How Molby Low put the 'Wa' in local Chinese TV

Viewership figures of shows by TV producer Molby Low speak volumes of his dedication

Low is seen here with Lee (right) in Indonesia during the filming of The Adventures Of Chris. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF MOLBY LOW
Low is seen here with Lee (right) in Indonesia during the filming of The Adventures Of Chris. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF MOLBY LOW
Low with (from left) wife Vanda Tan, daughter Naomi, Perfect Cut’s Michelle Chia and Thomas Ong and son Shannan in 2009. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF MOLBY LOW
Molby Low, the youngest of eight children, with three brothers when he was one year old. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF MOLBY LOW
Molby Low enjoyed a carefree kampung childhood in Johor before coming to Singapore to finish his primary education at River Valley Primary School. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

A month after getting his Kia Sorento, chief creative director of WaWa Pictures Molby Low had its windscreen smashed in.

This was no insurance scam but, instead, part of a day's work for the TV producer behind well-made, home- grown hit dramas and variety shows.

WaWa was filming the television drama Secrets For Sale (2011), which starred Christopher Lee as a sleazy photographer and Jesseca Liu as an ex-cop working together as private investigators. They were supposed to shoot a scene of a camera dropping from a building right onto a car driven by Lee. But things went wrong, as they sometimes do, and the arranged-for scrap car did not arrive.

So Low, 44, offered his car.

Rescheduling the shot would have cost time and money and as he points out: "I can't expect to smash anyone else's car right?"

A more aggressive, unreasonable producer might have done so but that is not Low's style. He recalls: "The worst part was that the camera bounced off and hit my bonnet and created dents."

In the end, they had to take a hammer to it before the glass finally shattered.

One could say that it is a measure of how driven and dedicated Low is when it comes to his work. Secrets For Sale ended up as Channel U's No. 3 drama in 2011 with an average viewership of 371,000.

As for the car, it cost "a thousand plus" to repair. And he is still driving it.

The anecdote encapsulates the impression actress Huang Biren, 45, had of him when they first met. She says: "I feel he's very down-to-earth and sincere. There are no airs about him and he makes me feel very comfortable. Most importantly, he has this passion for creating, which is as strong as mine, and so we have this understanding."

The popular actress makes her comeback in family drama 3 Wishes, which is slated to air on Channel 8 on Oct 27. Huang and actor Thomas Ong play a married couple with three children. The story revolves around the three wishes that her timid husband is granted by a spirit.

While she was an admirer of seven- year-old WaWa's works, the timing had never been right for them to work together until now. She says of WaWa's dramas: "They adopt an original approach, from the production to the way it is presented, and they give audiences a sense of freshness and anticipation. They're not run of the mill."

She took up the role without seeing the script, merely on the basis of Low's pitch for the show and her character.

Certainly, people have been taking notice of WaWa from the get-go.

The production company's first drama, Perfect Cut, was about plastic surgery and it was nominated for Best Drama Serial at the 2009 Star Awards. Show Hand, about the ills of gambling, garnered five nominations at the Asian Television Awards in 2012 and it was Channel U's top-rated drama for that year.

Marry Me, a light-hearted romantic series, was Channel U's No. 1 series last year with 345,000 viewers. WaWa's first Channel 8 series, medical drama The Oath, was No. 3 in the channel's primetime 9pm slot in 2011 with 915,000 average viewership.

It also has a stellar track record when it comes to variety and infotainment shows.

Food Hometown (2008) and Food Hometown 2 (2009), which sought to uncover the origins of local dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice, were among the first variety shows Low produced under WaWa and they did so well that subsequent titles were bumped up to primetime slots on MediaCorp's Chineselanguage channels.

Three seasons of infotainment programme Behind The Job have been produced and Bryan Wong and Mark Lee were both nominated twice for Best Info-Ed Programme Host at the Star Awards. The first two seasons were also nominated for Best Info-Ed Programme in 2011 and 2012.

As free-to-air TV shows are easily accessible by anyone, creatives face a big challenge in the restrictions on language and topics.

Low says: "I know the boundaries and try not to push them, but within the rules, we try to go deeper and do something different. This has been our strategy all along."

Perfect Cut, for example, took on the unusual topic of plastic surgery for television and trusted audiences enough to not spoonfeed them by dumbing down the plot. In each episode, a new client visits the plastic surgeon played by Ong for a makeover and the consequences of going under the knife are explored.

"Equal weightage was given to the plastic surgeon and psychologist in each case. We show different viewpoints and we don't say if it's right or wrong to do something. At the end of it, viewers will think and get something out of it," Low says.

He was also dedicated to making the series as realistic as possible.

The $700,000 production featured actual professional equipment such as Botox syringes and silicone pads borrowed from local cosmetic surgeons, one of whom even served as a consultant for the show and was a body double for Ong during the surgery scenes.

Low adds: "We tried to make the operating scenes very real... We tried to go into the job itself and the drama created because of the job." A second season of the show aired in 2009.

When Ong first read the script, he says: "I was a bit shocked because it was a little different from the usual MediaCorp series. It was very stylish and it felt more like a US drama. And its pacing was not draggy but made its point succinctly. Thanks to them, I found a fresh angle to look at the filming process."

He was also moved by the attention to detail, from getting the right outdoor location to spending money on a beautiful bouquet for a shoot. He jokes: "I think it would be very difficult for them to make money." To date, he has been in six WaWa dramas. He also hosted the WaWa travelogue Diminishing Horizons (2009).

It all points to a viewer-first philosophy which is even embedded within the company's name. Low explains: "Wa is an exclamation. We want viewers to exclaim when watching our show, Wa!. I tried a few names on my son who was four years old then. This was the only name he remembered the next day."

He takes audience reaction very seriously and watches his dramas with tablet in hand to get instantaneous feedback from Twitter. Did a laugh land where it was intended? Was a punchline met with silence? The instant focus group "makes our work easier as we don't have to guess what viewers are thinking".

One big lesson he learnt was that audiences need closure. In the investigative thriller Disclosed (2013) with Liu and Taiwanese actor Tender Huang, he tried an open ending which "leaves a lot of room for imagination".

Low says: "At the end of it, viewers were not satisfied at all. They were so furious because we had been hooking them for 20 episodes and those were the answers that we gave them."

Of the three WaWa productions which have aired on Channel 8, which include The Oath and con artist drama Game Plan, Disclosed was the lowest-rated with an average viewership of 772,000. It is the only WaWa drama which did not earn a single Star Awards nomination.

He chalks it up to the learning process, one which started when he joined the then-Television Corporation of Singapore in 1995 as an assistant producer in the variety unit. Perhaps because his educational background was something quite different - mechanical and production engineering at Nanyang Technological University - he was hungry to learn.

"I would swallow my pride and pick up pointers from those willing to teach and watch other people and try to figure out what they have done right. The process is never-ending," he says.

Low grew up in Johor, somewhere near Segamat. His TV diet, then, however, was a steady stream of Channel 8 shows - "our house had a long antenna that could receive signals from Singapore".

His mother was a housewife and his father, who has died, a rubber trader. Low remembers a carefree kampung childhood. The youngest of eight children did well enough in school to come to Singapore to finish his primary education at River Valley Primary School. His eldest brother was then working in Singapore.

Low fitted in easily and picked up his nickname Molby - his birth name is Kian Chye - during secondary school. The Liverpool fan was named after the midfielder Jan Molby as he was "on the slightly plump side" and did not run very much on the field.

As a councillor at Hwa Chong Junior College in 1989, he helped organise the first inter-college songwriting competition. It gave him a great sense of accomplishment and planted the thought that perhaps he could organise entertainment activities for a living.

He did not go into media at university as there was no option of communications studies back then. But he had his heart set on getting into the industry and applied to all the TCS positions available, "artist manager, whatever", just to get a foothold in the organisation.

Once he got in as an assistant producer in the variety unit, he rose through the ranks to become producer, then senior producer. He left in 2000 to help set up Channel U at SPH MediaWorks, Singapore Press Holdings' now-defunct broadcast subsidiary. Low says: "I was happily working in the TV station and I envisioned myself working there all the way until retirement."

But when MediaWorks merged with MediaCorp in 2005, he left to join another production company and then, two years later, set up WaWa productions.

Before taking the plunge to start his own company, he analysed the pros and cons with his eldest brother. And then he asked his wife Vanda Tan, 42: "What if I don't make it? She said that, at the worst, we can go back to basics, downgrade and live simply. It's okay."

Fortuitously, they then made money from the en bloc sale of their Thomson Road apartment building. He says: "It gave us a bit of financial certainty that at least I could survive half a year without a job." The couple and their two children, Shannan, 12, and Naomi, 14, now live in a three-bedroom HUDC condominium in Ulu Pandan.

They ploughed around $100,000 into the venture and WaWa was born in 2007.

As Low's title of chief creative director suggests, he is intimately involved in the creative process of brainstorming storylines. His wife's official title is general manager/business development and her duties include "being a tea lady, running to the bank, human resources and I help to fill in the gaps", she says. They are clearly a team of equals as she sits in for the interview, filling in the gaps when necessary and dishing out homemade cheng tng.

While the blurring of work life and personal time might be a problem for some, Ms Tan sees it as a plus. She says: "That's the beauty of it... We can communicate at any point without the need for an appointment. Because it's just the two of us, things move faster."

The company started out as a lean operation of just five people: the couple plus a writer for drama, a writer for variety shows and a production manager. WaWa now has a staff strength of around 20 and have 50 to 60 people on its payroll when productions are underway.

The company has also gone from a 2,400 sq ft office in Redhill to a 3,500 sq ft facility in Ubi, complete with facilities for video and audio post-production as well as space for props, wardrobe and make-up units.

They made the move at the end of April and are still settling into the space. They have not even found the time to put up posters of their productions on the mostly bare walls. A cosy pantry area has been set up though, complete with biscuits and other snacks and a bucket of cheerful flowers.

Asked where he sees WaWa in three years when it marks its 10th anniversary and Low says: "Hopefully, we will already be producing movies and doing regional work. That would complete the plan that I had when I started it."

The Oath, Game Plan and telemovie Lost And Found (2010), with Taiwanese child star Little Bin, have been sold to Chinese-speaking markets such as China and Taiwan.

But Low says it is not really about the revenue. He adds: "This is more of an aspiration thing. Singapore dramas were creating waves in China in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but now, the Chineseare more excited by Korean dramas and their own shows. There's a strong urge in me to produce something good and show that we are still good."

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