A star is born… or made?
When recalling her very first stint at acting, Yixin cringes in embarrassment. “Please don’t watch it!” she protests jokingly, to our complete disregard. The drama in question, While We Were Young (Z世代), was released on Channel 8 in 2017 to celebrate 35 years of local Mandarin drama serials. The show was touted as a Teacher’s Day tribute to local educators who are responsible for nurturing Singapore’s student population, and one of the rare youth dramas produced locally. As part of the all-star cast, the show gathered several ‘second generation’ actors whose parents are veteran artistes in Mediacorp. One of them was Yixin herself.
Since the show’s release, the 21-year-old confesses it has been tough for these young actors to shake off the brand of the so-called ‘second generation’. “It’s nothing but a stereotype – we’re lumped together rather than recognised as individuals. If one of us messes up, it typecasts the entire group,” she quips. There being no second without a first, the name itself comes with an implication that their careers are defined by that of the generation which precedes them. Google search results for Yixin defines her as ‘Edmund Chen’s daughter’ before ‘actress and performer’. In her experience, it’s rare for any publicity for her to come without the mention of ‘celebrity kids’ or ‘famous parents’.
“For me, even when it comes to future opportunities, I can’t make decisions selfishly because any mistake I make will affect their reputation. Either people don’t take me seriously or they expect my parents characteristics from me as well.” The irony of being from a famous family, is the privilege of already getting one foot through the door of stardom, but having to work doubly hard to prove themselves worthy of entering.
The industry may not be as willing to experiment with younger talents as much as bank on the popularity of veteran actors. In the 80s and 90s, the cultural impact of public television programming grew alongside a technological boom. From households, to hospitals, to waiting rooms, and even on public buses in the early 2000s, there was almost always a television screen to gaze at. Programmes in the primetime slots, especially drama serials, were a collective cultural experience shared with family and friends. Students of that era remember going to school and discussing what happened on “the 7 o’clock show” or “9 o’clock drama”. Until the rise of the digital age, celebrity culture among the Chinese majority in Singapore was built almost solely on Caldecott Hill’s ensemble of popular local actors.
The ‘second generation’ might be an attempt to maintain the network’s appeal to the same demographic of Mandarin-speaking audience members, as the number of young people who still consume local public television is fast dwindling. An increasingly globalised state has introduced strong competitors to the media market – greater access to international media in the form of cable television, social media, and on-demand streaming services have since formed their own dynasties.
As an artiste, Yixin is comfortable being on the outside looking in. “I’ve been really lucky to have a close relationship with my manager. It’s more nurturing and supportive – I get a say in the image I want to portray, rather than someone deciding your branding for you.” Despite being the youngest in the family, Yixin has dared to go a different route from the one her parents and now, brother, have taken. “They definitely get stability and a lot of resources, but it’s also more competitive. I don’t want work to change the relationships I have with the people I’ve grown up with.”
In spite of her genetics, Yixin was not brought up to be media trained. “Because my personality is more introverted, my parents used to question whether I am even suited for the industry at all. I was also criticised by others for having tan skin and not adhering to the typical standard of beauty.” She admits, “In other cultures, it’s definitely more open-minded and individualistic. Celebrities stand out for being themselves, looking how they want to look and saying what they want to say.”
By toeing the line, those given a platform tend to be ill-equipped to handle more sensitive topics. There is a common stigma, within and outside of the industry, that Singapore’s media is restrictive and regressive in the subjects they deal with. Both Mediacorp programmes and local YouTube channels made waves in recent years for scandalising minority communities with offensive storylines and insensitive portrayals, including blackface, brown-face, homophobia, transphobia – the list of offenses goes on. “As employees in an industry, we fully trust higher-ups to have done their due diligence, but they can be out of touch and it shows they haven’t done enough homework when it comes to what younger viewers relate to.”
It’s no surprise that younger people no longer feel represented in mainstream media. Teen dramas, as a genre, frequently explore the conflict between one generation and that which raised them. As art imitates life, locally-produced content tends to demonstrate a large disconnect between the writers and producers of the show, and the age group they seek to portray. “There aren’t many youth dramas to begin with because of lack of demand. Relaying government-approved messages outweighs portraying youths realistically and sensitively,” Yixin says. “But with the internet and call-out culture, the industry can stand to learn a lot from that feedback. The companies AND the artistes. It’s also definitely on us as individuals, as role models to our audience, to not follow industry standards blindly and be oblivious to social issues.”
The New (Coming Of) Age
Fortunately, this past year, Yixin got another shot at the genre, playing Sissy Soong in a series adaptation of the 1998 film, The Teenage Textbook Movie. Teenage Textbook: The Series, whose predecessor was based on the novel by Singaporean author Adrian Tan, premieres on Channel 5 in March. “It is definitely my favourite role to date, because I got to channel my inner demons – Sissy’s spunk, arrogance, confidence is not something I have in real life. She also deals with certain topics like bullying that I personally relate to.”
Since Mediacorp’s sci-fi comedy release on Channel 5 last year, Mixed Signals, adapted from Michael Chiang’s 1989 play, it seems that they’re on a mission to revitalise old local favourites, from a forgotten time when audiences had a little more faith in homegrown content. Hopefully, it signals a rebirth in authentic local stories, bridging the old and the new, the young and the old, in mass media. “There’s parallel themes between the younger and older generation in Teenage Textbook. It’s tiring to see young people being exclusively portrayed as troubled and lost, when so are the adults. Issues like identity crises and relationships apply across all generations.” Yixin remains optimistic about where the industry is headed. “There’s definitely an attempt to include more themes relevant to the digital generation, like cyberbullying, xenophobia, drug use, even LGBT topics, although not everything passes the board of censors,” she explains. “But I hope people watch it, if just to support young adult or coming-of-age shows, because we really lack those in local content. So… hopefully we can get a season 2!”
If there’s one thing Yixin hopes for viewers to take away from the show, it’s to follow your passion. “It sounds so cheesy, but even as an actor, I felt very empowered by the energy and enthusiasm on set. My cast mates are all young independent actors who are very much willing to embrace and learn from each other’s individuality. There was no competition between each other, we’re just responsible for doing our characters justice.” Her optimism is infectious as she describes her experience. “Being in this industry as a young person, we really can’t predict our futures, so the key is to just live in the moment.” Wise words from a fellow alien.
Currently, the actress is preparing for yet another role, this time in a regional production, which she will be filming overseas over the next few months. Being on the outside does have its merits. It’s clear that this star is determined to chart her own path, not merely exist in the same solar system as the ones before her. For us at Observatory, we’ll definitely be looking out for more of Yixin soon.