I walked through the stage doors and was ushered into a dim backstage area. Crew members shuffled about, debating programme line-ups in hushed tones while others waited before a door. I was brought to a stop before that door and gestured by crew members to wait. Like a student waiting to see the principal for detention, I stared at the worn door, examining its scratches and remnants of tapes and paper that have once heralded the celebrities who have been in there — only this time, there was no guessing. I was here in Taipei to see Ella Chen, the singer-turned-actress of the Taiwanese girl band, S.H.E. For the past two years, she has been the face of Evian water in the region (you will frequently spot her unbottling and gulping bottles of Evian in her candid Facebook videos). And on this occasion, she was due to unveil Evian’s new “I Wanna” campaign, which celebrates individuality.
Minutes later, a man stationed by the door whispered “OK” and the door swung open. Seated before a vanity table was Chen who immediately stood up and extended a broad, grinning smile, and a handshake.
Chen was first discovered at a singing competition in 2000, when she was merely 19. A year later, she debuted with two other peers, Selina Jen and Hebe Tien, making the acronyms of their girl band, S.H.E.. In the past decade, they’ve released 13 albums, 61 concerts (including five in Singapore), countless variety television appearances, dramas, and films. 18 years into her celebrity career, Chen is now 38 years old. While she looks and speaks every bit the same as what she used to be in the group’s heyday, she reminds me that she’s largely a different woman now.
A Multi-Hyphenated Life
Life has brought about milestones she never knew she’d reach — and along with that, brand new perspectives on finding that fine balance in a modern-day multi-hyphenated woman’s life.
“I am a mother, an actress, a female celebrity, a variety television comedian, a singer, a daughter, a younger sister,” she explains that it’s absolutely fine to assume numerous identities in life. “I don’t feel like I must be one of them. You don’t have to leash yourself up… I believe it’s the same for everyone else.”
It sounds like Chen has it all. Perhaps a little too much, if you consider how much she has to juggle every day. “How do you strike a balance between the demands of all these capacities?” I ask her.
A Helping Hand
“You say, how do I find balance? You have to find a way,” she says. Chen is not shy when it comes to seeking out necessary help — especially with childcare for her two-year-old son so it doesn’t cripple her career ambitions. “For example, when I am a mother and I have to work, there is no way I can be there to watch over my child. So, I know that I have to work hard to bring home the bacon so I can afford to hire a nanny… In that moment, if you find yourself in the face of a problem, you can seek out help. You don’t have to be able to accomplish it all.”
The nanny comes by Chen’s place to care for her son while she’s off at work. With that being said, Chen stresses that she doesn’t dump all of the childcare responsibilities on the nanny. “When I have time and am home, I will properly invest myself into studying, reading storybooks, playing, bringing him out to picnics, to play with water, or even travelling,” she continues. “And in these moments, I may not need the nanny’s help. It’ll just be me, my husband — the three of us together, that’s all.”
Given that she’s still active in the entertainment industry, Chen doesn’t have a lot of free time on hand — like any working mother out there. But she doesn’t discount her time spent with her son.
“You may be busy at work, but you will always have rest days and weekends. There are definitely days like that,” Chen says.
To her, the little time that modern working mothers have with their children is not an issue — so long it’s well-spent, quality time. It’s definitely a sacrifice on the mother’s part for they could use the time to catch up on rest, leisure, and social networking but Chen thinks that being a working mother was her decision to begin with — and, to her, any working mother has to stick by this decision and follow it through.
“Can you portion some of your [free] time to be there for your child? Go to the botanical gardens, museums, have a picnic by the lake — everything, so long you are giving them your company wholeheartedly? It’s about willingness,” she continues.
“Don’t be shallow with your child. You have to give them your company — do things with them, be genuine in your interactions with them,” she stresses. “It’s not about spending a lot of time together but you’re inattentive and always scrolling your phone. If that’s the case, you might as well not be there.”
Redefining the Rules
Chen’s less-is-more approach to parenting is a far cry from traditional Asian societal values which dictates that mothers should stay at home to care for their children full-time. Like it or not, working mothers of our time are often made to feel guilty for heading out to work every morning — and it’s something that Chen resonates with.
“I really feel like things don’t have to be this way. I hope that after reading this interview, everyone can find peace,” she murmurs.
Motherhood is a state of mind, a mentality, and a way of thought, she shares, citing a parenting article that she came across that very morning, “I saw this sentence in the article: ‘The identity of a mother exists in her mind.’”
Traditional views of motherhood has lapsed. The new generation of working mothers live by a new set of rules that they, like Chen, have defined for themselves. “You shouldn’t be measuring [your worth as a mother] according to these do’s and don’ts,” she adds.
So, how do you know you’re good as a working mother?
Chen offered me no rubrics nor criteria. Instead, she recommends that working mothers take time to pause and survey their emotions. “You know it when you’re happy,” Chen chirps. “Life is actually really simple. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”