Multi award-winning TV scriptwriter Ang Eng Tee shares how he creates drama serials that grip the audience’s hearts and imaginations, and talks about the mega remake of one of his classic Channel 8 dramas.
He is the man behind many beloved TV serials on Channel 8 – the 1940s post-war drama Tofu Street (1996); family drama Holland V (2003); the sitcom 118 (2014—2015); and heartland drama Hero (2016—2017). But Ang Eng Tee will always be best known for Singapore’s highest-rated Channel 8 drama, The Little Nyonya (2008).
Though he’s been writing for more than 30 years, the 58-year-old, dubbed by local Chinese media as jinpai bianju (金牌编剧), or gold-standard scriptwriter, looks set to offer his best work yet. Ten years on, audiences can soon look forward to the remake of The Little Nyonya, launched at the 2018 Asia TV Forum & Market (ATF) – billed as Asia’s leading entertainment content market and conference – during the Singapore Media Festival (SMF) organised by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).
The SMF celebrates the best of Asian storytelling and includes key constituent events such as the ATF. ATF 2018 saw the introduction of the ATF Chinese Pitch – an inaugural pitching competition for the Chinese market – to identify innovative traditional movie, online movie and drama series concepts in sci-fi, thriller, myths and legends, horror and fantasy.
Eng Tee tells us what makes him tick and how he is confident The Little Nyonya 2 will excite fans of the original series and wow a new generation of viewers.
A regular day at work…
What’s your work day like? Do you have a fixed routine?
As a professional scriptwriter, I need to be very disciplined as there are deadlines to meet for script submissions. I start work at around 8am and take a lunch break at noon. I continue writing in the afternoon. After dinner, I work between 8pm and 10pm. I’m often asked if I’m more productive when I’m inspired. Professional scriptwriters don't place emphasis on inspiration. We write whether we’re inspired or not, as we have to get the script out. If I get writer’s block, I’d take a short vacation to recharge if time permits.
So when inspiration does hit, what inspires you?
People and things around me. For instance, when I go to the hawker centre, others focus on their food while I focus on interesting people. I keep my eyes and ears open, and mentally file away information or any observation about what people say or do. Such information could be used to shape a character for a script later. I also find inspiration in the real life stories people share with me. Once, a woman in her 60s shared how she was adopted by a ma jie (妈姐) (women who came from China to work as domestic helpers, or amahs (啊妈), in Singapore between the 1930s and 1970s), and how she was forced into prostitution and later escaped...it was a harrowing personal experience. At the time, the woman knew that I was working on a script about ma jies and wanted to share her life story. These real life stories become inspiration for my writing.
Writing a compelling tale
You’ve given audiences so many captivating stories and characters. How do you develop a script for a series?
First, I look at the topic or theme. Take The Little Nyonya for example, it revolves around the Peranakan culture, from the 1930s, spanning 70 years and several generations of three families. I researched as much as I could about the culture – through reading, speaking to people and visiting museums – as it’s important to keep the storyline and characters true to the era. Eventually, the storyline took shape. Next is the important stage of creating the characters. TV dramas can have 30 to 80 episodes, and if the characters are not captivating enough, the whole story would collapse as the characters and their experiences bring structure to the story. Then comes the scriptwriting, which is the true test of a good scriptwriter. Today, with so many TV dramas to watch, we have to ask ourselves if the plot or characters are fresh or would the audience find them repetitive. How do you break through the mundane, and write something that no one has written before? It's much tougher being a scriptwriter now than it was in the past, as today’s audience is very discerning.
So how do you give the audience dramas they can’t get enough?
I continually innovate. A story doesn't need to be entirely new. 80 per cent of it can be traditional material that the audience expects in a plot or would help them relate better to the story. The other 20 per cent is new material, that’s where I surprise with plot twists when the audience least expects it.
Take us through your writing style and process.
TV scriptwriting is a team effort – you have a main writer and an assistant writer who will steer the direction of the story of, for example, a 30-episode drama serial. Then there are three or four scriptwriters. Every morning, the whole team would gather to discuss how the story would develop before work is assigned to the scriptwriters. This is a common practice in Singapore and Hong Kong. In Japan, South Korea and China however, one scriptwriter singlehandedly writes the entire script for a TV serial – and that’s how I work. Also, conventionally, scriptwriters write in parts or by scenes. I write like I'm writing a novel, straight through from start to end. For a 40-episode drama serial (an hour per episode), it takes me about five to six months to complete the script.
With so many teams involved in the production, how do you handle feedback and who has the most influence over the script?
After handing over the script to the production team, there will be many comments and feedback; it’s always a tug-of-war between the scriptwriter and production team. Everyone has an opinion about the storyline and characters. To manage that, I make sure the work I submit is the best it can be. I have to be 100 per cent happy with it, only then can I defend the script. The director and production team may argue their case, but I have to remain steadfast in my conviction that it is a solid script. For example, the team may say "this would never happen", or "this character would never do this." My response would be: if it would never happen, I would never have written it.
At the end of the day, the audience is the ultimate judge. If a story is well received, that's the scriptwriter's reward. If his or her work consistently gets recognised as stories that resonate with the audience, the scriptwriter gets the last word on the script. In Singapore, I'm glad that my work is often recognised over the years. So most of the time, because the team trusts me, shooting starts immediately.
Do you have to be present at filming?
No, though I may drop in to take a look during the filming process. I do share my feedback sometimes after shooting is done – more from the perspective of an audience as well as a scriptwriter. I may also choose to visit the filming site to check whether the set is built well and answer questions the actors may have about the script.
The Little Nyonya reboot
The Little Nyonya was such a big hit. Did you face any challenges when it came to creating a remake that could match its predecessor? What’s more, it’s now written mainly for the audience in China and will debut in iQiyi, a video streaming platform in China.
While the remake of The Little Nyonya is similar to the original version made 10 years ago, I wanted the audience, especially those who had watched the original, to have something new and exciting to look forward to. The original series consisted of 34-episodes, which I felt wasn’t enough to flesh out all all the stories I wanted to tell. Luckily, the 40-episode remake allowed me to tweak some parts to tell a richer storyline, developing some characters and their stories more fully. This remake is more complete and I guarantee original fans will find it refreshingly different. What has remained is the core of The Little Nyonya – it is a tale of humanity. Whether it's written for a Singapore or China audience, I believe everyone will be able to relate to the characters.
What were some key differences working with an international production team and a much bigger budget?
This time, the audience can expect magnificent sets and costumes. In fact, costumes were designed by award-winning costume designer Chen Minzheng, who is behind many of the dazzling clothes seen in acclaimed movie director Zhang Yimou's films. Filming also took place in a huge cinematic studio. So while the script may be somewhat the same as the original, the entire atmosphere was very different – grander, more exciting.
The Chinese team we worked with was very professional and respected us as equals. It was quite an experience working with an A-list team – from the cinematographer, costume designer, to the set designer. When I went to a production meeting in Beijing, all the important people were there. The costume design team had acquired costume samples in the factories in Penang. They even imported special embroidery machines which are not available in China for the Peranakan embroidery. So I could tell that they really gave their all in the work they do – this was really an eye opener for me.
Now that The Little Nyonya reboot is done and dusted, what’s currently on your plate?
I'm presently working on the script for Samsui Women and Ma Jie, which tells the story of two women from Guangdong who came to eke a living in Nanyang (the Sino name for Southeast Asia). During that period, samsui women worked in Singapore’s construction sites. Ma jies were usually domestic helpers – they wore their hair in braids, an indication of their commitment to remain unwed. Samsui Women and Ma Jie shows how these hardworking women of that generation toiled away quietly, contributing to the economy and laying the foundation of Singapore's success. The team in China has also seen the potential in developing these stories, since the local audience isn't familiar with samsui women and ma jies, even though they were originally from China.
I'm also working on a new edition of the 1983 local drama The Awakening, about the lives of Chinese immigrants in Singapore. The Chinese team would like to stretch it to 60 episodes from the original 28. While I’ve retained the two main characters, Ah Shui and Ah Mei, who left their homeland in China in search of a better life in Nanyang, the storyline will be totally new as the original The Awakening could be a little dated for today's audience.
The Little Nyonya remake is the first China series directed by Singapore directors (Chia Men Yiang, Wong Kuang Yong and scriptwriter, Ang Eng Tee. The series is targeted to air in 2019, through iQiyi, a video website service provider in China.
Keen to develop a career in the media scene?
The IMDA’s WritersLab programme, organised by LASALLE College of the Arts (LASALLE), is a scriptwriting programme under the Story Lab initiative. It aims to push the boundaries of scriptwriting and storytelling for television and online platforms by nurturing and developing the skills of committed Singaporean film and television writers. More details at www.imda.gov.sg/IMTalent/programmes/writerslab
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