‘I knew I could make lots of money’: Quan Yi Fong came to Singapore to learn English and become mamasan
Learning a skill isn’t easy unless you’ve got sufficient drive, and a young Quan Yi Fong found motivation in her family’s shared goal for her — to become a mamasan.
In a recent episode of the Mediacorp talk show Hear U Out, Yi Fong, who is usually the host, became the guest in her own show while the invited Guo Liang became the host.
Yi Fong revealed that her original objective in coming to Singapore at the tender age of 16 to learn English wasn’t to make it big as a TV host or personality, but instead to gain the skills needed to enter Taiwan’s nightlife.
“My family was really poor at that time, my parents had no time for me and I couldn’t complete my studies,” Yi Fong, 48, prefaced.
“So my family had a hope for me — they wanted me to attend a language school here (Singapore) for a few months [to gain some] proficiency in English and return to Taiwan to work as a mamasan in a nightclub.”
Guo Liang was dumbfounded at her statement and could only stare at her, wide-eyed in shock.
He then exclaimed: “But you were just a teenage girl! How could this happen?”
“When [my family] told me about this idea, I thought it sounded okay. But at that time, I didn’t know what a mamasan was,” she said.
Perhaps because of her lack of understanding, she believed she would be fine as a mamasan because it meant she could sing.
She added: “I knew I could make lots of money as long as I was fun-loving. In those days, poor people were despised even more than those with no scruples.
“I just wanted my parents to have a good life, so I thought, ‘Fine, I’ll be a mamasan.'”
She nearly stuck through it all the way, too, but just two or three months before her course’s completion, she went for a TV host training programme.
But as she was taking on the training, Yi Fong didn’t give up her plans to be a mamasan up until the point where she was handed a TV contract.
“Did you show your aunt and family the contact? Did they agree?” Guo Liang queried.
Yi Fong replied: “They told me to consider carefully because it would mean being a full-time artiste and earning a meagre salary.”
She also contextualised her decision and explained that during those days, Taiwanese children were obliged to earn money for the family once they entered society.
“That was every child’s duty in the past, regardless of occupation.”
It was not explained why she chose a TV career over being a mamasan.
‘I cried in the washroom with high-heels on’
But her transition from mamasan-wannabe to TV host wasn’t an easy path to take.
She recalled: “I was quite clueless when I signed the contract for the first year, I usually played supporting roles and didn’t really take part in huge programmes. I was generally well-received.
“But come the second year, I was really targeted. To some of my seniors, my presence posed a challenge and I wasn’t treated very well or kindly.”
Giving an example of how she was bullied, Yi Fong shared an anecdote of how her scenes were edited out of some shows to the point where she only appeared at the end to bid farewell to the audience.
She added: “I was also scolded, too. Back then, it wasn’t acceptable to say ‘Bye bye!’, it had to be a more formal ‘Goodbye.'”
This happened more than once and whenever that happened, she got very emotionally distraught.
“I cried in the washroom in my high heels after filming every time,” Yi Fong said.
Hearing this, Guo Liang asked if she could turn to anyone to confide in or seek support from, asking if she ever turned to her grand-aunt for assistance.
Yi Fong’s grand-aunt is Mary Chen, a former actress and celebrity who became an insurance agent in 1982.
“It was impossible, there was no one,” she interjected with certainty. “She’d have told me, ‘Give up if it’s too tough, you’re already much better off than other children, do you deserve to be in this position?'”
People often forgot that she was about 16 or 17 during that time, she told Guo Liang, and had high expectations of her as though she was already an experienced showbiz personality.
Yi Fong added: “I had to be someone I wasn’t — that’s how life was at the age of 18. I had no one to comfort me.”
But her determination to succeed helped her go through the hardships and she studied a lot to overcome cultural and language barriers as a Taiwanese in Singapore.
Not only did she work on her accent and intonation through TV host training programmes, she also attended lessons, read newspapers and books and even enrolled herself in the British Council to better her language skills.
“I put in a lot of effort… I vowed to myself that I’d do better than others.”
Yi Fong climbed her way up to win multiple accolades as one of Star Awards’ top 10 most popular female artistes and also the Best Variety Show Host award since 2017.
A controversial climb to fame
Being in the public eye also meant that Yi Fong’s actions have drawn controversy on more than one occasion.
In 1996, she got into an argument with a bowling alley attendant that got physical, resulting in her receiving a fine of $1,000.
She gave Guo Liang her side of the story, implying that she was high-strung due to relationship problems after finding out that she was being cheated on.
“You were going through emotional ups and downs… that makes sense then,” Guo Liang reasoned.
Agreeing, Yi Fong added: “I was in a rage then… my experience fuelled my insecurities in my relationships… I was very fearful when anyone gave me security or happiness, I viewed everything with suspicion.”
In 2010, Yi Fong also got into an altercation with a taxi driver and was sentenced to 15 months of probation following a guilty plea of mischief.
She had allegedly attacked the taxi driver and locked herself in his vehicle for 15 minutes, messing up the interior of his cab.