The Life Interview With Ang Eng Tee

The Life Interview with Ang Eng Tee: Channel 8's award-winning scriptwriter inspired by wuxia novelist Louis Cha to create own stories

Channel 8's award-winning scriptwriter Ang Eng Tee was inspired by wuxia novelist Louis Cha to create stories of his own

Singapore's highest-rated Channel 8 television drama The Little Nyonya (2008) might never have seen the light of day had it not been for its scriptwriter Ang Eng Tee.

Besides the fact that he had created and wrote the popular period epic, it was only because of his tireless lobbying that the series was green-lit for production.

Some of the executives reviewing scripts at the time had concerns that the Peranakan-themed show would be an ill fit for a predominantly Chinese-speaking audience, he recalls.

"There were many questions about whether a show like this would work for Channel 8 audiences, because we had never touched upon Peranakan culture in Chinese dramas before.

"If anything, they said that a show like this should have been written for Channel 5 instead. But I was insistent. The Peranakan culture is so uniquely Singaporean and something that all Singaporeans know, so why couldn't that work for Channel 8 viewers too?" he tells The Straits Times in Mandarin during a two-hour interview.

His persistence paid off.

When I see something like Game Of Thrones, I think, 'How can we ever compare?' The challenge to get eyeballs for local TV will only increase, but I hope that if we continue to do Singaporean stories, there will be something here for Singaporeans to watch.

ANG ENG TEE on the competition facing local TV productions

The 34-episode series starring Jeanette Aw as a long-suffering woman from a large Peranakan family in a story spanning 70 years was a mega hit for the broadcaster. Its finale peaked with a viewership rating of 33.8 per cent, attracting about 1.7 million viewers - a feat that the channel has not broken to this date.

Ang, 56, confesses that as much confidence as he had in the show, he was nonetheless surprised that it became such a phenomenon. "As the ratings climbed week on week, I felt both happy and worried. I was worried because I didn't want audiences to feel like they wasted their time by the end of it," he says.

Which is why, in hindsight, he would have given the show a happier ending if he had the chance to go back and change things.

The finale that had aired was a bittersweet one, in which the two romantic leads, played by Aw and Qi Yuwu, do not end up together.

He says: "I wrote the sadder ending because I felt that it was more realistic. But ultimately, TV dramas are made for audiences, so I would want to give them what they want. When you write a TV show, you always hope that your viewers enjoy it."

He certainly has a good idea of the kind of content that connects with local audiences. Besides The Little Nyonya, Ang is also the man behind many of Channel 8's most beloved and well-known dramas, including 1940s post-war drama Tofu Street (1996); family drama Holland V (2003); the Tiong Bahru-set sitcom 118 (2014 - 2015); and most recently, heartland drama Hero (2016 - 2017), which ended its run last month.

Dubbed by local Chinese media as "jinpai bianju", or gold-standard scriptwriter in Mandarin, it is believed that with eight trophies to his name, he has racked up the most awards for Best Screenplay at the local Star Awards ceremony.

He is up for another one in April for Hero, a drama set in Dakota Crescent.

The show is also up for Best Drama, while its cast members Shaun Chen, Jesseca Liu, Andie Chen, Aileen Tan, Bonnie Loo, Paige Chua and Pan Lingling have swept nominations in the performance categories of Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.

As much critical acclaim as it is getting now, the show, like The Little Nyonya, almost did not make it past the page either.

The idea for the series was rejected altogether when Ang submitted it for review, but he was so adamant about doing it that he made an official appeal.

He says: "We don't get reasons for why a story gets rejected, but I suspect it is because Hero is a character-driven drama, so it feels a bit too small for a blockbuster series to cap off the year. But Dakota Crescent was about to be redeveloped. If we didn't do this show then, we would never get the chance to do it."

Residents had to move from the estate by the end of last year to make way for new developments.

Clearly, storytelling for him is more than just about entertainment. "I think it's important that whenever we can, we tell stories about Singapore where we can showcase our rich culture and history. It wouldn't be special if it was the kind of story that could be set anywhere else."

This is the same reason he has never considered leaving Singapore to write TV dramas in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, where the pay is likely more lucrative.

"I don't think I would be able to do a good job elsewhere. I only know Singapore, so I think I can only write stories for Singaporeans."

For someone who writes for a living, it is surprising to learn that he was a terrible student.

Ang, who grew up in a kampung in what is now Ang Mo Kio, was never interested in studying, whether it was at the now-defunct Fu Xing Primary School, Thomson Secondary School or San Yu High School.

When he was due to take the O-level examinations, he was so certain that he would fail mathematics that he chose to skip the paper altogether.

"I'd rather have it say 'absent' on my results sheet than have an F9," he says, referring to the failing grade.

Even for his Chinese exam, he earned only a C grade. "Writing a script is not the same as writing a composition in Chinese class. Those compositions are too restrictive and formal," he says.

It was a love for a story well told that drew him down the writing path.

When he was 16, he found himself addicted to wuxia novels by Chinese author Louis Cha. The more he read, the more he was inspired to start creating stories of his own.

He wrote his first piece of fiction a year later - a tale about a boy who had to guard a durian tree from potential thieves. The story was inspired by his own experience as a young child guarding the durian trees in his backyard, says Ang, who is the youngest of 10 children. His father had worked as a farmer and his mother, a construction worker.

He submitted the story to the local Chinese newspaper then known as Sin Chew Jit Poh, which accepted it for publication. As the story was long, it was serialised over three parts. Ang was paid $50.

"Our family was very poor, so that was the most money I had received at one time. I was so happy and I started to think that maybe I had some talent in this. I'm not sure how good the writing itself was, but I had imagination," he says.

He started writing stories frantically after that, he says, submitting them to newspapers and magazines on a weekly basis. Many got published, which was all the encouragement he needed to keep going.

Rather than struggle through university, he took a screenwriting course organised by the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation instead in 1982. The course duration was only six months, but it was enough for him to get noticed by the bosses. He and a few coursemates were handpicked to join the station as assistant scriptwriters.

Over the next decade, he would work in a team setting, churning out episodic scripts with four other writers for a show at a time. None of those stories was his own though.

It was only when he was promoted to the role of story planner in 1993 that he could finally weave his own narratives. His first attempt, heist drama Larceny Of Love (1994), immediately gained attention as it earned former actor Xie Shaoguang his first acting prize, a Star Award for Best Supporting Actor, for playing a psychotic lover.

Ang says: "At that time, no one really knew who he was. But this show gave him the chance to showcase his acting skills and he became huge after that. The bosses then told me that they could trust me more with story planning."

His career then followed a sharp upward trajectory as he created and wrote hit show after hit show.

From Tofu Street, about samsui women living in Chinatown; to The Journey: A Voyage (2013), about first-generation immigrants; and Holland V , about a family who operates a nasi lemak eatery in Holland Village, his works received both critical and commercial acclaim.

The hardest to write, he says, was The Price Of Peace (1997), the drama set in Japanese-occupied Singapore during World War II, as he felt stressed that he would not strike the right tone and offend war survivors. His fears were unfounded, however, as the show went on to win the Star Award for Best Drama, as well as acting gongs for Christopher Lee, Carole Lin and Hong Huifang.

As for ongoing series 118 II, the follow-up to the popular sitcom 118, the challenge is that scripts can be changed at the last minute, depending on what happens in the news. Ang stays in the know by keeping up with current affairs, but is also open to suggestions from the show's cast.

Actress Sora Ma, 33, who plays Meizhen, a feisty girl who is constantly at odds with her mother-in-law (Pan), says: "He welcomes both good and bad comments and is very versatile and fast in writing characters and stories that leave long-lasting impressions."

It might seem like good stories flow out of him with ease, but he points out that writing, in fact, requires plenty of discipline.

Ang, who works on his laptop at home, makes sure he hits 4,000 Chinese characters every day.

"If I cannot finish during the daytime, I will get up in the middle of the night to write until I do. I have to be strict about that, otherwise how will the scripts get written in time?"

Perhaps that is why he has some reservations about his younger daughter Shuang's desire to follow in his footsteps and write TV scripts, albeit in English. Ang also has a 25-year-old daughter, a lawyer, with his 51-year-old wife, a housewife.

Shuang, 22, who did a three- month writing internship with Channel 5, tells The Straits Times: "I have always been interested in writing, which I think must have been influenced by my dad. He is very supportive of me, but he did tell me that creative writing is not as easy as it seems."

But for Ang at least, there appears to be no stopping any time soon.

He says with a chuckle: "I don't have any other skills anyway. And as Singapore continues to develop, there will be so many other stories I can write."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Star storyteller'. Print Edition | Subscribe