Pursuing a childhood dream
Chang Swee Wah put his dream on hold but after retirement, it was time to revisit it.
Chang Swee Wah had a childhood dream of one day becoming a film producer or director. He said, “I wanted to put my thoughts into a film so I can inspire people.” At the age of 11, he was active in Radio Playhouse on Radio and Television Singapore (now called MediaCorp) recording storytelling every Sundays in the 1960s. He was also regularly acting and recording on Radio Drama, a children’s broadcast that was aired every Sunday mornings that time.
In all these experiences, he got the opportunity to see how a producer worked, which got him interested in wanting to become one. He also got influenced by his father who would bring the family to watch films at Lido cinema on Orchard Road and his father also owned an 8mm film camera. But, when Swee Wah was old enough to make a decision on his career path, he decided not to go down that path as he also didn’t want to leave Singapore to study overseas, where a degree in filmmaking would have led him.
Swee Wah chose instead to get a degree in civil engineering and even pursued a Masters. “I found it could be a meaningful career as well as I could build safe houses for people to live in and roads for people to use, and much more.” He spent almost half of his career doing civil engineering but in his 40s, he did a career switch to work for a bank, in charge of its IT quality department and later, taking care of process re-engineering, risk management, internal auditing and more. He worked there till he retired.
Time to revisit the dream
When he retired, he found it was time to revisit his once childhood dream. The 67-year-old said: “Before your retirement, you have no time to pick up a hobby or pursue your dream. Now, it is the best time when you have retired.” And that is exactly what he did.
In 2013, he produced his first film called “Botanic Memory” and submitted it for the 180 Short Film Competition organised by the Singapore Media Academy. The story was about a child who lost her toy at Botanic Gardens and one of the gardeners there returned it to the lost and found counter. The child wanted to thank her but didn’t get a chance to. Fast forward to 15 years, the child is now a mother and she brings her child to Botanic Gardens and the gardener (now a supervisor) sees the familiar toy that was once lost and a friendship is rekindled.
Remembering that experience making the film, he shared that he also wrote the script and invited his former bank colleague, her daughter and Swee Wah’s wife to act in the 180-second (three-minute) film. He laughed, “I was required to tell a story within three minutes and my story covered a 15-year timeline!”
He added, “The post-production was a challenge for me as I didn’t know how to do it. I had to learn iMovie editing software from YouTube and even bought myself a MacBook Pro to facilitate my editing.” Swee Wah even bought the copyright for the music which was more S$80; today he has gotten smarter and uses royalty-free music.
All his hard efforts did not go to waste. His film was shortlisted into the finals of the competition and was shown at the Golden Village cinema at Great World City during the awards ceremony. “That was a turning point for me. I was encouraged and motivated by this recognition although I did not win any awards,” he said.
Since that time, he has participated in many other competitions including the Singapore Short Film Awards, International Short Film Competition, Cathay Motion Pictures Award and the Micro Film Competition. For those competitions, he submitted several other films besides “Botanic Memory” including “Children”, “Journey”, and “If I Can Do It, You Can Too!”. Sadly, none reached the finals or clinched an award.
“I have never attended film school. For me, the purpose of participating in these film competitions is like taking an exam. Once the results are out, I know where my standard of filming is, and which areas I need to improve further.”
However, losing didn’t damper his enthusiasm or his passion. He continued shooting films and handling all the production himself. The grandfather of two upped his skills by taking a video story course which taught him some basic filmmaking techniques, a documentary filming course and some free short courses conducted by local directors and filmmakers.
Improving with time
And with time, he continued to improve his skills. In 2017, his film “The Cat Story” was submitted to the Micro Film Competition and was nominated for the Open Category Award and Most Creative Microfilm Award in the finals but he did not get any award. However, in 2019, his film “Be With You” took home the Micro Film Competition’s Most Popular Microfilm Gold Award and this year, another film called “Mynah & The Twin Sisters” obtained the Most Popular Silver Award and got nominated into the finals of the Open Category Award.
The premise of his latter film surrounds a smart mynah who could not understand why in the past two years, people were eating out less and covering their faces. Until one day, the mynah flew to a twin sisters’ house and realised that the pandemic changed the family’s way of life. The film had to align with the theme, “My Singapore New Norm” and filmmakers had to share their interpretations and thoughts on this. They also had to highlight “perseverance, optimism and adaptability that Singapore and her people have shown during this period”, according to the rules of the competition.
Sharing about the film, Swee Wah said: “I had to be the director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor and narrator. It was really a challenge, but I had to make it happen!” He had to change the script and storyline several times. Though he said he had no issues finding mynahs in Singapore, he had difficulties finding actors until he came upon a news article about the young twins talking about how the pandemic is affecting their lives and that they were very positive. The twins – Ho Jia Ling and Ho Jia En – were not trained actresses but they persevered and never gave up.
How did he come up with his central character – the mynah? “Last year, I was walking along the beach with my son when we brainstormed the storyline. We noticed a lot of mynahs and other birds at the beach. The mynahs could not find food at the hawker centres or coffeeshops as people were not allowed to eat at those places. They had no choice but to fly to the beach in search of food.
“At first, I wanted to have only mynahs and other birds in my film. But the theme of the competition is ‘My Singapore New Norm’, so I had to put in a human element in the film. So I used the mynah as the main character to lead the story.”
When dealing with birds as well as other animals, there is always an element of unpredictability. Swee Wah said, “In my script, there was one scene when the mynah flew to the window of the twins’ house to observe their daily life. For this scene, only a Hollywood animation team could pull it off! But as a Christian, I prayed for this to happen. On the last day of shooting, when we were filming in the kitchen, the twins saw the mynah standing outside the window. I quickly filmed it. It was only a two-second footage before the mynah flew away. Wow! It was a good shot!” Including with the writing, filming and all, he took around three months to complete the film.
There were 122 entries submitted into both the Open and Student categories, and 12 entries were shortlisted into the finals, including his. “I was honoured that my film was shortlisted into the finals of the Open Category Award by the nine professional judges. I am not so sure all nominees in the Open Category were from production houses, but all of them had a crew to make their films. For me, I was alone,” said Swee Wah.
So what’s next for him? He is currently looking for an inspiring story for his next film. “I am sure that I will participate in the Micro Film Competition again in two years’ time. I will be 69 by then. I did say ‘I will be back!’ on stage when I received the award during the ceremony.
Swee Wah encourages other seniors to live their lives to the fullest, do volunteer work and learn new skills. He walks the talk – he is a volunteer at RSVP Singapore, Singapore National Stroke Association and Penpals in Community initiative. He also volunteers at his church helping primary schoolchildren learn Chinese. He is no stranger to learning and has participated in many Intergenerational Learning Programme courses organised by Family Central and Council for Third Age.
He advised others: “Please don’t stay in the house. Go out of your house to interact with people, walk around your neighbourhood, exercise, participate in activities and events and learn new skills. Studies have shown that if seniors stay at home most of the time, they may develop dementia and depression.”
And the most important point of all, he said: “Pursue your dreams. If I can do it, you can do it too!”
*** Watch Swee Wah’s film “Mynah & The Twin Sisters” HERE.