Conversations with Cheah Wenqi

By Jian Jingying

Cheah Wenqi is the Co-Founder and Editor of Our Grandfather Story, a digital video publisher that specialises in uncovering and sharing timeless and overlooked stories across Southeast Asia, which have garnered thousands of followers on their Facebook, Instagram and Youtube channels. Here, Advisory has a chat with Wenqi about her work.

I co-founded Our Grandfather Story (OGS) with three friends from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University. We’ve been around for about three years, and my role has changed over time.

At first, we weren’t so structured, as with most start-ups; everybody was doing everything. We mostly did content and distribution. I dabbled in business development for a while. I did a bit of sales, but I found that it did not really suit me. So after that I went back to content and continued to stay there.

Now I’m the Managing Editor for OGS content and I also do Human Resources (HR) for the company. For now, our team is relatively small, so we don’t really need a full-time HR manager and I take care of most of the HR work, like welfare and relations.

OGS started from a school project in university. It was from a class in advanced photojournalism, when we came up with the idea of monetising content in visual journalism.

The goal of the project was to come up with a business idea. We didn’t want to do just photojournalism but visual journalism, which meant photos, videos, multimedia, any format that involves visuals. We also considered how to make it sustainable: if we didn’t want to join a news agency, how could we survive?

Fortunately, when the project started, it took off quite well. From the first piece that we put out, almost every one was a hit, for about the first five to seven videos, and we were encouraged by that. We also had an investor who came on board, which helped to sustain our operations from the start at very low risk.

For me, I never really considered any other options because I had something good going for me, and I didn’t see the need to look to other pastures, at least for now.

I was lucky. I had three other friends who did this together with me. If I did this alone, it would have been very hard. But it’s not difficult to break into the industry as long as you have a drive to do it, or you have a vision.

You have to think about what is the new business idea you’re bringing to the table, and how it is different from what is already out there, because that is what is going to make you stand out. It’s important to know where your place is in the industry, where your footing is.

If you have that vision in mind, then I encourage you to try, because you know what you want to achieve.

But if your vision is just to, for example, be a boss or a businessman, or you just want to start your own company, it will be harder, because your goals are not specific, and you won’t be able to differentiate yourself.

It’s from everywhere. Our online research is the bulk of it. We scroll through a lot of social media platforms, but we’re also on the ground, and some of us have some sources here and there. Sometimes people who know a lot about certain things come and tell us.

We also have a lot of people who write in to us: aunties, our neighbours, people on the street, or people who know us and know what we’re doing, and have interesting nuggets of stories that they want to share. A lot of it comes from people who tip us off to their stories.

I still create content on a daily basis, producing micro-documentaries, as well as curating content. We have a team of journalists, and during monthly meeting they pitch their stories to me. I help them to scope their story angle, and then review their ideas, their scripts and their edits, to make sure that their final work is good for publishing.

Now we’re branching out into other types of content. We’ve started doing animations, short stories, and studio-based talk show styled Q&As, namely the series called “Can Ask Meh?”. Basically, I manage the side of the company that does micro-documentaries.

For the workflow of a video, we start from the pitch meeting. Journalists are required to do their research, be it online, on the ground, or any sources at their disposal such as their friends or their own contacts, to get their story leads and story ideas which they can pitch at the meeting every month. Upon approval, they will go out to recce their stories, conduct pre-interviews and write a script which will then be reviewed. After that they will shoot, edit, and then the video can be published.

I am involved in video production, but I’m also mainly in charge of managing the timelines of the production, for example the timeline of each journalist, as well as reviewing and approving their scripts.

Actually, the role of the editor doesn’t include content work; that’s the job of the journalist. Usually, the journalist writes, and the editor is the “boss” who looks at the writing and suggests tweaks, changes, structuring it differently or prioritising certain information. The editor guides the journalist, to ensure that the work they publish is good for the audience.

Of course! When it comes to different formats, there are huge differences especially in terms of the audience, and the editor has a big role in understanding them. The audience of a social media platform is different from that of TV programmes, or that of newspapers. Every medium and every format has a different audience. So the role of the editor across different platforms varies differently.

For video content, we prioritise aesthetics, appealing images at the start of the video and things that we know are eye-catching. The general scroll time of social media, for example Facebook, is two to three seconds, so we want to hook our audience in within the first five seconds. And how do you do that? If you’re doing a food video it’ll be appealing to have shots of fire, oil, cooking, and delicious food. Nice images, basically.

On the other hand, for written content, you may choose to do listicles such as those from The Smart Local or Buzzfeed; that is the approach they take for their online audience because they know the scroll-time is also very fast and people just want to know the headlines.

That’s online writing, which is also different compared to news writing where the attention span is slightly longer. So it’s very different with each format, medium and platform.

In general, the editor’s job is to know your audience and what they want, as well as to know your medium well, to know what works best for them, and what works and what doesn’t.

Maybe it’s also because I’m doing HR, but as we are all learning together, when I see my peers, colleagues and teammates grow and mature in their job scopes, I feel very satisfied.

It feels like we are growing together in this company. We push the company further and the company also pushes us further. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation where we keep edging each other forward, between the position of the company and the employees.

I am very lucky to have a team of extremely self-motivated people; I don’t even have to motivate them. And to see that the team has grown from three people to what it is today, I feel very proud.

From taking on leadership positions and stepping out of their comfort zone, to trying new formats, or even just managing their time better, it’s so nice to see that people can grow in their jobs and gain new experiences under our company, and to know that the company can do more than just give them a salary.

Seeing the company help shape someone to become a better, more skilled person, is satisfying for me as a co-founder.

The bulk of what has been challenging was that we are all fresh graduates. The most experienced person here is two years my senior, and even she has graduated for only three to four years, which is not a lot of experience, while the rest of us only graduated last year. So a lot of the learning we do has to be done on the job. We had lecturers from school who mentored us and gave us advice, but most of the learning was done on our own through trial-and-error.

That was challenging, especially for the business aspect. In school we get to learn content creation and all the technical aspects of production, but we weren’t taught how to do business. What we studied was only communication. So we had to pick up all the business skills on our own, of course with some help from our mentors. We had to try a lot of things by ourselves, and also manage an entire team of people. That was something I didn’t learn in school.

It felt like I was groping in the dark. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just kept trying, failing, saying sorry and trying it again in another way. There were guidelines from the Ministry of Manpower but apart from that, there were a lot more soft skills involved that I had to feel out and learn on my own.

What other challenges did you face while working in this industry?

Shoots are always unpredictable. We do documentary content, we shoot real people with real stories in real life. Their lives don’t revolve around us, we don’t pay them to book out their day. They all have their own lives.

So it’s common for us to have profiles pulling out of shoots, turning us down, or cancelling an arrangement with us last-minute. We get rejected all the time. But it’s so common that we are used to it. It’s part and parcel of doing a documentary.

Another part of doing a documentary is also having to go back down to do pick-up shots that we left out in the first shoot. Sometimes it’s because the profile is only available to do certain things at specific times, for example a dish needs to be cooked on a specific day. So we have to split the shoots. Sometimes it’s arranged that way. Sometimes it’s because the stories change on the spot when we’re interviewing them and we didn’t get those shots on the day itself. So we have to come back on another day to shoot again.

We’ve also had our equipment going haywire on us. We’ve had quite a lot of scares. Hard drive crash without backup, SD card crash, missing footage, those are very scary, especially if it’s a branded project. Fortunately it hasn’t happened to us for a branded project yet. But so far we have managed to recover everything.

However, they can always be avoided. We have in place standard operating procedures (SOPs) to avoid these situations. It’s very important that we always have backups in place so it’s mandatory that we keep backing up our stuff. Then again, sometimes you can forget.

If I felt that it wasn’t important it would have been hard to do it. I think that my job is important, but I don’t do “important” things every day. There are mundane tasks that I have to do in order to get the job done: admin matters, handling employees; things I have to do otherwise my employees won’t exist. These tasks don’t seem to be very exciting or very important, but they are important in the long run.

The importance I see in my job is that I have a voice to speak to an audience. You cannot buy people’s time to listen to you. For us to have carved out a space where we have people listening to us, I feel that that is priceless.

Every day when we produce content, we’re giving our audience information that we think they need to know, is interesting, helps them educate themselves, or entertains them and hopefully alleviates their stress or gives them some form of relief. The content that we create can have an impact on our audience. That’s why it’s important.

No, I didn’t. It’s funny because I can’t even remember how I signed up for the course at Wee Kim Wee. Long story short, I wasn’t prepared to go to university the year I applied. When I got my A Level results, I actually intended to take a gap year and already had plans for it. I applied to only one school, Wee Kim Wee, just to try my luck. And I got accepted.

I never had a dream of joining the media industry, as far as I can remember. I don’t think I had ever thought of having a future in media. So I really don’t know why I signed up for Wee Kim Wee.

When I came into Wee Kim Wee I realised that I really enjoyed the media industry. It’s something that suits my personality, and my interest was also aligned. In that way, I was lucky that it was a good fit for me.

I decided to do OGS full-time after we got support from the investor, because it made everything easier. If not for the investor, we would have had a bigger dilemma. I think we would have tried, but it’s very difficult when you have to do so many things at once.

At that time we were still in university, so we still had our school grades and our full-time studies to take care of. To run a business on top of that, it would have been so difficult that it probably wouldn’t have gone far if nobody else came in to fund us. In that way, we were very lucky. 

And because someone expressed an interest in our project, it meant that we had a degree of industry approval. It was affirmation that we were on the right track. Realistically speaking, that was a big reason why I continued with OGS.

Interest-wise, I’ve always been interested in heritage and nostalgia-related content. At that time, it was purely because I was young(er) and I wanted a way to connect with my roots. I wanted to know where I’m from and the stories behind why I do what I do.

It can be as simple as a heritage dish that I eat every year for Chinese New Year. Why did my ancestors start eating it? It could be because geographically, where they were from back in China was near the ocean, or because it was in a mountainous area and there was no seafood so they had to use certain plants for the dish, and so on.

Innately I was always interested in finding out more about the backstory of who I am. This can range from food, to craftsmanship, or even simple decorations that we see in our houses. OGS was a platform for me to explore that interest.

Honestly, I don’t know. I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. After all, I’m only 24, and in a lot of ways, I’m still exploring and pondering the big question of what I’m supposed to do, what are the other dreams I want to chase. I have other interests as well, not just OGS. But I have an attachment to this place, and this is after all something that we’ve built together, so it’s very hard to tell what will happen.

Maybe it’s also in my character that I don’t think so far ahead, I just take it as it comes. But I know I want to keep learning and developing my skills; it’s not just an aimless “go with the flow”. Whatever I choose to do next will sharpen my skills and bring more value wherever I go, whether it’s stepping into the next role within this company, or doing something else outside.

Every industry has different needs. There isn’t one single personality that will fit. Every industry will need different types of people to pursue different parts of the industry. There is no one type, although there is a common type.

The common type of media people we see are usually more loud spoken, more sociable. That’s the general “media type”. But it’s really very general. It might be because these people tend to put themselves out there more, so we associate the media industry with them.

It’s a misconception that someone who is quiet, shy, or can’t communicate well with other people cannot join the media industry. Because no matter which industry you go to, you need to have soft skills. There is no industry where you don’t need to have people skills at all. Everywhere you go, people skills will be important, regardless of whether or not it’s in the media industry.

Maybe it’s different if you break down what the role in the media industry is. You have media personalities: presenters, hosts, radio DJs, influencers; the kind of professions that need to be on screen. In that case, of course you are required to be more presentable, to speak well, to enunciate well, and look good. If you’re a writer, you have to write well. If you’re a video editor, it’s okay to be a bit quieter because you’re not facing people as much. So it’s dependent on your role in the industry.

Definitely not important. If you have the drive to learn on your own, you don’t actually need a formal education. You can pick up skills from YouTube on your own, like how to shoot and how to hold a camera. If you’re doing technical work or production work, what you need is only technical skills. You don’t need a formal education to teach you all that.

Having connections is important, but being in a school only facilitates that. You can join your own networking associations, you can attend conferences, events, and make friends from there.

School is good in giving you a community of schoolmates and seniors, but compared to the whole industry, at any event you would only know a small percentage of the people there. So you still need to learn networking skills.

Therefore I believe that a formal education is helpful, but it’s the ‘lazy’ way of doing things, because you are spoon-fed information and the whole learning is structured so that you are told what to learn and it’s made easy for you.

And it comes at a cost. There are some people who take huge student loans just to get into university and really, is it worth it? If it’s very important, especially in fields like medicine where you really need to go to school, of course you have to. But otherwise, if you’re in a line of work that you don’t need the qualification as much, you may want to consider what you’re giving up to get that piece of paper.

Having a certificate is a stepping stone, but you can step on that stone on your own. If you’re driven and hungry enough, you can do all these things on your own. You don’t need a formal education. That’s how I see it. Of course, I myself have benefitted from a formal education, but I don’t think it’s strictly necessary.

Don’t be afraid. Just do it. If you don’t try, you won’t learn. Just do what you want to do. Of course it’s easier said than done, but you just have to try.

Within media, the trend tends to be that people want to be advocates for brands, or ambassadors. There are many ways to refer to this role, but the most commonly known is “influencer”. I feel that this role has been thrown around quite a bit. Influence should be something you earn when you do the work that you do.

For example, you’re an artist, and because of your art you gain an influence, a following, or a fan base, you become an influencer. Your first and foremost intention is being an artist, and because of your work you grew a following and that’s great. Because you have an audience, you have a voice and you can carve out your own space where you can share your work with others.

But I feel that there is a trend of younger people wanting to be influencers just so that they have that voice, they can be ambassadors of brands, have sponsored content or carry branded items, and build a career out of just being an ambassador without first establishing what their first intention is and what they want to do with that voice. Influence is the byproduct of your work, but what is first and foremost your work? It’s an important question that you have to answer.

It’s not just being an influencer for the sake of influencing. I think that line has now been so blurred because perhaps as audiences we’re not discerning enough to draw a boundary between someone who has influence as a result of his work and an influencer who is just influencing.

I think people who aspire to be ambassadors should first build that intention for themselves and know what their work is. Know what you want to say, what you want to do, and just keep doing that. Influence will come naturally if you’re good at what you do.

If you have to choose between being realistic and following your passion, to me it depends on your age and stage of your life. If you’re at that stage where you need the money, you’re planning to start a family, you need to provide for your family, or you have immediate concerns about your financial needs, unfortunately I think you have to be realistic and assess the risk of the path that you are going. You might have to put your dreams on hold, or do it as a side hustle.

That’s why so many artists do their art as a side hustle. Because as they say, creative work doesn’t pay a lot. In this current landscape, a lot of people have side hustles and do a lot of things outside of their working time. So if you’re really that passionate, there is always a way for you.

But if you’re a stage of life where you can afford to take a bit of risk, and even if you fail you can try something else that gives you more stability, then I say why not. There’s no harm trying.

The best is to try when you’re studying, because there is relatively no pressure to failing at that period of time. If you come out to work, you’re comparing with your peers who have a proper job, a monthly salary, and stability. Then you’ll feel like you’re inferior.

But if you’re in school and most of your friends are not earning anything yet, having a side hustle kind of gives you an edge, and a space to know whether you can take it on full-time in the future, or if you should just let it remain as a side hustle. Schooling is a very good and safe time to try, especially when you have friends to help you.