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Broadway Ah Beng
16/06/2006
The New Sunday Times Magazine - Sunday People
JUST A LOCAL BOY
By Himanshu Bhatt

Sebastian Tan stages a hilarious Hokkien stand-up show in Singapore.

As curtains swing open, Sebastian Tan Swee Piew is standing frozen on stage in a dashing pose and a gaudy blue suit, all wound up to belt out "there is no business like show business".

Crooning at the top of his lungs hits like New York! New York! and Singing in the Rain, he punctuates the songs by jabbing one-liners and self-effacing commentaries - all in street-wise Hokkien.

"Kam Sia! Kam Sia!" he shouts back to applause from the audience.

Those unfamiliar with the Hokkien ethos may be tempted to take this as a rather self-lampooning social gesture.

But the Broadway Ah Beng act is all about celebrating a very homely culture while relishing the simple feel of a down-to-earth community pleasure.

Straight from being accompanied by a 72-piece orchestra in Britain where he played General Thuy in a tour of Miss Saigon, Tan, a 32-year-old Singaporean, has now taken up a role much closer to home.

In Ah Beng - the iconic dopey male persona of the Singaporean (and Malaysian) Chinese youth psyche - he has a conclusion to deliver to folks at home after all the time spent abroad: "Fish head curry is better than fish and chips!"

Spoofing Queen's English and Michael Jackson, and making lots of ang-mo jokes, he turns to the locals in the audience. "You-ah!" he yells. "Yellow want to become white!"

Directed by Selena Tan, Broadway Ah Beng, a stand-up act in Hokkien, is now staged in KL by Singapore's Dream Academy Production in collaboration with Gardner & Wife Theatre. The stint here follows a packed opening in Singapore earlier this year.

Unlike many Singaporeans of his generation, Tan grew up in a Hokkien neighbourhood, watching shows like the Phor Thay street opera. To this day he communicates with his three elder brothers in Hokkien.

And so, in the fashion of the street and cabaret shows, the Broadway Beng gig is a typically Hokkien variety affair.

And therein lies its appeal.

Tan grew up amid traditional street entertainment, before he got formally exposed to western styles like Broadway.

In Broadway Ah Beng, he fuses the two influences to ultimately bring on very native sense of humour even as he playfully taunts our obsession with all entertainment western.

Much of the show is also improvisatory, especially when he sportingly hauls up members of the audience (you'd better be armed with a bit or two of Hokkien to fling at him) to sing and dance on stage.

Mind you, there are wee bits of social parodying of the Singaporean mindset, particularly of the island nation's preoccupation with making Mandarin a dominant language over dialects.

At one point, Ah Beng turns to the singing all-girls trio starting with the two non-Chinese among them. One bursts into a jingle in Hokkien, the other does a ditty.

He then turns to the sole Chinese among the trio, posing her a question in Hokkien. She coyly replies in Mandarin: "I am a Singaporean. I speak Mandarin because Mandarin is cool!"

The message, inadvertent or otherwise, is not lost to the audience.

There is also quite a bit of good-humoured teaching of Hokkien vocabulary too.

From remembering his childhood dimsum and atap chee, to babbling about his peng yu (friends) and kosing (singers), when Tan asks for kwat phok (applause) he readily gets loads of it.

Like Tan who has spent a long time in Britain, Ah Beng - no matter how exposed to western tunes and heroes - just wants to belong to home.

He may have lived overseas, but while away his suitcases were packed with Maggi Mee, bottles of soy-sauce and tomato sauce, and of course a comforting photo of Mummy.

"Sometimes in stand-up you need to draw from yourself," Tan said in an interview.

In so doing, Tan as Ah Beng shows us that he is at heart - like all of us are - just a local boy.