Julian Cheah can wax lyrical about romance, passion and men sweeping women off their feet all day long if you let him. You see, this is a man on a mission, out to romanticise the Asian male and reinstate the Asian male figure in its rightful place among the romantic greats.
He laments the Hollywood desexualisation of the Asian male image in its films, and its apparent enthusiasm for caricatures that make people laugh instead.
“The Frenchman is considered a dream lover, but when people think of names like Chan, Lee and Wong, they think martial arts, owner of a Chinese restaurant or acupuncturist,” Cheah says in an e-mail interview from his Penang base. “That’s well and good, but I wish to romanticise these names and people.”
And how is he going about this?
First, take the world by storm with his first novel, The Gallant: When The Angels Dare (2017), with its dashing Britain-born Asian protagonist. Next, make this book into a movie. This will be a film project made possible, he hopes, by the success of the book.
“The Gallant is a racy spy story that is fictional but that is surrounded by history and culture that is real. If I held a bestseller in my hand, it would be a strong bargaining chip for me to obtain financing for the film,” he says.
Brech’s contribution added more chemistry, depth and warmth to the characters, he says: “I included Michael as a co-writer because I got along with him and he seemed to be interested in my work, first my films, then in this book. He seems a passionate man and supports the notion that Asian men should be made to appear more romantic.”
Cheah knows a thing or two about film financing having been involved in the film industry for more than two decades. He’s made TV features, straight-to-video movies and the occasional film, like the multilingual comedy Judi-Judi King Boss (2016), Australian production Infected Paradise (2014), Prince Of The City (2012) and Killer Clown (2010).
Talking about a big screen adaptation of The Gallant, Cheah waxes lyrical about how a movie would bring out the visual splendour of the story that he has put on paper with Brech’s help. But we need no convincing about the theatrics this Penang filmmaker has up his sleeve in his book, whether intentional or otherwise.
The Gallant’s Thomas Chan is a government vigilante who is hard on crime, yet gentle with women. He is wealthy (thanks to an inheritance), has very exacting moral standards (decisiveness is sexy), and is surrounded by women all the time (they love him, and he them).
Cheah explains that he used a filmmaker’s mind to create the book, structuring it like a movie, with flashbacks infused in the story.
Contrary to the stereotypical Asian caricature that Cheah doesn’t much care for, his protagonist speaks impeccable English. The Gallant also has Chan’s jet-setting ways putting him in many exotic locales around the world, with 10 models in tow he saved from a skin trade kidnapping situation.
“In real life, women saved will say thank you to their saviour and go back to their lives, but our book indulges in a fantasy that they want to fight alongside him. So he teaches them combat, with each woman specialising in a weapon like a whip, a crossbow, a rifle or knives,” explains Cheah.
Chan also loves all of them at different points in his life, not in a one-night stand sort of way – no, that’s not Cheah’s idea of romance – but in a total immersion in her world way, and in this sense, he becomes the centre of her universe too, if only for a while.
“The Gallant breaks through all barriers and stereotype. I intentionally picked a Chinese name, Chan, a name not associated with romance, with the intention to romanticise it. In creating this lover, I made him someone who cares for the women. And in the ideal fantasy world of our book, women love a man who really cares for them,” Cheah says.
When creating the hero in the book, he shares that he decided to go with a Cary Grant or Bond-like image because a debonair hero simply has “more elements surrounding him”, from dress sense to music taste and choice of alcoholic beverage.
“There is much more to explore in a classy hero. Since we are trying to make him romantic, we may as well put him in suits, ties and pocket squares, and set him in exotic and glamorous locations around the world.”
This character is a man who is not afraid to express his affection through physical touch. How could he not be with a creator like Cheah, who is fixated on kissing and all the promises and possibilities it holds.
“I dislike the lack of physicality when Asian men are on the screen. My question is always, where is the kiss?
“In The Replacement Killers (1998), Chow Yun-fat touched Mira Sorvino’s cheek when he bade her goodbye. I wish there had been a kiss in Anna And The King (1999) instead of a dance, and a kiss between Korean actor Dong-gun Jang and Kate Bosworth instead of placing her hand to his chest in The Warrior’s Way (2010),” he says.
To add insult to injury, a kiss between Jet Li and Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die (2000) was deleted in the final cut because the scenario apparently did not test well with an urban audience. They settled for a tight embrace instead, further cementing the stoic Asian male stereotype that Cheah is on a mission to change.
“It irks me, and it has for a long time. The world has become international but Western movies still portray a one-dimensional view of Asian men. It is good to see Chinese men like Jet Li and Donnie Yen achieve Hollywood fame, but it is always only as action heroes.
“Their fame doesn’t hark back to a romantic hero like Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa in the 1910s. Hollywood producers are hesitant in taking that step to allow a kiss in the fear that the public may not approve,” Cheah observes.
Close to home, Cheah is frustrated that his call to action is met not so much with disapproval as indifference.
“There is a sense of complacency, people here don’t seem to care about iconic images. A guy I know said, ‘Boring, don’t want to talk anymore’, and a woman said, ‘If you really want to make a difference in the world, why don’t you go save starving children’,” he relates.
But Cheah is not going to let anything or anyone get him down. “If we don’t try, we will never know,” he stresses.
Despite all this talk of romance and good old-fashioned chivalry, he modestly refers to himself as “an average romantic”.
“I still look forward to having my first marriage one day, as it is never too late. I would sum myself up as an average romantic, not a great one I’m afraid, unlike the fictional heroes I create as an actor, writer or producer,” says the 55-year-old.
Well, no one can dispute the fact that Cheah is a big dreamer who is not afraid to gleefully jump into the deep end when it suits him. The kissing, of course, is non-negotiable.