Love Is Echoing All Around
Edmund Chen has starred in so many television serials, feature films, stage plays, and tele-movies that he probably needs no introduction.
He is, after all, one of Singapore’s most beloved and recognised artistes! Not only that, he has a large fan following in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam!
What you may not know is that Edmund Chen is a multi-talented over-achiever who has also expanded as a host, director, producer, illustrator, and designer! And as if that wasn’t enough, he also manages to be a supportive husband and a caring father.
We recently sat down with Edmund to find out more about his day-to-day relationship with his two wonderful – and soon to be movie stars! – children.
We initially wanted to find out about the family’s healthy-living habits, but being the cool dad that he is, Edmund steered the conversation towards what it means to be a father and how it feels to see children grow.
It’s not every day that we get the chance to take a peek into parents’ state of mind, so read on to find out how they do their best to make youngsters reach their potential in life:
Breathe: Hello, and thank you for taking the time to talk to Breathe! You manage to make time for your family while still being involved in many projects. So what’s your secret?
Edmund Chen: Basically, I recognise my priorities. I prioritise my life, my work, my family so that I never over-commit myself and live within my capacity. I think that’s very important, because I see many people in this industry, they kind of live stressful lives because they want bigger houses, nicer cars, things like that. We have to understand our capacity and I choose to always live within mine.
B: So you would say it’s very compatible to have a successful career and a fulfilling family life?
EC: It’s my personal point of view that it’s important for family, for bringing up children. There are so many things that are so hard to plan for, for instance right now my little girl is sick, and when she’s sick she needs lots of attention. This is why I prioritise my family life as number one and steer away from being a full-time MediaCorp artiste, to manage and control my own time. So that when there are such events I can be with them, beside them. This is very important to me.
B: Over the years you’ve done movies, TV shows, illustrations, and you’ve been a businessman, a father, and a husband. Do you have any other hidden talents no one suspects?
EC: Yes, in fact I’ve just finished producing my own film. This is the first time I’ve produced my own feature film! It was awarded a special achievement award by the Singapore International Film Festival, and has been sent to Cannes and to Sundance. And I’m due to release my new children’s book – my sixth! – in December.
B: How about sports, or cooking?
EC: Sports-wise, I’m always hoping my children will engage in some sort of sport with me, but they entertain me for like 3 minutes and then they go back to sports on the computer. So right now I’m trying to join them in computer sports activities, so that from there we ease into regular physical activities.
B: So you have to find alternative ways to get them moving, right?
EC: Knowing that they’re not really into sports I compromise by taking them for more travels. It kind of burns a hole in my pocket, but it’s a good way to have some bonding away from computers and video games. We get in a car, in a plane, and we head to a location that allows us to do something together and speak a common language. We partake in various activities. It allows us, the parents, to do something that they, the children, enjoy. That way we learn something about them and they learn something about us. It also gives us a chance to explore topics we don’t always discuss at home.
B: Yi Xi, your 20-year-old son, is currently doing his national service. Is the experience particularly stressful or worrisome for you as a parent?
EC: I think all parents whose boys are doing national service will have some degree of concern or worries. But my boy just had a cornea transplant, so he was downgraded to PES E, which means he’s serving his service in a different physical environment. So it’s not that worrisome. And knowing that his camp-mates and officers are concerned about his health makes me confident as a parent that he is getting friendship and good treatment.
B: How about on his side, how does he adjust to the whole NS experience?
EC: On his side, he knows this is a moment whereby boys turn into young men, and for a while he was very worried about it. So we prepared by visiting the gym, something like 4 days in a week, to condition him and for him to build some muscle mass. We believe that being a serviceman you are there to protect your country, and this is a once in a lifetime kind of thing, so you have to do it well! You should also enjoy it, even though the process itself may be challenging at times. Go through it and have fun. So he’s pretty much prepared for it.
B: Has he ever come to you for advice?
EC: I shared with him all of my personal experiences, giving him my 2 cents. But then again, that was a long time ago, maybe some things are not applicable to him. Children have their new sets of issues and problems. We had our own sets. It’s a new world, you just have to battle and learn and grow, and be a better man.
B: So basically you’ve given him the tools and the support for him to handle the problems that come at him?
EC: Being a parent for me means to have much to teach; and for my boy and my girl to have much to learn. The best we can do is share our values, implant a compass that will allow them to find their own direction in case they face obstacles in life. That way he can decide if something is a right decision to make, especially in the modern world where things can get complicated.
B: Acquiring values is particularly important for young kids like Yi Xin, your 11-year-old daughter.
EC: That’s true. This is why I’m so into doing children’s books, because children are not receptive to the whole “values” message. To them it’s “Hey, I have enough of this at school, at home I want to have good times, why do you have to make things more boring for me?” So through my books I create characters and stories that I share to have fun. But they’re also instilled with messages and life lessons. The thing is, if I were to give the same message, it would sound dry or boring, but if it comes from a cute character, the message will be better received.
B: As a parent trying to instil values to your daughter, how do you help your daughter succeed both in and outside school?
EC: Well, I try to help and support her with her homework for example, but it’s getting tougher and tougher! They get new syllabus that eventually will get too difficult for me! What I can do, even if I’m not the best teacher, is to provide them with a good environment: tools, books, and good mood. I think nursing their mood is important, you can’t force-feed things, it’s better to let them see how if you do something in a particular way then things will happen in a particular way.
B: So you guide them, but from a distance, without being too pushy!
EC: Yes, nurse them and guide them.
B: There is almost a 10 year gap between your children. How do you manage to give equal time to both in activities that may not always be the same?
EC: I have to confess, this is very draining because both are involved in very different activities. It would certainly be easier if I had two boys or two girls, I could take them to the same activity, and that’s it. But it’s not the case, they each have their own likes, they each have their own activities. But it’s also fun, I get to learn about many new things!
B: They say multi-taskers are first and foremost organised people. How did you teach your children to manage their time, to teach them to do many things but also do them well?
EC: My day-to-day management of time is especially challenging for me because I work from home. You need a lot more discipline because there are a lot of distractions. I have to be disciplined, and they watch me from the side-lines. Every day they see that when I work, I work, I don’t play around.
That way they see that when you schedule your time nicely you’re able to achieve many things. They see that once I’m at my working desk I become a professional, and I think this teaches them a lot more about organisation and responsibility than nagging them or scolding them.
Another thing is that sometimes I use my work to bond with them. Like when I work on my story books, when I’m planning a story, I sometimes use them to brainstorm so that they’re involved with the storyboard. And when I did my stamp design for Singapore Post they helped me with the research, they were involved in some of the designs. So they play a role too, we kind of guide and help each other.
B: You’ve been married with MediaCorp artiste Xiang Yun for 21 years. You two have acted together on some famous productions, and most recently you have starred in commercials with your wife and children. What is it like to work with your entire family?
EC: I would use the word “challenging” again. It’s very challenging; it’s very much about understanding and communicating, which always leads to support for each other.
Another aspect is the planning of the schedules. I use the children’s timetables as reference. I plan my professional time in the morning when they are at school, then the afternoon will usually be meetings and more mobile activities, and at night time it’s family time.
It seems simple when I say it like that, but there were times when my wife and I worked in several projects together, and it wasn’t easy to properly divide family time from professional time. That’s how I realised that one of us had to be out of the full-time schedule. Because our children need attention, but filming takes a lot of time! If you have a central role, you can be stuck on set from 8 am to 11 pm, and meanwhile a child may fall down or need help in school.
I believe that raising children is not just about feeding them, it’s about being with them. I want them to have many layers of fond memories with their parents, just like I had with my own father! We went fishing, he was there for my first day of kindergarten, primary school, PSLE, all the important moments. And with my mother, we used to go shopping together, I really cherish these memories!
B: Growing up in the limelight and in the shadow of successful and famous parents must put some pressure on your children. Do they feel any stress or pressure to succeed?
EC: Yes, particularly for my boy, now that he’s older. He kind of hated being under-shadowed, being ignored. My little girl, she felt insecure, because whenever we go out we are taken over by fans, she felt we were taken away from her.
So we included them in our events! Now they are there for every event, and they are our photographers, our chaperones, and they enjoy the whole thing. They probably misunderstood the situation, so we explained it to them, we discussed it and answered their questions, and now they are comfortable with it.
B: And what about if they ever want to do the same career as you? Do you think they would have more pressure than someone who has not been previously exposed to the industry?
EC: That’s a very good question! Some of my colleagues have children, and many of them choose careers in the same field. Some of them don’t do as well as their parents, some of them do better! What we can provide for them to succeed is a comfort zone, in terms of networks, and in terms of platforms where they get familiar with the industry.
What I did recently in my maiden movie, for which I was producer, was to use my wife as director and my two children as co-stars. That way they are able to understand what the film industry is, while being guided by both their parents. So that’s a privilege and benefit they have because they will not be facing it as unprepared or unsupported newcomers. Because this industry can be magical, but when you don’t know anything, it can be quite tough or scary.
A couple years ago my boy said he wasn’t interested in this industry, he said we had different personalities. But now he’s into it. So I guess by not forcing him to like what we like, we also taught him to do what he likes to do, to find his way so that he excels in it.
B: What would you say is the biggest challenge of being a famous father?
EC: I guess balancing fame and family life. Sometimes you have to remember your different identities; drop your celebrity life and come down to be with your family, let them remind you that you are a father and a husband before being a famous person.
It’s the same with other parents in other jobs, someone can be a big CEO, but when he’s home he’s daddy!
I guess it’s not that difficult now, because we take the children everywhere with us, we involve them in our projects; they go to the studio with us.
B: And what is the biggest fulfilment of being a famous father?
EC: I feel very blessed to be in my position, because we are loved by many people. Thankfully I’ve never played a villain, so I am loved by many people, and so I know that our children are loved by many! I also try to make them see that this love is not an entitlement but a privilege. You have to be thankful and appreciate it.
Giving back is important. That’s why I created a portal called ECtv, where all my fellow colleagues share experiences, try to help society, things like that. There is a section called “Easy Click” where we reward whoever was spotted doing an act of kindness with awards. The best submitted picture can even win 1000 dollars in vouchers!
We just wanted to give back to society.
B: What is your advice to youngsters with big artistic ambitions?
EC: Go for it! If you have a dream, go for it! My message is that simple.
In ECtv we have “Mission Easy”, which allows anyone with a dream to reach it. We did a free public workshop for people to learn to be an actor, to learn to write a script, to learn to be a director. They became stars in the project, and then we created the film “Echoing Love” which is now in Cannes and Sundance!
So you have to take the first step, it’s not easy, but it’s easier if other people help you make your dreams come true!
B: Any last message for Singapore youth?
EC: Well, the key message I’d like to tell them is: stay healthy and do the right thing. I know young people try to challenge their limits and impress each other, but in the long run it’s better to think things through.