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[2008] 11-03 Glamour grad

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Andy Chen, deputy editor
Mon, Nov 03, 2008
The Straits Times

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It would be the graduation she never had. The graduation her parents expected of all their three children that she alone never delivered.

Now she has the chance to make good, to fulfil her mother's lifelong dream.

When Wee Pat Ling graduates more than 20 years after she turned down the chance to further her studies at a university in the United States, she will not be in an academic gown but designer threads, topped off with a designer hairdo.

She will look every inch a TV star who arguably shines the brightest in the talent, if not glamour, stakes.

But on Internet forums, the question that had been on many local TV fans' lips was: Would the graduation even take place?

After all, Wee, better known as Huang Biren, 39, did not renew her contract with MediaCorp, the company whose annual bash, the Star Awards, had given her 10 Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes citations, qualifying her for the All-time Favourite Artiste Award. That would be local TV's Hall of Fame, whose members include Zoe Tay, Li Nanxing and Fann Wong.

Or, in Huang's words, her graduation.

'It is like I need to get this one more award to 'graduate',' says the actress, who earlier this year rejected a new contract offered by the station because she did not agree with its terms.

The potential dark cloud has blown over. MediaCorp has since announced that she will be receiving the award at the Star Awards in March next year.

Huang with her children, Justin and Janessa

Huang says: 'It was always my mum's wish that all her three children would be graduates. And they are, except me. My elder sister has a master's in education and my younger brother went to Birmingham to study computer science.

'Now my mum can see me 'graduating'.'

How could MediaCorp not let her graduate with honours? Especially as this top student of the station had long ago sacrificed her chance for a real academic graduation - mortar board and all - in defiance of her mother.

Since signing on with Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, now MediaCorp, as an artist in 1988 - her first and only job - she has starred in more than 40 drama serials.

The most prominent of these are Stand By Me in 1998, in which she plays a devoted wife to a paraplegic; Beautiful Connection in 2002, where she played a low-IQ woman who suffers constant bullying; and My Lucky Charm in 2005, in which she was an uncouth gambling addict.

Not coincidentally, these three roles earned her three Best Actress honours, a record she shares with Ivy Lee. Whether her trifecta of Best Actress nods makes her Singapore's Meryl Streep is moot, though the unanimous first reaction of fans on the Internet upon finding out she had left MediaCorp was: What a waste, she is a real talent.

What is undeniable is her shock My Favourite Actress win at MediaCorp's 25th Drama Anniversary gala show last year for Stand By Me. Viewers gave her that award by majority vote.

Technically, that means a TV character she portrayed is the most popular, most memorable in the quarter-century that Singapore has been producing its own TV shows. Which - again, technically - means her work, according to viewers, surpasses that of Tay and Fann, the two top female stars on TV.

Huang's first studio photo, taken when she was in Primary 3 and when her dad took her to a photography contest.
Huang's road to this pinnacle began in 1987.

'I was still studying for my A levels at Ang Mo Kio Pre-U Centre when I signed up for the drama training classes at SBC,' she says.

'The classes started at 7.30pm and I attended them after I did my homework and had my dinner. I promised my mum I would return home straight after classes. I just wanted to experience what the drama training was like. I had always been interested in drama from young and my mum knew it. She just expected that I would be going overseas to further my studies after my A levels.'

Unusual rebelliousness

What happened after the six months of classes was about the only attention- grabbing, middle-child-syndrome thing Huang did in her life: She disobeyed her mother, forsaking university for novelty.

She says: 'Everything was prepared for me to go to the United States, to Hawaii Pacific University. But SBC offered me a contract after the training. I was young and thought, 'Wah, not everyone in the class gets a contract.' Out of 30 to 40 people, only half of us got contracts.

'Early on, when my career was not smooth-going, my mum kept encouraging me to quit and study. But I told myself I wanted to prove something to her. She was very disappointed in me. She gave up hope in me.'

Such teenage rebellion drama was rare for Huang. An anomaly, in fact.

She was a keen student who developed an interest in oratorical and storytelling contests in primary school, and won the top prize in only the second such competition she joined. She was the only representative for Mayflower Primary, which had little interest in this particular extra- curricular activity, and she beat 'something like 10 students' from powerhouse Ai Tong. It was the first of many trophies she won for her oratorical skills in English and Mandarin.

Later she became a prefect and the chairman of a welfare group at Mayflower Secondary School.

Her sister, Madam Wee Pat Ghee, 41, corroborates. 'Growing up, she was studious and articulate. She was a good girl. No middle-child syndrome.'

She should know what kids are like at that age: She is now the head of English in a primary school.

'But as a child, when Biren felt strongly about something, she knew how to put it across.'

That talent, you soon realise, is cleverly employed - unusually enough for a dramatic actress - for the opposite of dramatic effect when a reporter asks difficult questions.

Was it a huge surprise that MediaCorp did not offer her better terms in a new contract since she had just won the My Favourite Actress popularity award at the 25th Drama Anniversary gala show?

'Maybe it thought my contribution in the past few years had not been that much. But to me, quantity and quality are very, very different. It made its choice, I made mine.'

Might the unattractive offer have been due to her age? Of late, the TV station appears to be favouring younger actresses, apart from Tay.

'Of course there are fewer actors than actresses. It is definitely more competitive for actresses. You can sense this every year at the Star Awards. But this should not be a factor.'

Did she ever think, at any point in her 20-year career, that she could have been a Fann or Tay?

'Never thought about it.'

So she never envied them?

'I would not say I did not envy. Envy and jealousy are two different things. Yes, to a certain extent, you think, 'Wow, they are doing well.' But people give me a different kind of recognition.'

Does she know some people accuse her of trying too hard to speak good English?

'Even in school, there were people who went, 'Er, why like that? Wah, different category.' But that was okay. I just mixed with the friends I was comfortable with. It does not affect me at all.'

Does she think she, a highly acclaimed actress, never got offered a role in a movie because she lacks...

'Presence?' she asks, anticipating the question, though this reporter meant to say 'star quality'.

'In a way, yes. I believe this might be one of the factors.'

At the first sight of an unruly subject matter, she will lay it to rest with a few choice words, like a disciplinarian mother putting a hysterical child in his place.


You can already guess her parenting style: Yes, she subscribes to the no- drama, no-nonsense Supernanny rulebook when parenting her two children, son Justin, eight, and daughter Janessa, eight months, with her police superintendent husband, Adrian Quek, 41.

'We shower our children with toys. But they need to behave,' Huang says sternly.

'When Justin was old enough to understand these things, we told him that if he ever threw a tantrum in public and stamped his feet like some children we saw, we would just walk away and leave him behind. If we do not want to buy him something he wants, we will explain why not. If he cannot accept it, too bad.'

Huang says both she and her husband are strict with their son. Okay, fine. But who relents first? Whose heart melts eventually at the sight of an upset child with wide, pleading, teary eyes? The cop.

MediaCorp actor and host Chen Hanwei, who has known Huang since her show-business debut, says: 'She has always been strong. She is one of the strongest women I know. She knows what she wants very clearly.'

What she wants seems to be as little drama as possible in her life. If any reporter were after juicy gossip in Huang's life, he would be better off combing through her TV resume.

Want to see Huang emote? Watch her shows. She emotes plenty, running the gamut from dolorous in Stand By Me to timorous in Beautiful Connection to odious in My Lucky Charm. For this drama queen, drama is work, and personal life is, well, anything but dramatic.

She completed her A levels with 'only average' grades and signed with the local TV station in 1988. In 1996, she married Mr Quek, whom she met through her sister in the early 1990s after dating him for two years.

'I do not really go out after work. I head straight home,' Huang says. 'I am not the kind who goes around and says, 'Hi, hi, hi, let's go out for a cup of coffee.' I just want to go home and see my family.'

When she does venture socially away from the family, chances are it is a date with a childhood friend.

'She has never changed,' says financial services consultant Connie Wong, 39, who has known Huang since Primary 6. 'I tell her that when we go out, she cannot put on sunglasses and I will not sit in a corner with her just to avoid the attention. And she is fine with it.'

If you are a reporter, do not hope for an invitation to her home so you can view her acting trophies and popularity awards, or scrounge for clues that will reveal a more private her. That door will shut in your face very firmly, but politely.

'Very messy, very noisy,' she says initially, when asked if the photos could be taken in her home, a condominium apartment near Bishan. Later, when pressed, she admits she wants to keep her private life private.

So the pictures are taken at her condominium pool and the interview done on an exercise bench in the condo gym. It is not the most comfortable place for a two-hour interview, but her posture is ramrod-straight from beginning to end.

No surprises here. For Huang has nothing if not a sturdy spine. When she did not get what she thought she deserved in a new contract with MediaCorp, she stood her ground and quit.

'I did not ask for Zoe's and Fann's terms,' she clarifies. 'I just asked for what I thought I should get. I believe I can deliver this and I should be awarded this.'

'This' is not necessarily money, says old friend and ex-colleague Chen.

'If Biren goes back to act on TV, it will not be because someone has given her more money. If she goes back, it will be for a good role.'

Huang says she is already fielding offers from production houses as well as theatre companies, though she has not accepted any yet. She has been busy looking after her two children.

Chen adds: 'She will not regret leaving MediaCorp in a year's time, even if she misses acting. But she will regret it if she passes on a good role.'


This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 3, 2008.

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