The New Paper he was excited to be back on TV again, as he has been busy directing films like the Ah Boys To Men series about national servicemen, and this year's 1950s period drama Long Long Time Ago.
"It's a dream come true for me to do a TV series in dialect, as I always wanted to but could not because of government restrictions (on free-to-air broadcast channels)," Neo told TNP in Mandarin.
Singapore used to discourage the use of dialects, and the Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched 1979 to encourage local Chinese to use Mandarin instead.
However, there has been a recent revival of dialect TV programmes like director Royston Tan's Hokkien drama Eat Already?, which aired in September and will return for a second season next year.
"MCI approached me to do this programme, and I thought it was a great opportunity to reach out to seniors," said Neo.
"A lot of them who can't understand Mandarin have been left out, so with Happy Can Already! we can communicate important government messages in dialect, and through comedy and songs."
Happy Can Already! characters include Liang Ximei's sons Robert (Mark Lee) and Albert (Benjamin Tan), her elderly father Ah Kong (Wang Lei), Albert's wife Mary (Chua Lee Lian) and daughter Xin Hui (child actress Toh Xin Hui, see report right).
There will also be guest appearances by Dennis Chew as his cross-dressing character Aunty Lucy, and Chen Tianwen as over-the-top singer Mr Unbelievable.
At the show's launch, Neo and Lee were clearly in their element, hamming it up in Hokkien and taking jabs at each other.
"Your waist and legs are thicker now... Everything is fatter," Lee, who is 48, joked while pointing at Neo.
Neo said it has been nearly 15 years since he played Liang Ximei, so he had to slowly recall the character's mannerisms.
Lee said expectations for Happy Can Already! will be high, since the show's characters are so beloved.
"Comedy Night ended at the peak of its fame. It's always difficult to revive a show the second time round while keeping things fresh, and that will be our challenge," he said.
"Luckily, we've also matured and grown as actors."
Neo also hopes Happy Can Already! will be a success.
"Our goal is to do well enough to move from the afternoon to primetime slot, and maybe get more young people to learn dialect through comedy, too."
Your waist and legs are thicker now... Everything is fatter.
- Actor Mark Lee poking fun at Jack Neo's Liang Ximei (above) character
Child star speaks Hokkien
Actress Toh Xin Hui is a rare breed among Singaporean children - she speaks and sings in Hokkien.
Just 10 years old, she landed the role of Liang Ximei's granddaughter Xin Hui in Happy Can Already!
She also played Aileen Tan's daughter in Neo's Long Long Time Ago earlier this year.
"Xin Hui's dialect is good," said Neo. "There are very few kids who can speak dialect these days; it's almost extinct. I'm embarrassed to say even my own children only understand basic Hokkien, and are more comfortable in English and Mandarin."
Xin Hui has been speaking Hokkien with her parents and grandparents since young, and first learned to sing in Hokkien at age seven.
At the Happy Can Already! launch, Xin Hui joined the cast in singing the show's theme song in Hokkien. She made her debut getai appearance during last year's Hungry Ghost Month with veteran getai singer Wang Lei, who is training her as his youngest protege.
"Please watch Happy Can Already! because it is a lighthearted show that will leave you in good spirits," she told the audience in Mandarin yesterday.
HAPPY: The cast of Happy Can Already! (from left) Jaspers Lai, getai singer Hao Hao, Mark Lee, Toh Xin Hui, Jack Neo, Wang Lei and Benjamin Tan. TNP PHOTOS: OH XING YEE