Malaysian Filmmaker's Animated Short Doc On COVID-19 Racism Shines Bright At US Film Fest

We speak to this gifted artist.

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Malaysian Filmmaker's Animated Short Doc On COVID-19 Racism Shines Bright At US Film Fest

An important story to tell.

COVID-19 started in China. 

When you look at previous novel viruses, they are often named after locations or specific areas.

The Spanish Flu, West Nile Virus, Zika Virus, Ebola - they were all named after places.

While most news sites in this side of the world initially referred to the virus as the Novel Coronavirus, many in other parts started calling it the 'Chinese virus'. 

It may seem like a harmless name, but the constant reference to COVID-19 as the 'Chinese virus' lead to racism and stigmatising against people of Chinese descent around the world.

Racism and COVID-19

And this is where talented Malaysian filmmaker Soon King Yaw and his animated short documentary 'All I Did Was Smile And Say Hello' comes in.

The beautifully produced piece was picked as the opening film at the prestigious KQED Homemade Film Festival recently, besting over 500 films that were submitted. 

Speaking to Rojak Daily, King, who is originally from Tawau, Sabah, said that the opportunity to create the film helped him during the lockdown period. 

Turning to art during lockdown.
"I was in a rut since the virus lockdown and it took a toll on my creative spirit. I was miserable. I saw this film competition as an opportunity to create and I was reminded of Michelle’s story," he said.

Michelle does the voiceover for the animated short and the whole film is centred around her experience with racism during the pandemic.

"I first heard the airport story from Michelle when she shared it over a group zoom call months ago. It was before the city announced shelter-in-place (their version of MCO)." 

Inspired by Michelle's story.
"I was moved by her story - by how she responded to the discrimination with self-contemplation, and the spirit of love and forgiveness. There was no hate nor fear," he said.

King revealed that Michelle was an Asian American, and she had shared how discrimination was prevalent in the Midwest as there are hardly any Asians there.

"As for myself, I was alarmed by the rising discrimination and violent cases against Asians around the world since the virus outbreak. 

"As I tried to comprehend the hate as a man of Chinese descent, I couldn't help but feel even more isolated during these times. I started to become more self-conscious about my Asian features whenever I was outside at the store or for a run. 

"It wasn't a healthy way to deal with fear," he said adding that as an artist, he realised that the best way to process the pain was to turn to his passion - to create art.

An honour to be recognised

Humbled and surprised to be featured.On being featured at the film fest, King said that it came as an absolute surprise.

"It was my first time attempting an animated piece and I wasn't sure if it'd be received well at all.

"My previous narrative short, "My Mother, Myself & I' was bought by KQED to be broadcasted nationally in the KQED Film School Shorts Program so I had some idea of what the platform offers," he said.

King, however, promptly added that nothing beats the love and recognition from the people back home.

"The love I'm getting from my fellow Malaysians has been warm like the Malaysian sun, something that's missing from the San Francisco bay area climate," he said.
On his favourite compliment so far, King said that it would definitely be the comment made by our former Prime Minister's daughter, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir.

"I was shocked when she tagged me! She commented that it was a 'really lovely and poignant documentary' and 'may you go on to greater things!'

"I'm really honored that my work was seen and recognised by a national hero like her," he said.

If you want to enjoy more of King's works, we've linked it all here

Advice for future Malaysian filmmakers

Never be afraid to reach for the stars.
For local creative people looking to go into filmmaking, we asked King, a full scholarship digital animation major from The One Academy to provide some nasihat.

"Haha...I love this question. It's like - how do you encourage people to take the road less travelled?"

"I once had an experience where a high school teacher asked me to convince her daughter not to apply to art school. She said 'Hey you're an artist right? You would know how hard it is to be an artist, my daughter is not as talented so could you convince her not to study art?'

"I was dumbfounded but that really explains the climate of art culture in Malaysia. I even had relatives who told me I wasted all my SPM As to study art."

King said that he was very lucky to have a supportive mother who always encouraged him to follow his heart.

"I am nothing without her faith in me. The same goes to my relatives and a few special friends who have supported my journey here in the US.

"I didn't come from a family of wealth so I could only go this far with their relentless support," he said.

King, however, added that the path was not always the easiest, especially since his humble beginnings and even his accent made him feel insecure when it comes to collaborating with other more renowned artists.

Dig deeper.
"I believe that if you dig deep enough and make art from your heart, you'll create something worthy of all your tears and hard work eventually. 

"There's tremendous strength and beauty in vulnerability and that's the kind of art I'd like to make," he said.

As for advice he'd give to his younger self, it would be to tell him to believe in himself, take risks and don't let insecurities get in the way.

The main takeaway

When asked about what he hoped for those who watched the film, King said that it was a reminder to just be kind to each other. 

"It's okay to be scared, we're only humans but the real enemy is the virus.

"We should fight the virus of fear as strongly as we fight the virus of COVID-19 by showing love to the people around us," he said.

Well said, King, and all the best for your future films!

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