25th anniversary interviews/

Chew Kin Wah

Chew Kin Wah

One of the hardest-working and most well-known faces in Malaysian film and TV, Chew Kin Wah began life as an actor on stage in the mid-1980s. He has performed in numerous Five Arts Centre productions over the years, including 'Yap Ah Loy: The Play' (1985), '1984 - Here and Now' (1985), 'Lady White' (1989), 'Skin Trilogy' (1995), 'Family' (1998), and 'Dumb Waiter' (2001). He also initiated the 'UTIH... Celebrating Krishen' tribute in 2006 to mark the first anniversary of director and Five Arts co-founder Krishen Jit's death. Over the past two years, Kin Wah has returned to the stage in Instant Cafe Theatre Company's productions such as 'Air Con' and 'Instant Cafe Kurang Manis'.

In his TV career, Kin Wah was a cast member in three of the most popular local shows of the past decade - the long-running English sitcom 'Kopitiam', the Cantonese serial 'Homecoming,' and the Malay soap 'Astana Idaman'. He now works mostly in film, having recently appeared in 'Susuk', '1957: Hati Malaya', 'Setem', and 'At The End of Daybreak'.

What was your entry point to Five Arts Centre?

In 1984, there was an audition notice in The Malay Mail - back when it was a very good afternoon paper for updated sports news and job notices - and I was waiting for some exam results. So, go lah…

An Indian guy with big eyes (Krishen Jit) and a Chinaman with bad glasses (Chin San Sooi) asked me to read. Aiyah, easy lah. But it was not until one year later that we staged ‘1984 - Here and Now’ (1985).

When was the first time you ever did a ‘performance’ - what was it? And when did you first realize you liked performing? (Anne James)

When I lied my way out of a gang fight - tough school, tough neighborhood. When did I realize I liked it… after scoring a hattrick in a football game. Now that’s a performance!

Which is the game or sport you’re best at, and does it have anything to do with your life as a FAC member? (Mac Chan)

I made it to the ‘B’ finals in ten-pin bowling at the 1999 Malaysian Closed Championships. I’m good at footie, tennis and table tennis. Anything to do with life as a FACer… no lah.

What's your favourite Five Arts project?

'1984 - Here and Now' because it was more an adventure than a production.

Tell us about your experience acting in the production of ‘Skin Trilogy’ (1995). (Marion D’Cruz)

We were not really acting in ‘Skin Trilogy’. It was more of an experiencing what was around us, and reacting to the director and the environment. Carpet burns, carpet burns.

You’ve worked with many theatre, film and TV directors. Who have been your favourites, and why? (Suhaila Merican)

All directors are assholes. The end justifies the means, so there are no favourites.

But Krishen was the first in theatre, Ping Ho on TV, James for the indies, Yuhang plays pingpong with me, Kabir listens to me, Jo K uses very little time, the Hongkies think I’m exotic, Dain is crazy, Jason doesn’t care whether I can walk, Ming Jin calls me dude, and Shumi pays…

[editor’s note: in order, the directors Kin Wah is referring to are Krishen Jit, Ng Ping Ho on ‘Kopitiam’, James Lee on ‘Snipers‘ and ‘Emu Kwan’s Tragic Breakfast’, Ho Yuhang on ‘At The End of Daybreak’, Kabir Bhatia on ‘Setem’, Jo Kukathas on ‘Air Con’ and ‘Instant Café Kurang Manis’, Dain Said on ‘Dukun’, Jason Chong on ‘Belukar’, Woo Ming Jin on ‘Cinta Tiga Segi’ and ‘Blue Roof’, and Datuk Paduka Shuhaimi Baba on ‘1957: Hati Malaysia’].

I see you as the “family man” in FAC. Does such a status affect your participation in theatre in any unexpected way? (Janet Pillai)

Yes, very much. I can’t spend too much time on productions. Part of this answer is also in Chee Seong’s question below.

I also see you as a “business man”. From this perspective do you think FAC should worry about financial sustainability? (Janet Pillai)

No, but we must find new markets. Singapore is an alternative. What we have in KL, Penang, etc, is not enough. Another way is to reach to the Malay audience - why can’t we produce ‘Cicakman’ the musical? Okay, bad example.

What is it you dislike most about being in the theatre business and how do you handle it? (Ravi Navaratnam)

All the FALSE gestures, nuances, flying kisses, hugs, comments and pats on the back. Handle it? Easy - I give them my Facebook profile mug, or I just ignore them.

And I seldom go to Sentul anyway.

You’ve been doing more work in film and TV than in theatre lately. What are your reasons for this shift in emphasis? (Chee Sek Thim)

Need to pay for petrol, food, pirated DVDs, video games, phone bills. I do TV and films fulltime now, but if theatre paid the same rates, then no problem. But I don’t think so lah in my lifetime. This would also answer part of Chee Seong question below. Also, the time, the time.

Every time I've stumbled across you on TV, you've played a baddie... am I watching the same show or have you been typecast? Why do you think this is so? Do you prefer playing villains or good guys? (Kubhaer T. Jethwani)

I’ve actually clocked in more time as a comic than anything else. Typecast!!!!!!! I’m lucky just to be in the cast. No broken leg joke here!

Villains, good guys… they are all the same. A lot depends on the script and the director. And comedy works both ways.

Does your son know you’re a famous TV and movie star? How does he react to it? (June Tan)

That’s the beauty of childhood… he doesn’t care lah, as long as he gets his allocated time on the PS3 and XBox 360. But I think he’s having some issues with his classmates at school.

What advice will you give your son if he wants to pursue acting as a career in Malaysia? (Ivy Josiah)

“NO. Get a real job. Be a director or a producer”. That will pave the way for his papa’s future paychecks.

Do you see any value in attending Five Arts meetings at all? When will you ever join such meetings? (Lew Chee Seong)

FAC nowadays still has a lot of red tape. If you notice, each time I undertake to do something for FAC, I will do it as fast as possible, sometimes stepping on other people’s toes. Padan muka! I cannot wait. Life is too short if we argue and debate but come back to the same thing.

Am I selfish? Who is not? But when you have someone waiting at home to play his favourite video game with you, or just waiting for you to bop bop him to bed, I would chose to be home.

How has Five Arts changed over the years? (Fahmi Fadzil)

It’s not as lean and mean as before. Maybe we need to change.

What do you miss, if anything, about the “old and early” days of Five Arts? (Marion D’Cruz)

The old studio. The food. The impromptu visits by people from the community, including reporters who knew what they were writing about. The innocence. The improv sessions.

Let's settle this once and for all - is there such a thing as a "Five Arts style"?

Yes, it’s the style that has pioneered some of the most visual performances on stage, and has been copied unsuccessfully by many. So when people asked them, “What are you doing?” they say, “It’s the Five Arts style”.

16 September 2009