“I called off my wedding once in the past,” former Ch 8 actress Chen Xiuhuan, best known for her role as an alien in Star Maiden (1988), says right at the start of our two-hour interview with her and her 17-year-old daughter, Shalynn Tsai. “I had quit showbiz at my peak in 1997 to get married [to my current husband]. The media found out about it and publicised it, so the pressure was too much for me. I had already registered for my marriage then, but I told my husband I couldn’t proceed with the wedding banquet. I was so overwhelmed that I thought about not showing up if we went ahead.”
The 49-year-old is here at the 8 DAYS studio for a shoot with Shalynn, who’s one of the stars of Ch 8 drama While We Are Young. The Raffles Institution student, together with the drama’s other second-generation stars Chantalle Ng, Chen Yixin and Calvert Tay are all are signed under celebrity hairstylist Addy Lee’s talent agency Starlist.
“Wow, this is the first time I’m hearing this story,” interrupts Shalynn. “Mummy, you were so harsh to daddy!” Xiuhuan, who has two other daughters, Shanisse, 20, and Shavinne, 13, smiles: “I’m sorry that I treated your father like that. I feel so bad now.” The former bridal shop owner also goes on to regale us with tales of how her Taiwanese businessman then-boyfriend, whom she wants only to be known as Mr Tsai, had proposed to her seven times and that she only said yes after he issued an ultimatum. “He was so hurt when I called off the wedding banquet that he flew back to Taiwan and we didn’t keep in touch after that.” It wasn’t until a life-threatening health scare in 1998 that Xiuhuan realised Mr Tsai was The One. “I got my medical report after a full body check-up and it wasn’t good. The doctor told me I had to go for treatment and that I should inform my family,” she says, declining to reveal what sickness she had, saying only that she has recovered fully. This is also the first time Xiuhuan is opening up about this part of her life to the public.
“I was crying when [my now-husband] walked into my bridal shop on the same day that I got my medical report. I hadn’t seen him for a whole year [despite being legally married to him], but he came to look for me ’cos, as a married couple, we had to file our income tax together (laughs),” she says. “I showed him the report, hugged him and cried. He then told me he’d go through this darkest period of my life with me. After I recovered, I asked him if we could start afresh and he said yes. So we held a banquet at the end of that year.” She adds: “Without his patience and generosity, I wouldn’t have this beautiful family now! (Smiles)” Upon hearing this, Shalynn quips: “Wow, I need to go home and hug my dad tonight (laughs).”
8 DAYS: We have to say that we’re very surprised by that story. For everyone who watched Ch 8 in the ’80s and ’90s, you always seemed like the super-sweet girl-next-door.
CHEN XIUHUAN: (Laughs) I used to be very unfriendly and difficult to get along with. I wouldn’t have taken the first step to reconcile [with my husband]. Even when he was wooing me, I’d slam the door in his face if I was very tired from filming. He’s been there for me through the lowest points of my life. Like when I injured my knee during filming and had to be in a wheelchair, he ferried me everywhere in his car. Who else can do that for me? (smiles)
How did you get to know him?
X: He was a good friend of [former actress] Cassandra See’s then-boyfriend and I’d see him at mahjong sessions or beach gatherings with Zoe Tay, Ivy Lee, Cassandra and their partners. Everyone had a boyfriend except me so I was often ‘paired up’ with him. I didn’t like him at all ’cos he’d carry this tiny white dog around, and I found it so annoying. When he eventually won me over with his persistence, Zoe was so shocked! (Laughs)
You started acting in 1984 and left when your popularity was at its peak in ’97. Why?
X: I had no choice. My then-boyfriend told me: “It’s either you quit or I quit.” I was nominated for the Best Actress and Top 10 Most Popular Female Artiste categories in the Star Awards but had to pull out. It was a big decision. Giving up my job, which was practically my entire life, just to get married. My hands were shaking so badly when I signed on the dotted line. But I didn’t regret my decision to leave showbiz. I remember the night after I quit was the first time in a very long while that I had a really good sleep.
If you found acting to be such a tough job, why did you still allow Shalynn to act?
X: I was strongly against it initally! I was really angry ’cos I was shopping in Taiwan when Shalynn called to tell me she wanted to go to Shanghai with a few of the other kids in Addy’s company. I said it was impossible and scolded her. In the end, she called my husband and asked him to persuade me! (Laughs) I agreed to let her go eventually as I felt that it was just a holiday with her peers. Anyway, I won’t allow her to take on any acting gigs next year as she needs to focus on her A-Levels.
SHALYNN TSAI: Actually my mum has nothing to worry about ’cos studies will always be more important to me. I’ll study hard and hopefully get into medical school (chuckles).
We’ve heard that you’re the ultimate Tiger Mum.
X: Oh, when Shalynn got 97/100 for her tests in primary school, I’d cane her if I realised that those marks were lost due to carelessness. I would spend so many hours studying and going through their homework with them that I felt like I was the one sitting for the exams. Instead of toys, I’d buy them books. They couldn’t watch TV, so when Zoe or [Hong] Huifang visited us, my daughters didn’t know they were actresses (laughs).
S: I was so scared of my mum. She was so fierce and so kiasu (laughs). Even when I watched cartoons, she would tell me that my brains would rot. I was finally allowed to watch TV in secondary school but I didn’t have time to ’cos I was too busy studying. She’s a lot more chill now that we’re older. However, I still don’t have a data plan for my phone — I’m using a pre-paid SIM card. Can you believe it? Doesn’t it sound like I live in some dystopian city? (Guffaws) But I’ve negotiated with her to let me get a data plan next year!
What did your husband think of your Tiger Mum ways?
X: My husband is less strict so if he knew I was going to cane them, he’d always rush home from work. I had an agreement with him that I could only cane them twice each time, and only on their butt, palm or calves. I also stopped caning them after they turned 12. But I would always explain why I did it. That’s why we are still so close now. My dad slapped me once when I was 12 in front of all my neighbours for something I didn’t do. I never forgave him. I only said sorry to him when he was ill last year and I asked for his forgiveness for not talking to him for so long. He passed away at the age of 82 the same year. I’m glad I reached out to him. If not, I’ll never forgive myself.
Did you visit Shalynn on set?
X: Nope. I didn’t even send her to work. She’s the one who wanted to pursue acting so I made sure she knew how tough it was. She had to get there and come home on her own. I told her I’d teach her how to emote before she filmed a crying scene. But I went on a holiday and when I got back, she had already filmed it! (Laughs)
S: My mum was mostly overseas when I was filming, okay? She took my siblings to Japan! I had to wake up extra early, and on some days, I had to rush back to school after filming. But I guess I became a lot more independent.
We guess Shalynn’s not allowed to date too?
X: Of course not. But she is free to date once she enters university. I always tell my daughters that it’s okay if guys like them. When I was younger, I also had many guys wooing me (Guffaws). I remember there was this Eurasian boy who liked Shalynn and asked her out and I told her she could be friends with him. There’s no harm in making friends.
S: I have many male friends and I treat all of them like bros. But my mum always tells me to have more female friends. She says if I’m attached in the future, my boyfriend won’t like it if I have too many male friends (laughs).
X: It’s true! Next time when you get married, you need your girlfriends to be there for you! Anyway, she’s pretty so it’s natural that guys fall for her. When she was born, she was really dark and ugly, though! Her head was so big that I thought she looked a little abnormal. I even asked my husband why our daughter was so ugly!
S: Do you know she took me to the doctor for a full body check-up when I was younger ’cos she felt that my head was way too big (chuckles)?
X: Out of my three daughters, Shalynn was the ugliest when she was born. Thankfully, she grew up to be so pretty! (Smiles)
While We Are Young is airing on Ch 8 at 9pm now.