Family ties: The intricacies of family life take centrestage in Hai Ki Xin Lor ... (from left) Ng Sheau Fung, Teo Siew Chin and Winnie Yap.
Penang's favourite son, director and filmmaker Saw Teong Hin, puts his whole family into a theatre play for the George Town Festival.
Filmmaker Saw Teong Hin left Penang 32 years ago, but he still regards himself a Penangite.
“It’s true what they say: You can take the boy out of the kampung, but you cannot take the kampung out of the boy. I left Penang in 1982 and I still refer to myself as a Penangite. It’s amazing. It stays with you and informs every aspect of your life and your personality,” says the 52-year-old director and producer.
Saw has lived in Kuala Lumpur for 28 years and is still more comfortable speaking Hokkien than Cantonese, the main Chinese dialect in KL. “Actually, I have no need because I speak Hokkien to my friends from Penang, English to my other friends, and Malay to my film crew. So I never have to use Cantonese.”
Resolutely staying a Penangite, says Saw with self-deprecating humour, is just typical of a Penangite's au ban trait – that's Hokkien for obstinate. That also explains Saw’s determination to stage his latest project, an “almost autobiographical” stage play in Hokkien.
Saw wrote You Mean The World To Me five years ago in English, and then he got his friend and Ais Kacang Puppy Love writer Lai Chaing Ming – another Penangite – to edit and dub the script into Mandarin. There is no written form of Hokkien; actors simply read the hanyu pinyin or Chinese characters in Hokkien.
“I was at the stage where I was questioning what I stood for. I wanted to write a piece that is representative of me, and so I decided to write a screenplay about my family,” recalls Saw who initially envisioned a film production. Saw’s body of work includes the movies Puteri Gunung Ledang and Hoore! Hoore! and the theatre shows Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical and Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road!.
Saw’s Hokkien project never got off the ground.
“Singaporeans wanted to give me money to get the play made, but they insisted I change the screenplay to Mandarin. I said no. Chinese producers wanted to make the film and they also wanted it in Mandarin. I said no. Nge nge mai (absolutely refuse) because this play is so personal to me. I did this as my statement, my representative work, and the last thing I want to do is to bastardise that.”
Saw decided to offer his script to the George Town Festival (GTF) and the organisers loved his play, as their focus this year was going to be on communities. Saw then reworked his screenplay into a theatrical production with the Hokkien title Hai Ki Xin Lor, the street name of his childhood family home on Victoria Street in George Town.