Lights, Camera, Action! Papan’s Heroine Indelibly Captured On Celluloid
The quietness and tranquillity of the century old mining town of Papan on the outskirts of Ipoh has suddenly become punctuated with the sounds of activity as a film crew prepares to shoot on location, the story of the town’s very own World War II heroine.
But the townsfolk, many of whom former tin mine workers, appeared to be unconcerned and unexcited about it. Some of them did not know who Sybil Kathigasu was, even though the town had gained prominence because of her escapades during the Japanese Occupation.
What concerns them is that their daily livelihood, and for some even their regular mahjong sessions, will not be disrupted by the filming in the two-street town.
Astro Eight-Part Series
Astro has chosen to produce an eight-part series on the life of Sybil under its ‘Suatu Ketika’ programme to be screened over the Citra Channel before the middle of next year.
According to Astro Executive Producer (Dra-ma) Rohayah Ibrahim, Sybil’s story was selected “for her desire to help the sick and injured and as result she and her family were tortured for doing so.”
Hence Astro has now titled the series ‘Apa Dosa Ku’ or ‘What Is My Sin’. The series will be in Bahasa Malaysia though the dialogue will be in English, Chinese and Japanese with accompanying subtitles. The production of the series was given to Production House, Red Communications.
And, who will be more fitting to play the part of Sybil than her own grand niece, local actress Elaine Daly.
“It was so ironic”, said Elaine Daly, when interviewed about being approached to do the lead role. “A month earlier I was assisting another production house doing a documentary on the same topic and a month later I was asked to play the lead role of Sybil”, added the 32-year-old Miss Malaysia-Universe 2003.
Elaine said that when she was approached by Red Communications’ manager Lina Tan to play the part of Sybil, she was merely told that she being a Eurasian has the right facial features. “Lina had no idea that Sybil was my grand aunt. Naturally I accepted immediately.”
Researching the Role
Prior to this, what information she had about her grand aunt was what her dad Phillip had told her, that Sybil was a local heroine during the last war and was tortured by the Japanese.
Therefore to prepare for the role she read up on her grand aunt Sybil and also contacted her Aunt Betty in US, who is a cousin and a few years younger than Sybil, to get an idea of Sybil’s character.
“Obviously playing the role is an amazing opportunity for me, a Eurasian actress playing the lead role of a local Eurasian heroine who’s not generally well known. I hope to play the role as best as I can and to the best of my ability”, she said confidently.
Ipoh Born Director
The Director for the series is Ipoh born Bernard Chauly who gave us movies like Gol & Gincu and recently Pisau Cukur. Bernard was ‘thrilled’ when Red Communications approached him to direct this series. “I had read the book ‘No Dram of Mercy’ 10 years ago which my sister Bernice recommended that I read.”
According to Bernard, the story for the series is adapted from the book which was written by Sybil herself. “The book has so many characters. We have narrowed it down and enhanced some of the main characters. These are the Karthigasu family and their friends, their dispenser, driver and some of the key guerrillas.”
One aspect about making this series that has awed both Bernard and Elaine is the shoot location at Sybil’s home in Papan.
“You almost never get a chance to retell a story at an actual location”, said Bernard. “Due credit must be given to the proprietor of Sybil’s home, Law Siak Hong (or Hong as he is commonly known), for preserving the memorial as it is.”
Indeed the shop-house has been preserved ‘as it was’ very well. Elaine sums it up pretty much by describing “it gives me goose bumps through my spine. This is where it all happened; the back door where the guerrillas came in and also the hole under the staircase where the wireless set, ‘Josephine’ was hidden, is still there. Playing this role at this actual location is just so surreal”, she commented.
For Siak Hong, he is glad that Sybil is being given more exposure, although at the moment his priority is trying to raise RM25,000 to maintain the premises for the long term. “So far no major maintenance has been done on the premises”, he said.
Sybil Medan Daly and her husband Dr A.C. Kathigasu lived along Brewster Road, Ipoh, which was both their home and dispensary. When the war reached Ipoh in December 1941, Sybil and her family moved out to No. 74 Main Road, Papan, where they set up their home and dispensary.
Award for Bravery
News of a doctor in the town soon brought many sick patients to their doorstep including the Chinese guerrillas who opposed the Japanese occupation. Unfortunately, she was betrayed and she and Doctor Kathigasu were arrested and tortured.
Sybil died in 1949 from injuries inflicted during her torture. For her humanitarian effort of caring for the wounded guerrilla fighters she was awarded the highest British civilian award for bravery, the George Medal.
Minimal disruption was experienced by the villagers during the shoot.Two mahjong shops across the road with two occupied tables contributed their sound effects of clacking mahjong tiles. Nearby was a single-chair, non-air-conditioned barber shop with an elderly hairdresser cutting the hair of an elderly gentleman.
There are three coffee-shops on the main road with the one immediately next to Sybil’s clinic having been turned into an operations room for the cast and crew.
Its owner, 56-year old Kok Hoong Fatt, like most of the townfolk, know ‘a little’ about the heroic deeds of ‘Sybil’ and this, mostly from his parents.
The screening of the life of Sybil will soon alter this ignorance for the residents of Papan as well as others in Malaysia. Soon the heroine who nursed the sick and lived with courage until six decades ago will become a household name in the hearts and minds of the Malaysian public.