Luxurious Gold Class cinema halls? Cinemas as event venues? Who thought up these crazy ideas?
A funny thing happened when we were having a photo session at Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC)’s Signature cineplex in The Gardens, Kuala Lumpur, with Liew Aing Suan, GSC’s senior manager of cinema exhibition.
I had been telling Liew about how I had brought a Dutch friend to see a movie at the GSC Mid Valley Megamall in KL, and that friend had commented on how our cinemas were world-class and better than those in his own country.
Just moments later, an American couple walked into the hall, and commented to Liew on just how good they thought GSC Signature was, how they loved watching movies there in the cosy twin chairs, and that there was nothing like Signature back home in the United States.
If only we could have bottled Liew’s beaming pride, it would light up a house for a month.
The members of the press, her colleagues and everyone in the cinema industry know her as “Mrs Liew.” To this day, there has been no other way of addressing her. Very few know that she is actually Liew Aing Suan, nee Ong Aing Suan.
Even fewer outside the industry know that she had a hand in pioneering many of the things we see in, and associate with, local cinemas and multiplexes today.
More than a decade ago, before the opening of GSC’s 18-hall multiplex in Mid Valley Megamall, no one had heard of luxury cinema halls, and certainly no one imagined there could be a cinema hall with comfortable reclining armchairs where, during the movie, you were served popcorn and drinks by the staff, without having to queue at the concession stands.
In 2000, when the Mid Valley multiplex was opened, the Gold Class was born, the brainchild of general manager Irving Chee, and an idea inspired by the beautiful cinemas in Thailand. Liew and her team helped to bring that idea to life.
Tan Gaik Lian, GSC’s marketing manager for corporate communications and branding, said, “Mrs Liew selected the chairs, decided on the colour scheme of the hall, and determined the service level, among other things.”
Said Liew, “The Gold Class was difficult at first because no one understood what it was and people felt intimidated by it.
“I’d always wanted to keep an open door and let people have a peek at what the Gold Class was. Then they might want to try it. It was the same when we started GSC Signature. People wondered why the Gold Class looked like a hotel. But today, the occupancy is very high and it’s making money.”
Signature, too, was Liew’s “baby”, a “dream come true” for her, something on which she, Chee and their team had worked hard for. That was why she could not contain her smiles at the American couple’s comments.
Strangely enough, Liew never wanted to join GSC, but somehow, ended up in the cinema industry and changing things there. After working in various jobs, including as personal assistant and in retail and procurement, Liew decided – in 1990 – to start (“with just a table and a chair”) CineAd Sdn Bhd, a cinema-related media sales company which is a subsidiary of GSC.
It wasn’t long before GSC (formerly Golden Communications) noticed her talent, and in 2000, when the company was in need of a marketing manager, asked her to help out with their cinemas.
“I was quite reluctant at first,” said Liew, “but then I thought, what if I can brand and market the cinema? At the time, CineAd was just a contractor for media sales. So, I thought if I were in control of the cinema operations, it would help CineAd a lot.”
Liew said Tanjung Golden Village had pioneered the concept of the multiplex in Malaysia, and already had three to five-screen multiplexes when GSC Mid Valley opened. But with 18 screens, GSC Mid Valley was the largest multiplex at the time. And Liew had an idea.
“I thought, since the cinema is rather quiet in the mornings, why don’t we sell the halls to companies for their functions, seminars and meetings?” she said.
“When we opened the Mid Valley cineplexes, I had wanted a suspended projector that can project onto the big screen for presentations.”
Hardwork, not glamour
A funny thing also happened during GSC Mid Valley’s first anniversary celebrations. Liew had been tasked with organising the event, and she decided to do something that would get them into the Malaysia Book of Records – bake the longest Swiss roll.
Being new to the scene and not having many contacts, she decided to call on former employers and colleagues for help. They donated flour and boxes, and a former staff member offered to bake the cake.
The cake was cut up and sold to the public during the event, and the proceeds went to the National Cancer Council (Makna), because Liew’s husband, an accountant, had just passed away from cancer at the time.
During the event, she saw that Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting, then Housing and Local Government Minister, was at the other end of the boulevard officiating another event. She went up to him and asked if he would like to grace GSC’s event and do the honour of cutting the Swiss roll.
“After he finished with his event, he came over, and so did the press,” said Liew. “We managed to raise RM10,000 from the sales of the cake.”
It’s funny that Liew never even wanted to get a job after she was married, because she had always wanted to be a housewife.
“I love cooking and gardening, but my husband said, ‘Don’t waste your time, go to work’,” Liew, who started out as an executive secretary, remembered with a laugh.
“But when you work not for money or a career, you are more daring, you will explore and take risks. And all my bosses know that I work because of the passion for the job. Otherwise, I would leave a job very quickly.”
This philosophy has carried her through all her working years, and she has put it to very good use in GSC.
She has always had a love for films (her all-time favourite movie is Gone With The Wind), and admitted that she had thought it would be glamorous to be in the cinema industry, that is, until she went to Cannes, France, with distribution manager Yvonne Tan to attend the film market in 2002. At the time, she said, GSC was still in the red.
“I was told we were going to stay at a place called the Little Palace,” said Liew.
“I thought, ‘Wow!’ When we got there, I saw that it was the equivalent of our local rumah tumpangan! But it was still a very expensive place to stay. And the lift could only accommodate one person and one bag at a time!” she recalled humorously.
After that, despite the nightly parties there, it was all work and no play for Liew and Tan, who had scripts to read every night.
“Glamour? What glamour?” Liew laughed.
Tan said of Liew: “Although she holds a senior position, she is a real live-wire who dares to show her naughty side. And she also has a knack for telling the most outrageous stories that leave us in stitches.”
When asked for a sample of Liew’s stories, Tan replied: “They’re not printable!”
Liew will be retiring this year, which also happens to be GSC’s 25th anniversary. “A highlight year,” she said.
Since she entered the industry at the turn of the century, she has seen how film exhibition and cinemas have changed, from 35mm prints being shown in large halls to the advent of digital projection and the much smaller cineplexes. She was also the only female staff in GSC in the early days.
Datuk Ahmad Zaharul Annuar, CEO of Esprit Media, remembered when, as an account servicing personnel handling the Dunhill account, he and Liew had embarked on their first movie sponsorship. And the movie was Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond.
“It was a big deal!” he said. “Being passionate about the business and delivering what she promised, she almost single-handedly ensured that we continued our sponsorship for several more movies … Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Star Wars: Episode I.”
Anna Ng, former general manager of Buena Vista Columbia TriStar, recalled when she was Leo Burnett’s media and research director in the early 1990s and had clients who were keen to advertise in the cinemas. So, naturally, she worked with CineAd and found Liew to be “the most impressionable lady in the media circle”.
Catherine Chai, marketing manager of Sony Pictures Releasing (Malaysia), who described Liew as a “super woman”, amusingly offered: “Her stories about movies and video games never fail to amaze and amuse me.”
Said Liew, “I think I’ve been lucky. I’ve been doing something different in every job. I always tell myself I must reach further than what I’m currently doing. You have to do more so that you will learn. All my life, nothing has been a career or a job.” – By ALLAN KOAY