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My Life My Way Straits Times Series

Beatrice Chien, 77, is acting out her first love

Cats have nine lives but Beatrice Chien has lived many more.

Among other things, she's been a prostitute, mamasan, tissue seller and cardboard collector.

She's lived the high life and she's hit skid row. She can be kind and doting, but she's also quite capable of being vicious and conniving.

She is not unstable and unhinged; she's just versatile.

The 77-year-old is an actress, and a busy one at that.

Last year, she played a concerned neighbour in a filmlet, Break The Silence, about family violence for the Ministry of Social and Family Development. A couple of months ago, she wrapped up a meaty role as a conflicted grandmother in Eric Khoo's new movie, Ramen Teh.

And this afternoon, she will be treading the boards at The Substation in A Map Of Scars, Bruises And Broken Bones. She is a narrator in the performance piece, a psycho-geographic exploration of the body as a map, by actress-turned-director Patricia Toh. In between all the above, she has been involved in several other projects, from student films to stage performances and radio plays.

"I love it, it's my passion," she says of the craft that has kept her "young and active" since she left a 40-year nursing career two decades ago.

Chien has snowy white hair, a velvety voice and an expressive face with wrinkles that speak of experience and character.

If the lives she has lived on screen and on the airwaves are interesting, her real one is no less so.

The fourth of eight children, she was born to a Chinese musician and his wife. Her father gave her away when she was an infant to a childless singer to settle a $100 gambling debt. Her adoptive mother, who left her businessman husband after he got himself another wife from China, doted on her.

"Compared with my real siblings, I was very lucky. I was given an education and a lot more," she says.

Chien grew up in a shophouse in Tanjong Pagar with her adoptive grandmother, who placed a premium on education.

She attended a Chinese school, now known as Yang Zheng Primary, in the morning, and Fairfield Methodist in the afternoon.

"In the evening, I had lessons in the Chinese classics," she says, referring to Sanzijing or the Three Character Classic which covers Confucian morality.

Her love for the performing arts started at a young age. Her adoptive mother would take her along each time she sang or acted in Chinese operas staged at various Chinese clans.

"It's probably in my genes. I love drama and singing. Every night, I was entranced, listening to Chinese dramas on Rediffusion while doing my homework," she says.

At 15, the then student of Methodist Girls' School responded to an ad by cable broadcasting company Rediffusion seeking talents for a voice training programme.

She got in and learnt the art of acting on radio. After a year, she was offered the lead role in a drama series, playing a female martial arts hero.

"My trainers said my voice had a firm and authoritative quality," says Chien, who was soon acting in other radio plays for both Rediffusion and Radio and Television Singapore, now known as Mediacorp.

After completing her O levels, she started training to become a nurse.

"My granny died when I was 12. Before she died, she was at the Singapore General Hospital, where I saw how the nurses took care of her. I told myself I wanted to be like them," says Chien, who gave up acting because she had to work shifts and irregular hours.

Her adoptive mother tried to dissuade her from taking up the profession. But Chien was not put off by the hours or tasks like cleaning and bathing patients.

"Just ask how you would like your loved ones, or yourself, to be treated by nurses. It's not difficult," says the feisty soul who, for the next 40 years, worked in almost all the hospitals here.

Nursing, she says, has shaped the way she looks at life. Being constant witness to birth and death, joy and suffering has taught her to take knocks on the chin and live life, which is fragile, without regrets.

At 22, she married a mechanic with whom she had three children, now aged between 48 and 52.

It did not end happily ever after.

When she was in her early 40s, her husband left the family and took up with someone she knew.

"He said: 'Do you know cats who won't eat fish when it's right in front of them?'" she says, adding that they did not get officially divorced.

The betrayal seared for a while but she got on with life, and threw herself into her work and caring for her children.

She left the government service in 1984 with a gratuity but continued working as a private nurse for another 16 years.

"Sometimes, I'd work two shifts. I had that flexibility," she says, adding that she saved assiduously and is now financially secure.

With a serene smile, she lets on that her husband came knocking on her door a couple of years ago.

Thrown out of his other home, he was sickly, could not afford to rent a room and asked if he could sleep in her store room.

She took pity on him, and allowed him to sleep in her son's room.

"But we lead separate lives. He's asked me to forget my grievances, but I told him I have no grievances because he just doesn't have a place in my heart. He's a stranger. I have forgiven but I have not forgotten," says Chien, who has two granddaughters aged 17 and 21.

Another granddaughter died at age five from a viral infection about 10 years ago.

Not one to be idle, she began volunteering after giving up full-time work in 2000. For more than five years, she helped to man the hotline once a week at the Association of Women for Action and Research, counselling women in distress.

She also joined Sage Counselling Centre, helping elderly folk who were lonely or grappling with issues of abuse or other domestic problems.

With her children grown up and time on her hands, she also went back to the love she had suppressed for more than half a century: acting.

In 2003, she and a group of drama-loving seniors started The Glowers Drama Group under the auspices of DramaPlus Arts to put up performances for different organisations. Before long, they had caught the attention of TV producers, film-makers, theatre groups and film students.

Comfortable on stage, film and on air, her enthusiasm and her linguistic skills - she speaks fluent English, Mandarin and Cantonese - soon saw her inundated with offers.

It doesn't hurt that she is savvy with the computer and has her own Facebook account too.

"I'm game for anything. Die die must try," she says with a laugh.

A regular on both Channel 5 and Channel 8 productions, she scored a two-year gig playing a rubbish collector in 2009 for long-running drama series Your Hand In Mine, starring Chen Liping and the late Huang Wenyong.

Film students and graduates from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the now defunct Tisch School of the Arts regularly seek her out to act in short films too. "Some come to me and say: 'Auntie Beatrice, we are students and have no money.' So I tell them to pay me what they can.

"And if they really cannot afford to pay, I just ask for transport money," says the actress, who sometimes gets as many as three or four acting gigs a week.

There have been many memorable gigs, she says. Not too long ago, she flew to different cities in Germany to shoot an advertisement for Singapore Airlines.

And this year, one of her juiciest roles was in Ramen Teh, Khoo's new movie about food, hope and love. The Singapore-Japan production boasts a star-studded cast including Japanese heart-throb Takumi Saitoh, 80s pop idol Seiko Matsuda as well as local talents Mark Lee and Jeanette Aw.

Says Chien: "Acting gives me so much satisfaction. It is cathartic and allows me to do things that will never happen in my real life. That's why I'm still playful and mischievous. And young."

This is the fifth of a six-part series on individuals, aged 55 and above, who lead active and meaningful lives. For more information on the MyWay Programme, click here.

Photo credits to Isabelle Lim, courtesy of Zhao Wei Pictures.