By SGN | 19 Nov 2021
He’s a humorist, cartoonist, and qualified lawyer in three jurisdictions. She’s a professor of education with a doctorate from Columbia University.
But by their powers combined, Colin and Yen Yen are the creative couple behind the ingenious Coxford Singlish Dictionary, the award-winning film Singapore Dreaming, and Dim Sum Warriors – a kung fu fantasy universe that has spawned graphic novels, a bilingual edutainment app, and a massive musical that toured 25 cities in China.
Their most epic, daring, world-shaking creation of all? That would have to be Yakuza Baby.
Enter the Baby
No, Yakuza Baby isn’t an action film with knife fights, police chases and sliced off pinkies. It’s the nickname Colin and Yen Yen’s 12-year-old earned because she made her grand entrance into the world while her parents were watching the Japanese gangster flick Crows Zero.
(Now that Yakuza Baby has grown older and wiser, she continues “to protect her real name and identity as she says it’s very dangerous out there”, her mother shares.)
Born and raised in New York City, Yakuza Baby trundled into Colin and Yen Yen’s lives like a bowling ball, knocking over their carefully arranged plans in a perfect strike. As film projects went from planned to canned, the couple was forced to channel their creative energies into a new endeavour.
Every Dumpling Was Kung Fu Fighting
Their new project was Dim Sum Warriors, a zany illustrated world that mashes up kung fu, sci-fi and scrumptious Chinese delicacies. At the centre of it all is protagonist Chashao Bao, a young roast pork bun prince who escapes the palace, only to find himself caught up in thrilling intergalactic adventures.
With Yakuza Baby in mind, Colin and Yen Yen wanted to create a non-stereotypical representation of Asian culture that had a sense of fun and humour. Eventually, what was initially a series of comics evolved into educational materials that promote the learning of English and Chinese.
“The goal is to help kids see language not as a school subject but as a medium for creation and play,” Yen Yen says.
Drawing on her research in innovative pedagogy, the couple designed an edutainment app with interactive games and amusing stories that build reading and listening skills.
Currently, the app has been released in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and the US, and is due to roll out in Indonesia and Vietnam next year. The team also runs online Doodle Dates where kids draw along with Colin and learn new vocabulary.
Cultivating Cultural Curiosity
Through Dim Sum Warriors, Colin and Yen Yen also hope to nurture in children a curiosity and openness towards different languages and cultures, rather than impart a hierarchical paradigm where certain languages or cultures are deemed superior to others.
“This openness will enable our children to be globally competent – to thrive in a diverse, interconnected world,” Yen Yen says.
“Quite a few of my secondary school classmates wound up in China,” Colin adds. “They have adapted incredibly well, even though they struggled with and failed Chinese in school. And it’s all about being open.”
In developing the materials, the team is never dogmatic about the ‘one true’ version of a language. “The whole Dim Sum Warriors attitude is that we embrace all accents and different cultures,” Yen Yen explains.
Instead, the app tries to accommodate regional variations in Chinese expressions. In one example, the voiceover for ‘to rap’ is recorded as both shuō chàng (说唱, used in Singapore and Beijing) and ráo shé (饒舌, used in Taipei).
“We are not language purists,” Colin insists. The couple believes in the joy of communication, and that an attitude of openness serves children well, far more than an obsession with grades.
“To pass a test, you want the correct answer.” Yen Yen says. “But to be successful in the world, it’s very important to be open to different languages and cultures.”
Closer to Nature, Closer to Home
In 2018, Yen Yen accepted a position as a visiting professor at the National Central University in Taiwan. The invitation was timely, since the family had been looking to move out of New York due to concerns over rising racial tensions.
Life in Taiwan turned out pretty good, so they stayed on, even after Yen Yen’s yearlong engagement was up. Yakuza Baby was flourishing at school, particularly in the learning of Chinese and Hokkien.
Colin and Yen Yen recall being mightily impressed by her school performance of Bang Chun Hong (望春風) – the classic Hokkien song by Teresa Teng – and how well she gets along with cafeteria aunties and guardhouse uncles, chatting in Hokkien. “It was very exciting for us to see her connecting with languages and cultures we thought were lost to her forever,” Yen Yen says.
The family now lives in Taipei, at the foothills of the Maokong tea plantations. They enjoy the warmth of the people and the hot springs, as well as weekend hikes in the mountains nearby.
Moving to Taiwan has brought them closer to home, allowing more frequent flights back to Singapore to spend time with family. After years of Chinese New Year celebrations via video call, Yakuza Baby got quite the shock when she finally experienced it first-hand in Singapore. Surrounded by all her relatives for the first time, she exclaimed, “I have so much family!”
Finding a Sense of Place
Growing up in foreign lands has undoubtedly shaped and complicated Yakuza Baby’s sense of place. Depending on the context of her surroundings, she identifies by turns as American, Asian and Singaporean.
“What’s really important, whether a kid grows up in Singapore or elsewhere, is confidence in your own culture,” Yen Yen says. For this reason, Yakuza Baby was brought up to form a strong connection with her Chinese roots – and speak a very fluent Singlish.
Although so-called ‘third culture kids’ are known to have issues of rootlessness and restlessness, they are also known to gain a broader worldview, possess a stronger linguistic ability, and develop a higher cultural intelligence.
“Eventually, we all have to find our own space,” Colin says, contemplating the future of his own little Dim Sum Warrior. “Our job is to equip Yakuza Baby with as many of the skills and perspectives that she needs to thrive wherever she ends up.”
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About Yen Yen
Yen Yen Woo is a professor of education and multimedia creator who seeks innovative ways to scale education for a multicultural, multilingual world. She is the co-creator of Dim Sum Warriors.
Connect with her here.