25th anniversary interviews/

Lew Chee Seong

Lew Chee Seong

Lew Chee Seong is a lawyer by profession. A theatre enthusiast who joined Five Arts Centre in 1995, he has become an important producer for the collective over the years, taking charge of numerous projects such as 'Stadium' (as tour manager to the 'Contacting The World' youth theatre festival, Manchester, UK), 'Encore', and 'Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya', amongst others.

Chee Seong was also instrumental in the conceptualization and creation of the 'Negaraku 1957-2007: Celebrating Malaysian Artistic Expression' greeting cards, an initiative carried out to raise funds for Five Arts Centre’s community projects.


Tell us about your entry point to Five Arts Centre.

When I was in doing my A Levels in Prime College in 1989, Ivy Josiah was my General Paper lecturer. Marion D’Cruz was also a lecturer there, as were former members Chin San Sooi and Charlene Rajendran. What a potent mix and a privilege - Ivy encouraged us to think out of the box and to also ‘fight’ for what we believed in! I actually believed her so when I got to UK to study law, I wrote to the university papers to complain about unfair treatment - a bank was giving to foreign, but not local students, and it actually got published! That bank did not survive the latest financial crisis.

'Scorpion Orchid' (1995), co-production with The Actors Studio

When I returned from my studies, Ivy again suggested that since I had nothing better to do, I might as well help out with Five Arts. And thus, I started as Marion’s production assistant for Lloyd Fernando’s ‘Scorpion Orchid’ (1995), running around dropping booklets, picking up advertisements and doing poster runs in Marion’s good old green Suzuki Vitara. Like they say, the rest is history… including the Vitara, which has been sold!

What bearing does your profession as a lawyer have on your role in the arts? (Janet Pillai).

'Emergency Festival' (2008) poster designed by Norman Teh

There is no conscious bearing between my work as a lawyer and my role in the arts. My involvement in the arts was accidental and unplanned whereas ever since I was 7 years old I wanted to be a court-going lawyer. In fact, I would prefer to see the two roles as separate and distinct.

The advantage of being a lawyer is that you can be asked to go for ‘official’ thingies like approval and permit interviews with the police, and get some deference even though I have not handled a single criminal case before. For example, just a day before the opening of the ‘Emergency Festival’ (2008) was to open, I had the privilege to accompany Mark [Teh] to the “Politik Ektremis” division of the police station for an interview. The policemen there refused to give us any of their calling cards but I was happily distributing my name card to all of them.

Can you explain why there are so many lawyers in the arts as opposed to engineers, etc? (Chew Kin Wah).

Because a lawyer leads a mundane life and truly talented people (like lawyers) need to express them elsewhere or anyway! And because a law degree is a good degree to have irrespective of whether you take up law as a career or not!

Seriously though, I am not sure that statement is true anymore. There used to be many lawyers who were also active in the arts (Chacko Vadaketh, Charon Mokhzani, Saidah Rastam, etc), but I am not sure whether there are so many nowadays and at the same time, more and more people from various professions and fields of expertise are getting involved in one way or another in the arts.

Have you ever thought of performing on stage? (Ivy N. Josiah).

Chee Seong reading as Chin Peng at the '1955 Baling Talks', part of the 'Emergency Festival' (2008)

Two things kept me from doing so. First, like I said above, I like to keep my legal work and my arts work separate, and I am not sure whether it is proper for me to be on stage one evening (doing all sorts of things) and then go to court the next morning to earnestly and seriously argue that a defendant is guilty and must be ordered to pay up.

Secondly, I am not brave enough to go perform on stage or take the strenuous rehearsals that artists have to go through. Scared lah. Not to mention my sweaty palms and feet! There is hope though! Marion has recognised my talent for making burping sounds and may put me in a corner onstage one day…

Have you considered writing for theatre? (Suhaila Merican).

Yes. I think it is challenging and exciting to see words translated into action and interpreted in ways so different from what the writer had in mind when writing a piece in the first place. Some more I have been told I am funny! One day lah…

How would you describe the relationship between Malaysian politics and Five Arts’ work? And how will this evolve in the future? (Mac Chan).

Chee Seong, with Leow Puay Tin & Tricia Yeoh in 'Tikam-tikam - Merdeka! Merdeka. Merdeka?', part of the 'Emergency Festival' (2008)

I do not think Five Arts’ work sets out to be overtly political and the politics, if any, would usually come from the viewpoint of a director/producer handing any particular projects at any one time and from his or her own experiences. Like Anne [James]’s police report and snatch theft story in ‘Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya’ (2007). Sometimes, we are way ahead of time like when Marion did ‘Immigrants in Bangsar’ (1997), long before the issue of migrant labour became even more entrenched in the fabric of our society. At other times, we look back to events more than 40 years ago like the ‘Emergency Festival’ in 2008. The ‘politicalness’ of any event is just how it is perceived from different people with different perspectives, fears and interests.

And the future should be the same.

What’s your favourite Five Arts project?

Aiyo... tough one. I think it would have to be the ‘Emergency Festival’ in 2008. I was impressed with the idea of presenting history as a festival of multi-events; by the energy and talents of young people in translating the ideas of a festival into reality; and the vibes and response generated especially amongst the younger audience. I also enjoyed doing things a little out of the ordinary like doing a reading of the 1955 Baling Talks, as well as being play master for [Leow] Puay Tin’s ‘Tikam-tikam: Merdeka! Merdeka. Merdeka?’.

I also liked ‘Encore’ (2005) very much especially the idea of working with Ed [Soo], Jenny [Kek] and Kim [Tham] in securing a full house and raising funds for a charity event.

What has been your most memorable experience with FAC, and why? (Ravi Navaratnam).

The most memorable experience happened away from Five Arts. It was replacing Marion for the third Meeting of Asian Arts Management conference ‘Binding Local Voices’, held on 24th March 2009 at Osaka City University where I had to speak about Five Arts Centre. Having never done anything remotely like that before and being fairly content to stay in the background, to suddenly trying to fill Marion’s shoes as a speaker meant I had to do a lot of work (considering her years of knowledge, experience, involvement and just sheer hard work in keeping tab of developments not just in KL, but Malaysia and elsewhere).

In doing the work and the research, I gained new insights into the works and history of Five Arts, and re-discovered reasons to be proud to be a member of Five Arts.

Chee Seong presenting at the third Meeting of Asian Arts Management conference, Osaka, Japan

At the same time, the process of actually giving the talk and being with other speakers helped me realize that I need not (and cannot) be Marion or any other Five Arts member for that matter, and that we must find and articulate our own voice. The 2009 trip to Japan made me grow in many ways, and was pivotal in the decision to set up my own law firm in August 2009, as well providing a platform for greater discovery of myself and Five Arts.

In your perspective, what is Five Arts' strongest and weakest points? And you cannot say our size. (Fahmi Fadzil).

What are the positive/negative aspects of the way Five Arts works as a company? (Anne James).

To me, Five Arts strongest point and positive aspect has always been the members themselves and the ideas and interests they bring into the collective and the translation of those very interests and ideas into reality. That sometimes also ends up being our weakest/negative point as we all have different interests and levels of intensity at any one time. The solution, pray for REVIVAL... then we can all be hangat for Five Arts at the same time with the same intensity. That would be awesome!

I also harbour some reservations about the formation of the artistic direction team. It is like a crucial, fluid part of our identity being turned into a committee which is artificial and inorganic! On this issue I have decided to wait and see how it develops.

What changes would you like to see in Five Arts? (Marion D’Cruz).

My dream would be to see Five Arts having the resources and the will to pay people more than commensurate with their work and to make the arts viable as a full time job. If there is one change I’ll make, it is to pay people more... but easier said that done lah :( And we are not bad pay masters at all... but to have the luxury to be more than generous would be great.

How do you see your involvement in theatre in the coming 3 years? (Chee Sek Thim).

Chee Sek Thim in 'Encore' (2005)

Err... being an avid supporter for Five Arts events and maybe doing front of house :)

Frankly, the past year of setting up and running a law firm has been challenging and exhausting but fun. The amount of white hair I’ve acquired since then is astonishing. Not that I am complaining... now no need to look so youthful! So in terms of theatre, I would love to take a back seat if possible. But have no fear, when the call of duty comes, I’ll be there!

Ideally, I would like to do two things:

Being able to provide financing for a Five Arts project on a small scale. Imagine the production and creative liberty when we do not have to worry about ringgit and sen; and

Being a little less detached from the creative process when agreeing to produce any new project. My old, preferred way of working - seeing production and creative work as separate and distinct - though probably easier for me, does not work anymore lah. I think to discover joy and value in part-time producing means getting involved a little more creatively, even if just a toenail more. That’s why I malas and just want to do front of house for now.

You are an avid runner, as am I. How come we run all the time but still don't lose weight? Also, who are more important? Lawyers or producers? (Kubhaer T. Jethwani).

I am hardly an avid runner. I run and exercise so I can makan tanpa was-was!!!! I have now accepted that our body weight and size is all in our genes. So let us blame our parents. Anyway, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the Creator.

Lawyer or producer more important? Neither and both. If I may quote, “I have discovered that there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work”. That is why we are here.

So we just need to fear God and obey his commands and He’ll take care of the rest.

What has been the most interesting development for you in terms of producing? (June Tan).

That producing on a ‘non-professional’ and part-time basis, by way of treating production as a distinct and separate component of a theatre process (totally sans the creative part), may work but only for a while. And that there are many ways of producing from which we can learn and adapt.

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

'Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya' (2008)

I have been dying to answer this question. When I watch Five Arts shows, I noticed that we often have scenes where there are multiple things going on at the same time. An actor at stage front talking while simultaneously there would be an actor at the back of the stage talking whilst walking and at the same time two actors in the middle talking to each other in a different language.

Perplexed, I once turn to Krishen Jit to ask, “Krishen, why like that one? We are cheating the audience, they pay money but are forced to choose and cannot follow everything and even worst, all the interesting parts are happening at the same time”.

Krishen answered me, “Life is like that... can we follow everything happening at the same time in our lives and all around us? In theatre at least, people can come back and watch again which is better than what real life offers!”

That to me is the Five Arts style - reflecting life but giving you a chance for more!!! Unless you watch the last performance of a run lah.

3 August 2010