There’s a lot going on in Jess Teong’s life. This week, her youngest son is taking his SPM exam; next week her movie – The Kid From The Big Apple 2: Before We Forget, which is the follow-up to last year’s hit The Kid From The Big Apple (TKFTBA) – opens in cinemas nationwide; and three weeks ago she was on stage performing at a three-day concert with a former duet partner Paul Wah.
On the morning of our interview, in the last week of October, her day started at 6am. She had visited an old folks home to hand over a cheque from the money she collected at the concert.
Teong is also the managing director of Three Pictures, a company that produced TKFTBA, as well as other local titles such as Paper Moon and Special Female Force to name a few.
“I don’t have time to be lazy,” the 52-year-old says with an easy laugh that only adds to her already-youthful looks. “I choose to keep myself occupied.”
When asked if that is the secret to her looking good and happy, Teong replies: “My job requires me to look presentable. But I am happy because I choose to be.”
Her current positive outlook in life happened after two major occurrences, which also inevitably led her to want to tell meaningful stories through her work.
In 2006, doctors discovered a tumour in her pituitary gland that could ultimately lead to blindness. “I went to see the doctor for another problem when they discovered the tumour. Normally, I am an emotional person but at that moment, I approached the problem very practically.
“I thought, I am a single parent and I need to be there for my children. So, I underwent a four-hour surgery, and today, I feel very blessed to have my eyesight and I am healthy.”
It was partly then that she decided to see life through a camera lens and share her appreciation for life with everyone else. “I want to add value to people’s lives with the stories that I tell,” she says.
Another life-changing incident happened when she gave birth to her second son in 2001 and then fell into a deep state of depression.
“That was when 9/11 happened. I was struck by fear – for my sons, of what was going on in the world, of losing them – because we never saw a tragedy of that magnitude, something that is caused by another human being,” she explains.
To combat the overwhelming emotion, the mother of two sought professional help as well as reaching out to her family and friends to make sure she was never left alone – which might lead to her harming herself.
“I learned that it is important to show your weaknesses to others, to ask for help and to always have people you can count on.
“I want to impart to others that it’s OK to need people and to lend a helping hand. And I want to do that through my movies,” she reiterates.
On the right track
Teong’s directorial debut feature, TKFTBA, was a big hit – winning awards overseas (Macau Inter-national Movie Festival) and locally (Malaysia Film Festival).
The story about a young child finding commonality with her grandfather touched so many people that Teong started a file of all the correspondence she received from the public who shared their stories with her.
One story stands out for Teong: A son reconnecting with his father after years of not talking to each other.
“Although the two were not on talking terms, the son still visited his parents and brought his wife and children to see them,” Teong shares.
“When the son found out (Hong Kong actor) Ti Lung was starring in TKFTBA, he brought his family to watch the film together because his mother is a fan of Ti Lung.
“In the cinema, the son and the father sat far apart, with the rest of the family members in between. But when the movie ended, the father came over to his son, and asked if they could talk (and work things out).”
It is stories like this that assures Teong she is on the right track: “For me, a good story is when I can learn something after watching the movie. Something about it that stays with me.”
The first movie was about communication. The sequel – which still revolves around family and love – is about appreciation.
“TKFTBA2 drives home the message that it’s important to value your family members while they’re still around,” says Teong.
She promises this new film has more depth, with the story continuing with grandfather Gen (Ti Lung), his daughter Sophia (Debbie Goh, who takes over the role from Hong Kong actress Jessica Hsuan) and granddaughter Sarah (Tan Qin Lin) as they go through adversity as a family.
According to Teong, Ti Lung wasn’t keen on returning for the sequel.
“He felt that the ending in the first film was already perfect. But, after reading the script, he agreed to come back. And he did it within 24 hours. For the first film, he made me wait for one month!” she says.
Teong was 25 years old when she moved to Kuala Lumpur from Penang. She followed her boyfriend to the big city but she didn’t have any specific dreams of her own.
She taught modern jazz for a while, before getting a chance to be a model – winning a couple of awards in the process.
She then embarked on a career in singing in the 1990s. Even when she took leave from showbiz to become a full-time mum to her two sons, Teong still dabbled in fashion – this time, selling handbags and jewellery.
She only started acting in her early 40s, balancing it with producing films. Teong took on directing just two years ago with TKFTBA, when she turned 50. “I think starting out late allows me to tell better stories,” she says.
Change is obviously something Teong looks forward to. She says: “I have no fear when faced with a new task. I have never once thought I’m not able to do something.
“When I was in school, I sucked in Maths. But as a producer, handling the budget is one of the things you just have to do. So, I learned to do it. I like to say that I am full of blades, although none are sharp,” she shares with a laugh.
Teong says she has a lot more she wants to accomplish in life, and she is impatient to get them done. But whatever new challenges she takes on, Teong is confident she will be ready for it.
The Kid From The Big Apple 2: Before We Forget opens in cinemas nationwide on Nov 16.