Production Talk with Sun Koh on 'Singapore Panda'

Singapore Panda is a short film by Sun Koh about immigration, Chinese diaspora and the present day globalization of Singapore. 

An old Singaporean radio station has been bought over by a mainland Chinese-owned international media conglomerate. 2 old workers are told they have to produce a radio play as part of a trans-media project about Chinese migrants. The play is a fictional account of the mass immigration of pandas to Singapore in the early days, which coincides with the immigration of thousands of mainland Chinese and even the real pandas Jia Jia and Kai Kai to the Singapore Zoological Gardens in present day. It tells of the difficult but fulfilling integration of these pandas into the Singapore social and cultural landscape, which is really a parallel of our protagonists journey.

The film also talks about the intergenerational cultural gap between merely 3 generations of Singaporeans and the need for continuous adaptation to an ever-changing landscape.

Singapore Panda can be seen here with similar films from Royston Tan and Tsai Mingliang in a series about Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia (only with Chinese subtitles). Simply click on the link below: (click on the third link 新新熊猫)

We speak to Sun Koh (above) about Singapore Panda.

How was the idea for the short film conceived? And we understand this short film was made as part of a series of short films by Da Huang Pictures?

I received an email from Tan Chui Mui one day, quite out of the blue, to make a short film with the theme Diaspora and Homeland. The spotlight is on Chinese immigrants in Southeast Asia. I lived in Kuala Lumpur for a year and in Sweden for 2 years just prior to that and can definitely relate to being an outsider, and my father is actually a first generation immigrant Singaporean (this didn't hit me till I was writing the script). The story is largely based on his own diaspora with tinges of my own.

I knew I wanted to make a film about old people adapting to the new global paradigm, so that was how the characters were defined. Something in me also wanted to comment on the current obsession with trans-media ('Can you make it trans-media?'), so that was how it found its way into the story.

Coinciding with the commissioning of this short film is the immigration of Jia Jia and Kai Kai to Singapore, along with hundreds of thousands of new immigrants. So that was how the pandas found their way into the story.

What thoughts do you hope to stir in your audience with this short film?

I think I packed quite a lot into a single short film because I haven't had a chance to make one for quite some time.

I wanted to show that immigration is historically very common, it is the story that made Singapore, and that it is always a very difficult journey for those involved, including for our own ancestors. The struggle may be over for many of the early immigrants and their family, but it is new and alive for many who are new here. 

I also wanted to reflect this new global paradigm to overturn some of our biases and prejudices. For example, in the past China used to be a 3rd world country and they used to work (mainly make cheap things) for us and the western world, but now they are owning media conglomerates and people from all over the world are working for them. I initially wanted the new media executive to be a Caucasian who speaks Chinese because of his job, but I couldn't find candidates to fit our shooting schedule. So I thought the next best fit would be a Hong Kong media executive. In 2006 when I worked in Shanghai for an advertising agency, there were plenty of Hong Kong media execs who have mastered Mandarin and working for the mainland Chinese, nevermind that Hong Kongers were only recently the media moguls of Asia.

This is a reality that we have to adapt to and not everyone can. For example, I grew up in a totally Mandarin and Teochew speaking family but because my family wasn't so literate, I never learnt to read or write in Chinese, and English was prioritised in school. I was a borderline gone case and after secondary school have all but forgotten what little I know to read or write in Chinese. Similarly, my father never touched a computer in his life and when I sent him to basic computer classes he froze up and basically malfunctioned. But we still try, as the protagonists do. Some are more optimistic and successful, some are not.

With the film I also wanted to register the cost of this continuing globalisation with the inclusion of the protagonist's scenes with his daughter and his grandchildren. Back in the 80s we were told to embrace globalisation and make English our first language in school, nevermind if you merely scraped through with your mother-tongue. Dialects were also banned in the media. I look at all our 3rd or 4th generation Singaporeans today and the cultural gap between them and their grandparents is irreparable.

And most importantly I wanted to show the audience that older workers are inventive, inspired and soulful, they are not useless.

From your research, are there still people creating analog sound effects 
like in the film?

From what I know, creating sound effects through foley (performing and recording them for digital editing) are still often practiced, but I am not aware of anyone who still records them on analogue.

The re-enactment of the Panda story in the film reflects a lot of practice. Take us through how you directed and rehearsed the actors for this.

A lot of it is done during the writing stage. I write in whatever impressionistic sound effects I think can be achieved with simple props that fit the story and still look good on camera. Wang Jiaqiang (Johnny Ng) who plays Panda was at some point a rediffusion recording artist in the good old days. He had done radio plays before. I consulted him about some of his methods but eventually couldn't use them because it didn't fit the story.

I answered this question by talking about writing because a lot of my 'direction' involves tweaking the script to suit whoever has been cast within my means. The script is also tweaked according to the choice of locations, amongst other things, within my means.  

I knew I had to cast someone with a great voice, who is familiar with theatrical acting to pull off the animated radio play. Wang Jiaqiang fit the bill and Alvin Chiam (also a stage actor) just seemed to have such good rapport with him. So I cast the two of them. These are 2 very great stage actors who really need very little direction when it comes to theatricality. They were also superb with dialogue improvisations. The only thing I did was adjust their performance to suit the mis-en-scen and the edit, because unlike the stage, the camera sees a lot more.

The film is intricate and highly-layered in terms of story and presentation. How long did you take to develop the story and what were the greatest challenges in making this film?

I took about a month to write and re-write the script in total, first to develop the story, then to adapt it to the cast. It wasn't easy to pitch this film because of its multi-layeredness. It just sounds kind of lame when you tell the panda's story, and it is precisely the panda's story that is the protagonists's story. Saying that they are juxtaposed just didn't cut it, you have to see and hear everything together. This is the kind of film that has to be told in a film. I don't think anyone bought the story when I pitched it, but they were kind enough to suspend their disbelieve. I also think that the low-stakes of it being a short film helped.

When it comes to production, the greatest challenge was that the level of Mandarin and dialects in this film is way beyond my standard. I usually write my scripts in English and have it translated to Chinese, but the language in previous films have been very elementary. Because of the story I also had to cast people who are highly Chinese educated, and there is great difficulty when I had to express more sophisticated ideas to Jiaqiang. Luckily he was very very patient and just put up with it until it was done. The translator (David Lee) and the rest of the Chinese cast helped me a lot, so that prevented a total breakdown of communication. Speak of diaspora!

The casting in this film is close to perfect. How did you find your actors and why them?

I found them through Han Yew Kwang and his producer Lau Chee Nien. I knew they worked with many elderly Mandarin speaking actors and I basically asked them for contacts. I also asked many producer friends for contacts and after meeting many of them I was most convinced that Wang Jiaqiang (Johnny Ng) and Alvin Chiam would be the pair.

As mentioned before, I chose them for their experience as stage actors and also for their rapport. I always believe casting comes in pair, threes or groups, and it always depends on the dynamics of their role.

I had initially envisioned Panda (Koh) as a skinny guy and Ah Hua as the chubby one. It was Alvin Chiam who persuaded me otherwise. I thought to myself Alvin must know himself and Jiaqiang better, so I started to see them in the roles Alvin suggested and true enough it was much better.

Elena Chia who acted in Sandcastle was an easy choice. She was convincing as their boss, even in real life they really respect her and want her to like them.

Serene Chen was also an easy choice. She's perfectly believable as Koh's daughter and she can always be trusted to deliver. Plus she came with her own daughter Ella, and Ella came with her best friend Megan. It was a neat package as I thought Serene can help me contain some of the children's madness, and she did.

Silvia Wong who played the HK exec is in real life the Producer of Wee Lilin's feature film "Forever". I asked her because I like the gentle way she spoke and I wanted to overturn the stereotype of the mean new boss. She is from Hong Kong and also a film producer, so I sort of knew she wouldn't have to pretend very much in that role. She just had to learn her lines, which was the hard part, but she did so well.

Grace Zhang Cuiying who played Koh's wife was a pleasant surprise. Ironically it was Jiaqiang's real wife who remembered that Grace had acted as his wife before... It really helped that on set the kids love her. It made my job much easier.

Grace Wan is an old ally, she was the lead in Bedroom Dancing and I knew she could deliver without a hitch.

I got Siti Khalijah through Effendy of Substation (I was once an associate artist). I needed someone to deliver the Zoo's spokesperson lines with a straight face and she aced it.

The pandas were found at the Singapore Zoological Gardens.

What's your view on Singapore importing the pair of pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia?

I'm not happy about them having to live in an artificial environment. That is in total contradiction to my having been there to ogle at them twice since.

It is a fact they have been loaned to us as part of China's panda diplomacy, and that they will be forced to stay here for 10 years to 'educate' the public about their cute self, as part of their 'conservation'.

Since this is the reality dictated to them, we should try to give them the most humane care possible. For example, change the muzak being played on loop (I can't imagine listening to the same muzak all my life), and tell visitors to keep their volume low so as not to terrify Jia Jia. 

I bought keychains made in their likeness as gifts for friends. I hope that the profits made out of the Jia Jia and Kai Kai brand can indeed be used for their benefit and the benefit of pandas all over the world.  

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