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Margaret Chan: Being Diagnosed With Cancer Was Really Scary But What Else Could I Do?

"I sang at the top of my voice and danced my way out of the hospital on my last day of cancer treatment."

The 67-year-old actress-turned-educator talks to us about her recent appearance on Ch 5 show Meet the MP, surviving cancer, and being asked by strangers to say that famous “cockroach” line.

BEST KNOWN AS… the stage doyenne and former journalist/food critic who became a TV icon playing villainous matriarchs on shows like Ch 5’s first English soap Masters of the Sea, and the Ch 8 blockbuster The Golden Pillow. In 1996, she and her family moved to England when her husband was posted there. She took up post-graduate studies at the University of London before returning to Singapore in 2000.

WHAT’S SHE UP TO LATELY: When she isn’t the Associate Professor of Theatre/Performance Studies at Singapore Management University, she still finds time to act on stage and on TV. She recently appeared on the Aaron Aziz sitcom Meet the MP as a neighbour embroiled in a haunting incident. 

8 DAYS: We recently saw you as a guest star on Meet the MP. It’s been a while since you’ve been on the small screen, hasn’t it?
MARGARET CHAN: Well, I want to do a lot more, but nobody wants me, that’s all (laughs). I’m working full-time as a professor [at the Singapore Management University] now, so I can only shoot at certain timings. I had a lot of fun filming Meet the MP as the director was very good, and that made all the difference. There was a scene where I had to dress up as a Pontianak and be seen floating. I was told that I had to stand on a hoverboard and that was kind of dangerous. But it turned out that they didn’t put me on that; I just sat on a stool and they pushed me on a trolley. It’s just one example, but you can see how considerate the director was. It was wonderful working on set with all these lovely and kind people.

I ain’t afraid of no ghost: Chan (centre) with Catherine Sng and Lok Meng Chue. They play friends plotting to devalue a flat by faking a ghost haunting.

Did you get pre-acting jitters because you haven’t been on screen in a while? 
I’ve never been and never am self-conscious when I act. I get into the role when I’m acting, and I become that person. It’s only awkward when I have to do love scenes or kissing scenes, and very often, you hate the person whom you have to kiss and he hates you too (laughs).

You’re currently a SMU lecturer, and have been in academia for almost 20 years. What prompted the career switch?
I decided to go into academia after acting on Masters of the Sea and The Golden Pillow. I’m a realist, and I know that no matter how good I am as an actress, I can’t play a young person forever. So I felt that I wanted to get a job which would want me more as I become older. I thought that being a professor would give me the job security I want and need, so I pursued this path. I got my PhD in Philosophy at the age of 52, through the UK Overseas Research Scholarships, which is a very distinguished scholarship.

What keeps you going after so long?
As corny as it sounds, I suppose that I have a vocation. You teach these little ones, and they, in turn, love you back. I love people, and now that my children are all grown up, it’s the younger people I have to look after. And I hope that they will learn from me too.

You were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2012. 
I had 26 radiotherapy sessions, and I also had chemo. In chemo, before you start, everyone looks normal. But bit by bit, everyone looks worse and worse. For someone like me who is always talking and laughing, I was reduced to sitting on a wheelchair. My husband was wonderful, and he took good care of me, so I didn’t feel like I was a burden at all. It was really scary, but what else could I do? But I told the doctors and nurses at the National Cancer Centre that on the last day of my treatment, I would sing and dance my way out of there. And — guess what? — I did. I sang at the top of my voice and danced my way out of the hospital. Everyone looked at me like I was a mad woman but I didn’t care (laughs).

You received the prestigious Fulbright Research Scholarship to study in New York City last year. It seems like you’re an advocate of lifelong learning.
I had cancer, and it made me feel that I want to live life fully, which is why I applied for the scholarship. I was very grateful because someone out there was willing to give me the scholarship without worrying that I’d kick the bucket the following year or something. Most importantly, it gave me the affirmation that I am somebody, notwithstanding my age, my gender or my race, and that I’d learn and bring the knowledge back to Singapore, and pass it on to the next generation.

Back in the day: Margaret Chan raising hell on 1994’s Masters of the Sea. 

Many people remember you for your iconic phrase “I’ll crush you like a cockroach” on Masters of the Sea. How often do you get people asking you to say the line? 
Very often (guffaws). The drama may have aired very long ago, but till this day, people meet me on the streets and they [still] remember me. They remember my voice, if anything. Sometimes, I go to the supermarket, and I get people stopping me and asking if I’m Margaret Chan. However, I usually laugh when they ask me to deliver that line. I’m an actress, I have to be completely in that role to do it. I won’t be able to do it well when I’m simply me. But yes, I’m very grateful for the acknowledgement from Singaporeans. It sounds corny, but it’s true. Every human being needs to be acknowledged, and needs to know that he or she is precious. Only in that way, will they blossom (smiles).

Meet the MP airs Wed, Ch 5, 9.30pm; Margaret’s ep ‘The MP and the Neighhourhood Ghost’ is available on Catch-up on Toggle.sg.

MAIN PHOTO: MARK LEE 

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