The rebel who saw the light

One morning five years ago, Alan Yap was roused from deep slumber by his ringing phone.

The caller was Wayne Peng, ranked as one of the world's top directors of commercials by The Gunn report, an annual publication detailing outstanding print and television advertising campaigns.

The Taiwan-born film-maker was interested in a collaboration.

Stunned and flustered, Mr Yap, now 38, haltingly sputtered into the phone: "What sort of collaboration? You want me to drive you around?"

The last time the two had spoken was more than five years earlier, when Mr Yap was a lowly assistant with a production company, whose tasks included being the director's chauffeur.

But Peng had called for an entirely different reason. He had heard that the heavily tattooed young man had vaulted from general dogsbody to director of photography (DOP) in the world of television commercials in a short few years.

Impressed by the showreel of Mr Yap's previous work, Peng engaged him to help him shoot a TV commercial for herbal drink Wang Lao Ji.

Mr Yap says: "That was the beginning. He roped me in on all his big shoots after that."

Their latest collaboration is a sumptuously filmed campaign for Taiwanese airline EVA Air, featuring Taiwanese-Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, shot over three months in France, Japan and Taiwan. The duo also worked together on City Made From The Sky, an award-winning documentary featuring Mr Lee Kuan Yew talking about how Singapore transformed itself from a Third World country to a First World oasis. It was screened at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010. Peng's faith made Mr Yap's career soar. He is now one of the most sought-after cinematographers in the region. In fact, Hong Kong advertising legend David Tsui - hailed for his lush campaigns for the likes of watchmaker Solvil et Titus and Pepsi Cola - would hire no one else but Mr Yap to lens his commercials.

"Maybe it's fate, maybe I'm lucky, but my life changed because I met several people who saw something in me and had faith in me," he says, nursing a whisky on ice in his two-bedroom apartment in Balestier.

It will probably come as a shock to those who knew Mr Yap in his early years that the expletive-spewing hellion is today a highly-lauded maestro who manipulates light and lenses to produce hauntingly evocative images.

He is the youngest of three boys. His father, now retired, was a flooring subcontractor and his late mother was a housewife.

"We lived with my grandfather and his children in a big house in Paya Lebar. There were three generations; each family had a room. I grew up with more than 20 cousins under the same roof," he says.

A rambunctious mischief-maker, the former St Gabriel's School student was a terror who talked back at teachers and resorted to using his fists when he could not get his way with other students.

His mother later got him transferred to St Hilda's Secondary, hoping it would keep him away from unsavoury company.

"I was very naughty and rebellious, and although I mixed with gangsters, I did not join any gangs. Every year, the school wanted to kick me out, and my mother would have to beg the principal to let me stay," he says.

He quietened down only in Secondary 4, when his mother was confined to the bed in the last stages of a prolonged battle with intestinal cancer.

"We had already moved to Tampines by then but my mother still lived with my grandfather in Paya Lebar because my aunts could help to look after her. Every day after school, I would take a one-hour bus ride from Tampines to Paya Lebar to keep my mother company. She would sleep and I would study," he says.

That year, he shocked his teachers and classmates by doing very well for his N levels. "I even got a distinction for maths," he says.

His mother, however, died shortly after and soon, he was back to his old ways.

"I just went crazy, there was no one to control me. My dad was not of much help; he was deeply depressed and crying himself to sleep every night. It came to a point when the teachers told me, 'Look, you don't have to study or take your exams if you don't want to. Just come to school and don't disturb the rest.'

"I just went to school and slept in class," he says.

He would have quit his studies but for the promise he made his mother.

"She made me promise that I would complete secondary school. After that, I could do what I wanted," says Mr Yap, who failed his O levels.

Before national service, he bummed around for a year, earning his keep by occasionally working as an unlicensed street hawker and a bouncer. During this time, he got involved in several gang fights, many of which involved metal rods and other weapons.

"I didn't belong to any gang but I went along to these fights just for the thrill and because the gangsters I mixed with sometimes gave me jobs. Looking back, I was pretty dumb," he says, adding that some of the people he hung out with are still in prison, held under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows for detention without trial.

When he finished national service, his brother found him a job as a runner for a local production house.

"My job was to drive people around, buy food for the production crew. And when there were no shoots, I had to be the dispatch boy," he says. "I was the first one on the set and the last one to leave and I earned only $900 a month."

Over the next couple of years, he had brief stints in various departments - including props and casting - before becoming a grip. Grips are lighting and rigging technicians in the film industry.

Although the work was hard and involved carrying a lot of heavy equipment, he was content because he could earn nearly $4,000 a month.

A famous Taiwanese director of photography, Chen Ta Pu, however, jolted him out of his complacency one day by asking him how he planned to make a living once he became too old for the strenuous work.

"He offered to teach me how to be a lighting specialist because it was a more marketable and portable skill," he lets on.

What Chen said rattled him.

After some time, he went back to Chen and said he did not want to be a lighting specialist, but a director of photography.

"He laughed and said, 'You are 24, not educated, uncultured, know nothing about photography and you want to start now?'"

But Chen obviously saw something in the young man, because he then said: "I give you four years of my time. You understudy me, and you just learn as much as you can."

The pair cemented their relationship as teacher and disciple with a tea ceremony.

Chen, says Mr Yap, was a tough master.

"He would scold and whack me on the head if I did something wrong but that was the Taiwanese way of doing things. I was not disciplined and I had to be tamed before I could be trained," he says.

The going got so tough that he felt like throwing in the towel on several occasions.

"I told myself if I gave up, I would have nothing," says Mr Yap, who spent all his free time and money shooting projects assigned him by his teacher.

When Chen left for Shanghai after a year in Singapore, Mr Yap went along and stayed there for three years.

Alone in the Chinese city with no distractions, he gave his all to his new craft.

"My master threw me something new every day. He taught me a lot - not just technical skills but also how to think, how to develop an instinct, how to think out of the box. I followed him to meetings, observed how he conducted himself, how he talked to clients and helped them realise their concepts," the garrulous man recalls, adding that he would jot everything he learnt in a notebook.

One day, his master told him he was ready.

"He even introduced me to other directors and asked them to give me jobs," he says.

In 2008, he returned to Singapore because he father had health problems. It was a tough period. Although he had a showreel of what he had done in China, the industry here would not give him a chance.

"They didn't believe it was my work. I had a playful reputation before and people said a leopard would never change its spots," he says. He had to take on gigs as a film loader or a camera assistant. Fortunately, he met award-winning Singaporean commercial director Warren Klass.

One day, Klass asked him to do some pick-up shots with a 16mm camera and was floored when he saw the rushes. Soon, he gave Mr Yap his first local break.

"He became my best friend and I really worked hard for him. Once, an agency boss said he didn't want me to be DOP for a job but Warren said he would shoot only if I were on board," he says.

They went on to do many award-winning commercials together for clients ranging from the Singapore Army to Citibank.

Klass says: "Many DOPs do just what is needed but Alan will always go the extra mile. Not only does he have a natural talent and great energy, but he also works very hard and is very dedicated. His attitude is flawless. No matter how small the task, he will always get it done. And he doesn't give up until he gets it done."

It is perhaps the talent and doggedness which drew Peng and Tsui to him.

Mr Yap remembers the first shoot he had with Peng.

"There were two shooting units. He headed one, I headed the other. I remember I refused to roll the camera even though the talents were in place and everything was ready because the light was just not right. The producers were really angry.

"Wayne called me from his location and asked me why I was not shooting. I asked him, 'Did you shoot?' He said, 'No.' And I said I was not shooting for the reason that he was not. He understood and he hung up. Not many people would dare to do what I did."

With a laugh, he says it is probably his rebelliousness which explains why Tsui would use no other cinematographer.

"I talk back, and not many dare to talk back at him. He once said to me, 'You always change my stuff and put your things in my work. But I like it.'"

The lensman, who is married to former advertising executive Jocelyn Lee, 34, and has a five-month-old son, says: "I'm not afraid of speaking my mind when I think there is a better way of doing things. I don't want to just do what other people tell me to do. I'm a cinematographer and my job is to help a director tell his story better."

His latest collaboration with the acclaimed Hong Kong director is the commercial, Time Tree, now being screened at many cinemas here.

The lushly shot ad for watch brand Solvil et Titus is a love story about a couple who hide a watch inside a tree in a forest.

Lucky breaks, he says, are no use if a person does not work hard.

"Watching my mother die made me realise we should not waste time if we know what we want. We just have to work hard for it, and we have to do it ourselves instead of relying on other people," he says.

He shakes his head when asked if he wants to sit in the director's chair next.

"I can't let go of photography, it is what I do best. I'd rather be a first-rate lensman than a third-rate director."

To take a look at some of Alan Yap's award-winning commercials, go to

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