Getai veteran Liu Ling Ling, 54, calls the stage her second home. After all, she has been singing and hosting getai shows for over four decades, and occasionally  stars in Ch 8 shows such as long-form drama 118 as well as local movies including Royston Tan’s 2015 musical-movie 3688. She will reprise her role as a judge in the second season of Ch 8 talent contest Getai Challenge this month.

8 DAYS: You’ve been performing at getai shows since you were 12 years old. How much did you get for your first paycheque?
LIU LING LING: I started singing on stage when I was six and I’d earn 50 cents or $1 per show back then. However, the government banned kids under 12 from performing soon after, so I stopped for a few years until I was 12. My dad, who used to teach opera performers, trained me really hard. I’d wake up at 5am for vocal training daily, followed by cardio exercises before heading to school. After school, I’d go for vocal classes again. It was really tough and I wanted to give up but I couldn’t as I had to earn money for my family, ’cos we were very poor. Subsequently, I got better, and could ask for $15 per show even though I was only 12 — and this was in the ’70s — and I managed to earn quite a bit to support my family.

How much do you command per show now?
Now that I’m older and have been in this line for a longer time, my asking rate is higher. Besides getai shows, I also perform at company D&D events, Mother’s Day or Chinese New Year concerts, and community centre shows. My rates are different for each category. On average, during the non-peak season, I earn about $8,000 to $10,000 a month from different gigs. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, I make about $40,000. However, this is just an estimate as my income isn’t stable.

What do you splurge on?
It may seem like I’m earning quite a bit but I spend a lot on making my getai costumes as well. I usually pay tailors from Malaysia to custom make them for me, and I’d order 10 sets of outfits for a total of $10,000 each time. I do that about three times a year so I spend $30,000 just on clothes. I’d also buy accessories from Thailand, Hongkong and Taiwan. Just a one-week trip to Bangkok to buy outfits, shoes and headgear for work would cost me $6,000. I’d say that 50 per cent of my earnings go to buying clothes and accessories for my performances.

Why do you spend so much on your getai outfits?
I try not to repeat my stage outfits more than six to seven times, as people might notice, especially when photos get uploaded onto social media these days. I don’t want organisers who hire me to feel that I’m recycling outfits from other shows. In fact, I have about 10 huge boxes of old costumes that I left at my friend’s backyard ’cos I have no space for them now. I think it’s a worthwhile investment because I’ve since set a high standard for myself, and the audience would constantly look forward to seeing what I wear on stage. This is something I take pride in as I want organisers to feel that they’ve made the right choice in hiring me for their gigs even though I may ask for a higher price than other getai performers.

Given that you invest so much in your work, do you splurge on anything for your personal use?
I’m very thrifty when it comes to my personal life. I don’t buy designer bags, and I only go for things that are more practical and durable. When it comes to shopping, I like to look out for sales. For example, if there’s a sale on underwear at the market for $2.50 per piece, I’d buy 40 at a go and wear them over the course of a year. The same goes for make-up or skincare products. I’d befriend the sales staff and ask them to call me when there are good discounts. I’d usually buy more than 10 bottles of shower gel when the price is reduced because I know it’s something that I will eventually use. This way, I get to save a lot of money.

What made you decide to spend $100,000 on artificial insemination four years ago?  
I really wanted to have a kid, and I’d been trying for one through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) since I was 40 years old. I’d been unsuccessful for 10 years before I got pregnant. I may have spent a huge sum of money trying to conceive, but money can always be earned. Having a child now is so precious to me. 

Have your spending habits changed now that you have a son?
Of course. I not only have to take care of my son, I also look after my mum, and my sister, who had breast cancer two years ago. I don’t buy a lot of clothes for my son — I usually accept hand-me-downs from friends. Sometimes, I head to wholesale markets in Chinatown to buy clothes for my kid and myself as they are way cheaper. If I see a nice pair of kids’ shoes at a good price, I’d buy two pairs. However, I’d buy the second pair in a bigger size so that he can wear them when he’s older ’cos kids grow up really fast these days. Also, he loves playing with Lego toys but they cost about $200, so I’d buy similar ones from the market which only cost $50. All these little things add up! (Laughs)

You sound like quite the savings guru. Any other savings tips for our readers?
Plenty! Let me give you an example: If I see a dress going for $150, I won’t buy it. I’d check out its design, and make a similar piece at home for half the price. I like to check out party supply shops, pasar malams, and also old clothing stores along Arab Street. If I see something nice during Christmas, I’d wait until after Christmas to buy it ’cos the price would usually be reduced by a substantial amount. I once bought Christmas fairy lights for $3 and used them for my getai headgear or outfits (laughs). If you are creative enough, you can always make a cheap outfit look expensive!

Getai Challenge premieres on Ch 8, Apr 20 at 11.30am.