Although Margaret Chan carved a name for herself as a stage and television actress in her younger days, she understood the harsh reality of show business: as she aged, roles for older women would be increasingly hard to come by. Hence she turned to academia, through which she believes she can continue to contribute to the industry she loves dearly, albeit in a different way. Sharing her experiences and thoughts on lifelong learning, Margaret embodies the saying that age is but a number.
Margaret is every bit the larger-than-life character you would imagine a seasoned actress to be: candid, expressive and humorous. Even at 68 years of age, and after two intense battles against cancer, she is animated and totally at ease, giving the impression that nothing fazes her.
Assistant Professor Margaret Chan’s research interests include performance studies and Asian ritual theatre. Image source: Singapore Management University
A quick survey of her résumé gives you some idea of her versatility and ingenuity. Margaret graduated with a degree in business administration from the National University of Singapore when she was 23. Over the next two decades, she went on to forge her own path as, variously, an actress, food critic and consultant, and journalist.
When she was 47, Margaret’s husband was posted to London for work, and the entire family moved to join him there. While still caring for her husband and children, she seized the opportunity to pursue postgraduate studies, fitting classes into “the interstices of her life”, and received a Certificate of Teaching in Higher Education (Distinction) from the Royal Holloway and a Master of Arts (Distinction) in performance studies from the Central School of Speech and Drama.
Boosted by the receipt of the Overseas Research Students Award from the British government and the Thomas Holloway Founder’s Scholarship, Margaret went on to earn her doctorate in theatre and performance studies. This was in 2002, when she was 53 years old.
And just when you thought she was done studying, at the age of 66, Margaret received the prestigious Fulbright research scholarship, and spent three months in New York at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, shadowing its head of playwriting, David Henry Hwang.
However, Margaret admitted that her pursuit of higher learning was not all roses and sunshine, despite her impressive achievements. Although her air of unassailability might lead one to assume otherwise, she was not immune to bouts of self-doubt.
For example, Margaret recalled that her relocation to London had a rough start. Prior to the move, she had to make the painful decision to put down her beloved dog, as he was already very old and was unlikely to survive the journey. She also had to give up the food column she had been writing for The Sunday Times, one of the high points in her career as one of Singapore’s early food writers.
Upon arriving in London, on top of adjusting to life in a new country and getting her children settled into school there, she struggled to find her place in university. After nearly 30 years since her undergraduate days, she found herself in drama school as a pre-menopausal woman in her late 40s, surrounded by classmates decades younger than herself.
She described with her characteristic good humour how the stress nearly got to her on one particularly bad day.
“I remember the first time I ate in the canteen with the other students,” recounted Margaret. “I went and bought some sausages and mash. I was carrying the plate to the table, where everybody else was sitting, and suddenly somebody bumped into me, and my whole tray fell to the floor.”
She then added that she had frozen for a second before defiantly scooping the sausage off the floor and eating it.
“I was already on edge, and anything could trigger me,” she explained. “But I couldn’t give in to myself and just cry my head off. I wasn’t like a normal person who would probably say, ‘Oh, forget it!’ and get another sausage. To me, it felt like one more obstacle and I couldn’t let it break me. So I just picked up the sausage and ate it.”
Refusing to be daunted, Margaret pressed on. If she was scared – which she admitted she was – she didn’t let it stop her.
“There’s not a single one of us who does not fear, no?” she mused. “It’s good for people to know that never was there a decision that was made and done, and worked upon, that was not without pain. There will be fear, anxieties, insecurities, and people discouraging you – all that kind of stuff. It’s all there. But you’ve just got to grit your teeth and do it.”
This gung-ho, just-do-it attitude had served her well in her early career. As a stage actress, Margaret is best known for playing the titular Emily in Stella Kon’s classic one-woman play, Emily of Emerald Hill. She was invited to perform it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1986, becoming the first Singaporean to perform there and bring local theatre to the world stage.
Margaret playing Emily in a performance of Emily of Emerald Hill in the 1980s. Image source: National Arts Council
In terms of her TV work, Margaret’s role as the villainous Peranakan matriarch Tan Geok Neo in the 1994 television drama series Masters of the Sea, produced by the then Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) (predecessor of Mediacorp), still gets her recognised in the supermarket today. She even crossed over to non-English-language roles, landing principal parts in the Chinese-language Channel 8 drama The Golden Pillow (1995) as well as Anak Metropolitan (2002) on the Malay channel, Suria.
Margaret as Tan Geok Neo in the 1994 TCS series Masters of the Sea. She still gets requests to deliver her iconic line “I’ll crrrrush you like a cockroach” from people who recognise her in the supermarket. Image source: Television Corporation of Singapore/Mediacorp
Lamenting the lack of roles specifically written for older actors and actresses in Singapore, Margaret said, “We are very often on the sidelines.”
Quickly, she added, “But you can’t go around with a big chip on your shoulder and go, like, ‘Oh, nobody believes in me!’”
“You can’t wait for someone to give you a break. You’ve got to make the break yourself.”
And this she did. After pondering “Which job will want me when I’m old?”, Margaret turned to academia.
She spoke of her first forays into research with a levity that belied her initial struggles.
“I had no idea how to do research, and the master’s was a research thesis. My supervisor got so annoyed with me that she took me by the hand and dragged me to the library – literally dragged me by the hand. She pushed me into a chair and got a journal and plopped it in front of me and went, “READ”. And after that, I did so well that she thought I could get the UK research scholarship.”
Even as she found her footing in academia, Margaret continued to juggle graduate school with television and theatre gigs. In 1997, she was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to present the television programme Appetite for Asia, which coincided with filming for the local film Forever Fever. The two concurrent projects led to a few punishing, sleep-deprived months.
“I had to do all my [academic] work and flew in early to Singapore for filming. In the morning I’d get up, report to the Appetite for Asia set by 8 or 9 in the morning, and we’d go out and shoot until 6 pm. The moment that finished, I’d wash and dress up and go to the set for Forever Fever. That went on till 3 or 4 am. Then I’d crawl back to my room and die there for two hours before getting up to do it all again.”
Now, as an associate professor at the School of Social Sciences in Singapore Management University (SMU), she applies the same dogged tenacity towards inspiring the students in her classes.
“For people who don’t know theatre, when they start having to do it [in my classes] – they feel like they might die because I push them so hard! I get them to reach a really high level, and they love it. It’s something that changes them.”
She also had the opportunity to teach some Silver Academy students at SMU. The National Silver Academy is a network of post-secondary education institutions and voluntary welfare organisations offering learning opportunities for seniors aged 50 and above.
“It was for a course called cultural identity and the arts, and they [the Silver Academy students] learned alongside the younger students,” explained Margaret. “Two of them are actually lecturers in art and design, so they knew more about visual culture than I did. Whatever they knew, they shared, and we all learned from one another. We had such a good time!”
As Plutarch put it, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Margaret’s fire for constant self-reinvention proves that lifelong learning is not a concept that applies only to the old; it is an attitude that needs to be sparked early and sustained over a lifetime.
“In your life – and this is for all people, not just old people – you will go through stages where you have to make a decision,” said Margaret. “And every time it happens, you will feel like you don’t want it, because you have to come out of your comfort zone. But if you don’t do it, you’ll never go any further.”
“And as they say, this too shall pass. And when it’s passed, you’ll have done it. And you’ll have grown.”
Written by: FJ Sai
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign