This “potato-eater” is now at the top at Channel 8
Famously poor in Mandarin, it’s no small achievement that Png clinched the Best Actor award for the first time for his villainous turn in The Journey: A Voyage at the Star Awards ceremony last month.
But the actor surprised us when, sitting down for our chat, he produced a lunch-box containing a sweet potato, generously went halves with us and proceeded to munch happily on his afternoon snack. Could anything be more perfect?
Having a fancy French first name (his older siblings are congruently named Felicia, Andre and Euphemia) is probably a neon sign advertising that he was raised, figuratively, on a Western diet of potatoes instead of rice. But coming from a Peranakan background meant his Mandarin skills — or lack thereof — should never have been a problem.
“My dad always said, ‘Don’t worry. If anybody makes fun of your Mandarin, just tell them you’re a Baba.’ It’s a given that you’re not allowed to speak good Mandarin,” Png said.
It was the MTV era and speaking Mandarin wasn’t so cool, he added. “I was going for endless tuition classes and it just didn’t help. The irony is, it has come back to haunt me. Kick me in the a**. I have to memorise tonnes of scripts and they’re all in Mandarin.”
As it turns out, Png has grown to love the language. “It’s just such a beautiful language. All the idioms have so much meaning.”
He said nothing has changed since he bagged the Best Actor trophy — his win didn’t sink in until his wife Andrea De Cruz returned from a holiday in Hong Kong a few days after the ceremony — although “some of my co-stars have made fun (of me): ‘Hey, Best Actor’ or, ‘Shi Di is here’.” (They had to explain to him that “shi di” meant “Emperor of TV”.)
His win, he thinks, makes him both hero and enemy among fellow “potato eaters”: “Now, everyone’s going to say, ‘If Pierre Png can speak Mandarin, so can you!’”
Png is of the opinion that his whole life has been “one big mystery”. He was an altar boy who nearly became a priest (“I had a calling, but I think God put me on call waiting”), despite the fact that adoring female gazes came early for Png, who grew up helping out at his father’s drink stall at the all-girl CHIJ St Joseph’s Convent.
Schoolgirls now watch him on TV: From a supporting role in Channel 5’s Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, he has worked his way up to be a Channel 8 leading man over a 16-year career. Although adjusting to Mandarin was a Herculean task, he said a lot of the things “that really screwed me over in life” have turned out for the better.
Things such as the intense training he went through at Officer Cadet School. “My two sisters had weak lungs. My brother’s lungs collapsed while playing mahjong with my parents. I always thought that I, too, might have weak lungs. So, when I ran in the army, I could never meet my timing,” he said.
But after three weeks of “torture”, he managed the 2.4km run in seven-and-a-half minutes, instead of his previous 12. “The person running in front of me — I just wanted to overtake him. And as soon as I overtook him, ‘Eh, what’s stopping me from overtaking the next person?’”
That, he said, “really was the best lesson I had in life”.
He now gets his exercise off-roading on Pulau Ubin — on a unicycle, no less, because he likes “to do things differently” — with “a bunch of lovely unicyclists”.
“I believe at the back of my mind, I always wanted to ride a unicycle like a clown in the circus.”
TEARS OF A CLOWN
Even though Png starred in the miniseries Zero Calling and is now filming for Mata Mata 2 — it’s a return of sorts to Channel 5’s English programmes — his day job remains at Channel 8. It’s safe to say he has a love-hate relationship with that because he sometimes feels like a joke.
“Until today, when I say, ‘This line doesn’t work’ or ‘Do I really have to say this line?’, the first thing that comes to people’s minds is, ‘Oh, is it too difficult to say?’ or ‘You don’t know what it means, is it?’” Png said.
“I don’t blame the people who say that because I am sometimes guilty of jumping to conclusions. It’s just very Singaporean — we don’t really have that depth of vocabulary ... instead of saying, ‘Thank God, you’re all right’, people normally say, ‘You damn lucky ah’,” he added.
That’s not to say he wasn’t hurt by such remarks. “Initially, when I got feedback or replies like those, I got very angry: ‘Since you said I can’t say the line, I insist on not saying the line’,” said Png. “But now, I’ve learned to work around whatever that’s given to me. Everyone has their own flaws and strengths. Mine just happen to be out there for everyone to see, for everyone to make fun of. I realise that sometimes I’m the joke of the production or the punching bag — because I allow them to do it.”
For example, if he gets accused of needing too many takes, instead of retaliating, he jokes that he’ll bring extra batteries the next time.
“You can say whatever you want. I just go back home to my lovely house and three dogs, and you go back to your naggy wife and kids who have no respect for you,” Png smiled.
“I can take a lot of sarcasm or remarks, and I will remember and I will work around it. And before you know it, I’m standing beside you and walking home with the award instead of you.”
Writer: May Seah
Photos: Jason Ho
Hair: McPhee, Cinq Salon
Makeup: Lolent Lee (9114 7447) using Make Up For Ever