Listen to an excerpt from Wang Sa & Ya Fong's performance

Click to hear a song from their performance

Laughter takes a back seat

One of Singapore's pioneer Chinese entertainers is in semi-retirement, and takes his leisure seriously, reports AUDREY PERERA

THE taxi draws up outside Wang Sa's Telok Kurau semi-detached house and the driver's expression changes from one of indifference to bright-eyed excitement.

We -- a Mandarin-speaking friend and I -- follow his stare to catch sight of the man himself, waiting outside the front gate of the two-storey building.

Wang Sa is immaculately groomed, dressed in a perfectly pressed, long-sleeved grey shirt and dark trousers with razor-edge creases.

The wasp-waisted 70-year-old stands ramrod straight, his arms behind his back, unsmiling, at first.

Taxi-driver Tan Kim Tiong stops the vehicle, leans across the front passenger seat and, with a reverent gesture, salutes Wang Sa.

In return, the almost-poker face breaks into a big, infectious smile.

The encounter captures both the past and the present of the comedian, one-half of the duo, Wang Sa And Ya Fong, who entertained television and live audiences from the 1960s.

The past because he was always able to raise excitement and draw laughter from those he met and performed for. And the present because, these days, it is a lucky fan who comes into contact with him, for he seldom makes a public appearance.

Wang Sa Comic touch : Wang Sa with his 1976 screen
persona, the cartoon character Lao Fu Zi, for
which he is still remembered

Speaking in Mandarin, the performer, who also portrayed the Chinese cartoon character Lao Fu Zi in a 1976 movie, Mr Funny-Bone, says: "I consider myself semi-retired now." He now does only the occasional show, mostly for charity.

"These days, I rear my fish - I have about 20 Japanese carp -- do a bit of gardening and read, mostly books on history.

"At the moment, I am reading a book about principles for living, about how we should look beyond fame and money.

"It is not being pessimistic. True, you need money to survive, but you must know when it is enough.

"I feel that I have enough, and I don't have to perform anymore.

"I have fulfilled my responsibilities. My youngest daughter has graduated."

In the living-room, framed family and graduation photographs stand atop an electric organ, sharing space with some pussy willows in a green vase.

A glass-fronted cabinet contains plaques and mementoes received over the years for contributions to the world of entertainment. There are plastic oranges and red silk flowers in another green vase.

The sound of a little fountain in his fish pond outside somehow matches the elaborately carved wooden Chinese furniture in the hall.

These days, he spends most of his time at home.

"Aerobics? Cannot, lor! You know how old I am?!

"I wake up, go for a walk in the neighbourhood, feed the fish, have breakfast and read the papers.

"Sometimes, I go out with friends for tea, then come home for lunch and an afternoon nap.

"My life is very organised. If I don't have any official engagements in the night, I stay at home, have my dinner, watch a bit of TV and read."

Although he reads so much, books are not in evidence in the hall where we are talking. His collection is upstairs, and by his bed.

His TV diet is sparse. As one of the first local performers to appear on screen in peoples homes in the 1960s, he feels that it has changed a lot, and not all for the better.

He says he is troubled by what he sees as an unwelcome direction that local television is taking. "There is nothing much that is worth watching. Our entertainment programmes are a failure.

"Look at Tuesday's Live From Studio One. There is a singing competition where the competitors have to sing while balancing on a skateboard."

"We have become boorish. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

"It is not that Singapore is lacking in talent; it is just that talent is not discovered and respected.

"SBC should not just pander to audience's tastes, but should also produce programmes that are of a certain quality," he says.

His own favourite programme, for instance, is It Pays To Travel, a Taiwanese travelogue-type production which is screened on Tuesdays.

"The language it uses is refined, not rough or vulgar, and it is full of information. It does not try to incorporate comic elements and yet, is able to attract viewers," he declares, waving aside a cautioning "Shush, don't talk so much" from his wife of 30 years, 55-year-old Siew Eng.

"I am an old man, I can afford to be honest!" he says.

Wang SaHis own career in entertainment began in 1937, when he was 13 years old.

He was a back-stage helper and then an acrobat with a travelling show.

In the 1960s, he teamed up with Ya Fong, whom he met at a stage show, and that was the start of a roughly 15-year string of Laurel and Hardy-type routines.

Comedy, he says, has changed, and a younger generation of comedians like Moses Tay and Jack Neo have taken centrestage.

"I do not consider them to be competition for myself and Ya Fong because their presentation and style are totally different, more suited to the young. Our performances were more timeless, like classical old songs.

"We emphasised more on content, the use of language and wit, and puns.

"The present comedians are more action-oriented," says Wang Sa.

"I don't want to comment on the styles of others, everyone has his own.

"But I am sad to say that I can't see any duo who can take the place of Ya Fong and myself. Times and ideas have changed."

He speaks fondly but minimally of his former partner in comedy, who is now in the chicken-rice business.

"We had visual impact: one skinny and tall, the other short and fat. And a lot of the time, we didn't need a script because we had chemistry."

As he continues, in a manner so intense it is obvious he still has a keen interest in comedy, I begin to wish I could speak Mandarin.

When I tell him so through my friend, he replies: "I wish I could speak English. It is my one regret in life.

"We were colonised by the British and they looked down on us and treated us like second-class citizens.

"So I always despised them and refused to learn their language. Now, I regret it."

"I did not even finish my primary education in Tuan Mong Primary School before I joined the travelling show.

"That is why I have placed so much emphasis on education for my children." He talks proudly about his six children - from two marriages - the eldest of whom is now an assistant-superintendent in the police force.

Speaking intently on topics like the importance of fulfilling family obligations and artistic integrity, the bespectacled Wang Sa looks much like the stereotypical Oriental sage dispensing wisdom.

It is an image far removed from the buck-toothed - fake ones - and gangly Ah San (Skinny) which he played for so long.

Until he tilts his head at just the right angle and raises an eyebrow, and for no apparent reason, I laugh.

First published in The Straits Times, Nov 14, 1993

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