When culture meets curiosity

Meet Gan – Matlock’s jack of all trades, whose keen interest in culture has led him to some of his most peculiar travel experiences.

When culture meets curiosity

Meet Gan, someone whom you’d describe as a jack of all trades — from providing art direction, designing, photography to translation and even creating maps! He also runs a Youtube channel documenting his travels which you can check out here.

Read on as Gan recounts some of his favourite memories and travels with us!

1. Tell us about yourself! (Doesn’t have to be centred around work)

I am a middle-aged biker-wannabe with a passion for classic motorcycles. Just like any typical biker-wannabe I too dreamt about epic overland journeys crossing continents. Before the pandemic, I had the opportunity to do that on trains. I did a trip across China's east to its westernmost from ShangHai to Xinjiang, exited Xinjiang to Kazakhstan, then came back to Malaysia from Northwestern China by train. Which is the East Asia part of the new silk route which China is advocating.

2. What are some things you do as a Visual Director? Run us through a typical day in your life!

Thanks to the culture in Potato Production, I usually do these things which basically are all my hobbies.

Providing history and cultural reference

When I’m with Matlock Stone (the film investment arm of the company), my spirit of a culture + history buff took place. I provide art direction, as well as cultural direction for the film proposals. Particularly of ancient China, and China’s ancient connection to maritime Southeast Asia.

Painting, designing, and photography

I am a trained graphic designer and a self-taught illustrator. I first joined Potato Production as a graphic designer, so whenever Matlock Stone needs any concept art, movie titles, presentation kit, or even photography and drone footage, I get them painted/crafted/shot.

English to Chinese translation

We often pitch our content to Chinese investors, that’s when my lifelong trained Chinese language skill kicks in.

Creating the real world map

With a push from our boss, I learnt about Geospatial Information Systems and started producing maps. Thus began my journey of seeing the world with an independent perspective, different from the world’s mass media narrative. This part of my work takes up most of my time as it requires a lot of reading, sometimes including trying to understand articles written in foreign languages. For example, to understand a border dispute, English narratives are more than often lopsided. To have a comprehensive view, it could sometimes involve reading foreign languages using Google Translate, it takes a lot of time to cross-check.

3. After many years of working in Matlock Stone, what are some of your favourite/most memorable projects you have worked on?

Ilo-Ilo, a Singapore film that won multiple international awards

That was in 2013 and OMG that was already 9 years ago!

In 2013, our boss assigned the Matlock team to give Anthony Chen, a young Singaporean director some help. We then ran the social media marketing campaign for his debut film Ilo-Ilo, a story about his childhood memory in Singapore with his nanny from Ilo-ilo of the Philippines, during the 1997 Asia Financial Crisis.

Little did we know that this humble local Singaporean Chinese story would go on to win the year’s top award in the Cannes Film Festival, the Caméra d'Or, which is the best film. Later that year, it also won Best Film, Best New Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress at the Republic of China’s Golden Horse Film Festival, the top honor in the Chinese film industry, on its 50th anniversary.

I was lucky enough to be there in Taipei city for the Golden Horse award ceremony, and managed to see many legendary Chinese artists and directors, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Johnnie To, Brigitte Lin, Shuqi, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Carina Lau and many more. Got to the after party and had Mala hotpot in the same place with Ang Lee, the academy award winning Chinese director of Life of Pi.

4. We heard you are really into photography too! Do you remember how you picked it up?

In the 1990s, I began with my father’s cheap Fuji rangefinder. Later on, my good friend took a major in photography. So I get to learn the basics of handling SLR, as well as developing and enlarging B&W films in dark rooms.

But photography is hard, to produce a good image one needs to dwell deep into the subject and it takes a lot of time, and luck, as well as money for the equipment. I can hardly produce a good image I can be proud of.

5. You’ve taken photos in many different countries, is there a country that really stood out to you? Why?

I actually didn’t go to that many different countries, only in East Asia and S.E.Asia. But the one that stood out most has got to be Kazakhstan. Getting there was quite an adventure.

I was on my trip to understand China’s new silk route, so I crossed China from Shanghai to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Deep in central Asia, my 30 days visa is ending, so I need to exit China.

The plan is to exit through Khorgos, a Free Trade Zone between the border of China and Kazakhstan, developed for the new silk route. But this passage is very new so there is almost zero information for international travellers to cross this border on train. I didn’t even know if I could really exit China from Xinjiang. You know, they say got genocided and all that, supposedly very secretive, very brutally ruled Xinjiang. How can one foreigner get so close to the border without getting the attention of the secret agents?

Long story short, I boarded that empty train to Kazakhstan, a full-length bunk bed train with 250 beds but only 3 passengers on board including myself. Without knowing how to speak Kazakh, without a Kazakh visa (because according to wikipedia, Malaysian no need visa), replied ‘Assalamualaikum but no I’m not a muslim’ to four AK74 yielding Kazakh soldiers who board and inspect the cabin when they asked ‘Malaysia? Muslim?’, so that they leave with a smile, and arrived at Almaty city at midnight.

Knowing English, which according to a popular myth is the only language you need to navigate and understand every corner of the world, I was like, there is no way I can’t handle this. Dead wrong.

This is the realm of the cyrillic alphabet, no ABCDEFG only АБВГДЕЖ. In China, Japan, Korea, the entire S.E.Asia, you can’t speak the language but you can handle the simple things, for example catching the correct bus number, trying to pronounce the name of your destination, scan through supermarkets shelf to understand the contents etc, no problem, they are all written in ABC or Kanji. But in Kazakhstan, I can’t read anything at all. Like ‘PAXAT’ is pronounced RAKHAT?? What? How??

In this former USSR region, supermarket shelves are filled with their own household brands written in Cyrillic that I couldn’t pronounce. Drinks, sauces, butter, candies, ice cream, yogourt, chocolates are not from Nestle, Mars, Unilever, Heinz.

For example, ‘PAXAT’ makes chocolates, it has a Chocolate factory in Almaty city center which I accidentally found by following the massive heavenly scent of chocolate from a few blocks away. PAXAT is loved by children all across the Russian sphere for decades, but we’ve never even heard of it. We thought chocolate = Nestle, ice cream = Walls.

Why is PAXAT chocolate so nice but we don’t have it here? Why is the Soviet Bukhanka 4x4 van so nice but we never see them here? Why is the mutton and beef and dairy products in Kazakhstan so nice, but we buy it from Australia and USA? It’s not about the distance, because clearly the USA is behind the globe?

Clearly our markets are flooded with products from European or American conglomerates? Why can’t we see these former USSR products? Because of the Cold War? Does the Cold War include a war of dominating market shelves?

I don’t know, I am curious. And what does the Russian sphere think about this? What is their opinion? What is their perspective? Won’t know because I am illiterate to the Russian sphere, and the ‘international’ news agencies don’t report them.  

This unexpected trip opens up my perspective about understanding the world, that’s why it stood out to me.

6. Are there any interesting projects Matlock Stone is working on currently?

Hannli the head of Matlock Stone, is working on pitching a cool remake of a mythology to potential investors, which I don’t have the right to disclose. But all I can say is it is bad ass!

7. It must be exciting to have your project with Radical Studios be on Netflix! How was your experience working with them?

I didn’t get to be involved in that part of the project though. Hannli was the one working hard on this in Hollywood, hanging out with all the glamorous producers, he would have a much more interesting story to tell!

However it does remind me of the time back when me and other ex-colleagues produced the Presentation Kits of the stories for Radical Studios. The one that went to Netflix is one of them. Those are some very elaborated presentation booklets. We built the kits with very experimental approaches, exploring with different materials and production methods, it was great fun!

8. (Just for fun!) If you could know the truth behind any secret or mystery, what would it be?

How come my Youtube travel vlog has so little subscription … https://youtu.be/xn5H0BvA7f8

If you’d like to find out more about Matlock Stone, click here!