In a frank and open sharing session with members and associates of the Women Entrepreneurs Club on Saturday, former Mediacorp star Sharon Au, herself a newly-minted entrepreneur, described her business venture as the culmination of her third “kee siao” episode.
“In my 44 years, I left home three times,” said the hugely popular actress, who recently set up Ti Yan Academy, an online French culinary academy for aspiring chefs. “That’s when I kee siao,” added Sharon, using an expression in the vernacular to explain that she “went crazy”, much to the mirth of the intimate gathering of some 50 entrepreneurs at VUE Restaurant at the rooftop of OUE Bayfront.
While her later runaway episodes – to Japan in 2005 and to Paris in 2018 – may have been well-documented in the local media, her first was a surprise to all present at the event.
“The first time I kee siao was when I was 10 years old,” said Sharon, who was resplendent in a crystal-embellished ruffled woven mini dress by Paris-based Singapore designer Andrew Gn, and looking every inch the TV star despite having left the scene for more than 15 years.
“My parents were divorced, so I was moved from one auntie to another,” explained Sharon. And she wasn’t thrilled by the experience of having to adjust to new surroundings and each new family who didn’t always make her feel welcome. She was also totally unimpressed with her cousins who regarded her with unease and suspicion, and who weren’t always kind to her.
“I was exhausted,” she said, on the day she was to be driven to yet another auntie’s home. “I remember it was Block 633, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6. I came down the stairs with my uncle and he said, ‘Wait here, I’ll go get the car’.”
And when her uncle made his way to the back of the block, Sharon made a dash for freedom.
“I know it was irresponsible of me, but I was tired of moving! So I had this insanity – to put a stop to it.”
She then called her dad and cooked up a story about her mother deciding it was his turn that year to take care of her. According to her, her dad remained very calm and asked her where she was before coming to pick her up.
While she did not elaborate about what happened thereafter, it was probably the last first and last time she ran away when she was a child.
“If something doesn’t go well for sometime, I tend to want to do something to change it,” explained Sharon. “I would complain, write in my diary, protest, but up to a point I realised I could not wait for someone to give me a solution – I had to be the one to change my own life,” she added.
Sharon Au Kee Siao episode 2
She would have another insane episode two decades later – at the height of her fame as an actress with Mediacorp. A decade into her acting career and with a plethora of awards on her trophy shelf, Sharon felt that fame changed her for the worse.
“I was very famous because at that time, all we had for entertainment was Channel 5 or Channel 8. But during those 10 years as a celebrity, I did not like myself,” she explained.
“I felt I was not a nice person. I started losing my friends because I stopped meeting them as I felt I was too important. And when friends ask you to do things and you reject them for the 100th time, they stop calling you.”
So her head had become too big and she was just not nice.
“And if you don’t like yourself, nothing is ever going to be peaceful.”
Her public face was a nice and friendly one, but sadly, she found that her entire impression of herself was what the media portrayed her to be.
“I started to crumble. I began to disintegrate inside. Outwardly, I pretended to be confident, to be happy. When I went home, I had no boyfriend, I had no friends and even when it came to my own mother, I had no time for her.
“So, at the age of 30, when I was at the peak of my career and everybody had put me on a pedestal, I decided to put all the awards in the storeroom to see if I could still be likeable without all these,” she said.
That brought about Sharon Au Kee Siao episode 2.
“So I made the insane decision to retire from acting, to go back to zero, to stop wearing all the gowns and sponsored jewellery, to remove the makeup and be in a place where people do not know you and still like you for who you are,” she said.
With a Mediacorp scholarship, she chose to study in Japan where she would be a complete unknown, and also because she did not know the language so she really had to start from scratch.
“From earning so much as an actress,” she said, bringing her hand to indicate a considerable level, “I became a poor student,” she added, lowering that hand in a dramatic drop.
“I had to settle my lunch and dinner at 7-Eleven, and get a 300 yen bento, and not the good bento which costs 800 yen,” she said. That cheap bento consisted of fried chicken, which she would eat at lunch, and rice and a bit of vegetables – like pickled cucumber, which she’d save for dinner.
Six months on, she called her former artiste manager in Singapore to ask if there was a way back for her where she wouldn’t lose too much face: she admitted even considering “cheating my way back”, like suggesting her return was by popular demand – to much laughter from the audience.
But by then she had picked up enough Japanese, so she did not feel so alienated in what she described as a very non-inclusive society.
“I learned how to spend within my budget, I started to learn how to save,” she said. But most importantly, without the trappings of celebrity, she rediscovered herself and learned how to love herself. There was an added bonus in all that – she picked up her amazing social media skills during her stint as a student.
“While my peers were becoming obsolete with the rise of technology, I was one of the first to be on Facebook. And I became social media savvy, which helped me a lot when I returned to serve my bond in Mediacorp,” she said.
While she continued to act in theatre and take on high-profile hosting assignments, her return to Mediacorp saw her taking on a corporate role where she would rise to become publisher of Elle magazine.
It wasn’t all plain-sailing for Sharon, though, and in 2018, she decided to up and go again, feeling she needed a change of environment where her ideas could be executed.
Episode 3 and a brand new chapter
The third instalment of Sharon’s Kee Siao trilogy saw her packing her bags for Paris, where she spent several months savouring French cuisine and exploring the French way of life before settling into a job in a private equity firm, during which her Asian work ethic saw getting into a spot of bother for committing the cardinal sin of sending an email to a colleague after hours.
She returned to Singapore at the end of last year to set up Ti Yan Academy – an online French culinary school.
After the sharing session with the members of Women Entrepreneurs Club, Sharon tells D:Code that she saw the opportunity through the interest of her friend, singer Tanya Chua, who has taken a three-month break each year from singing in the past eight years to go to Paris to learn how to bake, as well as actress Jeanette Aw, who enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris, also to learn baking. She realised how passionate people were about acquiring French culinary skills when Tanya’s classmates – Asian students from China, Taiwan and Japan – would struggle on account of the language barrier, despite the cost for a six to nine month course being exorbitantly high at $25,000, not including materials.
“Many of the students would get scolded by the chefs because they couldn’t understand the language. Even though the textbooks are in English, they struggle to understand the French instructors,” explains Sharon.
“Also, there are people who want to go but do not have the money to do so, and there are those who have the financial means but not the time.
“So I thought, why not start an online school where they could learn at their own pace? And it all came together since I could also translate the French language for the Mandarin- and Japanese-speaking students,” she says.
What’s it feel like to be her own boss now?
“It’s liberating,” she says. “At the same time, it is strangely pressurising because you are your own boss now; you are accountable for every failure and success.
“You can’t blame the lighting or the director,” she says, alluding to her days on TV. “You can’t blame other departments when things go wrong,” she adds, in reference to her days in Mediacorp’s business division.
“In any case, this blame culture is not very constructive. So, now, as your own boss, you realise you have to stop pointing the finger of blame, no matter what. It is no longer relevant as to whose fault it is, but rather, how to solve the problem. It’s about finding a solution,” she explains.
And is she happy?
“Better,” she says. “Happier, happier, happier,” she adds, the next one more emphatically than the previous.
“You know, every day, it’s very positive. I feel joy,” she says, and her expression is one of relief; it’s as if her running away has ceased. For now.
“I’ve actually given up on trying to find, or rather, define happiness,” she admits, sounding a lot more introspective now than when she was at her sharing session.
“As you grow older, you have a better understanding of what love means, but happiness is fleeting. I realised happiness comes and goes and it doesn’t last. It’s not tangible. But I feel joy,” she says.
“When I see laksa, I get a lot of joy,” she says.
“Yesterday, when I finally ate the Bedok Block 85 bak chor mee – I felt a lot of joy. I felt so contented. It’s been nine or 10 years since I last ate the bak chor mee there. There are two stalls next to each other, and the two aunties there insisted I ordered from their stall, so I ordered from both. And finished both,” she says. She’s such a crowd pleaser. Or perhaps, she truly loves her bak chor mee.
Aside from the Fengshan cuisine, what impressed Sharon was that the auntie remarked that she thought she was in Paris.
“They’re so well-informed,” she says.
“I feel so happy, and so proud, because it has been 15 years since I stopped acting, but every time I come back during the past 15 years, I feel as if I had never left. Even children who have grown up and are now in their 30s remember me. It makes me proud because I feel I have been so much a part of their lives. I must have been so relatable to them for them to come up to me so easily, and they are still aware of what I’m doing,” she adds.
Indeed, acting has been an important part of Sharon’s life.
“My job as an actress really exposed me to a diversity of people, you know. So you have the heartland ones, you also have some very, very exclusive, high net-worth people. And also, there’s the audience and there are the critics. Yeah, and there are people love you and people who absolutely deplore you.
“So you learn how to deal with all sorts of judgment and that has helped me a lot in my work.
“When I returned to Singapore from Japan to work in the corporate, business division side of Mediacorp, it was political and hard to manoeuvre. But because of the actress in me, I was able to hide a lot of my unhappiness and feelings so that you remain very diplomatic at work. You don’t create drama. People saw it as being very calm, very glam, even though I was burning inside!” she says, grinning.
Acting also helped her to adapt to life in Paris, she says.
“You know the expression, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. In Paris, I realised I cannot be too soft. They come from a culture where they are very direct. This Asian humility, it just doesn’t work.
“In Singapore, we are taught to share credit with the team when we are praised for success, not so in the European context. For them, they will specify that it was not a team effort when they did everything.
“There you cannot keep things to yourself, you have to vocalise. Here in our Chinese culture, we are non-confrontational, we try to let things go smoothly, we try not to step on anyone’s toes. In France, they embrace confrontation. If you’re unhappy with a person or a project, you say it. If you don’t, they will think of you as being very hypocritical. If they find out that you think otherwise and do not say so, they would be very upset.”
She’s stronger now from the many challenges she has had to face, even admitting that Mediacorp has been the best place she has worked in, after the many trying confrontations she has had to put up with while in Paris.
“Now, I think I’ve become invincible after working with the French. I can take any confrontation. In Mediacorp, I was still very, very protected. If someone was even slightly confrontational, I’d freeze, and I’d think of a response only an hour later, long after the moment to speak up has passed.
“And when you don’t speak up, you give people the wrong impression of you because you never corrected them. I’ve also learned how to speak up without blaming others. To learn to defend yourself and your own position without pointing fingers,” she says, which is something the French appear to be great at.
“They will say it cannot be done, and that’s that. What are you going to do about it? C’est la vie. So, very quickly, they would go into problem solving mode.”
It was frustrating for her, their not admitting to what she saw as their fault, but that’s just the way it is.
“It isn’t that they aren’t being nice, and they’re not being mean. They just don’t see the need to be so polite. They cannot stand it when you beat about the bush. They say what they want. It’s how they were brought up. We were all brought up very differently, with different values,” she explains.
But you’re not likely to see Sharon being more French and less Singaporean, especially not in Singapore.
“We adapt to it when we are there but we don’t need to bring the behaviour back. People might say, ‘Oh, Sharon, you must have changed a lot.’ But no, when I am in Paris, that is the way that I am.”
As the last of the remaining guests file out, Sharon bids them farewell.
“I’ll follow you on Instagram,” says one.
“I’ll make sure I follow you back!” replies Sharon chirpily.
Sharon will return to her passion of acting when she plays the lead role in Huayi Festival of Arts 2020’s opening show – Toy Factory’s production, 7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove, at the end of this month. Several of the Women Entrepreneurs Club members are thrilled at the prospect of watching her performance.
“If you’re coming, let me know, drop me a message on Instagram – it’s sharonau13 – and I’ll come out from backstage to meet you all after the show,” she says. And D:Code is pretty sure it isn’t an empty promise, for as the women bid her farewell, Sharon replies: “Bye, Stella. Bye, Regina. Bye, Jacklyn.”
Yes, she remembers their names.
Japan and France may have had her for a season or more, but she will always remain the Singapore-born actress that the Singapore audience, and Singaporeans in general, have grown to love.
The Women Entrepreneurs Club, or WE Club, consists of winners of the Women Entrepreneur Awards in the various categories since its inauguration in 2016. WEA started with a singular mission to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of women in Singapore. Today, this award has extended to a host of Women Entrepreneurs’ initiatives to drive the development and growth of women entrepreneurs, from mentoring, education, networking to capital raising opportunities. To further promote WEA’s mission, WE Club hosts regular activities including local and international networking as well as learning opportunities for over 60 members and associate members.