updated 4 Feb 2012, 03:37
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Mon, Dec 05, 2011
The New Paper
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Already flamed
by Tan Kee Yun

SINGAPORE'S undisputed queen of accents has come under fire for the very talent that made people notice her in showbiz.

Local actress Michelle Chong is no stranger to the Malaysian twang, having used it regularly in different programmes over the past 10 years, from the 1999 local movie Eating Air to the current Channel 5 hit skit show, The Noose.

Now, she has brought her twang talent to the big screen in her directorial debut, Already Famous, now showing in cinemas here.

On The Noose, the 34-year-old MediaCorp artiste's hilarious, spot-on impersonations of different nationalities - from mainland Chinese KTV hostess Lulu to Filipino maid Leticia Bongnino - have been largely well-received.

However, on Already Famous, the thick Malaysian accent of her character has not gone down well with some Malaysian netizens, who feel she is making fun of the way they speak.

The Chinese-language comedy stars Chong as a simple-minded kampung girl, Ah Jiao, from Yong Peng, Johor, who harbours dreams of becoming a television star like her Singapore idols, Zoe Tay and Fann Wong, instead of labouring at her job of selling TV sets.


Shin Min Daily News reported that some netizens have slammed her portrayal of Ah Jiao.

"Did she do her research? Do people from Yong Peng actually talk like that? Don't think that all Malaysians speak in the same way," one posted.

Another commented that "in fact, many folks in northern, central and eastern Malaysia do not even speak like (Ah Jiao)...Chong's accent is deliberately put-on and exaggerated, it wasn't executed well and instead, turned out weird".

Chong explained to The New Paper that much of the criticism was aimed at the film's trailer posted on YouTube.

"Basically, I think it was due to the way the trailer was cut," she said. "The accent is definitely not and was never meant to be the crux of the movie."

She added: "I feel very sorry that some people were offended by it...I apologise for any misunderstanding caused and I hope they'll still give the movie a chance."

One scene in the trailer features entertainment lawyer and talent agency owner Samuel Seow playing himself and telling Chong straight to her face: "Your Malaysian accent is really too strong, I suggest you go back to Malaysia to sell television sets."

In response to the backlash, Chong posted a comment under the trailer on YouTube.

She wrote: "Actually, I'm a little surprised by some of the reactions from our Malaysian friends.

"This movie was never intended to tease or make fun of Malaysians. On the contrary, it lauds their tenacity and determination.

"The protagonist is a feisty Malaysian girl and I see her traits and personality in many of my Malaysian friends."

Still, Chong said she appreciates all the comments - positive or otherwise.

"I will seriously take note of all constructive criticism and keep them in mind for my next film," she said.

Being a first-time director has also helped her become "more thick-skinned", said Chong with a laugh.

"I've come to realise that movie audiences are different from TV audiences.

"They actually bother to pay for the ticket to your show and board the bus to the long as there are some people who have enjoyed, been touched and inspired by the film, it's good enough for me."


Other than the accent, other possible points of contention in the film include the depiction of Yong Peng as a "rural kampung town" and stereotypical characterisations of supporting roles such as Ah Jiao's mother (a compulsive gambler) and brother (a pirated DVD peddler).

Despite the online brickbats, Already Famous has won over local moviegoers.

The film's distributor, Scorpio East Pictures, said the movie scored many sold-out sessions and collected an impressive $170,000 when it sneak previewed last weekend.

Leading up to the film's official opening on Thursday, cinemas actually increased its print count - from 15 to 24 prints, so that there can be more screenings of the movie.

Chong revealed that she is planning to release Already Famous in Malaysia next month.

So is she worried that these online negative voices will affect box-office sales across the Causeway?

"I'm not, as it's just a minority of people who are displeased...a lot of Malaysians are supporting us," she said, referring to positive feedback on YouTube and the movie's Facebook page.

"I'm sure that after watching the movie, those who are unhappy will change their minds about it."

Certainly, some from across the Causeway have been complimentary.

One wrote on YouTube: "I'm Malaysian, but I don't feel she (Chong) is humiliating Malaysians at all. It's just her way of creating humour. People shouldn't think too much."

Another said: "Those critics who are complaining about her accent are just a Malaysian, I'm looking forward to catching the film. People should pass judgement only after they've watched it."

So does Chong's Ah Jiao reflect the real-life obstacles Malaysian actresses had to face in their initial years of working in Singapore?

As it turns out, many of them were already well-adjusted from the start.

Malaysian actress Chris Tong, 28 - who has starred in Channel 8 dramas like Family Court, C.L.I.F. and the upcoming Code Of Honour - said that somehow, she manages to "switch codes easily" depending on the environment she is placed in.

"I remember when I was filming in China, the producers praised my enunciation and said I sounded like a Beijing native," she recalled.

"However, on one occasion, they overheard me talking on the phone with my mum and they gasped! Then, they commented on my 'thick' Malaysian accent.

"It's like how when I'm filming in Singapore.

"Once the camera rolls, I speak like most Singaporean actors, but I do realise that when I'm talking to (fellow Malaysian actor) Yao Wenlong, we do lapse into our Malaysian-accented Mandarin."

For Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann, 34, who starred in local films such as 881 (2007) and Love Matters (2009), she had Taiwanese teachers in primary school who helped to correct her enunciation.

"I didn't have any problems with my accent when I came to Singapore because my foundation in Mandarin has been laid since young," she said over the phone from Kuala Lumpur.

"My teachers would make me recite passages in class and nominate me for storytelling competitions."

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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