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Underrated in S'pore but hot in China

1997 Star Search winner Florence Tan failed to crack MediaCorp's A-list here, but is now earning rave reviews for her work in China. -TNP
Tan Kee Yun

Mon, Feb 27, 2012
The New Paper

DOES the name Florence Tan ring a bell?

To most local television viewers, the 1997 Star Search winner and MediaCorp artiste has all but fallen off the radar.

Many assumed she was content being a tai-tai and mum after she left the station and quietly tied the knot with her Taiwanese businessman boyfriend in 2006.

But unknown to many, the 34-year-old dimpled, doe-eyed actress is enjoying a career revival of sorts in China, where she has inked a three-year artiste management contract with production company Lafeng Entertainment.

Her comeback role as an evil, scheming concubine - in the intriguing period drama Mystery In The Palace - is earning rave reviews from Chinese critics.

The popular 37-episode series, which concluded its run on Hunan Television last night, topped China's nationwide viewership ratings in the millions.

It also stars several titans of the Hong Kong and Taiwan show business scene, including veteran actress Michelle Yim, Asian Television Awards Best Actor Kevin Cheng, TVB babe Bernice Liu and Jimmy Ni, best known for playing baddie Guo Congmin in Taiwanese soap opera Love.

In a phone interview with The New Paper from Dongguan, Guangdong, where she has been based with her husband and three-year-old twin daughters since last year, Tan was spirited as she talked about rejoining the entertainment industry.

Refreshing change

"Many Chinese viewers remember me from my good girl role Xiao Zhao in MediaCorp's adaptation of the wuxia classic The Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre, so it was rather refreshing for them to see me take on this dark, sinister character," she told The New Paper.

"When Mystery In The Palace was showing, I was frequently slammed and scolded online by the show's fans. That's a good thing, because people were directing their resentment at my character, not Florence Tan.

"It shows they really appreciated my performance. With this drama, I feel I've taken my acting to a higher level."

Before joining Lafeng Entertainment, she had taken a break from work for a couple of years, becoming a full-time mum.

Her first acting gig after her comeback more or less landed on her lap. Mystery In The Palace was produced by Lafeng Entertainment and thus, several members of the show's ensemble cast were from the company's roster of talents.

She enjoyed the high production values and beautiful scenery which Chinese drama sets boast, as well as the good rapport she shared with Yim and Cheng.

"These big stars have no airs at all," gushed Tan.

"They are so skilled at what they do, sparks naturally flew between us during our scenes together."

So does she feel more appreciated now than when she was at MediaCorp?

After a slight pause, the Malaysia-born actress laughed and said: "Erm, your question is very tricky."

It's not hard to see why this was sensitive territory.

Despite being a Star Search winner, she failed to crack the ranks of Caldecott Hill's queens and princesses during her stint with MediaCorp - a fate sadly shared by some of her fellow Star Search alumni.

In her last two years as an artiste here, she was sent to star in MediaCorp's co-productions with China, which meant being stationed overseas for long stretches of time and getting sidelined in terms of visibility.

"Towards the end of my contract with MediaCorp, local viewers didn't really see me on TV any more," she admitted.

However, Tan was determined to be diplomatic about her ex-employer.

"I think appreciation comes and goes. Sometimes you get more, sometimes you get less," she said finally.

"While I'm having a lot of fun now, I usually got to play the lead or second lead in MediaCorp shows. In Mystery In The Palace, my role might be a meaty one, but I'm still considered the third lead."

The stiff competition among China's massive pool of acting talents also meant that it's harder to stand out from the pack.

"Personally, I like playing good characters better," said Tan.

"It's lonely playing evil roles, you don't have any 'friends' by your side in your scenes... But my company suggested I play a baddie as it was more unique and attention-grabbing."

Palace dramas

There is also less diversity in genres, as China's television industry is dominated mostly by palace-themed dramas, she added.

"My next two productions are both palace dramas... In Singapore, where we have a good mixture of contemporary and period flicks, I got to play a paramedic (in On The Frontline in 2000) and a singer (in Wok Of Life, 1999)."

Then, there are the little things that make her homesick.

"My parents are still in Singapore, so are most of my friends," said Tan, who counts MediaCorp celebrities Yvonne Lim, May Phua and Pan Lingling as her bosom buddies.

"And I miss all the food! Nasi lemak, laksa, I miss them all."

She tries to fly home once every two months to catch up with her loved ones.

Next month, when she's back here, she is slated to film a cameo for the upcoming Channel 8 drama Joys of Life, which will see her reuniting with her Wok Of Life co-star Chew Chor Meng.

"Chor Meng and I have played a couple so many times, but oddly enough, we never got hitched (on screen)," said Tan.

"In Joys of Life, we will be getting married, finally!"

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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