10 things about: Saw Teong Hin, award-winning producer/director and son of Penang

GEORGE TOWN, Sept 14 — Producer/director Saw Teong Hin has always considered himself a Penangite despite now being based mostly in Kuala Lumpur.

With a career in film spanning more than 20 years, the 52-year-old’s directorial debut was the multiple award-winning feature Puteri Gunung Ledang.

The movie was the first Malaysian film to be selected for the Venice Film Festival and was even long-listed for the Academy Awards.

He was also awarded the Boh Cameronian Award for Best Writing for his work on the subsequent theatrical production of Puteri Gunung Ledang — The Musical.

His other works include Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road! which is a musical tribute to Sudirman staged at Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur and the film Hoore! Hoore!.

He also participated in the first George Town Festival — directing Emily of Emerald Hill — in 2010, then Silat in 2012 and his Hokkien play Hai Ki Xin Lor: You Mean The World To Me was the closing act for this year’s festival.

Hai Ki Xin Lor, was on for five days at the Khoo Kongsi, and each night, it played to a full house.

Here, Saw shares his feelings about baring part of his soul in the autobiographical play, his idyllic childhood and also his accidental involvement in theatre and film.

In his own words:

There are six of us; two sisters, four brothers. We all grew up at Hai Ki Xin Lor, this is the name of the play which is actually the Hokkien name for Victoria Street. In those days, you can just freely roam the streets and everybody watches out for everyone. The sense of community was very strong.

I left Penang in 1982. I was away in Singapore from 1982 to 1986, at NUS. And then 1986 onwards, in KL. I’ve never been back since I left. I do come back for visits, three times a year, four times a year. My brothers and sisters are around but my parents are gone.

I wrote this play in 2009. It was at a point where I felt that I wanted to do something more meaningful and personal for myself as a director. So… doing something you like and doing something you don’t like, takes about the same amount of work. So, I might as well try to do something I like.

It’s the first time I’m writing on my own. I used to co-write because I do Malay films. And as much as I can understand Malay well, I can’t write like a Malay writer so I co-write. Hai Ki Xin Lor is really something I’ve done on my own. I say Hai Ki Xin Lor is almost an autobiography. Nothing is truly autobiographical, if you want to create a dramatic piece of work, you have to collapse timelines, combine characters. The more I talk about it, the further away it is from an autobiography. But yeah, it’s based on people I know, it’s based on certain incidents that have happened in my life, yes, that much is true.

Producer/director Saw Teong Hin feels that directing theatre makes you a better film director and directing film makes you a better theatre director. ­— Picture by K.E.Ooi
Producer/director Saw Teong Hin feels that directing theatre makes you a better film director and directing film makes you a better theatre director. ­— Picture by K.E.Ooi
I got into filming purely by accident. I didn’t graduate. I failed. I was too embarrassed to come back to Penang because I was the only one of six siblings who went to university. And of course, I played too much, didn’t study enough and it was my first time living away from home, so I kind of messed up. To make matters worse, my parents were kind of forgiving. They say, never mind lah, come back lah. It made me feel worse. If they scolded me, I would feel better. I was too ashamed so I decided to go to KL. Looking back, it was quite a brave decision. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t have money on me, I had like RM10. I took a bus to KL from Singapore and tried to start a life there. I’ve been a pretty lucky man. Things always work out for me, something would happen and I’d be safe from being destitute...

That time, somebody offered me to be a talent in a TV commercial and then I thought, that’s not too hard. When I was looking for a job, I went through the Yellow Pages and one of the first things I saw under A was advertising. So I thought, “I can do, I can do.” So I started cold calling advertising agencies, no one would see me until O&M, Faridah Merican kindly agreed to see me. I saw her, she liked me, but at that time, she didn’t have a job for me. She was going out with Joe Hasham then, they were not married yet, so she said “I have a friend you should meet” and so I met Joe and Joe offered me a job and that’s how I started in the production business. It’s been a series of fortunate accidents.

I went through some pretty rough patches before it all went well. I guess that’s always the process, the journey, you never know, you keep plugging at it, keep doing it, keep your fingers crossed, do your best and see what happens. You learn about yourself, you know yourself better through the rough patches.

I tend to alternate between film, theatre, film, theatre. I like both. One informs the other. It’s slightly different discipline. I think directing theatre makes you a better film director and directing film makes you a better theatre director, where I’m concerned. Thankfully, so far, so good.

This is my first semi-autobiographical work. It’s been really… I tell you a story. The first night, the response to ticket sales was very good. George Town Festival decided to add one night on August 27. They wanted to make it a community night where anyone who produces an IC with an address within one kilometre of Hai Ki Xin Lor can get free passes to the show. I was worried because when people get things for free and they’re not really theatre people and they are just going to walk in and walk out and not bother to watch because it’s free, ee lang boh kong (they are not) really interested. But I must say that was the best response I had. I mean, not that other nights were bad. This night was so magical that I was quite floored by it. It was so unexpected as well. They were so engaged. They were crying and all that. And they were staying back to chat.

It’s a very personal story, I’m so glad that it’s also somehow universal. It’s so specific but it somehow resonates with a lot of people. I’ve this friend who came from New York to watch it. Of course, you’d expect people to say polite things but you didn’t expect them to really go into an analysis of everything. Even tough critics have been very generous with their praise. I feel blessed and I’m really grateful.