I want to make people smile: Royston Tan

Royston Tan wants to make Singaporeans smile with his films. (AFP)
Royston Tan wants to make Singaporeans smile with his films. (AFP)

Royston Tan is on a mission to make Singaporeans remember.

The 34-year-old film-maker, known for successful feature films such as 881 and 12 Lotus, thinks that Singaporeans have forgotten how to smile, so when he makes his films, it's only with one objective: to make them smile again.

And smiling is not the only thing that he wants Singaporeans to remember.

With Singapore's rapid urban development, Tan fears that old places which people have emotional attachments to will start to vanish, and he wants to capture the memories of those places before they disappear.

That drove the production of Old Places, a three-month project with filmmakers Eva Tang and Vitric Thng, that was partially funded by the National Heritage Board and Media Development Authority.

It drew an overwhelming response from Singaporeans after it was shown on television on the eve of National Day last year, and okto eventually repeated the show two more times due to requests from the public.

Now working on Old Places 2, he discusses with Yahoo! his dedication to the craft of filmmaking and his adventures behind the camera.

How do you get ideas for your films?

I get a lot of my stories from the grassroots, from the little stories of the average Singapore. And once I'm set on an idea, I will immerse myself in the subjects' stories so that I can understand their stories, make them more real.

For example, in 2005, for one of my short films Sin Sai Hong (a film about the oldest Hokkien opera troupe in Singapore) ,I followed them for one year as a part of their cast. For my first time on stage, I took one and a half hours to put on my make up on my own because it was supposed to instill discipline in the actors. At first, I was just an actor with no lines and at the end of the experience, I was even given a line to 'announce' my own arrival!

Why did you decide to embark on the Old Places project?

I feel that we are moving too fast in Singapore, and places are disappearing fast. So even though this project made me "bleed to death" financially, as a film-maker, I want to do my part to capture all these vanishing places in Singapore before they disappear forever. When we live in a place without any idea of its history, we won't have any feelings attached to it, and we won't have a sense of belonging and it will be just a place.

And the response to the project was really unexpected. After the broadcast on okto channel on the eve of National day last year, there were a lot of phone calls from the public requesting to repeat the show, and it eventually showed for two more times. And on the day of the DVD release, which coincided with the day of the General Election poll, what was surprising was that people were actually rushing to buy it at Kinokuniya. There was even an old lady, about 70 years old, waiting in line with her walking stick to get the DVD.

What was the one story that stood out for you when doing Old Places?

One of the stories that really stood out for me was the story of the barber who set up his stall along Aliwal Street at North Bridge Road. I don't know if he's still there anymore, but when I was filming him, a lot of men from other parts of Singapore came specially just so that they could have a haircut from him. To them, it's more than just a haircut, it's about having relationships. They told me, "Over here, it's the real community centre."

Any dream projects that you would like to do?

I'd like to embark on a "Save the railway track" project, to preserve the area around the railway so that kids in Singapore will have spaces to run and explore. I feel that children now are very disconnected from nature; and to me, when you lose that connection, you also lose the ability to interact with humans as well.

I was from the last batch of people who moved out of the kampungs in 1987. When we played with nature as our surroundings, we learnt from nature and from each other. We even knew which grass to use on our wounds when we were injured. So I think it's sad that we are losing that connection to nature now.

What do you feel about your nomination in the Singapore 9?

I'm very thankful for this nomination. Every time I'm nominated for an award, it is an encouragement to me because it feels like my efforts have been acknowledged. To me, film-making is a lonely process, where you get into your own world to create a piece of art. And when people can relate to it, it's the biggest reward for me.

Royston Tan, Matthew Ngui, Rebecca Chew, Dick Lee and Amanda Heng are the nominees in the culture category in the Singapore 9, a Yahoo! project to recognise nine Singaporeans who have really made a difference in the past year. Make your vote count here.