A Has-Been Who Never Was: On the Curious Case of Tony Yeow

I was one degree of separation away from the late Tony Yeow about 6 years ago when I had the opportunity of meeting ex-bipolar patient Choo Kah Ying who turned her life around after being hit by the mental disorder. She told me she had plans to turn her life story into a movie and she had already found a producer. That producer was Tony Yeow. I had an inkling that Tony was a well-known person in the film circle because I had seen this name pop up a few times in film programme booklets. At the same time, I surmised that he must be quite senior based on the fact that his name does not pop up among the younger class of filmmakers that were emerging in the late 2000s. 

The first time I saw him was at the screening of Saint Jack at the national museum where he attended in the capacity of being one of the key crew members. Of course, in the presence of other bigger personalities like veteran Chinese actress Lisa Lu and the cast, his presence was sidelined. Most of the people involved in Saint Jack, made in the 70s, are no longer active in the film industry, so my impression of Tony Yeow went along those lines. Little did I know what this man did for the film industry would reverberate in my thoughts as much as his deep, radio-presenter voice. 

Tony Yeow can be argued to be the person who sparked the first flame for Singapore movie-making after its long drought in the 1980s, with the film ‘Medium Rare’. ‘Medium Rare’ was based on the true story of murderer Adrian Lim who drank the blood of children. Having started his filmmaking journey earlier in the 70s, he never stopped searching for film stories and ideas and ’Medium Rare’ was one of the fruits of his labour. Though he ignited the engine of this film project, he eventually stepped down as director due to some disagreements. Some would remember how a Caucasian man was strangely cast to play Adrian Lim. This and many more trivia about him and his films were shared at ‘Remembering Tony’, a talk presented by film writer Ben Slater, attended by players in the film industry who had brushed shoulders with Tony or were simply here to open their eyes into the world of a filmmaker whose efforts were invested at the worst time for any filmmaker to be producing anything in Singapore.

Still from 'Tony's Long March' 

Ben showed a documentary film made by himself and filmmaker Sherman Ong during the talk, titled ‘Tony’s Long March’, about Tony and his films. In the video, Tony called himself ‘The has-been who never was’, based on the fact that his films won won neither commercial success nor critical acclaim. While the video aimed to explore the rigour of Tony’s passion for filmmaking and expression, it undeniably sounded like a ‘Why Tony Yeow was a failed filmmaker’ exposition. Tony unabashedly recounts the trials and tribulations of his journey as a filmmaker, and does not mince his words when turning the microscope on himself on why each film failed. 

Discussing this chronologically, he recounted his first setback with his first film ‘Ring of Fury’, made in 1973. ‘Ring of Fury’ was about a hawker who wanted to get rid of gangsters and underwent some ass-kicking kungfu training to become a fighter. Though a honest dig at the state of gangsterism in Singapore at that time, which was rife, the government banned it for depicting gangsters as they were in the process of ‘cleaning up’ Singapore. This film did not to see the light of day until about 20 years later when Channel 8 TV broadcast the movie. Tony then went on to discuss the second time success eluded him - ‘Two Nuts’. ’Two Nuts’, a comedy about fishermen out-of-water, which his wife found ridiculous, failed to stay afloat in the box office. After a job at Mandarin hotel and an aborted attempt at ‘Medium Rare’, ‘Tiger’s Whip’, made in 1998, was another concerted shot at hitting gold in the box office. That too was a miscalculated shot as it was not only not well-received at home, it failed to attract distributors in the US, despite a salient dose of ‘Americanisation’ in the movie. By ‘Americanisation’, I mean using an American lead and playing up the exotic aspects of Singapore’s culture. By then, other new filmmakers like Eric Khoo and Jack Neo had risen to the fore from critical acclaim and box office success respectively.

'Tiger's Whip' a film made for the American market 

History tends to attach labels and roles to characters, in order to simplify our understanding of evolution and change. It is not intuitively easy to point a finger at what Tony has contributed to the film movement in Singapore. He has done many things but has hardly built a reputation for himself in any particular field. But yet, one cannot deny his eager presence in the scene and his never-say-die spirit. By refusing to drop the curtains on local cinema in the late 70s, by holding on to blind faith with ’Medium Rare’, Singapore cinema’s ‘comeback shot’, he became somewhat a brave flag holder for Singapore cinema in its time of transition. Watching ‘Tony’s Long March’, there is a certain palpable sense of reckless optimism about him. He reminisced fondly about every new project that came along, and seemed hardly dented by the failures, only to laugh off the follies he made. Filmmaking was akin to driving a car through unknown terrain and lapping up the bumps and turns that came along the way. The state of filmmaking today is akin to a 90-degree turn from this as the industry has gained some footing over the years and filmmakers are a lot more cautious. If there is a term that encapsulates the kind of filmmaking that was happening during the industry’s transition then, it would be ‘trial-and-error’. And of course, nobody embodied ‘trial and error’ more than Tony. 

Arguably, trial and error led Tony to make Singapore’s first kungfu flick ‘Ring of Fury’. Trial and error led to finding the means to making his second film. Tony shared an anecdote about getting his first burst of funding for his second film ’Two Nuts’ in which he met a financier named Mr Koh, a businessman who owned Golden Mile Cinema. Mr Koh asked what his film was about and Tony Yeow described it. Just after ten minutes, he asked Tony how much he needed. Tony replied and the next thing he did was summon in his secretary to prepare a cheque of S$40,000 for Tony. Tony added that at the point of time when he walked away with this cheque, Mr Koh barely knew who he was and had not even watched Tony’s ‘Ring of Fury’. In a later part of the documentary, Tony reflects on the performance of his films again and wonders if he would have made more successful films if he had been challenged more right at the beginning and not been offered money like the above-mentioned Mr Koh. 

The experience with Mr Koh is perhaps also reflective of the times and the circumstances unique to the movie business at that time in Singapore. While the industry tide was on the decline in the late 70s and 80s, any attempt or flash of an idea to make a film might have been a welcome burst of wishful thinking that took the monotony out of a highly-industrialised Singapore. And wishful thinkers like Tony were few and far in between. Obviously, circumstances are different today and making a film is necessarily a more calculated and concerted attempt rather than a trial and error effort. Film producer Nicholas Chee thinks the real challenge filmmakers face today lies not in the first film for it has become relatively easy to get a first film made. After all, there is discernibly a bigger pool of professional talent and finances available today. The real challenge is being able to continue making your second, third, fourth film and more and achieving a reasonable amount of success each time. This calls for a lot of marketing savvy and business acumen in making a film and many filmmakers are still miles away. So, by today’s standards, Tony’s actually one lucky man who’s been able to repeatedly find financing for films. Either that, or back to the familiar lesson that it never hurts to try. 

And when it comes to trying, this man has tried everything. Having survived the Japanese occupation, he’s been a TV producer, presenter, made the government’s ‘Stop at Two’ TV commercials and even acted in the original cast of local musical ‘Beauty World’. He embodies a certain spirit in late-80s, early-90s Singapore when the arts, theatre and film were not so institutionalised and less structured, where people came together, with whatever knowledge they had and tried to cook up a show. And the end-products were often surprising, sometimes explosive and always genuine. Things are noticeably different now. Many people are trained or schooled in strict disciplines, injecting a lot more professionalism into the trade. But I dare say, also more afraid of making mistakes. Not that it is any fault of theirs that they don’t experiment like their predecessors used to do but I think, and rather regrettably, many of us are caught in the industrialisation of art and film, where the margin for error is lower. At the end of ‘Remembering Tony’ the talk, I met the wife and son of Tony outside the theatre. We exchanged introductions and niceties and when I felt they had warmed up a little, I asked if his son was also dabbling in film. To which, Serene, Tony’s wife responded, ‘No, he’s in finance. More practical lah.’ A tinge of regret there but I guess Tony’s in a league of his own.
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