The story of reaching success from humble beginnings is not an uncommon one. But how many of us have heard of a fellow Malaysian reaching their dreams abroad, and that too in the field of creative arts? One such person is Soon King Yaw, a filmmaker and director currently residing in San Francisco, US and living his dream of creating beautiful films that have touched the hearts of many globally.
King Yaw made waves in the creative scene when his most recent short film ‘All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello’ began garnering international interest. The short flick sheds light on the increased discrimination faced by Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic and was chosen as the opening film for the KQED Homemade Film Festival. The Tawau-native’s powerful tale was selected out of 500 submissions and bagged the Top 5 finalists spot with guest judge and former president of the San Francisco Bay-Area Film Critics Circle, Randy Myers praising the film as “soulful and poignant” with “first-rate animation.”
The story is told from the perspective of Michelle Man, an Asian-American pharmacist, who relays a shocking racist encounter during the pandemic. Moved by her response to the discrimination, King Yaw said that he “wanted to make an art piece with that spirit too, to document her story. This film is not a jab against racism and the fear of this virus, but rather, a gentle reminder that we’re all human, and it’s okay to be scared but we can still be good to one another.”
But before the rise to glory, King Yaw’s journey was similar to any other growing up in Malaysia. Raised by a single mother, he always had a keen interest in drawing, painting and music, even going on to actively partake in his high school’s Chinese Orchestra. Upon completing secondary education, he had the opportunity to be an exchange student in the US for half a year through the AFS YES Scholarship program.
It was there that his interest in the arts piqued. His foster father was a fine artist who now own his own gallery and it was him that inspired King Yaw to pursue the journey to a creative career. His short excursion into a different culture that appreciates and sees art as a path to success ultimately helped him make the decision to become an artist.
The One Academy was a familiar name in the creative education scene and King Yaw knew that was where he wanted to study. Always in awe of the artworks showcased by the institution during their roadshows, he kept all the art brochures as prized treasure with the goal of one day becoming as good as the artists on the pages.
However, his journey to pursue arts was met with its own fair share of challenges. Although his mother supported his decision wholeheartedly, he was faced with a lot of scepticism from relatives and teachers who he looked up to. “I was told that I’ve wasted my all SPM A+s to pursue a hobby as a future career and an insecure one at that. Their disapproval made me doubt myself a lot, especially when they compared me with my other friends who pursued tech, medicine and law. I had an experience with a high school teacher who asked me to convince her daughter not to study art because I would know how hard it is”, said King Yaw.
Financial constraints were also an obstacle and he knew securing a scholarship at The One Academy was the only way to make his dream a reality as his mother could not afford the fees. On the other hand, the sad reality was that most educational funds in the country do not offer financial assistance for arts. He then decided to join the Malaysia Top 10 Outstanding Young Artists Awards in the hopes of winning the grand prize of a scholarship.
Travelling to KL from Tawau required him to fly, and airplane tickets were anything but cheap, but he persisted. On his first try, King Yaw managed to clinch the third prize but the scholarship he craved for was still out of reach. A year later, he tried again but this time barely secured a placing, leaving him feeling sorely disappointed. His third attempt was the charm as he was awarded the Best of the Best award along with a scholarship worth RM RM80,000 as well as RM20,000 cash prize. He knew his moment had come.
After completing his study in Digital Animation locally, he then went on to further his studies in the US, following which he secured a job as a video editor at Electronic Arts (EA) in Redwood City beating out more than 1,000 applicants for the position. At EA, he works with producers from the Global MARCOM department and outside of work, he spends his time producing films and writing short films about topics close to his heart.
When asked about what drives him, King Yaw replied that he finds inspiration from the people and environment around him. “I’ve learned to be open-minded and receptive to all these nuggets of inspiration hidden in the mundanity of everyday life. Sometimes when I walk by a scenic place, I would stop and imagine what kind of story I can tell here”, he elaborated.
Currently in post-production of his next short film ‘When I See The Wind’, which he is producing in collaboration with the talented Bay-Area cinematographer, Andrés Gallegos, King Yaw spoke on his goal to someday start making feature films. Perhaps one day to even make a story based in Tawau to translate the beauty and serenity of his hometown into film and share it with the world.
“Do your best or don’t do it at all”. These are the words that Soon King Yaw lives by, words spoken by his mom. He attributes his success to her perseverance and strong work ethics which he says has shaped who he is today. Here’s to wishing Soon King Yaw the very best and thank you for making Malaysia proud!