[EXCLUSIVE] The Heart In Art: Meet The 28y.o. Malaysian Director Receiving Critical Acclaim In The US

“All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello”


What comes to mind when you read this?

Have you had moments where you’ve tried to be decent with strangers by smiling and saying hello, only to not receive a similar response? Or, have there been times where you were responded to with scorn?

What about the times that you did get a gentle smile and maybe a tiny wave back?

Which of these moments stick with you longer?


In an ideal world, everyone smiles, says hello and everyone is kind to one another. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Everyone has their own inner battles, their own worries, fears, insecurities and triggers that sometimes outweighs our ability to put up a good front – and that’s okay. We cannot always be happy. We’re all on different paths, channels and frequencies – but we all experience pain, hurt and disappointment. And when these moments come, we tend to remember them because, psychologically, they have more impact than the good ones. But what happens in the moment that we experience something sad, disappointing or otherwise hurtful? Do we lash out? Do we shrink back?



28-year-old Soon King Yaw, born and raised in Tawau Sabah, recently documented the reaction of an Asian American pharmacist who experienced racial discrimination while she was at the airport in the US. King decided to share Michelle Man’s story by focusing on how she chose to deal with this instance of racial bias against Asians in America, one of the many countries that saw a rise in incidents of racism alongside the rise in COVID-19 fears. King – who won the “Best of the Best Gold Award” at the Malaysia Top 10 Young Artists Awards in 2010 and a scholarship at the One Academy – made Michele’s story into an animated film for the first annual KQED Homemade Film Festival and out of 500 entries, his was chosen as the festival’s opening film.



Film critic Randy Myers had this to say about King’s work,


“Soulful and poignant with its first-rate animation and a moving voice-over narration, King Yaw Soon’s gentle re-creation of a crippling, telling true event sadly typifies recent encounters many Asian-Americans have endured during this pandemic. King Yaw Soon reminds us to celebrate our best intentions rather than focus on others’ reactions to them.”


And we at Likely had the pleasure to hear from the director himself.


“The last thing I heard the mother say was, ‘We need to wash our hands. Now.’ I was saddened. I was…hurt. These kids who are growing up with the pandemic as their backdrop, are we showing them the right way to respond?”


I was in a rut since the virus lockdown and it took a toll on my creative spirit. I was miserable. But then I heard about KQED’s – a major public media outlet in the San Francisco Bay Area – Homemade Film Festival and I remembered 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. The story stuck with me and I wanted to make an art piece to document her spirit.



I’d first heard the airport story from Michelle when she shared it over a group zoom call months ago. It was before the city announced that we would be starting to shelter-in-place (like the MCO). As an artist, I like to find inspiration from people around me and Michelle is a good friend of mine. I knew I couldn’t go out to film anything so I decided to make it an animated film. That way I could create anything from scratch to serve the story. I had only two weeks before the festival submissions – it took me one week to edit the script with Michelle and storyboard, and another week to draw all the assets and animate them. My youngest brother produced the music track for me from Malaysia.



“Beneath the skin, the hair, the shape of our eyes, aren’t our organs all the same? Don’t we all have a brain that is capable of making sound decisions and thoughts, a heart that is capable of loving so much more than we care to admit, and a soul that longs to know and be known?”



The story may follow Michelle, who is an Asian American living in America but I don’t think that the theme of the documentary is unique to Asian Americans only. It is about all of us, a shared human experience during these uncertain times. Drawing from my own experience as a Malaysian living in a place as interesting as San Francisco, what initially felt like a comfortable place because of the high percentage of Asian American population here soon turned into a lesson about the presence of negative bias that comes with being a yellow-skinned person in the USA. Certain experiences made me understand that racial discrimination is everywhere and it could be as small as implicit bias. It appeared in things like the mockery of my Malaysian accent. 


I was very self-aware of my Malaysian accent whenever I spoke in class. I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously by others just because I couldn’t speak fluently – I was only able to turn heads when they got to see my art. I was leading a group film project once and a groupmate mocked my accent and mimicked how I talked in a very belittling way. And that drove me over the edge. I hate to be confrontational but I stood up for myself that time. She only apologized after being prompted by other groupmates and… let’s just say it was a long afternoon.


At home, it’s different. I’ve lived in East and West Malaysia and the experience is very different. I never really felt the racial tension growing up in Sabah. I’m truly fortunate to call Sabah my home.



“If the mother and daughter were questioned, on why they ran away from me, it would be because ‘she smiled and said hello’. Super scary right?”



I never consciously try to be an activist with my art. I never try to instil importance or function in my own film. My art pales in comparison to those dedicated out there now for social movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement happening all around the world now. And my job as a documentarian is to tell the story I’ve collected in the best way it can be told. I prefer to let my art take on its form. I believe that authentic vulnerability leads to transformation. I can’t preach to the crowd if my art doesn’t first connect to me. So as long as I make art that connects to me deeply, I’m sure the art will make its way into the audience’s heart, instil meaning and lessons. As an artist, I try to process the pain by making art, so something beautiful can grow out of the experience. 



Watch King’s animated film here: