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Last Madame producer hints possible return of [spoiler] in prequel series, Sisters of the Night

 We visit the brothel set of the show that stars Fang Rong as a young Joanne Peh back when the mama san character was still a prostitute.

Let’s talk about sex. Or rather, the smell of sex.

It’s the 1990s and Jean Yeo is, in her own words, a “young and overzealous” assistant director working on Triple Nine, the classic cop drama led by James Lye, Wong Li-Lin and Lim Yu-Beng. While researching the ins and outs of the flesh trade, she finds herself exploring the red-light district in Geylang.

“The mama-sans were all very nice — at least in the few brothels I visited,” Yeo shares with “The girls came across as more ordinary than slutty to me.” One hustler, a Chinese, stands out from the crowd, though.  “She was a nice girl, matter-of-factly doing this to help out her family finances back home.”

That said, it isn’t the people that left an indelible impression on her, but the putrid odour of transactional bonking. 

Think stale sex mixed with stale cigarette smoke and “maybe some cheap air freshener”, says Yeo.

The combo is atrocious, no, make that beyond atrocious. Some bordellos would try to mask the post-coital funk by burning incense “and failing”, she adds. “It’s a smell that stayed with me for a long time and makes me want to gag each time I recall it.”

The incense would come in handy 20 years later when Yeo runs her den of vice — as the showrunner of Last Madame, the 2019 English-language Mediacorp drama, starring Joanne Peh as brothel-keeper Fung Lang and Lina Ng as her servant Ah Yoke, that’s set in late 1930s Singapore.

The 12-part drama was the first M18 show to stream on Toggle — later rebranded as meWATCH — and had tongues wagging over Peh’s sex scene with Canadian-Taiwanese actor Jeff Chou. It was one of that year’s top-rated shows and picked up a few awards and accolades, including a Best Supporting Actress gong for Ng at the Asian Academy Creative Awards.

And with success came the inevitable: a sequel. Or rather, a prequel. Subtitled Sisters of the Night, the 10-ep serial focuses on the early days (circa the 1920s) of Fung Lang and Ah Yoke — this time portrayed by Fried Rice Paradise’s Fang Rong and Healing Hands’ Gini Chang, respectively — and how they become bosom buddies and eventually flesh-peddling business partners. Along the way, they’ll clash/collude with spies, gangsters, and other unsavory characters.

The cast also includes Zhang Zetong, Terence Cao, Lim Kay Tong, Jo Tan, Gavin Yap and Min Ji-Oh.

Oh, yes, about the incense. Ostensibly, it’s a prop Yeo used to create the illusion of concealing the foul odour of fornication. “It’s also used to recreate the authentic feel of a brothel in those times,” Yeo explains.

Back when such places were shrouded in opium and tobacco smoke, not unlike “our nightclubs before the cigarette ban,” she adds. “Hopefully, it’d help to evoke audiences’ sense of smell.”

Plus, from an aesthetic perspective, “We just love the smoky feel that gives texture to the visual and the effect of curling smokes.”

Open for business: Welcome to Last Madame: Sisters of the Night’s whorehouse set in Admiralty. Here, you’ll find a courtyard, a reception area, a private room for the client (sex toys included), and a rest area for the working girls. This is not the toughest set executive producer Jean Yeo has ever built. “Have you forgotten about Third Rail?” she says, referring to the Rebecca Lim-starring action thriller that was shot in a decommissioned train carriage and a partial tunnel built in a hangar-sized exhibition hall. In Changi. “After that show, this is sup-sup sui!”

Love for sale: The first thing you see inside the brothel is this ‘cage’ (left) or wooden latticed windows — called harimise — where the prostitutes are put on display. Other locations include a house on Seah Im Street (featured recently in Silent Walls) and a converted clan association in Batu Pahat, Malaysia, where the second floor stood in for a tailor shop/spy sanctuary. “Downstairs, there was an old tailor shop in fact, but it was too small for our purposes,” says Yeo.

Lust caution: Are they spies or karayuki-sans (prostitutes)? To help the actors prepare for their roles, Yeo “showed them authentic photos [from that era] and sent them research materials to read”. “We also had a Japanese consultant to help our leads with movement, etiquette, and costuming,” Yeo explains. “I specifically told them they are not geishas, but cheap unwanted women who are the lowest rung in society trying hard to survive, and despite the sense of hopelessness, they still try to make the best of things.”

But when and other journos drop in on the Sisters of the Night set one fine day, there is no smell of incense. (Maybe the sumptuous scent of siew mai on the buffet table in the briefing room, but we digress.)

While the cathouse in Season 1 was erected in an assembly hall of an abandoned Ang Mo Kio school, Season 2’s house of ill repute was constructed on the eighth floor of an industrial building in Admiralty, about a 15-minute drive away from the Johore Causeway.

“In Season 1, it’s a Chinese, Western-influenced brothel, whereas the one in Season 2 is Japanese-styled,” says Yeo of her Airbnb-worthy set.

For Sisters of the Night’s espionage storyline, Yeo drew inspiration from The Black Ocean Society (Genyosha), an ultra-nationalistic secret society descended from samurai warriors with ties to the Imperial Japanese Army. They ran a chain of whorehouses where the harlots were also doubling as spies.

“This is a piece of history that I found very fascinating and I think not many Singaporeans, at least the ones I talked to, know about,” she continues.

But some of them do know that when you watch a show called Last Madame, there’s going to be risqué elements like said coupling between Peh and Chou (pretty chaste by M18 standards, but still).

And there certainly is.

Horsing around: Fang Rong as Qing Ling aka young Fung Lang, Joanne Peh’s character in Last Madame. Fang Rong previously portrayed the character in a few flashback scenes in Season 1. The toughest part of her role is trying to play her as a teenager, says Fang Rong, 26. “I had to try to embody a younger person without overperforming it. I would always joke that I need my coffee before I can be 14, because at that age you tend to be more fidgety and your thoughts are all over the place.”

Gini in a bottle: Gini Chang as Nozomi, aka young Ah Yoke, the character played by Lina Ng in the original Last Madame. “Gini was cast purely through audition,” Yeo quips. “Her freshness, her ingenue, and her bright, cheerful character were perfect for Nozomi. Her performance in the auditions truly impressed us for someone so new to the industry. It didn’t hurt at all that she looks quite like a young Lina, with those round eyes and smile. Many have commented since that they do look alike — even Lina herself.”

Look sharp: Zhang Zetong as the privileged Ah Tou sharing a moment with Fang Rong’s Qing Ling. Sisters of the Night marks a few firsts for Zhang. On top of being his first period drama, the show marks the first time he gets to ride a horse, handle weapons on screen, and smoke cigarettes. “That’s the thing, I’m not a smoker,” says Zhang. “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that I will not look too much like a newbie smoker on camera.”

Before the tour, we’re treated to a highlight reel, which includes a glimpse of some girl-on-top action, but the actress’ back is facing the camera. (We’re told later that it was Gini performing the deed.)

Whether or not that scene makes it to the final cut, Yeo maintains that Sisters of the Night is “totally pushing the envelope” in terms of how much flesh is revealed. She cautions, however, that they’re doing it not because they want to but because the narrative requires it.

“In Season 1, the focus was on the madame,” she said. “In Season 2, the focus is on Fung Lang and Ah Yoke when they are young and they are prostitutes, so of course there are more sex scenes by virtue of the fact that our leads are the prostitutes.”

But there’s more to Sisters of the Night than just the rumpy-pumpy moments. “In Season 1, we had the veterans, and in Season 2, we have a bunch of younger actors, most of them under 30, [doing the heavy lifting]” says Yeo. “I hope that this would be one of the attractions of the show: a platform for them to show their mettle.”

So, will Peh appear in the final episode a la Clarice Starling’s ‘cameo’ at the end of Red Dragon that leads directly into Silence of the Lambs?

“She does — but in what way?” Yeo teases. “You’ll have to watch till the end.”

Until then, here’s Chang giving us a tour of the Sisters of the Night set.

04:00 Min

Gini Chang gives a tour of the brothel set used in Last Madame: Sisters of the Night

Last Madame: Sisters of the Night premieres on meWATCH on July 13 (prime subscribers can stream it on July 6); and Mediacorp YouTube Drama Channel on July 20. Last Madame is now streaming on meWATCH, HBO Go and Netflix.

Video shot & edited by Pyron Tan

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Stream it Last Madame Joanne Peh Gini Chang Lina Ng Fang Rong Zhang Zetong

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