Remember dashing home to watch Comedy Night on Channel 8 on Mondays, back in the mid-1990s? That was me. It may have been okay to miss the first half of the popular Chinese variety show, but God forbid that I should miss Liang Xi Mei’s skit in the last 20 minutes. Despite being middle-aged, with a limited wardrobe mainly comprising green Pucci-esque blouses and one black skirt – she had a formidable repertoire of jokes that never failed to elicit uproarious laughter from my family and me.

I loved her.

I had met her creator and alter ego, director Jack Neo, at many media events, but he never gave me the butterflies like Liang Xi Mei did, at the press conference for her self-titled movie last Tuesday.

Cultural Medallion recipient Jack Neo has many talents ranging from acting, writing lyrics, directing, scriptwriting and singing, but I think it is remarkable to note that he is the first Singaporean Chinese performer to cross-dress with success. First, there was Liang Po Po in the 1990s, then Liang Xi Mei in the 2000s. Some may also remember his cameo as sarcastic principal Karen Neo in Boris Boo’s Lucky Boy (2017) – to me, it was the most entertaining five minutes of the film.

What made Liang Xi Mei’s live appearance fun and exciting was that everyone, including the character herself, decided to play along and pretend that Jack Neo wasn’t there.

During group interviews after the press conference, director Jack Neo/Liang Xi Mei revealed that Wonderful! Liang Xi Mei The Movie, whose production was only finalised in October last year, was the result of the postponement of the fifth Ah Boys To Men instalment. (Thank God.) Film production company mm2 Entertainment realised that there wouldn’t be a single Singaporean Chinese New Year film in cinemas if they didn’t make one, and they decided to task Jack Neo with making one. Liang Xi Mei, was chosen to be the titular character. It made sense because of her positive ratings on dialect variety show Happy Can Already! which made its debut on TV in 2016.

What was it about Liang Xi Mei that made her so relatable? Her image? The situations which would cause her to utter her catchphrase “Zhen de shi shang nao jing lo!” (This is so vexing!)? Her brand of housewife humour?

I couldn’t wait to see her and talk to her myself. This is what I found out in a one-on-one interview with Jack Neo and his current muse.

Jaspers Lai as Merlion King, Jack Neo as Liang Xi Mei and Henry Thia as Lion King.

Jaspers Lai as Merlion King, Jack Neo as Liang Xi Mei and Henry Thia as Lion King.

Q: How and when did Liang Xi Mei’s husband pass away?
A: This detail is sketchy. We didn’t really go into detail about his cause of death and when exactly he died. He probably got sick. Or maybe he was vexed to death (by his wife), hahaha.

Q: Will you remarry?
A: I don’t think we would write this into the story arch, as Liang Xi Mei is a very happy character. She thinks that being single avails herself to the people around her who need help, and she’s happy just taking care of her grandchildren.

Q: Why do you detest Lion King so much?
A: He’s always leading Robert astray! And the two of them are always conspiring over some nasty plan. He’s a bad friend, a zhu peng gou you (literal translation: a friend that’s no better than a pig or a dog) that mothers want their sons to steer clear of. From the early days, their conflict has been a plot mechanism. You should watch some of our skits from our earlier days on YouTube; they’re hilarious.

Q: Why is Albert your favourite son?
A: If you watched the movie, you’d know. Her husband was hit by a car the same time that Robert was born. Q: Seriously, how come you have so much of this purple-green floral fabric?
A: The blouse I am wearing is the exact same blouse I wore on Comedy Night 16 years ago! I couldn’t believe that they kept it so well all these years.

Q: What is your favourite colour?
A: Green; it’s so obvious, heh heh.

Q: Seriously, can you please share how come you have so much of this purple-green fabric?
A: It’s technology. The costume designers took that one blouse from so many years ago, scanned the print onto the computer, and reprinted it on all sorts of fabrics. They managed to print out the exact same pattern on different materials, even chiffon. That’s why Liang Xi Mei has a matching hair sash, a tracksuit… and matching outfits for the whole family. She herself has about six or seven different sets of clothing in this print.

Q: What’s Liang Xi Mei’s beauty advice for others who want to age as well as her?
A: She doesn’t have a special beauty routine to preserve her youth. She knows that as long as she eats healthy, exercises regularly, and stays positive – her method is very standard.

Q: Why are all of Liang Xi Mei’s messages so politically correct?
A: She’s not politically correct; there are people in real life who are like that. She does break the rules sometimes, but most of the time she knows (what is right). Generally, Liang Xi Mei is a very positive character, so we can’t possibly make her do things that are not in line with family values. It’s a core value of our show.

Q: Was that dictated by the government? Are all of Liang Xi Mei’s shows sponsored by the government?
A: Her TV show Happy Can Already is very much sponsored by the government, yes. The movie also received some sponsorship from the government, but as part of the plot, her character will share those messages. For example, you don’t need the government to tell you to take less sugar and salt, do you?

Q: Who is Liang Xi Mei’s favourite idol?
A: Jacky Cheung. Everyone loves Jacky Cheung.

Q: How long does it take to do your hair and makeup?
A: Two hours. I’m usually the first to arrive at the set. The whole process is like metamorphosis.

[According to co-star Mark Lee, Liang will usually fall asleep in her “throne” and be out cold for the whole duration it takes to complete her makeup.]

Q: What’s the most difficult thing about being Liang Xi Mei?
A: The heels. And the girdle. And the boobs. But sometimes I have to be her for the whole day. All of the actors take their hats off to me for being able to be in costume and direct at the same time. When I said I was “schizophrenic”, I wasn’t referring to actor’s schizophrenia, but the fact that I have to split myself between several roles: scriptwriter, actor, director, producer.

Q: Which is your preferred format of performing – skits or movies?
A: Both formats are fun to perform in their own right. We trained our comic timing from TV skits, as well as many other things. We learned so much in those 10 years. No-one taught us, but we gained hands-on experience and knowledge. There isn’t anything we haven’t done on Comedy Nite. We just moved some of those things (from the skits) to a different platform.

Q: Will there be a sequel to the Liang Po Po or Liang Xi Mei movies?
A: There isn’t talk of it at the moment. It will have to depend on the box office and reviews.

To be honest, the movie won’t win any critics’ choice award, but if you’re a diehard Liang Xi Mei fan like me, you will want to catch Wonderful! Liang Xi Mei The Movie in theatres before it ends its run.