Saw Teong Hin bares his soul in Penang Hokkien on stage at the George Town Festival

Saw Teong Hin was determined to stage his "almost autobiographical" play in Penang Hokkien to stay true to the story. – GARY CHEN/The Star

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.

Saw Teong Hin was determined to stage his "almost autobiographical" play in Penang Hokkien to stay true to the story. – GARY CHEN/The Star

True to his provenence

Saw is no stranger to the George Town Festival. He directed Stella Kon's Emily Of Emerald Hill for the opening of the first GTF in 2010 and staged the dance drama Silat at Fort Cornwalis to launch the festival in 2012. Still, this will be Saw’s "homecoming play" as it's not only in a distinctively local dialect but also his most intimate story.

“I use Hokkien because it’s true to the story I want to tell. The dialogue is interspersed with English and Malay, just like the way we speak in Penang. It’s not 100% Hokkien but I just wanted to be true to the play’s provenance. It’s also evocative of a time and place in my life,” says Saw, who's co-directing the play with Jason Ong Han Yee of Noise Performance House.

At a press conference in Penang, the first question asked of Saw was whether his non-Penangite actors could pull-off the local dialect with its distinctive singsong lilt. Of the 10 performers in his cast, eight including Chelsia Ng are from Penang. Singapore's Neo Swee Lin (of Phua Chu Kang fame) and Frederick Lee from Malacca take on the lead roles in the production.

“I believe in Neo and Lee because they are such strong actors that people will overlook it even if they don’t nail Penang Hokkien 100%,” says Saw, who has known Neo from his university days in Singapore in the 1980s.

Penangites are also curious about Saw’s play. Although a lingua franca in the state, Hokkien isn't usually used formally or for artistic expressions. Though there's no telling who has bought tickets for the play, most of them have been sold in Penang outlets. For non-Hokkien speakers, there will be subtitles in English and Mandarin. Saw hopes that his compelling storytelling will transcend any language barrier.

Tribute to his mother

Saw has retained the play’s English title, You Mean The World To Me, because it's what the story's about.

“It’s a tribute to my late mother. When she was alive, I never told her I loved her, so this is a chance to do it. That’s the point of the whole play; to tell my mum, particularly, and my family members that they mean the world to me. Whatever nonsense we have gone through, we all have our histories,” Saw says.

But he's careful to add that he's taken artistic liberties in his recounting of a filmmaker who returns to his hometown to make a movie about his family and reconcile with the past. “As much as I say it’s a personal story, I want to qualify that it’s not completely autobiographical," Saw says.

"I call it 'almost an autobiography'. Obviously for pacing’s sake and dramatic license, you exaggerate things or you composite character. Things might have happened 10 years apart but you move it closer. It’s not that they aren't true, but a lot of liberty has been taken with them. I need that to be clear because I need to be fair to the people who are being represented.”

Saw was initially worried about his family’s reaction to his play, “But I felt I needed to do it. So I wrote the script. When I finally told them, I was quite surprised by my brothers and sisters’ response. My sister said, ‘You might as well do it. What’s there to be shy about? That’s how it was'.”

Saw is the youngest of six siblings – and the favourite son. His parents and eldest brother have passed away. His two elder brothers and two elder sisters still live in Penang. Saw remains tight-lipped about whether he'll be shaking out family skeletons of the closet, but he does share that a friend who read his original script advised him against staging it.

“She told me not to do it because it’s too revealing. I said that’s why I am doing it,” Saw says. “There is some distancing when you write in English. Writing a Hokkien script was quite traumatic for me as I try to recall events as accurately as possible. It was very cathartic for me and difficult to go through. I did find myself crying.”

As intensely personal as the story is, Saw believes audiences will be able to relate to his family’s struggles and conflicts. Hopefully, people will also relate to the play’s honesty and sincerity. “There are no theatrics to hide behind in this play. My previous works were more spectacular. This is quite plainly presented – the staging is beautiful but the presentation is quite straightforward.”

Saw will stage his play like a Chinese opera, on a two-storey theatre stage (to represent a two-storey house) in the cobbled courtyard of the historic Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi in George Town’s heritage enclave. Initially, Hai Ki Xin Lor was slated as the month-long festival's opening act.

“But when I met the stage contractor; he asked me if the play is for humans or spirits as it was Hungry Ghost Month in August. He advised me against staging the play in this period, and so we heeded his advice. That’s why it’s now the closing event for the festival,” Saw says.

He may have avoided the risk of offending the spirits, but Saw is keeping his fingers crossed. “This one play particularly is a high wire act without a safety net. In any work that you do as a director or filmmaker, you are exposing yourself to the audience. You feel quite naked because every sensibility in the piece – may be about love, may be about anything – is about your sensibility,” Saw says.

After 20 years in the artistic field, Saw says it’s hard to anticipate the reception to his work. “You can only do what you think is right. The audience will filter it in their own minds. If their minds are a certain way, they will see certain things. Everybody views things differently. It’s the same with the theatre experience which is even more transient. Everything is on a wing and a prayer.”

Hai Ki Xin Lor (You Mean The World To Me) will be staged at Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, 18 Lebuh Cannon, George Town, Penang, from Aug 28-31. For details, visit

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