HTHT: Filmmaker Chai Yee Wei on Chasing Your Passion

HTHT: Filmmaker Chai Yee Wei on Chasing Your Passion

Our dream career feels like something we should instinctively know. It’s after all, our destiny manifest – a you-shaped void sitting on the crossroads between passion and money. But when it comes time to pick that dream career, we often end up with a big fat blank. Perhaps more than anyone else, filmmaker, Chai Yee Wei, understands this best.

Career Pinball
Yee Wei most recently qualified for a shot at the 2019 Academy Awards after his short film, Benjamin’s Last Day at Katong Swimming Complex, bagged home the top prize at an international short film festival in Tokyo. But earlier in his career, being a filmmaker was never part of the plan. “There was no film school, no FSV (Film, Sound, Video Diploma) when I graduated from JC. There was simply no choice and it was not on my radar too,” said Yee Wei.

Yee Wei’s path to becoming an acclaimed filmmaker was anything but linear. Graduating from business school, he started from a procurement consultancy in the US. Returning to Singapore, Yee Wei then went on to run a Japanese curry restaurant and a wedding videography business amongst other ventures, before the debut of his feature in 2009.

While it seems like his career’s twists and turns have taken him far from his education in business, he’s actually in good company. A study in Canada revealed that more than a third (35.1%) of graduates actually end up in a job not related to their education. A career’s progression doesn’t always pan out like a straight path and more often than not, it’s actually closer to a pinball machine. So if there are potential opportunities beyond your formal training, don’t rule them out just yet. You never know where they may lead.

Photo Credit: Chai Yee Wei

Backing Passion with Pragmatism
For Yee Wei, the early years of his career was a period of pragmatic experimentation. Yes, it was about chasing dreams but it’s also about taking calculated risks. Passion is only one part of the equation. Knowing which passion to chase is just as important.  “Instead of pursuing every single dream and passion blindly, we should pursue what we believe we can contribute or excel better than others can,” said Yee Wei.

But a career cannot simply be sustained by passion and strength, it also needs to be financially stable. For that, Yee Wei believes the key lies in becoming so good that you are recognized as a specialist in your niche. “Your value will grow as you become the expert in the field you are specializing in. People will pay for that value”

With all that in consideration, maybe a dream career looks something like that:

Sometimes a career appears to hit the sweet spot, but you will only truly know when you actually start doing the work. Despite his wide-ranging experiences, at 29, Yee Wei was still searching. “I was at a stage where I felt I had tried quite a few different things, and still not financially stable and unsure of what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

It was also at this point that filmmaking, albeit a less obvious choice, surfaced as part of his search. “Since I was not attached and had not much baggage yet, I felt I really needed to start approaching life from an angle I had never tried before.” And since then, he has built a career spanning more than a decade with a filmography ranging from horror to romance and drama.

From Industry Outsider to Acclaimed Filmmaker

Photo Credit: Chai Yee Wei

Perhaps the main cost of exploration is time. Without a formal education in film and jumping in as a mid-career switch, Yee Wei had a lot of catching up to do. “I did feel like an outsider for many years as I am always very self-conscious and compared myself to the younger peers who are making films and winning awards while I was coming from a career change.” In fact, he did not even dare to use the term “filmmaker” to describe himself until his 3rd feature film, That Girl in Pinafore, was completed.

Yee Wei more than made up for a lack in film school education through his own unique perspectives combined with a strong emphasis on dedicated practice. “As I can’t turn back time (to get a formal education in filmmaking), I should use my own experiences to tell stories others couldn’t otherwise.” This is evident in his work – from That Girl in Pinafore‘s tribute to xinyao to Benjamin’s Last Day at Katong Swimming Complex’s throwback to his childhood as an avid swimmer.

Finding a story only he can tell was important. But just as important, was to tell it well. And for Yee Wei, that is something that only comes with practice. “People these days seem to think that any skill can be learnt just by watching some short video or going to some masterclasses. But some skills take years to hone and lots of practice. People seem to forget that patience, hard work and practice are required to grow a skill or master a craft,” said Yee Wei.

Practice, practice, practice sounds like straightforward advice but it also comes at a cost. From family and social time to rest and health, Yee Wei has had to sacrifice them at one point or another to master his craft. However, it is probably this dedication that allowed him to enter the industry as an outsider and ultimately have his work recognized internationally.

Putting Work in Perspective

Perhaps what keeps Yee Wei going lies also in how he sees success. To him, success is to see the things he does “benefit another human being”. As broad as it seems, this makes his job more meaningful than if he were to focus on box office numbers or critic reviews. After all, being able to see a career in this framework, gives meaning to motivation, leading to better job satisfaction.

So maybe a more complete dream career for Yee Wei looks something more like this:

There is undoubtedly a pressure that we should know what we want to do and what we do well. But truth is, for many people, it takes time and trial and error. For Yee Wei, exploring his strengths but also knowing when to stop and start honing his craft, worked out for the best.

At the end of the day, the plans you drew up before graduation almost never work out the way they do. And that’s okay. Yee Wei probably knows that almost too well. “I just had to follow my gut and trust my own instincts when it comes to figuring out the path in being a filmmaker.”

Get up close and personal with Yee Wei on 12 September at lyf@SMU from 7 to 9PM as he shares more personal stories and experiences! This free talk is happening at lyf@SMU from 7 to 9pm on 12 September. So see you there!

More on the event and RSVP here: