|Image from TONY'S LONG MARCH (photo: Sherman Ong)|
During the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival, they'll be a tribute to Tony Yeow, the Singaporean film producer who died in June this year. Tony worked as the Unit Manager on Saint Jack, among many other things. He produced, conceived and co-directed about six feature films during his career; developed dozens more; produced and directed a bunch of commercials, documentaries and PSAs; was a TV presenter for a while; as well as an actor in big-budget TV miniseries and local theatre productions. Tony was a character. And Sherman Ong and myself set out to capture that in a film we shot between 2008 and 2010 called Tony's Long March. We'll be showing that at the tribute, and hearing from some of those who worked with him.
Details of the event can be found here. Scroll down to find 'Remembering Tony'.
In the meantime, here's something I wrote about him for Time Out Singapore in 2008.
Singapore’s film industry has its fair share of colourful characters, none more so than Tony Yeow. A producer, writer, director, occasional actor and veteran of television and commercials, Tony was born in 1938, around the same time as the Shaw Brother’s set up their film studio in Jalan Ampas and so his career spans the history of film-making in Singapore until today.
“I’m a has-been that never was,” he ‘s fond of saying, and its true that Tony has been an outsider, hustling to get projects off the ground, facing indifference, censorship and critical hostility along the way. He’s also a survivor, and recalls several close escapes from death during his WW2 era childhood in Chinatown (one bad fall leaving him with two broken arms), which he credits to “somebody upstairs taking a liking to me.”
As a boy, Tony often slipped off alone to the cinema, soaking up martial arts and horror flicks, “I enjoyed it, but I never thought I’d end up as a film producer.” Instead, as the premature breadwinner for his family, he became a teacher, then stumbled into radio broadcasting, largely on the strength of his still-resonant, crystal-clear voice, a tool he deliberately cultivated to imitate colonial era English news announcers. He side-stepped into television, getting promoted as a producer and presenter, and managing to be in the studio in 1965, when Lee Kuan Yew tearfully told the nation of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.
His first film, Ring of Fury, came in the aftermath of a year working in TV in Hong Kong, “they had colour, Singapore was still in black and white.” Tony had met Bruce Lee, who was deeply into disco, “He was always dancing. He broached the idea of doing a musical with me. Unfortunately a year later he died.” Inspired by Lee, Tony created the Singapore’s first and (so far) last martial arts action film, producing, storylining and co-directing a low-budget but very stylish tale of a humble noodle-seller (played by Peter Chong, a real-life Karate master) who battles against gangsters led by a man in a metal mask. Aside from showing many parts of Singapore in 1973 that no longer exist, the film has some memorably hard-hitting combat scenes. “We didn’t choreograph those,” Tony explains, “I told them where to run, and we just turned on the camera and they fought.”
The film was banned for its portrayal of crime at a time when Singapore was aggressively ‘cleaning up’. After a disaster like that, most people would bow out, but Tony found himself “bitten by the passion”. His second film, a comedy about fisherman-out-of-water called Two Nuts, didn’t change the tide of decline in Singapore’s film industry in the late 70s, and his production company Impact, turned to commercials, documentaries and government campaign films (such as ‘Stop At Two’, intended to curb overpopulation). During this period, Tony joined the crew of Peter Bogdanovich’s infamous Saint Jack, the Hollywood film secretly shot in Singapore, and also took acting roles, including a part in the Australian mini- series Tanamera: Lion of Singapore, but the “impossible dream” hadn’t disappeared.
“Once you start on one film, it somehow leads onto another”, Tony says, and he kept toying with various ideas, inadvertently kick-starting the ‘revival’ of Singapore’s film industry with Medium Rare in 1991. Supposed to be a documentary-style account of the Tao Payoh murderer Adrian Lim, it drifted radically from this concept and is now largely seen as a terrible, albeit historically significant, flop. “Medium Rare could never be well done”, laughs Tony (he has a pun like this for all his films), who says he walked off the set on the first day of shooting and never returned. It did pave the way for more successful local films by directors
like Eric Khoo and Jack Neo, and that in turn gave Tony the chance to produce Tiger’s Whip, a comedy about an American looking for the titular Viagra-substitute that was intended as “spiritual film”, but ended up being “whipped pillar to post.” The lead actor, an American, was “a zombie, but very good-looking”, and the film also flopped.
“I had one more joust at the windmill,” says Tony of his virtually forgotten 2001 Malaysian action-comedy The Deadly Disciple, but he’s still going strong. After our interview he’s driving to town to “meet a friend who has an idea for a film”, and he has drawers full of screenplays, everything from knockabout comedies, to horror flicks and his period epic Little Red Star, about The Long March in China. If you meet Tony for even a short while, he’s likely to suggest you read one of them.
“I never made any good films,” Tony muses, by which he means that they didn’t make any money. For a moment he seems to regret his life-long involvement in an industry that wasn’t always kind to him but has certainly been interesting, “What else can I do? There’s no place to go”. Then he’s enthusiastically discussing some other new projects. As he says of that his much cherished Long March film idea – “It’s just a dream.”