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Wed, Nov 07, 2012
Straits Times
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Cancer battle changed her outlook on life
by Boon Chan

Diners tucking into the fiery Sichuan cuisine at the tastefully decorated restaurant in Beach Road would never have guessed that the well- groomed elderly woman seated near them was once a glamorous movie star.

They might think she was a hip grandmother perhaps, but not someone they would pay much attention to. Yet pay attention, people once did.

Chong Set Png, 80, better known as Zhuang Xuefang, was once known as the Hokkien Queen, playing likeable, comedic roles in Hokkien films such as Marry Into Your Own Class (1958). They were hits in the region as far afield as Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s.

She also sang Hokkien and Mandarin songs and her popular numbers include 1962's Chu Ren Tou Di (Rising Above Others), a remake of the Indonesian folk song Ayo Mama.

At the peak of her movie career, the jet-setting Singaporean was living it up in Hong Kong with four maids taking care of her every need.

It seems a far cry from her life now, as she drives to the lunch venue, Si Chuan Dou Hua Restaurant at the Parkroyal hotel, in a down-to-earth Toyota from the HDB flat in Serangoon where she lives.

Dressed in a cheerful floral blouse, she looks younger and fitter than her 80 years. Her face is relatively unlined and she sports a head of dark red hair.

Seven years ago, she came out of retirement to perform at the occasional charity concert - and will step into the limelight once more on Saturday at charity pop concert My Generation, My Songs at The Star Theatre in Buona Vista.

It hardly seems possible that this active and positive-thinking woman was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago and underwent painful chemotherapy. Her battle with the illness changed her outlook on life, she says, and she seems to be living very much in the present now.

In conversation, she is jovial and lively, tending to be modest and matter-of- fact rather than one to toot her own horn. She is happy to talk about the past but she does not live in it.

Looking back at how it all began, she says in Mandarin that when it came to entering show business, "very few people did it for the interest, but for the income it brought".

Her father was from Quanzhou in Fujian province and was a "high-ranking personnel on a ship". He died when she was very young and there were some hard times that followed, so "that's why I came out to sing at a young age".

It fell to her mother to take care of the children, who were born in Singapore. Chong had an older brother, now deceased, and a younger sister.

Having lived through the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, she remembers life as being very tough then and people were malnourished. White rice was rationed - "even if you had money, you couldn't buy it" - and had to be mixed with sweet potato.

She was a sickly child and did not have much formal education, though she adds: "If anyone asks, I would always say I graduated from the University of Society."

She would have been a precocious star student. When she was about 14, she caught the eye of a getai pianist performer. "He saw that I was very cute and offered to teach me singing for free. I was so happy - it was like striking lottery."

The first song she learnt was Cai Bing Lang (Picking Betel Nuts) and she breaks into a snatch of the lively Mandarin tune. Success as a getai performer came easily and she says matter-of-factly: "I was young, I had a nice smile and I became popular very quickly."

Getai back then was not as elaborate as it is now. It was just a simple set-up with "a few lights and a large microphone that covered half the face", and audiences' expectations were not too high.

Starting with tens of dollars a month, Chong went on to make a princely sum of more than a thousand dollars at the height of her getai career. Not only did she sing, but she also danced and acted in dramas.

She made enough money to start her own Zhuang Xuefang Song And Dance Troupe at the age of 25.

Pragmatism aside, there was an idealistic side to her too. "I was young, had a lot of dreams then and I didn't want to stay in one place. I had made enough money to take a loss. I was kind of reckless in my youth and was determined to see something through once I decided on it."

The first stop for the troupe of more than 20 people was the Philippines, which had a sizeable population of emigrants from her ancestral hometown of Quanzhou. She eventually earned herself the title of Nanyang Musical Queen.

Mr Ling Heng Kee, 90, joined the troupe as a singer and the fact that his boss was so young did not concern him at all. He says: "I was only afraid that she wouldn't employ me." He adds of Chong: "She was nice to us and friendly."

While he enjoyed performing overseas, he also cited the constant travelling, especially in Malaysia, as the toughest part of being in a troupe. If the show was popular, they might stay about a week in one place. Otherwise, they might uproot and move on after four days.

This peripatetic lifestyle ended when Chong was invited by Eng Wah company to Hong Kong to make films. She recalls that the cinema operator bought the distribution rights to her films and because of that, she became even more popular.

Mr Goh Eng Wah, 89, chairman and founder of Eng Wah Global, tells Life! via e-mail that he had recognised a potential market for Hokkien movies in Singapore and Malaysia and was looking for a leading lady for his first production.

He bumped into Chong, then a well-known singer at New World Amusement Park in Singapore, by chance when she was looking for another producer to launch her movie career. He saw potential in her and invited her to Hong Kong, which had movie production infrastructure and expertise.

His first Hokkien movie in which she starred was Tian Ya Ge Nv (The Wandering Songstress, 1958). The title was a song made famous by Shanghai singer Zhou Xuan in the film Street Angel (1937) and Chong sang it in Hokkien.

As a result of the movie, her fame spread to Taiwan, where Hokkien, or Minnan as it is called, is prevalent.

Two of her biggest hits were the romantic comedies Marry Into Your Own Class and Shrews From After (1958), with famous Shaw actress Ivy Ling Po, then just 19. Chong recalls of her co-star: "She was younger than me and really obedient. And whatever you said to her, her mother would reply on her behalf."

The enterprising Chong also set up her own Zhuang Movie Company. As she was already busy making films for others, she made only four to five films.

One of them was Long Shan Si Zhi Lian (Romance At Lung Shan Temple, 1962). She also starred in it but declares that "it was badly filmed" and the story behind the movie was even more exciting than what unfolded on screen.

It was a politically sensitive time of military rule in Taiwan and director Pai Ko was arrested on charges of being a foreign spy. Chong was detained just as she was about to take off in a plane for Thailand. Driven to some location, kept in a room and questioned, she says: "I kept crying and I was so flustered. I didn't know that I had broken any law."

She was released after half an hour and she is convinced that it was because of five telephone calls that came in during that period. To this day, she does not know who made those calls or what transpired in those conversations.

Dramatic episode aside, she says life was good then. "I was like a goddess... with four maids taking care of me."

One would cook her meals at home. Two would accompany her to the film set: one to help with the costumes and make-up, the other to provide a cotton- padded jacket or to fan her between scenes. One would take care of her wardrobe at home and lay out the dress, shoes and matching bag for her.

Chong adds: "It wasn't extravagance. You had to have that number of maids because they each just did that one thing."

She made her mark in music too. She says modestly though: "To this day, I don't think I sing well but I knew how to pick the right song."

Chu Ren Tou Di (Rising Above Others) was definitely a canny choice.

It was a song from Romance At Lung Shan Temple and she has a theory for its popularity in Taiwan. "The lyrics were very inspirational. Hence people kept choosing the song to sing in contests - they were hoping to rise above others."

Despite an illustrious body of work, she laments that she does not have a truly representative work in film or music. "When I was young, I was too busy to think about my legacy. Now I realise it's important but it's too late for regrets."

What she was thinking about at the height of her popularity in her 30s was having her own family. "So I came back to Singapore around 1971 to get married."

The story of her romance could have served as the plot for a melodrama. She met her husband-to-be over a meal with friends in Thailand. Mr Ye Miaoding was an Indonesian Chinese from a well-to-do family - and 15 years her junior. She did not have much of an impression of him.

He, on the other hand, was besotted and even got his mother to lie for him that he was in his 30s. His father objected vehemently and packed him off to Germany for a three-year course. He returned after six months, having spent all his allowance on long-distance calls to her.

Chong was eventually won over by how he took care of her mother when she was busy filming abroad.

Once she settled down in Singapore, the bright lights no longer held any allure for her. She says: "After living that exciting life, it was a luxury to go back to the quiet life. After I got married, my life became ordinary. And I had no contact with the world of entertainment."

Despite her apprehensions about the age gap, they had a happy marriage. "I think he loved me more, so that means I didn't have to give in to him."

He died from kidney disease more than 10 years ago. They have one daughter Ye Ruijun, who is almost 40 and works in administration in the hotel line here.

Home for Chong now is a five-room HDB flat that she shares with her daughter. She bought it eight years ago for her only child when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "It was done up like new and then I was prepared to go. In the end, I didn't die. It's been eight years," she adds with a laugh.

She is proud of what she has achieved in this period. Having undergone chemotherapy, she volunteered to counsel other patients. She has also performed at charity concerts.

She now has a clean bill of health, although it is only "50 per cent" of what it used to be. She credits her health to exercise from yoga to taiji to swimming and watches her diet by eating as simply as possible. She has also drawn strength from her conversion to Christianity.

She has had her taste of the high life but material things do not mean much to her after her battle with cancer.

"Health is most important. Even if you had money and the world on a plate, it means nothing if you're lying on a bed while others enjoy life. At this age, you should live a life that has joy. You're already near the end, so the most important thing is to live in the present."

At the end of the meal at the restaurant, she cracks opens a cookie and quips at her fortune: "The way to success? I had that long ago."

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