Joanne Peh

Another added win to her body of work seems like a good push in furthering one’s career, but Joanne Peh has something else in mind: motherhood.

BY WAYNE CHEONG | Mar 8, 2016 | Women We Love

Nicky Loh

During the photo shoot, Joanne Peh, 32, lies on her side, her pose evoking some long-forgotten movie starlet. Her face does not concede discomfort from maintaining the position and your eyes dip from her shoulder, descending to the valley of her waist, before the slow climb to her hips. From the camera’s viewfinder, it doesn’t look like she’s pregnant; but when she gets up for her next outfit change, the swell of her stomach buoys, like a sun peeking out from behind the horizon.

After the shoot, we settle down for the interview. Peh, with a radiation blanket draped over her stomach, munches on a slice of fruit. To break the ice, I point out how she was silent as she flipped through the photos from the shoot.

“What do you mean by that?” Peh asks; the question mark hangs over perilously. “Quiet as in…?”

Usually… I stumble over the first two syllables, but shake it off and continue, the people we shoot comment on the photos. Like, “oh, this is nice” or “is there a better shot than this?” You were just… quiet.

“I guess it’s because I didn’t have much to say.” To the point. Peh doesn’t mince her words. She is now veiled to me. In my mind’s eye, I’m swallowing water. My legs are like lead from the treading. I opt for another tack.

So… is there anything you find different about being pregnant?

And slowly, like an engine on a cold day, Peh warms up to an easy candidness and speaks with a kind of casual luxury.

The glow usually attributed to pregnant women is present. It suits her, but before the happy discovery, she found herself tiring easily. “I didn’t have enough energy to do a lot of things,” Peh says. “Only when I found out that I was pregnant did it finally make sense as to why I was so tired.”

She makes it sound like it’s a surprise, an unexpected visit. Having kids was part of the plan, but she didn’t expect it so soon. Nonetheless, it was a welcomed circumstance; prior to this, she was firing on all cylinders: her marriage to Qi Yuwu, a fellow MediaCorp actor, and back-to-back filming for the entirety of last year. After her last Channel 8 drama [titled Mind Game, filmed before 1965 went into production], the hectic pace started to gnaw at her. Something had to give, and then along came the pregnancy.

“In the industry, you need to adhere to a schedule. You can’t say no to coming down for make-up at seven in the morning. Now I’m in charge of my schedule.” A raspy peal emanates from Peh. Since taking charge, her itinerary is regimented: Mondays are for Pilates and an evening massage, Wednesdays are when she meets her trainer, Saturdays are her yoga lessons. She feels healthier. Her pregnancy brought with her time and with that discipline. “This is an excuse for other people to take it easy on me, and this is an excuse for me to take it easy on myself.”

Do you also feel sexy?

She laughs. “I do. Sexier than before. More meaty maybe.”

I’m sure the husband doesn’t mind.

“Oh, not at all.” A satisfied grin blooms across her face.

The glow usually attributed to pregnant women is present. It suits her, but before the happy discovery, she found herself tiring easily. 

The film 1965 is named after the year when Singapore separated from Malaysia and gained its independence. In the movie, Peh plays Zhou Jun, who is caught up in the turmoil and the racial violence leading up to the country’s independence. In early movie stills, Peh’s character is armed with a smile, her hair parted in the middle, diverging into two plaits that hang by her chest. She finds commonality with her character who sticks by her decision to remain in a country embroiled in racial and ideological turmoil.

“A lot of people might be put off by the idea of starting a family,” Peh explains, “due to career or financial reasons, or because they tell themselves, oh, I need to have this and this and this before I have a baby. You’ll never be completely satisfied by the goals that you set for yourself. You’ll always be raising your own standard. Having kids would mean putting my career on hold, but to me, having a family, a career, it’s all part of life, and whether you do it now or later, it’s bound to happen. That’s why we decided to go with it.

“The decision to have a baby… it applies to life in general. You don’t know where life is going to take you, and sometimes, that scares you, you see? It’s not just about...” She gestures to her belly and continues, “This. I’m not sure what it’s going to be like. I’m inexperienced and I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I find this ‘surprise factor’ intriguing and attractive. Going into a different stage of my life is just part of growing up and moving on.”

Decisions are now made as a consensus. Her husband has a say in her affairs, and she in his. They have a general plan, an outline of their future, but as Peh mentions, they are open to change; for example, they haven’t decided whether the child will be raised in Singapore or China. Some might even wager that Peh and her husband don’t even know the sex of their baby (It’s Schrödinger’s baby: until the child is born, it is simultaneously both female and male.)

But they do know and are keeping its gender locked behind clenched teeth. The reason for such furtiveness is to retain a sense of control over information in a time where information isn’t private. Take her blog, for instance. Titled A Jolly Affair, it was a platform for Peh to voice her opinions and her last post, about her chance meeting with a carwash attendant, was dated January 16, 2014. The blog now exist as cairn.

“I didn’t really want to share so much anymore,” Peh says. “After a while, it became very invasive. Everyone started to think that they know a lot about me from my posts.”

She studied Mass Communication and is familiar with the journalism field. She longs for the day when your name is just a byline in the newspaper, no image. “Now with blogs and social media, people know who’s writing what and they start following you.”

Have you considered returning to blogging?

“I wanted to start writing again last year, but didn’t hold myself to it. Now there’s an overload of information; everyone is trying to say something and the World Wide Web is saturated with opinions. It’s not the same as it was before, but I don’t want to go back. I’m happy closing that door.”

Peh still indulges in some aspects of social media like Instagram and Twitter. Those two platforms are manageable, because they, especially Instagram, fascinate her. Why people post pictures of what they eat or do, or where they are, are the sort of queries that Peh has no answers to. She draws some satisfactory fun from the app and the element of interacting with commenters proffers a handle on what her fans are thinking about. She hasn’t found it too intrusive. Yet.

“In this time and age,” Peh adds, “there’s a greater need to protect children and minors from these intrusions. We want our child to have a normal childhood and not be so exposed to attention because of who we are. That’s not fair to him or her.”

But who knows; maybe Peh might be so taken with her kid that she’ll upload every picture of the critter. She’ll be the proud parent, who will catalogue all aspects of the child’s life.

"People don't realise that when something happens, sometimes it's due to their own credit."

“Things happen for a reason,” Peh says.

Pause on that. The shibboleth suggests we’re merely players with our entrances and exits, and we’re carrying out the dictum of the script; the Grand Director watches from the bullpen, ticking off the scene directions. It sounds like a Judeo-Christian teaching, but Peh, in her own words, “isn’t exclusive” when it comes to religion. She’s open to the idea that while out in the ether lies a Supreme Being one can carve out his or her own destiny.

“People don’t realise that when something happens, sometimes it’s due to their own credit. I always think that we have our own energy that we’re not aware of.”

What Peh isn’t aware of, however, is an article from the local satire site, Newnation, about how the Singapore government has claimed credit for timing the birth of Joanne Peh and Qi Yuyu’s baby to coincide with 1965’s release in August. Peh smiles, “So clever, these people.” She giggles.

Joking aside, do you feel that you’re perceived differently in the public’s eyes sometimes?

“I’ve always tried to be who I am, but sometimes, we don’t have the right platform to showcase that. As a result, the public might see you in a certain way based on what they think they know about you, but that may not be the real you.”

Peh shops at the Ang Mo Kio hub, and she has no issues taking public transport. She’s a regular Singaporean, albeit one who lives her life under a microscope.

Consider this post-mortem that Peh does. As someone who is always in the moment, she has to look back and wonder if there was a different way to approach her role, or if there was something else she could have done or said. We exhume the corpse of her past: the incident at Nando’s.

In 2011, Peh and her then-beau Bobby Tonelli went for dinner at Nando’s. She asked for hot water and was told that, since it wasn’t the restaurant’s policy, they would need to charge her SGD3.90 for it. When their food and drinks didn’t arrive after 30 minutes of being seated, they decided to leave, but not before hearing the service staff, manager included, clapping as they walked out. The episode became national news after Peh tweeted about it. Looking back, would she have handled the situation differently?

“In hindsight, yeah. I think I could have handled it in a way that wasn’t so... public. Whether it would be better or not, I don’t know. I usually don’t regret my actions, because, again, everything happens for a reason. And that helps you to be a better person next time.”

The lease is coming to a close for the tenant in her belly.

Peh is opting for a natural birth. When prompted about the possibility of alternative birthing methods, she looks genuinely puzzled. “I don’t have much information about water births or having a doula. It seems to me that it’s more of an overseas thing.”

What about a midwife?

“I’ve heard of midwives, but only in reference to ‘back in those days’, where you have the men waiting outside, and you hear, it’s a boy or it’s a girl, and the husband runs in. Like something out of a drama. As it is, it’s hard to find a confinement nanny here, much less a midwife.”

Have you and Yuwu talked about how you’re going to raise the child?

“Joint effort. No need for good cop/bad cop. The basic principles of respect belong to both parents. I don’t think that’s fair to my husband or me. It shouldn’t be segregated into roles.”

Will you vaccinate your kid?

“Only the necessary ones. I believe a kid needs to develop his or her immunity, so we can’t have them living in a bubble. There needs to be a balance.”

Are you a “spare-the-rod” kind of parent or…?

“I hope to avoid it as much as I can, but sometimes, you need to… Well, I’ve heard, for boys, you need to spank them sometimes. Boys will be boys and girls are easier to raise, I suppose. I’ve never heard of anyone with boys who didn’t need to discipline them.”

Another order in raising her child: no electronic distractions. This means no iPad, no cellphone, and even no TV. Go to Peh’s house and you’ll see nary a flat screen. You’ll engage in good, old-fashioned conversation like, why don’t you have a TV, and seriously, why don’t you have a TV?

“My parents have a habit of leaving the TV on during dinner. Nobody talks,” Peh says. “When we do talk, it’s always yelling over the noise of the TV. And after dinner, they still sit down to watch TV anyway.” She’s smiling, but exasperation creeps into her voice. “When I return to my parents’ house for dinner, I’d switch off the TV.

Ha. Do you get many visitors?

“We do. People who come to our house knows about our policy. I guess we’ll just have to talk to one another. Have conversations. Sorry.”

But somehow we doubt she is.

In a way, Peh's been lucky with her pregnancy, she doesn't get the usual morning sickness or the urge to vomit.

Peh has always wanted lots of children. She cites a family drama called 7th Heaven, a series about a Protestant minister, his wife and their seven children. “I watched it when I was really young, and I thought to myself, how nice it would be to have a big family. I thought it was the sort of family life I wanted to have. A big family.”

(I don’t reveal that the actor who played the father admitted to having “inappropriate sexual conduct with three minors” last year.)

In a way, Peh’s been lucky with her pregnancy. She doesn’t get the usual morning sickness or the urge to vomit. It’s not put her off having more children. However, the pregnancy does make Peh more emotional. She tears up, even at the smallest of gestures. “My brother, uh… see, I’m tearing up now,” Peh composes herself for a second, “my brother sends me messages about [how happy he is that I am] his sister. That just gets to me. I even cried when my husband left for China for work.”

But ever the trooper, Peh embraces the changes, the rush of emotions, the waning energy. She welcomes her new body, an extraordinary machine that egged a zygote’s steady assemblage to a small human sustained by an umbilical thread. It’s akin to a miracle (or the clockwork imperative of biology) of conception. The Sacred Yoni honoured.

And when the baby comes, she’ll receive it, like all the possible branching paths in her life, with open arms.

From: Esquire Singapore's July 2015 issue.