Celebrity Interview with Cynthia Koh, 许美珍

Everyone knows Cynthia Koh speaks fluent English and Mandarin. Since her first screen debut in The Dating Game in 1992, Cynthia has acted in at least 70 productions, many of which are aired on local television, including Channel 5 and Channel 8. When we first tuned in to the dialect drama, Ho Seh Bo (好世谋), we were intrigued by how she had effortlessly delivered her lines in Teochew. Wait, did she grow up speaking Teochew? How did she pick up the language?

Cynthia generously shares with us her personal journey in learning and speaking Teochew, as well as how she prepared for her role of Pan Mei Ruo (潘美若) in Ho Seh Bo. Did you know that she can speak other dialects too? Read on to find out!

LearnDialect.sg: You speak very fluent Teochew! When did you pick up Teochew and what inspired you to pick up the language?

Cynthia Koh: Since young, in fact, we converse in Teochew at home with my grandparents, because that’s the only way that they can understand. So my parents taught us – me and my sister – Teochew at a very young age. Even until today, we still speak Teochew at home!

Can you share one or two interesting/funny anecdotes when you were learning Teochew back then?

I really can’t remember because there are so many! Teochew has a sing-song rhythm to it and so even if we are quarrelling at home, it sounds like we are singing a song (laughs). That’s the cute part about Teochew!

Your character, Pan Mei Ruo, speaks mainly Teochew in the show, Ho Seh Bo. How did you feel when you first knew that you had to act in Teochew? What made you want to take up this role, as it isn’t exactly mainstream as compared to a Mandarin production?

Pretty much, when I took up this role, they did tell me that I was supposed to speak more Mandarin than Teochew. And then later on, they changed it. They said, “Could you speak like 70% Teochew and only 30% Mandarin if necessary?”. I remember the first few days on set, I had to mouth my words or I tried to enunciate my Teochew words very carefully. That turned out to be very forceful and I personally felt very uncomfortable. So slowly, day by day, as we were going into the progress of filming, I eased into it. Later on, it became more natural – I spoke as I would at home and it became like a second skin. So it was really really great fun to be on Ho Seh Bo and it was a really really great opportunity!

We can imagine that it must be quite different to prepare for a role in Teochew versus Mandarin. Were the scripts written in Mandarin and then you had to translate it to Teochew yourself? What are some of the challenges that you faced (if any) and how did you overcome it?

Yes, we got our scripts in Mandarin, so we had to translate and make it more fun in our own dialect. Luckily, we had help from 陈澍城大哥 (Chen Shu Cheng). So he mentored the three of us who would be speaking Teochew – Li Ping, me and Ya Hui. At any time that I needed help, I would go to Li Ping first, who would help me if she was free. If not, I would leave 陈澍城大哥 a voice message and he would reply. Because there are a lot of states or Teochew clans, every word may have a different kind of enunciation. So that was something that we had to be careful of. I managed to find a Teochew app which helped me in times of emergencies when I couldn’t reach 陈澍城大哥. So far so good! At least my lines were kind of easy because there weren’t much of the Eldershield or related messages. It was pretty straightforward – everything had got to do with Pan Mei Ruo and her husband. So it had been pretty easy.

The younger generations don’t speak as much dialect today. Can you leave some words of encouragement for them to pick them their dialect?

Generally, I would say that it is nice to know another language so that you can communicate with the older generation in times of need. I feel that sometimes, especially with our increasingly aging population now, it is nice to reach out to old folks in a dialect that they are familiar with. Personally I know and I can speak Cantonese, Teochew, very very very little Malay (I can understand but I cannot speak) and of course, Mandarin and English. I find that this has made it easier for me whenever I’m working or when I need to communicate, e.g., ordering food from someone who doesn’t speak Chinese.

Sometimes, when you can speak dialects with the elders, they feel more 亲切 [warm & sincere] with you. You just surprise them and make their day as you are able to understand them. So yes, I think we should revive dialect. Go and learn from your mummy and daddy. Maybe basic stuff like “how are you?”, “have you eaten?”, “where are you going?”, “do you need help?”, simple things like that. You can start from that and slowly build your dialect vocabulary. Hope you have fun!

Image Credits: Cynthia Koh’s Instagram & Facebook