Preview: Wayang Boy


Jack Neo’s comedy film Money No Enough premiered in 1998 and subsequently broke box-office records. Using comic relief, metaphors and narrative to disguise a social commentary, this film set the stage for a number of local filmmakers – Neo’s I Not Stupid, Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle and more recently, Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo – who followed in a similar vein.

Fast forward to present times and we have Wayang Boy, a family comedy that sheds light on the all-too familiar topic of the influx of foreign immigrants in Singapore.


Directed by Raymond Tan, the movie centers on an 11 year old Indian boy named Raja (Denzyl Dharma), who migrated to Singapore with his Chinese stepmother. In school, Raja is scathingly labeled as “foreign talent”. A fight ensues, and the school principal (Chua En Lai) poses an ultimatum: perform a Chinese Opera piece for Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the school, or face a month in detention.

The story has a satirical slant on the prejudices that Singaporeans harbor against foreigners, family values, familiar humor and a multi-cultural cast that includes American-born Bobby Tonelli, Hong Kong’s Mi Xue and Law Kar Ying, Singapore’s Suhaimi Yusof, Kym Ng, Chen Tian Wen and more.


UrbanWire chatted with Chua En Lai and Bobby Tonelli after the conference to discuss the message behind Wayang Boy, though we’ll admit we spent half the time in stitches over En Lai’s wisecracks.

UrbanWire: What does Wayang Boy mean to you personally?

Chua En Lai (EL): It’s about putting on a face to try and fit in, because it’s very much about identity, which really makes you think – we [Singapore] are multicultural, but are we inter-cultural? Our society tends to box people into labels and I think Singapore is more than that. We’ve always been a country that proclaims our racial diversity, but what if it was all mixed up a little bit?

Bobby Tonelli (BT): My role is about a foreigner who moves to Singapore, and obviously I do relate. I think there are a lot of stereotypes and bias [about foreign talent] that can be found every day in the media. It creates so much anger and resentment, because you never hear much about the good stories of what the foreigners have contributed, you only hear about the bad stories because it sells papers. It gets people’s attention. Everyone wants to comment, it generates so much animosity. But the reality is that there are many foreigners here trying to learn to be a part of this country and be part of a culture that they find beautiful, which can be found in Wayang Boy.

UW: Do you think Wayang Boy could change the mindset that we have of foreign talent?

EL: I’m not quite sure how I would expect someone to be moved, especially from watching a film that I’m in! But, I’m really not going to say that they have to feel a certain way, but I certainly hope they’ll be entertained! Wayang Boy is a movie with many threads, and you will take home what is meaningful to you.

BT: Will 1 movie change how people think? No. Will it open their eyes if they have a good time at the movie and make them go, “Wow this is interesting to watch, and you have different cultures acting and playing up each other. You find these different nuggets that are very beautiful, and very funny [in Wayang Boy]. Movies are about entertainment, so if we can make someone laugh and walk out of the theatre feeling good about the last 2 hours spent watching the film, then that’s what we can do.

UW: Let’s liven up the mood because we’re getting heavy-handed with the topic. What’s your most amusing blunder on set?

BT: Well, in the film, my character does the car challenge [a spoof of the yearly Subaru car challenge], and it was the first day that Tian [Chen Tian Wen] and I were acting together. We were scoping each other out in the scene, or roughhousing, and I tripped him over so we both fell. Some parts of that scene were actually real!


UW: How about you, En Lai?

EL: I got to meet the Queen.

BT: You did?

EL: Yes, and I’m not talking about Kumar either. But really! There’s a scene i where the Queen of England visits the school, and this little Caucasian lady who impersonates her came on set. It was so amusing! She spoke with that uppity accent too!

BT: Here’s the thing, there are so many different storylines in Wayang Boy that we still don’t know all of each other’s scenes.

EL: No, I think it was because most of the script was in Chinese…I swear our Chinese lao shi [tutor] knew more of the script than we did!


UW: Where did you get inspiration for your roles?

BT: Well, my character is a foreigner who’s brought in to be vice president of a printing company, and there were a few scenes where I wanted to bring in Western working values into the workplace, like rolling up my sleeves and working with the people; talking with the workers and bringing them up instead of talking down to them – subtle cultural differences like these.

EL: I play quite an unlikable principal so haven’t you been to school before? I’m just kidding. I think some principals won’t like me, they’d probably look at my portrayal and say, “hey, c’mon, I’m not like that! That’s terrible!” I feel bad because we’ve been visiting schools [to promote Wayang Boy] and today, I was at this school alone. This principal wanted to meet me at the end of the presentation, and when I went up to her, I was panicking – is she going to scold me? Is she going to cane me? Is she going to make me stand in the corner and face the wall? But it was all good. Honestly, I’ve never met a principal that I’ve never been scared of. Did you like your principal?

BT: Actually, I liked my principal – he was pretty cool. American schools are different.

EL: Though it’s really difficult to be a teacher, the future of Singapore is in your hands! The responsibility is too huge.

UW: So I guess teaching isn’t going to be a part of your future plans?

EL: It’s definitely something I wouldn’t want to do, so no!

Wayang Boy is showing at Shaw theatres.

Photos courtesy of Brainchild Pictures and Klix Photography