Singapore Cinephile in Criticine

Written for Criticine – a love letter on a topic related to S.E. Asian film for an issue dedicated to Alexis and Nika. I wrote about Hai Leong’s love for Cinema.
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Singapore film culture and community cannot be written about without mentioning Toh Hai Leong. He seemed to be at every major Singapore film milestone by sheer force of will. I have yet to meet anyone who loved films and was as passionate about it as Hai Leong was. He was Singapore film’s most ardent supporter.

I first met him at the Singapore Film Society screening of Citizen Kane in the early 90s. He was then the secretary of the Society at a time when film culture was defined by film societies such as these. I didn’t have the money to buy a membership but still wanted to watch Kane, so he sneaked me in. I have never forgotten that moment of kindness. From that time, sensing a kindred spirit, everytime we met, he would talk about the latest film he had seen, his writing (reams, long hand) and the latest festival he had been invited to (Hong Kong usually). He spoke very fast, spoke non-stop and spoke always about film. He was and still is my most intense brush with cinephilia. It was as if his life depended on it, and perhaps it did.

When film culture shifted gears into the video era in the late 90s, and film watching (and filmmaking) democratized beyond the Goethe Institute and the Film Society, many of us gathered around the Substation, an arts space which programmed our films. Hai Leong was there too. He hung with us wannabe-filmmakers, most half his age, drinking tea at the shabby S11 after screenings. He still spoke fast, and he still talked film with an intensity that could be scary. There was a hunger in him for friendship, for a community and it seemed that he found that in films and amongst filmmakers. By then, he was supporting himself as a security guard and living hard but he came, and there was always a seat reserved for him at the Substation. We met again at the 2003 Bangkok International Film Festival. He could not afford the plane fare so he had bussed overland for two days to Bangkok.

This is not an obituary but it is in the past tense. Hai Leong was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes a few years ago and, how should I put it? He lost the will to look after himself. He forgot his injections and he had to be retrieved from the brink several times. Something just snapped, perhaps his illness caused it, but along went his will to enjoy, to love and to care, not just for films, but for himself. Needless to say, he stopped showing up.

He now lives in a full-time care-center to ensure that he is fed, that he takes his meds and injections on time. I cannot bring myself to visit him but I am glad some of us in the film community still do.


This picture was taken by Ho Choon Hiong at Hai Leong’s 52nd birthday on 21 Mar 2007. Some friends in the film community took him out for dinner.

Back row : L-R Mdm Kwa P Y, Jasmine Ng, Zhang Wenjie, Charles Lim, Wee Li Lin, Kristin Saw, Yuni Hadi, Philip Cheah
Front row:L- R Ho Choon Hiong, Toh Hai Leong, Chew Tze Chuan

In 2007 Chew Tze Chuan made a documentary about Hai Leong’s struggle with his illness, called F. It premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival.