The gangsters from Royston Tan’s “15” have turned into clichés. And that’s a good thing.
Also an introspective look at their past lives.
From left to right, their names are Shaun Tan, Royston Tan, Melvin Chen, Erick Chun, and Melvin Lee.
At first glance, these are nondescript faces and unmemorable names (save for Royston, perhaps).
Except these are the cast members of 15 the movie, Royston’s unorthodox debut as a Singaporean filmmaker.
Reunited and it’s slightly awkward
The 2003 film centres on the lives of five teenage gang members in Singapore — played by real-life juvenile gangsters — to tease out the darker side of Singapore’s society of the late 1990s/early 2000s.
At the time of its release, the highly stylised and avant-garde movie was considered graphic and controversial, to the extent that it was banned from screening in neighbourhood cinemas, thanks to its portrayal of gang names, gang locations, and secret society chants.
15 years have since passed, and the original version of the movie is set to play at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) on December 1 — a momentous occasion for Royston, who saw his initial release undergo various edits.
Out of the five juveniles who starred in the film, however, one remains uncontactable.
But the rest of the group hasn’t had a proper gathering since the film’s wrap, either.
The Mothership office is a curious place for their reunion, but they seem chummy enough, although perhaps not fully at ease.
Nonetheless, they open up sufficiently to tell us about their past and present.
Then: The gangster life
When it comes to juvenile gangs in Singapore, one might conceive a vague notion of smoking, skipping school, getting into gang fights, and checking in and out of the boys’ home or prison.
This was mostly true for the four young men in front of me (Royston not included), who are now in their early 30s.
Chen tells me, “We [referring to himself and Shaun] would always ponteng (play truant) and sit at the coffeeshop to have breakfast at 6:30 in the morning.”
The decision to skip school for the day comes as simple as a whim.
“Wah, meet at 6:30am, so effort leh,” Royston chimes in.
Wouldn’t they get into trouble with the school or their parents?
“No, our parents gave up already,” Shaun laughs, adding that he would also disconnect the phone at home so that his school’s calls would not be able to get through (this was the 1990s and early 2000s, where the internet wasn’t as pervasive).
After a S$4 MC from a nearby polyclinic (they rotated their visits), the boys would leave for another friend’s home, where they would hang out for the day, often while smoking liberally.
Special thanks to Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic, they add as a shout-out.
“Stare what stare?”
Gangster stare-downs were far from a laughable scenario in sterilised local productions.
Like some romantic relationships, gang fights can start from intense eye contact. Other triggers include a friend who might have been bullied, or a disagreement over a girl.
And just for the record, they were all in different gangs.
“Then you all got fight each other before?” I stupidly ask.
“No lah no lah, we are like allied countries,” Shaun replies.
“ASEAN, ASEAN,” the others added cheekily.
But why join a gang at all? The answer comes as typical as one would expect.
“At that age, we wanted company, to feel belonging and be in a group,” Lee explains.
One feels like he is skimming the surface of their lives.
Before me, the men are striving, contented, and (mostly) settled — vastly different from their former selves.
Here’s how they are doing now, and how they got here.
1. Melvin Chen
Chen has been working as a pub manager for slightly over a decade now.
“All I wanted to do was have fun back then, but now my main priority is to earn more money,” he says in Mandarin.
Somewhere along the way, he also had a pub of his own along Tyrwhitt Road.
But the place was shuttered after about a year, when his landlord increased the rent.
He is not married — yet.
In the few years after filming 15 and before taking up his current job, Chen was arrested and charged with rioting.
“I study until Sec 4 then I went to prison liao,” he reveals with no hesitation. “Then I applied for ITE then they don’t want to let me in.”
Chen did three years and got six strokes of the cane in prison.
“But I failed my N Levels lah, don’t have the cert. I only have birth cert,” he quips, lightening the otherwise sombre revelation.
It was only when the police came knocking in the course of their investigations that Chen’s family discovered his involvement in gang activities.
He had gotten a good scolding then.
“As you grow up, you mature, learn from the people around you,” Chen explains of his growth.
As for his current state of mind, Chen says he is “still okay lah”.
“My blood inside all alcohol one mah,” he quips, always quick to crack a joke.
2. Melvin Lee
Lee is in a good place.
He has a wife and 10-year-old daughter, and owns a corporate cleaning company that supplies cleaners and cleaning products (like sanitary bins) to corporations.
However, when I ask for the name of his company, Lee declines to reveal it.
The other guys poke fun: “You want jumbo toilet roll ma? He got a lot!”
Lee has even quit smoking entirely, and is the only one in the group to do so.
What’s unexpected about him is the fact that he comes from a warm and supportive family — contrary to the stereotype of troubled delinquents with broken families.
“I have a very strong bond with my family. So I tend to strike a balance lah, like I will ‘play’, but I will also listen to them. Won’t go overboard one.”
That might explain why Lee was never involved in an actual gang fight (according to him, at least), despite having been in a gang.
When they learnt of his ways, Lee’s family would gently advise him to think of his future — something he says he is grateful for till today.
I ask about the worst thing he has done, but Lee thinks for a while and tells me his biggest regret instead: Not studying hard enough.
Thinking classes were a waste of time, Lee dropped out of school at Secondary 2.
“If I had really studied and walked the normal path, I think I would be more successful now,” he muses.
And Lee is not talking about certificates. Rather, he feels he has missed out on the knowledge and insight he could have gained from years of education. As it is, Lee had spent his teenage years on part-time jobs instead.
Now, however, the family man needs no persuasion or motivation.
“Different stage of life, 做 different 的东西 (Translation: do different things),” Lee says simply. “The things that I should have experienced as a youth, I’ve done that.”
Out of the four, Lee strikes me as the most contented of them, and as someone who is genuinely happy with his current lot in life.
3. Erick Chun
Chun works as a chef in Tanjong Pagar, specialising in French-Italian cuisine.
As a single father to a five-year-old, one of Chun’s greatest worries is the possibility of his son following the wayward path, as he once did.
When he was 13, Chun was sent to Boys‘ home for gang-related reasons.
That saw the end of the road for his education.
Chun’s parents, with whom he had a “distant” relationship, noticed that he began straying at the impressionable age of 10.
But it was not as simple as needing to feel a sense of belonging when he started getting into bad company.
“Actually it was more to family violence. So it’s er, they just locked me out. First time they locked me out, then I don’t need to go home already. Eventually I got used to it. Don’t go home then don’t go home lor.”
Chun started staying out late and loitering around, getting involved in gang activities and doing “childish things” — a term he uses to gloss over actual events.
While that led to many pending police cases against him as a juvenile, a major case triggered his indictment in Secondary 1.
“At that time, my mother a bit give up liao,” Chun recalls.
Today, Chun is on better terms with his mother, but his father has yet to accept him.
I cannot tell if Chun is bitter about it.
Nonetheless, the tattooed chef continues to strive for the future, in hopes of being self-employed one day.
“As long as you’re still living, you still can make a better tomorrow,” he says sagely.
And this spirit is unmistakable in Chun’s ambition.
Having owned a F&B venture selling Cantonese porridge that folded about four years ago, Chun still dreams of having a tattoo parlour to call his own, should finances and circumstances allow.
4. Shaun Tan
Shaun is dispute officer at a debt collection company, and has been so for the past four or five years.
“Okay, I’m doing not bad lah, got wife and child lor,” he tells me.
His child has just turned one.
As for his job, Shaun essentially functions as a mediator between individuals and their debtors. Sometimes the police get involved, and Shaun then has to testify in court.
But that’s the extent of his entanglement with the law these days.
In the past, however, gang activities were quotidian affairs, mainly because of his family background.
“我家人比较看得开 (My family is more accepting),” Shaun summarises of their attitude towards his involvement.
Thinking that he’s joking, I laugh — until he adds that his family took part in gang activities as well.
This was also why they never interfered with Shaun’s delinquent lifestyle. His mum had apparently told him,
“If you want to take part, you take part, since you’re already grown up. Just don’t do things that will harm other people.”
So what inspired the change?
“The people around me. I learnt a lot from them,” Shaun says, distilling 15 years into two sentences.
5. Royston Tan
Royston is still a filmmaker.
Recounting his feelings on watching the digitally-restored version of the film, Royston seems in awe at his younger self.
“I cannot believe I shot this,” he says, enunciating his words. “I’m more settled and mellow now. I will not be able to direct another film like it again.”
One feels a sense of loss that might not necessarily come from Royston himself. After all, 15 can be considered a piece of unparalleled work in the local film industry.
In his debut film, however, Royston sees the foreshadows of his future work — traces of 881 and 4:30, signature movie titles that would spread word of his name.
But after working on so many commercial films, he circles back to his first work.
“I feel like going back to the old me again, without having to care for the box office, really be yourself de.”
Top image by Mandy How (and Royston Tan. Woohoo. Is this a collab??)
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