ShoutOUT! Help 'The Last Artisan' finish its final touches

 Photo credit: Craig McTurk

"While so much of Singapore has been re-developed and ‘Disney-fied’ since I first arrived here in 2001, Haw Par Villa remains refreshingly unchanged," said Craig McTurk, who is in the middle of making a film about Haw Par Villa, named The Last Artisan.

Having lived in Singapore for 16 years, Craig McTurk is an American filmmaker who has been as a Senior Lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies. His film is a 70-minute documentary on 83-year-old Mr Teo Veoh Seng, the head artisan of Haw Par Villa, one of the most intriguing but forgotten tourist spots in Singapore. Mr Teo is retiring and passing on his tools and paintbrushes to the next generation. While capturing how he imparts these skills to two young apprentices from China, the documentary also covers the dramatic history of Haw Par Villa and Mr Teo’s eventful life set amidst the rapid development of Singapore. Combining stunning aerial footage, animation, archival footage and newly-shot material, this film will tell a tale of inanimate sculptures and the workers who magically bring them to life.

Photo credit: Shintaro Tay

Photo credit: Shintaro Tay

However, while The Last Artisan is supported by the National Heritage Board (NHB) Heritage Grant, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Latent Image Productions, the documentary requires more funds to produce a film of the highest technical standard with aerial footage, animation, archival footage and newly-shot material. The filmmakers have a Kickstarter Campaign going on. Do visit the Kickstarter crowdfunding page to find out how you can help them complete the production of this work.

Here is a short interview SINdie conducted with Craig on The Last Artisan

As a foreigner, what fascinates you about Haw Par Villa? 

I have been enthralled with Haw Par Villa since I first visited there roughly 15 years ago. While so much of Singapore has been re-developed and ‘Disney-fied’ since I first arrived here in 2001, Haw Par Villa remains refreshingly unchanged. It gives me a sense of pre-independence Singapore, when the literacy rate was much lower and the statues were used to convey social and moral messages to the masses. I appreciate the history behind the statues and can imagine that bygone era. 

Haw Par Villa holds a very special place in the hearts of many of the older Singaporeans. Every child of the 60s, 70s, 80s has been there. How do you plan to make sure this film resonates with the locals? 

I’ve only seen Haw Par Villa in a few archival films, student works, and on short TV news segments. This will be the first feature film to showcase Haw Par Villa, to the best of my knowledge. I want to make a sweeping documentary that explores the Park, the craftsmen, and the social history of Singapore that coincides with that of the Park. 

This documentary will tell various inter-connected stories: the dramatic history behind the Park and Mr. Teo’s formative years, the training of two apprentices who will take over from him, and major turning points in the country’s history: WWII, Independence, success as a financial, trading and tourist hub, and the role of migrant workers. Ideally, the film will work on a macro and micro level. 

The challenge I faced in making this film is to make it appeal to both local and international viewers. To succeed as a film, it needs to play to both those who have visited the park and those who have never heard of it before. In terms of technology, I am making the film by combining 4K footage with archival photos and films, aerial footage shot by a drone, and hand-drawn animation. We will be using the latest HDR colour grading workflow to help future-proof the film. These various strands will be intercut to make this a rich visual experience for the viewer. 

Photo credit: Craig McTurk
Photo credit: Shintaro Tay

How were the 2 Chinese apprentices found? Why did they decide to take on this job? 

In decades past, apprentices might have been recruited by Singaporeans travelling to China to interview and handpick candidates. Alternately, there would have been multiple candidates in Singapore to select from. In recent times, no Singaporean has shown the talent or interest to carry on the tradition. 

The two Chinese apprentices who are featured in the film were hired after they answered job postings in a Chinese newspaper. They were interviewed by an agent in China and presented their sample artwork. Upon being hired, they flew to Singapore to undergo their orientation and training. One was hired over 6 years ago, while the other was hired within the past two years. I would have loved to travel to China to film Mr. Teo searching for an ideal successor, but the apprentices were hired by an agent instead.   

How do you communicate with Mr Teo and work with him? 

This is one of the major challenges of making this film. Mr. Teo is primarily a Teochew-speaker, so all of the major interviews were conducted in Teochew. He speaks Hokkien with one apprentice and Mandarin with the other. I can only speak Mandarin at a beginner’s level, so I hired a Teochew interpreter to work with us on set and in an audio recording studio to try to penetrate Mr. Teo’s memories and really delve deep. 

Mr. Teo was not accustomed to giving lengthy and detailed responses – ranging from his arranged marriage, war memories, his struggles, achievements and so on – so it took considerable time and trust on his part to share so intimately with us. Fortunately, I worked with a skilful interpreter and transcriber and the film is edited by a Teochew speaker, so I feel that we are creating the definitive portrait of Mr. Teo and his life’s work. It has truly been a team effort to make the film in terms of overcoming language barriers. 

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Photo credit: Shintaro Tay
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