Finding my Singaporean soul with Under One Roof: Life lessons on television
My Singapore Life is a CNA Lifestyle series about coming of age in the Lion City. We conclude our trip back to the 90s with actress Daisy Irani’s heartwarming story of belonging thanks to Singapore television.
Recently, as I ordered coconut water at Parkway Parade food court, I heard someone behind me say my name aloud: “Eh, that’s Daisy, lah!”
I turned around, thinking it was someone I knew. Instead, I encountered a stranger’s face: He was 70ish, Chinese, obviously Singaporean by the way he spoke.
“No, lah. You don’t know me but I know you.” He gave an embarrassed laugh. “Can recognise your voice. Heard your voice for many years. Wah, got white hair now!”
Finding my Singaporean soul with Under One Roof
I instinctively knew what he was talking about. To him, I was Daisy the character from Under One Roof.
“How’s Moses? Lost too much weight, hor? Vernetta still so pretty. You became hot shot producer, ah?”
I smiled, answered and nodded as you would when suddenly meeting a long-lost relative and having to update him on everything that has happened over the last 30 years.
He introduced me to the boy who was patiently waiting for him. “This is Aunty Daisy. Do you remember her? They used to make us laugh a lot.”
We were greeted by a blank face. He was probably too young to know.
“So what shows do you watch?” I asked the boy. “I play games,” the boy shrugged.
And with that, we went our separate ways.
The encounter got me thinking: Mr Singaporean HDB heartland guy didn’t remember me as Daisy the TV personality but as Daisy the hardworking HDB journeywoman who, every Tuesday night at 8pm on TCS Channel 5, shared what it meant to be Singaporean.
As someone who wasn’t born in this country, it was a wonderful feeling to truly belong. But, perhaps, because of the boy’s reaction, there was also a hollow pain that comes when you pine for something you know might be lost forever.
As someone who wasn’t born in this country, it was a wonderful feeling to truly belong.
It was 1991 when I arrived in clean and green Singapore. As an actress from India, the first thing I did was check out the TV listings.
I thought I was doomed – it was all news, debates and imported entertainment shows. Hardly any room for someone who was despatched to Singapore on the back of her husband.
I had to get off his back quickly or it would drive me nuts!
At first blush, the prospect of an acting job looked pretty grim. It seemed like the only drama everyone religiously tuned in to were the parliamentary debates – especially the epic ones between our late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the late Mr Jeyaretnam.
Thankfully, many joss sticks and temple lamentations later, the gods caved. The TV mandarins decided that it was time for Singapore to launch its own “original” English language production.
And why not? The audience was already feasting on imported dramas and sitcoms. It seemed ridiculous not to tell them their own stories.
But first, I had to sit for an exam at the Television Corporation of Singapore. An exam to be a producer or director? I had heard of entrance exams for medical school but not to get a job at a broadcasting station! It kind of threw me off but, you know, when in Singapore…
I got cast in Masters Of The Sea, Singapore’s first English-language soap opera.
I passed – but not as a producer or director. Instead, I got cast in Masters Of The Sea, Singapore’s first English-language soap opera.
It was produced by the pros who did the American soap Dynasty and there was excitement all around. Suddenly, I was in the company of actors like Margaret Chan, Chin Han and Wong Li-Lin.
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I remembered bumping into one of the lead actors on my way to the canteen at Caldecott Hill. He was flown in from the US.
“Hi, I’m Daisy,” I introduced myself, totally pumped.
“Oh, hi. I’m Donald.”
“Oh, that’s great! Here we are, two ducks in a row – Donald and Daisy!”
I couldn’t resist.
He gave me a withering Hollywood star look that seemed to say, “What have I gotten into?” So I thought to myself, “Better zip it with your sense of humour, Daisy Irani, or you’ll get kicked out of the production!”
When Masters Of The Sea came out, the reception wasn’t great, to be honest. But that did not stop parts of it from going down in Singapore folklore.
“I will crush you. Crush you under my foot like a cockroach!” I admit I’ve borrowed Margaret Chan’s line on many occasions since, when my kids step out of line.
What followed next for me made history.
I will crush you. Crush you under my foot like a cockroach!
In 1995, a half-hour pilot show was created on the template of the popular TV show Friends. Recorded in front of a live audience at Caldecott Hill, Under One Roof was set in the HDB heartland of Bishan and was about a middle-class Chinese family and their Malay and Indian neighbours.
I auditioned for the role of the Indian upstairs neighbour. But the casting director’s first reaction was: “You don’t look Indian at all.”
“Of course I am! We come in all colours and shapes, you know!” I said.
“Well, you don’t look like a Letchmi or a Saroja. What should we call your character?”
I thought to myself, “Call me anything you like – just give me the role!”
The problem was eventually solved.
“Well, you look like a Daisy. Let’s just call you Daisy.”
And so I became Daisy, the single professional who gave lifts in her car to the kids of the Tan family.
Acting in Under One Roof was like being slowly baptised as a Singaporean. Being a newbie, I was puzzled by the relationship the cast and crew had with food – on set and backstage.
Bak kut teh, carrot cake, you tiao – dishes I can’t imagine I would ever have tasted in Bombay. The team asked me about the famous Indian dish, fish head curry. And they didn’t quite understand when I explained that there was no famous Indian dish of that name!
Well, you don’t look like a Letchmi or a Saroja. What should we call your character?
But it was the live audience that truly fascinated me. Singaporeans of all races crammed into the makeshift seating in the studio.
They loved the humour and it was through the lens of their laughter and their silent moments that I started recognising Singapore.
Under One Roof was an instant hit. Life came to a standstill in the entire country at 8pm every week.
Dinner was had, homework was deferred, the entire family gathered around the TV set – and all was well with the world for half an hour.
I was as much an audience as an actress on the show. Through the episodes, I learnt about the make-up of the population, the challenges and concerns of each community, the love for family and the values of a multiracial nation.
Oh, and the mightiest of challenges: Single professional women finding a suitable groom.
Coming from India, where single women were gobbled up into matrimony like seafood at a buffet, it was hard for me to comprehend this problem here. Until my character Daisy and the other characters were tasked to find her a match and they all came up with a big fat zero.
The moral of the story? If all else fails, try the SDU!
The reach of the show was so vast that even the government used it as a platform to deliver messages to the country, like the Speak Good English campaign. Even though that put a lid on my Singlish education – just as I had mastered the art of using “lah”, “leh” and “meh”.
The Singaporean funny bone is a little elusive – a bit like the last strand of noodle at the bottom of your laksa.
Later on, I went behind the camera as an executive producer – and that was like diving straight into the very soul of Singapore.
You see, when I first arrived, I was told Singaporeans had no sense of humour. And that getting them to laugh was like climbing Everest without oxygen. But I eventually discovered that was complete nonsense.
Yes, the Singaporean funny bone is a little elusive – a bit like the last strand of noodle at the bottom of your laksa. But once you find it, they crack up like a laugh track gone wild.
Along with figuring out what makes them chuckle, I also learned other things – the lifestyle of the rich with Living With Lydia, the ones who fall through the cracks in Full Circle, and that crime does exist but doesn’t pay in Crime Watch.
Singaporeans were also fascinated with the supernatural, as proven by Incredible Tales, and even comedies about ghosts like Maggie And Me.
I finally embraced the country that embraced me.
After 13 years in television, I knew I wasn’t a foreigner any longer.
So I told my husband: “I don’t know about you, Banker Sahib, but I am dropping anchor right here in Singapore.” So in June 2004, I finally embraced the country that embraced me.
And that is the story of how, three decades since I arrived, I found myself in that foodcourt saying goodbye to Mr Singaporean HDB heartland guy and his TV-hating son – and ordering my coconut water from an aunty in a mall.
“You Singaporean, ah?” she asked.
And with great pride and an air of mock offence, I said: “Of course lah, Aunty. Why, cannot ah?”
She laughed and said, “Caaaan.”
And I knew then that I had her seal of approval.
Daisy Irani is an actress and producer who’s had a hand in a lot of memorable shows you’ve been watching on TV. She also co-founded the theatre group HuM Entertainment. New episodes of My Singapore Life are published every Sunday at cna.asia/podcasts.