From The Straits Times    |

After more than two decades of not seeing her dad, home-grown actress-host Sharon Au thought 2024 would mark their grand reunion

The 48-year-old Paris-based star, who fell out of contact with her father, Mr Jeffrey Au, as a teenager and reconnected with him over text only in recent years, had plans to finally meet him in person this year.

She intended to visit him over Chinese New Year and invite him to watch her act in a play to be staged at Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts in mid-February. 

But on Christmas Day 2023, a week before she returned to Singapore for rehearsals, she received news of his death. He was 74.

“My last message to him was ‘Merry Christmas, dad’,” Au tells The Straits Times at a sit-down interview at a restaurant in Aliwal Arts Centre in January. She has been rehearsing almost every day at the centre.

“I sent it on Christmas Eve, but he didn’t reply. I felt like something was wrong because he usually replies to all my texts within 20 minutes. I thought maybe he was asleep.

“I tried to go to sleep and waited for him to reply in the morning. He didn’t. The whole day, I couldn’t celebrate. Then I got a text from my aunt that said, ‘Sorry, your dad has passed.’”

Mr Au had been suffering from significant gastric reflux issues in his final years.

His death was devastating for Au, who reconnected with him only five years ago. Her parents divorced when she was two and she was shuttled between relatives. 

She lost regular contact with her father – a former Criminal Investigation Department police sergeant in the Secret Societies Branch – in her last year of primary school. But he reached out to her at the height of France’s Yellow Vests Protests in 2018, which caused fatalities. 

“I don’t know how he found my number, but he texted me out of the blue to say hi and that he saw the news and ask how I was doing. I was shocked, because we had been leading separate lives, but I told him it was good to hear from him.”

Since then, the two kept in touch over text, sending greetings on occasions like birthdays and festive holidays. 

“I was very guarded,” Au admits. “But he was very affectionate. He would tell me to dress warm, send me little poems addressed to his dear daughter. It was the beginning of what I foresaw to be a grand reunion.”

Despite returning to Singapore several times in the past five years, Au never set up a meeting with her father, who remarried when she was a child.

She says: “I had qualms about visiting him because I didn’t want to intrude on his family. We hadn’t seen each other in so long that I didn’t know what his situation was like. He also never asked to meet, so I thought perhaps it wasn’t convenient for him.

“But I was going to put all that aside this year and ask to see him.”

She is filled with regrets about their missed reunion. 

“I never got to tell him, ‘I love you’. He told me ‘I love you’ every time we texted, but I didn’t. It’s not easy. I wanted to say it to him in person. But I did too much waiting and lost my chance. 

“I’m very angry with myself because I should’ve known better. I’ve been preaching about living your life and seizing the day, but I didn’t practise what I preached. I didn’t do this most important thing in my life. It’s a huge wake-up call.”

Au last saw her father when she was 23, while she was filming an episode of the popular Channel 8 variety show City Beat in Chinatown. He had chanced upon the shoot and was part of the curious crowd that gathered to watch.

“He was always dressed in all white, so he stood out. He was waving to me. I went up to him to say hello, but I couldn’t linger for longer because we were filming,” she recalls.

Sharon Au and her father reconnected via text only in recent years after losing contact for most of her adult life.
Credit: Desmond Wee

Prior to that meeting, Au would get scheduled visits from him every month when she was in primary school. She moved in with him for two years when she was in Primary 4, but moved to another relative’s home in Primary 6 – which was when she lost touch with him.

She is not in contact with her father’s side of the family.

When asked why the two stopped communicating, she declines to give more information.

She was also estranged from her mother, Madam Irene Ong, while growing up, and reconnected with her only when she had to move in with her at 17.

While their relationship was frosty at first, the pair reconciled after a few years of living together and have shared a close bond since. 

Au says: “I think it’s very common for a child of divorce to blame the parents and, in my case, I blamed both of them. I felt they both abandoned me and threw me to relatives. But now that I’m an adult, I can see how circumstances are really tough sometimes.”

Au, who spent sleepless nights crying after her father died, has been mourning him by visiting the columbarium where his remains are. 

“At some point, you’ll feel a bit stupid because you’re just touching the stone and talking. But I can’t stop talking and it’s actually been very helpful,” she says. 

She also found solace in keepsakes like a pen, a whistle and a pair of white shoes that belonged to him. She received the items from his co-workers at St Andrew’s Secondary School, where he worked as an educator before his death. 

Rehearsals for Everything For You, a play written and directed by Nelson Chia of Nine Years Theatre for Esplanade’s upcoming Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts, have also kept her busy.

It is a sequel to Chia’s 2022 Huayi commission, Between You And Me, and will be staged on Feb 16 and 17. Au reprises her role as one of three sisters in the family drama. 

“Previously, my role was very tragic and I had to cry throughout the show. It’s lighter this time, which is a fortunate thing because I can’t imagine coming back and doing a tragedy (while in mourning),” she says.

Au, who quit her job as an investment director in a private equity firm in 2022 after her Paris home was burgled, has not taken up any full-time position since. She is glad to return to Singapore for the occasional stage play, but admits she is not ready to move back for good.

The bachelorette migrated to France in 2018 and now resides in the capital with her pet cat Rudon, who will turn four this year.

She says: “There are too many memories here and it’s too sad. It’s not helping me at this stage. Maybe when I feel less lost and less troubled in the future, I will come back. But I’m a bit of an escapist.

“You just can’t start afresh in a place where you grew up. When you’re in a city far away where no one knows your history, you’re just another Asian woman with a cat.”

This article was first published in The Straits Times.