There’s a new Singaporean inmate in Netflix’s hit prison series Orange is the New Black (OITNB), and her name is Ah Lian. Played by our very own Michelle Chong, the hilarious character recently cameo-ed in two of Netflix’s uniquely Singapore promo videos for the show’s latest fifth season.
In the minute-long clips, Ah Lian squares off with fellow inmate Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne Warren) while spewing Singlish and Hokkien expletives. Within days, Ah Lian went viral, garnering over 1.5 mil views for the videos and almost 25,000 likes on Facebook.
Alas, you won’t see Ah Lian as a regular at Litchfield Penitentiary anytime soon, but Michelle has big plans in store for her new character. Yes-si yes-si.
8 DAYS: Why an Ah Lian character for the OITNB promo?
Michelle Chong: I’ve been wanting to do this character for a while for my YouTube channel (The Michelle Chong Channel), so when Netflix approached me, I thought it’d be a good time to launch this character with them.
It’s not unbelievable that Ah Lian would [be incarcerated] in a prison in America, and a character like that hasn’t been appearing in our local media for a while. She has been very neglected and ignored!
Did you teach Uzo Aduba any Singlish?
Hurhur, no lah! I just explained the Singlish lines to her and told her, “Maybe you can act a little shocked here,” and she was like, “Okay.” It was all very chop-chop ’cos we were shooting under such tight time constraint.
Uzo was very professional and open to suggestions. Contrary to popular belief, she knows how to pronounce “Ah Lian”. I just told her to pronounce it as “alien” in the video ’cos [foreign immigrants] are a hot topic in the US and Ah Lian herself is an alien there.
You filmed the videos at Kaufman Astoria Studios, the series’ original set, in New York. Tell us about your experience?
The set was very realistic, like an actual prison, but it also felt like a set. You’ve all these cameras and lights set up. The [show producers] gave me a nametag with ‘Ah Lian’ on it and I had to collect my orange jumpsuit like a real inmate. But I didn’t get to keep any souvenirs lah.
I was only there for about three days last November ’cos I had to rush back to Singapore for the premiere of my movie Lulu The Movie. Uzo and I filmed the videos in a day. It was all very fast — just one to two takes for each shot.
Her heavy eyeliner and nude lipstick game is on fleek.
Ya! I got the idea from the general look of Ah Lians. There was this video of an Ah Lian quarrelling with an auntie on the MRT over a seat. I took [a screengrab of the girl] and showed it to OITNB’s makeup people and told them that’s the look I want, right down to the pale pink lipstick that’s so opaque you can’t even see your [natural] lip colour.
I also insisted on having Ah Lian-style diamanté nail art — on the show, the prisoners were all very resourceful [with their beauty routines] anyway. I finally found the stick-on nails I wanted at [US drugstore chain] Walgreens the night before the shoot. I think they’ve their own version of the Ah Lian there too (laughs).
[For the promo videos], we also spoofed a scene from the show where Crazy Eyes offers [lead character] Piper some jalapeños. We did it with green chilli padi instead, and we had to bring some over from Singapore. I thought it’d be very funny.
In the OITNB prison hierarchy, where would Ah Lian stand?
She’s a newcomer so she’s not at the top yet. But being from Singapore, she has that kiasu and kiasi streak in her and I’m sure she will rise to the top in no time. That scene [in the promo video] where she asked Crazy Eyes to take their conflict outside, and backed off when Crazy Eyes yelled at her? That’s a real Ah Lian. She knows how to give and take.
Will we see Ah Lian in her own spin-off series?
She’s going to appear regularly on my YouTube channel. We’ll be launching a video in mid-July, and I wrote a jingle for her. Ah lian culture is uniquely Singaporean and belongs to only us, so being an Ah Lian is something we should be proud of. She should be as iconic as the Merlion (laughs)!
Orange is the New Black’s Season 5 is on Netflix.