It seems as though Hossan Leong has been around forever. The stage and screen actor has been fiercely making his rounds since his days playing Denise’s boyfriend in the 1995 hit sitcom Under One Roof, and seems to have remained ageless in his many endeavors thereafter. His latest: Forever Young, a jukebox musical spotlighting 90-year-olds and the issues surrounding ageing in Singapore.
48 he may be, but Leong is sprightly as ever. He plops down on a yellow sofa in the rehearsal studio, where we’re doing the photoshoot, and immediately starts working the camera with the props around him. At one point he picks up a toy dog (his character has a pet dog) and starts interacting with it, coaxing the stuffed animal to look at the camera.
“I’m very lame hor; people try to look good for photoshoots, I ask my fake dog to smile at the camera,” he jokes.
Both the director and an actor for Forever Young, Leong has had to make creative decisions in adapting the play, written for a European audience by Swiss playwright Erik Gedeon, for a Singaporean one. For one, the cast is an all-star one comprising his friends—Singapore’s veteran thespians, whose real-life experiences as actors shape their conversations onstage.
Since they’re all pals, how did he choose his cast? “Draw lots—lai ba (come on)!” he laughs, feigning throwing an armful of lots onto the ground. In all seriousness though, Leong says things just fell into place. There’s Tan Kheng Hua, Suhaimi Yusof, Ebi Shankara—“And so we have CMIO; we are Singapore,” he deadpans.
The government must surely be pleased then. “Yeah, well they won’t give us funding,” he says, eyes rolling in mock exasperation. “Give us funding,” he adds pointedly to the iPhone taping this interview.
Perhaps it’s little things like these that make up the impression of Leong’s eternal presence. He’s exactly how you imagined him to be from his shows—affable, relatable, and very much local; one of those people you feel like you’ve known for years. We continue the conversation below, as he delves deeper into the play and Singapore’s ageing society.
Tell us a little more about the play.
Our play is about a bunch of actors who are now 90, and we’re living in an old, abandoned theater. We all live in the dressing rooms, and we come down to the stage for our common area; that’s where all the action happens. And what do old people do when they sit around? Nothing right, you’d think. But this play brings us into the minds of each individual person—what they think about, what they hope; do they dream? Are they angry? What has brought them up to this point of their lives?
I’m approaching this with the “hope” aspect in mind. When you say you’re getting older, what are you bringing with you into this old age? For me it’s the word “hope”—it could be as simple as I hope to live another day; I hope that today I don’t have to take my medicine; that I will be able to play bingo with my friends.
It’s the positivity that I want to bring.
How does the music aspect come in?
The musical numbers help to propel the story along, and some of the music, the lyrics are so beautiful that you yearn for lost youth. So we did One Direction (songs) for example—”Story of My Life”, “Live While We’re Young”; things like that. And there’s Bruno Mars—you’ll see a couple, one of them has dementia, and then the husband is trying to get her to not worry or freak out, because you can “count on me, like 1 2 3, I’ll be there”. And she tries to sing back to him but she can’t, and it’s very ‘aww’; very heart-warming—and funny as well.
Aside from localizing language, how has the play been adapted for Singapore audiences?
We’re playing versions of ourselves when we’re 90, so we’ll reference our shows that we’ve done before—like, eh you in Beauty World; or the set will have posters of old shows. We’ll have lines from TV shows like Under One Roof, Phua Chu Kang of course, since Kheng Hua’s in it. There’ll be a little bit of Malay spoken, and the accents will be quite local.
Why the decision to incorporate your real-life experiences?
I don’t want to portray an old person that is not real, you see. I thought, “If I were 90, would I do this, would I say that?”. So I thought: why don’t I just play myself when I’m 90?
Does the comedy aspect trivialize ageing?
There’s a lot of humor in getting old, and I think there’s a lot of humor to old people seeing each other do something stupid—like farting; they laugh at each other. As you get older, you always don’t care anymore. My dad will just fart randomly, and he thinks it’s damn funny.
For this show it’s a lot of physical comedy—Karen’s character has Parkinson’s, and she constantly has to do this (shaking); I have a pai ka (bad leg), so I have to hobble. It’s interesting to see how all the actors transform their bodies and their voices. But then again, as I said, we don’t want to play a caricature of an old person; we may be old but it doesn’t mean we cannot walk. It’s been an interesting journey to play this age as real as possible, and so I don’t think with humor we’re trivializing it. I think we’re giving ageing a less scary face.
Do you think ageing and mental health are stigmatized in Singapore?
Of course. We know that mental health is stigmatized; we know this is a very ageist society—the moment you’re old, you’re useless, you go work at McDonald’s, or clean up the food court. There is (a negative perception towards ageing), but that’s why the government is putting in so much work to try and change that—you know, the “silver generation”, “pioneer generation”, giving them more chances to upscale, to work, to benefit—which is great. And my parents, in their ’70s, have taken advantage of that, like, “Oh government give discount? Let’s go!”. That’s one way of looking at it, so it’s individual perception and perspective.
Are mindsets changing?
Yeah I think so. For research we went to old folks’ homes, daycare programs to talk to people, and be part of their day. And the volunteers and the people who work in these centers are very young, and I’m very heartened to see it. This show will hopefully also show that side. Candice plays the nurse that comes in, and she has a story too—she wants to be a singer, and here she is looking after ex-actors, and not given a chance to go out there and be somebody herself. So why did she choose to stay? They co-depend—she needs them just as much as they need her. So I think for some people who go and volunteer, they need that too, for themselves.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have of old people?
That they had no past. You see an old person and all you think is, “Oh, old”. Wow. Have you never found out what kind of life they used to have? How their husband was, how many children they had; the dreams they had, their aspirations, their regrets? I think there’s a big misconception that an old person is no more than just an old person.
What is one thing you’re excited about in growing old?
I am looking forward to be able to grow old and be healthy, first of all, and to be able to see the world with my partner; to explore and keep learning. Some people might be afraid to get older, but I think if you look at it from a positive, hopeful point-of-view, with humor thrown in, it’s gonna be quite fun.
Forever Young runs from Oct 11-21 at the SOTA Drama Theatre. Tickets and more info here.