Women

Melody Chen

The world is a big, bad, scary place and you're going to need more than a smile and personality. Melody Chen shows us how.

BY Darren Foong | Apr 13, 2016 | Women We Love

Nicky Loh

Even on a rainy Friday afternoon, Raffles Place is bustling. A relentless stream of leather oxfords and high heels pounds back and forth past the little booth blaring live radio, unheard by the stream of corporate unconsciousness. Despite the hubbub, Melody Chen, 38, sits in her own bubble of calm, unfazed by it all. A smile appears on her face every time she speaks into the microphone—come to think of it, she’s smiling even when it’s just the music playing.

The grin persists later in the second-floor café, where we talk. The cacophony of bean grinding, ice being shovelled into cups, and the hiss of the espresso machine does not bother Chen as she brightly recounts her shrewd decision to watch Madonna in Bangkok instead of Singapore.

“If you added up my tickets, flights and hotel,” Chen says, “you still wouldn’t reach the price of tickets sold in Singapore. And because Singapore will cut this, cut that,” the slip into Singlish almost challenges us to defy this next observation, “[the songs in her Bangkok performance] had nuns in panties doing pole-dancing, okay?”

This certainly dispels her girl-next-door appeal. It’s easy to see why she was saddled with that label in the first place. In The Teenage Textbook Movie, Chen fitted the role of Mui Ee, a bespectacled student draped in an unflattering blue pinafore, so well that you’d be hard-pressed to imagine anyone else who could have played the straight-laced character.

Even when she’s doing other things like hosting, gracing magazine covers, acting, and now, radio, it’s a little disconcerting to see how far removed Chen is from Mui Ee. Chen is goofy, lets fly an expletive every once in a while, and is very Singaporean, the sort who’ll slip into little voices and impersonations to make her friends laugh. It’s almost as we’re speaking to someone human. 

 

Diving into the deep end

You can blame Madeline Tan-Barber  (also known by her nom de radio Maddy Barber) for Chen’s foray into radio. “I said, you want me to do radio?” Chen scoffs, with a slight shake of her head. “But I’m so old already! Seriously, to start radio from zero after I’m 35? What would people think?”

Before she became the voice on the airwaves, Chen was well-known as an actor. It’s common for radio DJs to transition to acting, but an actor to switch to radio? That’s rare and almost unheard of. Her detractors will probably opine on Chen’s inability to secure an acting role. They will tear her down as the baseless conjectures build around her.

BUT I'M SO OLD ALREADY! SERIOUSLY, TO START RADIO FROM ZERO AFTER I'M 35? WHAT WOULD PEOPLE THINK?

 

There’s steel in Chen’s voice when she says,  “I put myself up to it. I was determined to learn something new and achieve that on my résumé.” She gave herself five years in the industry. Let’s see how long she can hack it for.

“I thought they’d pair me with someone more experienced, or ask me to shadow them,” Chen says before slipping into an emphatic timbre imitating her boss, Jamie Meldrum. “No. I’m throwing you in at the deep end. You’ll learn how to manage all the controls right from the start. If you wanna be a DJ, you just do it.”

Chen recorded dozens and dozens of demo tapes, and each time Meldrum would give the thumbs down. Again, he’ll intone. Once more. Despite the umpteen rejections, it’s clear from the reverence in Chen’s voice how much she appreciates the drilling. “He taught me to ask: am I talking to one person, or 10,000 listeners? Working as just a voice is tough, so I had to learn how to operate the console. It’s an invaluable skill to have.”

Meldrum’s boot camp seems to have paid off. Chen gets Facebook messages from fans that listen online, from as far away as Nashville in the US state of Tennessee, who became curious about Singapore after listening to her talk.

To the average listener, you might assume that the words streaming off the broadcast are just banter, but a lot of thought goes into her broadcasting. 

“Sometimes, my links are only 30 seconds, because from 10am to 5pm, people want to listen to music. They don’t want to hear you go”—Chen’s voice goes an octave higher—“Oh! Today I had laksa for lunch, and it was really good.”

While Chen has found solace in her newfound radio life, it isn’t all roses. For one, she takes umbrage at not being able to talk about what her target audience wants to hear.

“The thing is,” Chen says, “our radio station [ONE FM 91.3] is focused on men; we should be open to topics that guys like to talk about such as babes or boobs.”

They still get fined, and according to Chen, it wasn’t even for swearing; it was the mere suggestion of certain topics such as sex. She rolls her eyes at the admission. “The censors are like a bunch of old ladies.”

It wasn’t easy. When she started working on the weekends, she lamented that she couldn’t imagine heading down to the studio every day. The air is suddenly thick with irony as we’re surrounded by frustrated salarypeople, plinking away on their mobiles as they drown in office gossip and their sixth shot of caffeine. I wonder out loud if she’s ever had a day job?

“I did!” Chen says. “When my dad had cancer, I worked in the family’s office equipment company.”

It was just after The Teenage Textbook that she had to live out the nine-to-five life. It was a “take wallet, go out for lunch, return” kind of existence. “I lost touch with the world during that time,” she recalls.

And to add to that burden, Chen was taking night classes for a diploma in Mass Communications. See, Chen was once enrolled in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, but after two years, she had to drop out.

I have an inkling on why she dropped out. I want to corroborate it but she beats me to the punch.

“I’m not afraid to say that I got booted out because I kept flunking.” It is said so matter-of-fact, so very much like her.

 

Hopping over humps

The Teenage Textbook started out as a book by Adrian Tan, who followed it up with a sequel, The Teenage Workbook. When I was handed a copy of Textbook at 15, I connected with the book. It just clicked. When I returned it the next day, I clamoured for the sequel.

Textbook doesn’t seem to have aged a decade at all—very much like The Princess Bride, but with pinafores and school canteens. There’s a fairy tale aspect to it, how everything is neatly concluded, tied up in a little bow.

In an academic-focused place like Singapore, flunking out of school is considered an anathema.

So imagine Chen, hanging with the cool kids at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. They are attired in fashionable threads of the period and are going to sign up for the most popular, hip course to study: Mass Communication.

But before you can be a Mass Comm major, there is the entrance exam to overcome. Chen failed to slay that dragon. She fell from grace and landed among the thorny fields of Business Studies.

Still, with a little help from her friends and a generous dollop of elbow grease, she copes with the course.

“I’m okay with Oral Business Communications, but Stats?” Chen winces. “[And] Microeconomics.... Macro-economics... Principles of Financial Accounting? Oh my God.”

In the end, she couldn’t get her grades up and she left. Soon after, she took up the reins of her family business and did her Mass Comm at MDIS in Bukit Merah. The toll of it left her drained, but there was a sense of accomplishment doing hands-on work with radio and advertising.

And then, finally, the validation of her labour earned her a place at Chapman University in California. This was an opportune moment to put her plans into action: she was to have studied film and the endgame will have seen her go into producing and directing. A fairy tale ending. Alas, this is real life that we’re talking about; a happily-ever-after is relegating to the pages of a book. There’s more to go before Chen can sleep.

“My dad was sick,” Chen says, “and I felt that I should be here.” Pause. “And also I was scared to [travel overseas].”

It could be argued that the piety towards her father was a smokescreen for her fear of not making it; after all, she dropped out of Mass Communications, but she’s made her bed, and now lies in it.

“I could either go to university or the school of hard knocks,” Chen says solemnly, “and I made my choice.”

And without missing a beat, “but you don’t treat it as a wall; you treat it as a little hump. You hop over it, and then you go.” Chen’s energy spikes, “Okay, what’s next?”

It’s around this time that it dawns on me that Chen is unflappable. Life has thrown her several curveballs that would cripple a lesser protagonist, but this is her story. Chen doesn’t want it to be a cautionary tale for others. Her father, her husband and herself have suffered health scares, and she’s suffered other instances of personal and professional disappointment. The leitmotif, however, is one of survival. What’s that tired maxim? Keep on keeping on.

Apparently, her stubbornness, her will to carry on, was inherited from a regimental army-dad and a John Henry Newman quote: A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.

“My father’s always been determined,” Chen says. “He taught me to strive.” Back then, both father and daughter were often at loggerheads, giving as good as he got, the man also wrote her letters telling her how proud he was of her. 

Their relationship is better these days. Time has tempered tempers and reason is the peace pipe that is shared between them.

 

When God closes a door...

If the Television Corporation of Singapore (back before it took on the name “Mediacorp”) had not put Wong Li-Lin in their advertisements for drama classes, Chen might not have taken up acting, never have taken their classes, never have walked in, raw and straight into the lead role for The Teenage Textbook Movie. “I read the script, met the director, got a callback and that was it,” Chen says. “That changed my life.”

Not necessarily for the better, as it turns out.

She still recalls vividly the super budget conditions on the movie set: cold burgers left in vans, or chicken rice hurriedly scarfed squatting by drains, or simply no food from first light at 6am to the wrap of the shot at 7pm. The people were no more inviting with their attitudes. She mimes a cameraman tsking loudly after she flubbed her lines, the director coming up to her and slashing her lines from the script, and another member of staff dragging her painfully by the arm to her mark; all these indignities and more for a measly SGD50 a day.

Stage acting held its own set of challenges as well. “Four years of my life, enough!” she declares with finality. For all her hard work, it just wasn’t putting food on the table, even as she gushes endlessly about getting to work with the late theatre great, Krishen Jit, and how he forced her to laugh and laugh until it was convincing.

But while she had her shares of misfortunes, there was a moment when it all came together for her. On the set of historical mystery-drama Serangoon Road for HBO, Chen was treated humanely. There was the director who knew how to get the best out of actors, air-conditioned green rooms and food always at hand, and of course, the amazing talent that she got to work with. “So many of my scenes were with Joan Chen.” Chen pretends to be a fangirl, “Joan Chen! I saw you in The Last Emperor! I was so scared, but so happy. And they even got Chin Han from LA!

“They kept everyone happy, and obviously, the work came out great—you can see it—everyone did a good job. Not to be pessimistic, but if that’s my swan song for acting, I’m good.”

You can almost hear an anthem in her passion as she talks about acting. Even as she makes a self-deprecating joke about it (“I don’t think acting is something you can retire from. I will eventually age, but maybe I can be in The Golden Girls in the future!”), it already sounds like she’s preparing her audition in her head.

THE THING IS, OUR RADIO STATION IS FOCUSED ON MENL WE SHOULD BE OPEN TO TOPICS THAT GUYS LIKE TO TALK ABOUT, SUCH AS BABES AND BOOBS. 

 

For now, though, her focus is radio, partly because she’s having difficulty in landing more acting gigs. She starts describing the classic cliché of a door shutting but a window opening, somehow managing in true Chen fashion to complicate it into 10 shut windows and a tiny open one that you can hop through. “The older you get, I feel it’s harder to see that small window. But maybe, now’s the time to get off my butt and just say, [Screw] it and make a window myself.”

She gazes into the distance. “Some people just give up totally on the media, and I suppose that I could, but I’ve been very lucky that there’s always been something bringing me back to it. It gives me second thoughts; maybe I have been put here for a reason. And that’s how I’ve been living my life, continuing on in that direction.”

From: Esquire Singapore's April 2016 issue.