Theatre director Dr. Loretta Chen has just released her awe-inspiring book, ‘Madonnas and Mavericks’, detailing the accounts of 17 Singaporean women with strong spheres of influence within and beyond our island home. Over the course of their interview with Dr. Chen, these insightful women share intimate stories, life lessons and account for their struggles to push boundaries in their well-lived lives.
These women, who were selected across varying fields ranging from legal, financial, medical, fashion, sports, arts to the ubiquitous social media, are all remarkable in their own right; they’re far from cookie cutter similar, so to speak. All empowering, resilient and most importantly steadfast in their virtues, these women define their own term of being a ‘feminist’ in place of allowing it to outline their identity.
Some of these women value career while others, their family. Some women regard having kids to be the greatest milestone accomplished in life, others look towards achieved accolades. In short, these women prove that the idea of an ‘ideal’ feminist is not contingent on his or her professional passage, but rather on how they bring women together and support them regardless of their choices.
And this book does just that. Dr. Chen brings to us refreshingly honest accounts on what it takes for women to scale the peaks and thrive in their fields. As readers, we’re compelled to feel connected with these women as we breeze through each of their own tell-all; sharing laughter, tears and pride with the highly engaging monologues.
Carrying the baton forward from Dr. Chen’s female-to-female empowerment, we’ll be zooming in on some of power women featured in the book in two divided segments. In this first part, we’ll be looking into the eye-opening lives of Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh, veteran actress Xiang Yun and entrepreneur Tjin Lee.
We’re kicking things off with a name obscure to none. The 30 year old swimmer won bronze in the 100m breaststroke at the 2016 Summer Paralympics and holds world records for the 50m and 200m breaststroke events. Having received multiple merit awards from the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) over the years and awarded the Her World Young Woman Achiever accolade in 2005, the outstanding para-athlete was even conferred the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) in the National Day Awards back in August 2007.
Theresa, with her never-say-die attitude and progressive agility in the waters, may very well just be the prime living definition of resilience. Born without the use of her limbs due to a birth defect known as spina bifida, Theresa began swimming — as any child would, — for fun at the age of 5 and was discovered by a SDSC volunteer at the age of 12 at the pool. The volunteer urged Theresa’s father to bring her to the then-upcoming National Disability Swimming Champs to test the waters, and the rest of history.
Opening up to Dr. Chen on how her parents raised her without “special treatment as much as possible”, she said that if she “didn’t even realise consciously that [she] had a disability” since her parents disciplined her with equal conduct as they would her younger siblings.
In the book, Theresa shared, “My parents were always insistent on me achieving independence and set about to make sure that I could do almost anything on my own. I Started reading about mindsets and I knew that in time, I would have to rely on myself and had to achieve full independence.”
We had the honour of speaking to Theresa herself at the the book launch. Commenting on the significance of the book, she said, “Today when you see inspiring figures, I think you see a lot more of men [than women] - but only because their achievements are more featured [in media]. [Most] of time when a woman is featured, it's someone that's seriously extraordinary. [But] there are more stories from women that are worth telling, and are not told. So I think these kind of opportunities where you can have women stories being told to inspire others (whether women or men) is very important."
Fun fact: The veteran actress with over 30 years of experience in showbiz also happens to be author Dr. Chen’s sister-in-law. Married to the author’s brother — and ex-Mediacorp celebrity — Edmund Chen, the Mediacorp “Ah Jie” has starred in countless leading and supporting roles in popular Mandarin drama series. Some of her most notable works include acting in the drama series “The Awakening”, “The Prince of Peace” and of course, her unforgettable silver screen debut in one the highest grossing Singaporean film of all time, “I Not Stupid”.
Having carved a niche for herself in her adroit acting craft, her perennial grace and flair in front of the camera can be attested to by all Singaporeans who’ve been watching on screen night after night while they were growing up. Her work has indubitably amassed a loyal following of fans and widespread local recognition, aiding in the progression of the local media industry. For 10 consecutive years straight from 2000 to 2010, she bagged the Mediacorp annual Star Award for the Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes category. She was also awarded the Best Supporting Actress at said award ceremony in 1998, 200 and 2001.
Xiang Yun’s not-so-glamorous beginnings are not hidden to obscurity by the charming wise actress — Dr. Chen made the point to allude to how her beloved da sao had taken that unwavering humility with her all through the years.
In the book, Xiang Yun touched on her earliest memories of growing up in a poor family and the harsh conditions which came along with it. She also mentioned the acting climate back in the black-and-white TV era where she had her breakthrough role in ‘The Awakening’. With insightful and engaging thoughts on keeping her sanity and health over long shoots, ageing in front of the camera and being married in the public eye, the TV darling even opens up about dating Edmund Chen in secret back in the day.
Above all the juicy media ‘insider’ accounts, Xiang Yun also acknowledges the positive mindset required when it comes to being in showbiz. Sharing her mantra in life, she said, “I learnt that there is no way to attain perfection in life. Eventually, the only things you can pursue are reality, charity and beauty. You come to terms with who you really are, you create good work and do good for others, and from there, natural beauty will emanate and that is what will last.”
You’ll know her as the maverick who put Singapore’s fashion scene on the map. Tjin Lee, the founder of Mercury Group — a recognised agency which handles creative, events, public relations, marketing and communications arms — has spearheaded the organisation of major events such as Singapore Fashion Week and Audi Fashion Festival. In her own words, she wanted to build Mercury because “she was bored with the cyclical nature of fashion and yearned to do more creative endeavours.”
True to her entrepreneuring spirit, she who never quits has successfully built an empire of businesses by co-founding and starting other enterprises such as Trehaus (a family-friendly co-working space), Wolfgang Violin Studio, and Style Icon (an online baby apparel store).
Judging from Tjin’s Instagram, it’s clear that the mother-of-two (you can see her uber adorable sons here) places regards family with utmost importance. Managing to put time aside for globetrotting to faraway lands for family vacations, her balance between invigorating work and home-life is beyond us. In the book, Tjin shares her secret weapon to that saying, “I believe that the less you sleep, you more you do. A typical person sleeps eight hours a day, so I get two extra hours every day [by sleeping for six hours], which is 14 hours every week — an additional work day.”
“People have asked how I juggle motherhood and the running of multiple businesses. The truth is I really don’t think about it — I just do it as a way of life.”
Here’s what’s truly impressive. Tjin has also been quoted in The New York Times talking about “The ABC for Every New Business”, sharing her tips and advice in entrepreneurship. In the book, she elaborates further on her ‘ABCs’, letting us in on the must-knows for every aspiring enterprise kick-starter. Tjin, who also mentors a few women on being both a mother and business women, confided in Dr. Chen on her temporary decision to step back from work to look after her kids — giving us an honest take on being a full-time working mother in Singapore.
Speaking to us at the book launch, Tjin was eloquent and sweet-natured in disposition. She told us that if she had one thing to say to younger girls who were looking to her for inspiration, she would tell them this: “[Don’t] be intimidated. Don’t be discouraged when people tell you that you can’t move a mountain when they have never done it themselves. It’s really important that you believe in yourself, and you take that first step. There’s a quote that goes, ‘Either one day, or day one. You decide.” Everyday is a starting point, it’s never too late to begin.”
Madonnas and Mavericks: Power women in Singapore, $32 before GST. Available at all Kinokuniya bookstores.