Titoudao, an ode to Singaporean Chinese opera, has been remade for TV

Sheila Chiang
Lifestyle contributor
Malaysian actress Koe Yeet plays wayang star Ah Chiam in TV series Titoudao: Inspired By The True Story Of A Wayang Star, by Oak3 Films and Mediacorp. (PHOTO: Mediacorp)

SINGAPORE – Based on the real-life story of director Goh Boon Teck’s mother, a street wayang (Chinese opera) performer, Mediacorp’s TV remake of local play, Titoudao, will premiere next Tuesday (18 February) on Channel 5 as well as streaming service meWATCH.

The 13-episode drama series, like the acclaimed play it is adapted from, follows the life of Madam Oon Ah Chiam, a kampong girl turned shining wayang star, who has battled against multiple hardships and challenges in life in a bid to realise her dreams. 

The filming locations were in Ipoh, Malaysia and filming took place over the course of three months. Notable cast members include Fann Wong, Singaporean actor and wayang practitioner Nick Shen, Malaysian actress Koe Yeet, Crazy Rich Asians actress Constance Lau as well as Singaporean actors Andie Chen, Tasha Low, Joel Choo, Xavier Ong, Shawn Thia and Judee Tan.

Koe Yeet stars as the protagonist Ah Chiam, the sixth of 12 children in a poor family, born during the Japanese occupation of Singapore (Ah Chiam’s mother, Ah Bu, is played by Fann Wong.) Observing her suspiciously different physique, her father (Bernard Tan) insists she is not his child. 

Ah Chiam joins the wayang troupe Sin Sai Hong and finds a sense of belonging that was absent in her home and starts her career in Chinese opera. 

Yahoo Lifestyle SEA spoke to some members of the cast at their filming locations in Ipoh during a set visit in December. The crew wrapped filming for the series by the end of 2019.

Fann Wong stars as protagonist Ah Chiam's mother, Ah Bu. (PHOTO: Mediacorp)

“My character is similar to Ah Chiam’s,” said Koe. “I’m feisty and like chilli padi. I’m short, and I move a lot. I love acting, Ah Chiam loves acting,” said the bubbly 27-year-old actress who hails from Selangor, when asked about how she was cast for the role by Yen, CEO of Oak3 Films. It was her first time acting in a Singapore drama. 

“The director gave us a list of movies to watch. I had never heard of a wayang troupe before, let alone experience it. We watched Painted Faces and Farewell My Concubine to try to get the idea of wayang and what made it so popular back then. Nowadays, they do it because it is a ritual, a tradition for occasions like Mooncake Festival. Last time, it was their source of entertainment before TV came,” continued Koe, on how she prepared for her role. 

“What Nick (her fellow cast member) taught me was that all wayang actors have to use their eyes a lot,” said Koe, as she demonstrated a look of mock surprise with raised eyebrows and widened eyes.

“I also consulted Oon Ah Chiam herself who would tell me, ‘I tell you ahhh. This is how you do it’ or ‘Aiya, it’s not like that!’ and then proceeded to show me how to do it,” said Koe, who observed how the real Ah Chiam conducted herself.

Nick Shen plays Master Gwee Boon, the troupe boss of Sin Sai Hong, and is an avid wayang practitioner and troupe boss himself in real life. He is very familiar with the trade and offered a lot of advice to the cast members, as well as helped with the choreography. 

Nick Shen plays opera troupe leader Gwee Boon. (PHOTO: Mediacorp)

“Initially, Mediacorp felt that I was too young for the role (Gwee Boon). I auditioned for three roles – troupe leader Gwee Boon, elder brother to the troupe leader Gwee Seng and Ah Zai, adopted son of Master Gwee,” said the soft-spoken 43-year-old veteran actor and Chinese opera performer, who is known for his Channel 8 dramas such as Beyond the Axis of Truth (2001, 2005) and Romantic Delicacies (2009).

“I choreographed a fighting scene with Andie (who plays the older brother of Nick Shen’s character),” said Shen, whose character was at loggerheads with Andie’s character (Gwee Seng) as their father wanted Gwee Boon to head the troupe, much to the displeasure of Gwee Seng. 

Are there any differences from being a troupe leader in real life and acting out the role of Gwee Boon?

“There is a big difference. Troupe leaders are supposed to be very fierce and stern. I’m always scolding (the students) in the show. When you train your students, you have to put on a stern front. In real life, I am firm and steady but I hardly lose my temper on stage,” said Shen. 

Nick Shen hopes that Titoudao can continue to bring awareness to the dying wayang trade. 

“Like Gwee Boon, I did not want to be a troupe leader. I wanted to be an actor. I took it up because I wanted to revive the dying art,” said Shen, who grew up with street opera and inherited his love of Chinese opera from his grandparents.  

Lending additional star power to the production is Crazy Rich Asians actress, Constance Lau, who plays Ah Chiam’s arch rival, Ah Ngor, who will use all means to beat her.

Lau shares the same sentiments as Shen with regard to Chinese opera increasingly disappearing for our generation.

“I hope this drama opens the audience’s eyes to wayang. It is a dying art though we still do see it when it’s the Seventh Month (Hungry Ghosts Festival in the Chinese lunar calendar). It’s always something that I wanted to see and wanted to know more about. If you see the end product, it is really, really worthwhile,” said Lau. 

Koe had something to say about what the audience can take away from the drama series. 

“I asked, ‘Aunt Chiam, do you feel like you were very poor when young?’ I read the script and she didn’t wear shoes at that time. I wore shoes because of convenience but she never had shoes and the chance to go to school,” said Koe. 

“No ah, not poor. Very poor meh? Just live life like that lor,” said Ah Chiam. 

“Nowadays, if you can’t have a handbag that your friend has or the latest iPhone, you feel like you are not living life. We don’t easily find the silver lining in life. In this drama, it is finding the strength to go on and to just live the next day and be thankful about the little things and being a fighter. Even when you are down, you trust that it is not your lowest and tomorrow will be a better day,” said Koe, on how a lot of youngsters should learn from the story of Ah Chiam. 

The 13-episode drama series, Titoudao: Inspired By The True Story Of A Wayang Star, will be available for free from 18 February on meWATCH (formerly known as Toggle), as well as every Tuesday at 9.30pm from 18 February on Channel 5.