Pan Lingling walks in fresh-faced after a shoot, dressed in a casual striped knit dress after a shoot. She’s come right off the set of Channel 8’s drama series Reach For The Sky, but despite the long filming hours, that sparkle in her eyes is distinct. For a person who has won a coveted Star Award for Best Supporting Actress, there’s no ceremony. Down to earth, she lands in her seat without fanfare.
“I’ve been shooting for the series for almost nine months now,” starts Lingling (the last episode airs this month). “The last 20 days have been exciting for me, because my character goes through a change – I become this brooding and depressed person, which is challenging,” she adds. “My dream is to play the role of a psychotic, but this one’s quite close.”
Nine months is but a dent in a career that spans 30 years. Surprisingly, Lingling reveals acting was not in her plans growing up. “No, this was not my dream,” she says. “During my school years, I wanted to be a flight stewardess, because I loved to travel.” But a trip to accompany a relative to enroll in a drama course at the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) proved destiny changing. Lingling recalls, “The lady at the registration desk suggested I sign up as well, just for fun. I told her I had no thoughts of being a star. Besides, I was only 16.” But the lady insisted and Lingling got selected.
“The lady at the registration desk suggested I sign up as well, just for fun. I told her I had no thoughts of being a star. Besides, I was only 16.” – Lingling
Being the youngest in the group, with neither the desire to act nor knowledge of acting, Lingling shares she was lucky to be surrounded by people who doted on her and guided her like older siblings would. And it kept her busy. “I was in polytechnic at that time. I would give tuition after school, then head for my drama classes. I would be very tired, but also very happy with what I was doing,” she shares. Her “happiness” comes from the fact that she was able to pitch in on the family’s expenses. “I just wanted to earn money so I could help my dad,” she reveals.
That was also the time when deep friendships were formed. Lingling met fellow actors Madeline Chu and Huang Yi Rui, who were also in their late teens then. They’ve stood by her through thick and thin, including her personal battle with breast cancer in 2013.
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Let’s Beat This Together
“It was the most difficult year of my life. In March 2013, I was detected with breast cancer, and then I found out my father had lung cancer!” she says, almost shuddering at the thought.
The eldest child (she has two brothers), and also the closest to her dad, Lingling spent all her time and energy by his bedside – albeit wearing a mask due to her own delicate state of health – motivating him and leading him through his ordeal. “My father said, you are so young and if you can go through the therapies, I can do it too.” They set out to beat the cancer together, she at the age of 44 and her father at 75. Sadly, he succumbed to the disease in 2014, after a brave struggle. The strength he showed helped her battle her own cancer even after he was gone.
Lingling found out she had cancer almost by accident. It started with pain in her breasts, which she put to just being breast tenderness during PMS. She detected a lump, but put it to PMS again as it was painful to the touch. “People always told me that if the lump is very painful, it’s not cancer. So I believed it,” she says. But three months later, she realised the lump had grown. And sure enough, her regular health checkup confirmed the worst. “My advice to all women is this: Regular checkups are a must and if you find anything unusual in your breasts or body, please go have it checked right away. Let the doctor decide!” she says firmly.
She was at a celebrity charity golf tournament at Jurong Country Club when she got the call from her doctor confirming her results and advising her to go for a partial mastectomy. Her cancer was almost at the end of Stage 1.
“I was at Hole 7, and the hole-in-one prize was a Maserati. My only thought was, at least, can I have that? But I couldn’t make it,” she says cheekily. Her husband Huang Shinan, however, did not take the news as lightly.
Ties That Matter
For Lingling, the whole experience went by very quickly – the surgeries, one for the cancer and the other, reconstructive. Before she knew it, she was well into her radio- and chemotherapy sessions, and taking things one step at a time. Lingling admits her family had a tough time dealing with it. “I have never seen Shinan so sad before,” she recalls. But the three boys in her life, Shinan and their sons, Beckham, now 19, and Kynaston, 17, stood bravely by her.
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Talk to Lingling and you’ll know family means most to her, and husband Shinan’s name punctuates almost every other sentence. She recalls one particular incident early in their marriage, which involved her father, rather fondly. Her father had expressed a desire to see snow, and particularly, Switzerland. Lingling wanted to fulfil her father’s dream, but it was Shinan’s magnanimity that hit the mark. He agreed to go on a family trip to Switzerland for their “second” honeymoon – with 10 members, no less: “How many husbands can accept that? He is truly my best friend,” she says.
He was also her first love. Lingling met Shinan when she was still in drama school. She was 17 and he was 26, and already a known actor at that time. “I had finished my class early and was waiting for my family, when I heard footsteps. I was so sure it was my brothers approaching. Without thinking, I jumped to surprise them!” she recalls with glee. But, it wasn’t them, it was Shinan. The couple married in 1996.
They both appeared on The Weekly’s birthday issue cover three years later (October 1999). Lingling tries to remember, “Yes, I was either pregnant or had just given birth – Beckham was born in 1999,” she says. She goes on to tell me how she had to convince her husband to name their son after her favourite football star, David Beckham. “Beckham sounds like a last name,” was his argument, but it’s clear who won that battle.
Lingling’s relationships with Shinan has changed and developed through the years. In the beginning, with their age difference, she left him to make most of the decisions. “I was like the girl next door, and I would listen to everything he said. He’d take care of everything in my life.” But that dynamic has changed as she grew older and became more comfortable and confident in her own skin. Lingling says Shinan was fine with that too, she says, as long as she was happy. “I do think that I have taken him for granted many times. He loves me so much. I have done things that have angered him, yet he’s always the one who apologises.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and it holds a special place for Lingling. “I will soon reach my five-year mark,” she says excitedly. She means five years of being cancer free. This means no more having to lug around a whole lot of medication. An avid golfer, she says that being active went a long way in helping her bounce back. She is looking forward with renewed vigour to her upcoming tie-up with Chan Brothers as a tour leader to Dalian.
Lingling is grateful for what she has, her career and especially family, who is her top priority. And this is what she clings on to when things get rough. There have been challenges, made all the more public as she’s constantly in the spotlight, but Lingling says matter-of-factly, “I feel my time here is limited, so I want to live my life as wisely as I can. Value your life and value your family. This is most important.”
“I feel my time here is limited, so I want to live my life as wisely as I can. Value your life and value your family. This is most important.”- Lingling
“I’ve also learnt to let some things pass, as long as my family isnt’ hurt. Of course, we learn from our mistakes, but it’s also okay to have some negatives because but you can’t please everyone.” As for her current much-publicised spat with fellow actor Hong Hui Fang, does she think things will get sorted out? “Definitely!” she asserts.