Celebrity Interview with Romeo Tan, 陈罗密欧 

When we interviewed Romeo Tan, he was upfront in admitting that he speaks neither Hokkien nor other dialects prior to filming Ho Seh Bo. Yet, in the dialect drama, he delivered his lines in Hokkien, alongside other co-stars who spoke Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. Why did he then take on the role and how did he overcome the language challenges? Was it due to his humility, quick-wit or tenacity? We’ll leave it to you to suss it out. One thing is for sure, Romeo is an inspiration to dialect learners.

LearnDialect.sg: Can you tell us more about your dialect background?

Romeo Tan:  Actually, before you ask me this question, I had no idea. Then, I called my family and my dad said that we are Hokkiens from “An Kui” [Hokkien pronunciation of An Hui, 安徽], Fu Jian Province (福建省). To be honest, I have no idea where this is. Within my family, we speak only a little Hokkien. Since young, I have been speaking Mandarin with my parents and English with my siblings. As such, I didn’t really have a chance to practice speaking Hokkien except with my Ah-Ma [grandmother]. I guess I am not very talented in speaking Hokkien as my Ah-Ma also gave up talking to me in Hokkien. *laughs* So, my Ah-Ma would use simple Hokkien words to speak to me and if the conversation is more complex, she will ask my father to translate for me in Mandarin. 

We must say, we love your candid NG shots at the end of every Ho Seh Bo episode. We’ve also watched a Toggle video interview where you had to introduce yourself in Hokkien and we learnt that you do not speak Hokkien at home. Can you share with us your initial thoughts when you knew you had to act mainly in Hokkien? What made you want to take up this role as Xiao Gandang (萧敢当)? 

During the press conference, that is, before filming the show, I would say that my Hokkien knowledge is almost zero, or maybe just 10%. It’s very minimal. So why did I pick up this role? I guess I always believe that Singapore is multi-cultural. It is very natural to mix different languages together in our conversations, be it English with Chinese, English with Malay, or English, Chinese, Malay and Hokkien altogether. It just feels very natural and there’s always a sense of familiarity and closeness. When the executive producer asked me if I knew how to speak Hokkien, I was very frank with him. I said that my Hokkien is quite “jialat”, quite lousy. After that, I thought that my chance of getting this role might be quite low. So I am really happy that I was given this chance to be in Ho Seh Bo. 

Picking up Hokkien is not an easy task, much less with a short time frame and the need to then act in Hokkien. How did you pick up Hokkien so quickly for the show?

Actually I didn’t pick up Hokkien fast. What you see on TV was produced after all the NG [No-Good] takes. It was a nightmare to have so many NGs! I was struggling with some lines, but the production crew are very nice. They would always speak to me in Hokkien in between breaks. In that way, I could keep practising Hokkien. I also have two very very good teachers, Liu Qian Yi [Richard Low, 刘谦益] and Lim Ru Ping [Anna Lim, 林如萍]. I call them, “老师” [teacher], the Hokkien guru. Whenever I had any problems, I used WhatsApp audio. I would ask them, “How do you pronounce this word?”, or “How would you say this sentence in Hokkien?”. I would ask both of them as sometimes, they have either different accents or choice of words. From these two versions, I’ll then pick and adapt the one that sounded most like how my role, Xiao Gandang, would speak it. 

To act alongside Chen Li Ping, who speaks predominately Teochew in the show, and then with Sheila Sim and Richard Low who speak Hokkien, and then with Mi Xue (Michelle Yim) who speaks Cantonese, did these different languages pose as an additional challenge for you to prepare for the role? How did you overcome it? 

Chen Li Ping, Liu Qian Yi and Mi Xue [Michelle Yim, 米雪] are all veterans. Yes, one speaks Teochew, one speaks Hokkien and another speaks Cantonese. I struggled with the languages at times and needed to find my balance. But at the end of the day, I still think it is the 演戏的默契 [acting chemistry]. So with their expressions and emotions, I can figure out what they are saying. We also had a script to follow, so it was not too much of a problem. In fact, I’ve acted with Chen Li Ping for quite some time, so our chemistry is already there. For Liu Qian Yi, he’s my teacher. So it was very fun to be speaking Hokkien with him. As for Sheila, we are from the same generation, so there wasn’t any problem. Sometimes, we do mix English in our conversations so it’s quite fun too!

The only struggle, I would say, is maybe with Mi Xue because I don’t really understand Cantonese. There was a scene where her role finally found her son, Gandang, but they had a quarrel in the park. It was a heavy scene with lots of dialogues and emotions. Mi Xue was supposed to cry in that scene, so I was really worried that I would NG too many times and affect both her emotions and acting. That was a bit of struggle for me because I had to listen very carefully to her last word in every sentence. So for example, I would ask Mi Xue, “For this line, what is the last word? How do you pronounce it?“. Then I will make an effort to remember those Cantonese words and their pronunciation, so that I could continue acting from there. That’s the little trick that I used. All that said, after a few rehearsals, I guess we got the momentum. I thought the scene was quite nicely taken!

Can you leave some words of encouragement for the younger generations to pick them their dialect? Any learning tips that you can share with younger generations who speak mainly English and Mandarin these days? 

I also need some encouragement on this! *laughs* I think I am just like most of the new generation kids who seldom speak Hokkien. I believe the easier way out is to speak with your Ah-Gong [grandfather] and Ah-Ma, or your father and mother. That is the fastest way to learn Hokkien. Sometimes, I’ll mix Hokkien into my daily conversations with my parents, especially ever since I filmed Ho Seh Bo. I think it’s important to practise and recap, if not, all that I’ve learnt would go down the drain. Another way, I guess, is to watch more dialect shows. It’s a good time now to learn from local TV too, as we have dialect dramas. I really hope this drama will continue for many seasons. In that way, many Singapore citizens or the younger generation can learn more content through this TV show.

Another advice is not to worry too much and just speak it. For example, I was quite worried initially that I would mess up this whole production. But apparently, it turned out pretty well and many audiences like this show. I have also received a lot of good feedback. The best part? I did not have to do any post-dubbing. Usually, after a TV production, there will be a post production process where some words may be fine-tuned. For example, maybe your pronunciation was not right. Or perhaps you used the wrong words. In these instances, we will then go back to the audio room and dub that few lines. So, I was super surprised that I was not called back for dubbing at all. Not even a single word! *laughs* I am not sure if it is a good thing or not, but personally, I think it is very encouraging that they approved of my Hokkien accent or the way that Gandang spoke Hokkien in the show. 

Thanks for the interview! I hope that my little interview can help encourage more youngsters to pick up their dialects.

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很用功的小孩。 📷 Esther

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Image Credits: Romeo Tan’s Instagram and Facebook