Home is where the Art is

Published on 26 April 2016

The apple never falls far from the tree. We meet some talented Singaporean families who share a passion for the arts.

BY PAMELA HO & JO TAN

Charity is not the only thing that begins at home. It seems passion does, too. People who make a living in the arts will never tell you it’s an easy path to follow. You have to be passionate about it, they’d say. The problem is that children who grow up with such parents tend to have a bit of that passion rub off on them — sometimes, vice versa!

As the saying goes, the apple never falls far from the tree. Whether it’s nature or nurture, we don’t have to look far to find families wherein art breeds art. Whether the children pick up the baton from their parents and run with the art form or explore alternative artistic paths, these arts families inspire us because they make us believe that the odds can be overcome —  together.

MIXED MEDIA

While many arts dynasties focus on a single art form, the Harrisons let their diverse powers combine. Award-winning actress Sharda Harrison founded Pink Gajah Theatre (PGT) — producing, directing and performing in its productions, but her brother Sean and mother Ajuntha Anwari soon joined in, too.

“I was shooting films, and Sharda roped me in to help ‘do film’ for the first-ever PGT production, Man Made God, in 2013. She really meant multimedia projections, but I had no idea what those were then,” says Sean, who has been the multimedia designer for various PGT productions since.

Ajuntha is best known as a practitioner and teacher of Jamu (Asian traditional, natural wellness), but was also once a clown, performing with children’s theatre company Act 3 shortly after it was founded. With PGT, she teaches theatre-in-education programmes.

PHOTO Joel Low ART DIRECTION Tony Law STYLING Lirong MAKEUP Shaun Lee HAIR Alicia Tey

But while everybody began with clear roles — acting, film and education — these have gradually become less distinct. Ajuntha performed in the monologue I Am, directed by Sharda as part of Open Homes, one of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015 offerings. Sean has produced, directed, performed, and even operated sound, and not just for theatre: for Unseen Constellations, an art exhibition by the visually- impaired, he almost single-handedly created three films for one of the participants, while Sharda stepped in as her acting coach.

“Even if people are not officially involved in a PGT project, I bounce ideas off them. A whole monologue in Bi(Cara) — a production for 2016’s M1 Fringe Festival — changed because Ajuntha brought in a lot of insights,” says Sharda. “There’s no work-life separation. I could just walk in on Sean showering and say, ‘This piece needs this media!’ I feel like we lean on each other to create art, so it will be slightly sad when I eventually move out to live with my fiancé Argyrios [Daskalopoulos].”

Thankfully, Daskalopoulos has been roped into PGT too as props and crafts collaborator — he built Bi(Cara)’s set pieces. Jokes Ajuntha, “Anyone we’re involved with will be dragged in. A lot of PGT’s plays and documentaries are inspired by their father Bernard’s animal conservation work. Sean shot our cat against a green screen and made it part of Bi(Cara), so even she’s involved!”

PLAYING HOUSE

“Adam was 13 when he told us he wanted to be a musician. My first response was, ‘Don’t you want to be a lawyer like my dad?’ ” chortles Babes Conde, celebrated composer/ music director/ pianist/vocal coach, and mother to drummer Adam Shah.

“We were worried because we’ve been through it, and know how tough it is to be a musician in Singapore,” says Shah Tahir, acclaimed music producer/sound engineer/guitarist, Adam’s father and Conde’s ex-husband. “His parents happen to be doing okay but very few people do.”

Thankfully, Adam is doing more than okay. He has gotten rave reviews as a drummer, sought after by the likes of Charlie Lim and The Sam Willows. He has also been arranging songs, sound-engineering and producing music for up-and-coming bands like The Good Life Project.

Says Adam, “I got interested in music from following mum to gigs and dad into the studio when he was producing and mixing.”

Of course, following in parental footsteps comes with challenges. “There’s this pressure to live up to, especially if both your parents are renowned. So I’ve tried to do my own thing. Instead of being a singer or guitarist, I play drums. My dad does more live sound engineering now but I work more in the studio. My parents definitely helped introduce me to people in the industry, but while they opened doors, I worked to walk through them my own way.”

BEATING A PATH Drummer Adam Shah is the product of two Singapore music icons: Babes Conde and Shah Tahir, but he is marching to the beat of his own drums. 

Now, the skilled Adam also periodically works with his parents as peers, whether drumming for Conde’s events or creating musical arrangements with Shah. “I’m proud of him,” says Conde. “Not least because he knows exactly what he loves. A lot of people live their lives not knowing.”

Shah agrees, “With family, you’re tough and expect more, and I do give him feedback. But when I go support his gigs, and people tell me, ‘Your son plays well’, I say, ‘Yeah.’ ”

REEL TO REAL

Singaporean film-maker Eric Khoo named his four sons after famous artists: Edward, after artist Edward Hopper; James, after actor James Dean; Christopher, after Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski; and Lucas, after film director George Lucas. Yet the Cultural Medallion recipient, responsible for iconic Singaporean films like Mee Pok Man, 12 Storeys and Be With Me, says he never intended for them to follow in his footsteps. “But I’d often joke that it would be cool to have them produce, film, edit and record sound for me… for free!”

“Growing up, my father would share films with us on laser disc and we’d watch them repeatedly. Titles like The Never Ending Story and A New Hope stand out as early childhood favourites,” recounts eldest son, Edward. “It was always an enjoyable ritual — watching a film at home. I guess the excitement my father brought to the whole experience rubbed off on me.”

Last September, Edward enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to pursue film studies. But even before that, his first short film Late Shift (2012) made its world premiere to rousing applause at the 17th Busan International Film Festival.

SET FOR FILM Director Eric Khoo and his first-born Edward on the set of Mee Pok Man; Edward assisting dad for his 7 Letters segment, Cinema.

His younger brothers are also not spared: James plays and composes music. In fact, one of his songs was used in Khoo’s latest feature film, In the Room. Christopher has also scored for his father’s films for the past eight years, starting with My Magic when he was just 10! “I remember walking down the red carpet at Cannes Film Festival and hearing his gorgeous piece through the speakers; it made me smile,” admits Khoo.

But is it added pressure for Edward being Eric Khoo’s son? No, he says. “It’s almost always a boon. His experience, insights and networks have been a great source of support for me.”

Khoo, who helms Zhao Wei Films and Gorylah Pictures, has since involved Edward in various projects and hopes to make a film with him someday. “As for advice, I tell him what I tell all other young directors — work hard and don’t bust the budget.”

TUNED TO TRADITION

It was their mother’s unwavering dedication to Nanyin music — an ancient Chinese art form — that inspired brothers Seow Ming Xian and Seow Ming Fong to go down the not-so-conventional path of pursuing the traditional arts.

“My father actually disapproved of us going into the arts. He didn’t see the point of us learning this art form, as he felt the skill wouldn’t help us in the future,” reveals Ming Xian, who has been performing as an artist with Siong Leng Musical Association (SLMA) since 2005, and is currently working full-time with the company, doing marketing and communications.

His younger brother Ming Fong, who is ensemble manager and plays the Nanyin pipa and sanxian, recalls how, when they were children, their grandmother, Mdm Goh Boon Keow, would bribe them to practise the musical instruments. “She said if you practise, I will give you 50 cents!”

THREE-IN-ONE Siong Leng’s executive director Wang Pheck Geok (centre, standing), together with her sons and mother, represent three generations with a passion for Nanyin music.

In fact, it was Grandma Goh who encouraged their mother, Wang Pheck Geok, to pick up Nanyin music at age 12. “I always liked music, but didn’t have the opportunity when young, so I made her learn,” she says in Hokkien-tinged Mandarin. When Wang joined the association in 1978, Mdm Goh did too — first helping out with productions, then as treasurer, secretary; and now, supervisory director.

Today, Wang serves as SLMA’s executive director. With three generations involved, she is mindful that they draw a clear line between work and family. “Of course, we have disagreements at work, but we never bring it home.

“When my sons were young, I brought them to work as I saw how children who learn the arts seldom go astray. I never expected them to follow in my footsteps — I know how hard it is to do this for a living,” she shares. “But when they decided to, I was very happy because without the next generation, this art form will perish. That would be such a pity as the previous generations had to suffer a lot to keep it going till today. Now that this generation has less financial pressure, I hope they can work to pass on this traditional art.”

What’s in a Name?

More famous arts families in Singapore!

BHASKAR IN GLORY

The Bhaskar family name is synonymous with Indian classical dance in Singapore. The late KP Bhaskar founded Indian performing arts group Bhaskar’s Arts Academy in 1955, and was joined by his wife Santha Bhaskar (a Cultural Medallion recipient) the same year. Today, Mrs Bhaskar and her daughter Meenakshy Bhaskar are its co-artistic directors. The company also has an overseas branch in California, where Meena is based. A third-generation Bhaskar is making her mark: 20-year-old Malini Bhaskar, who graduated from the School of the Arts (specialising in dance) and is trained in ballet and contemporary dance, recently joined the company full-time as a dancer and instructor.

PHOTO  Malini Bhaskar

KUO OF DUTY

The late Kuo Pao Kun (KPK) is arguably Singapore’s most respected playwright, director and activist. The Cultural Medallion recipient married equally esteemed dance pioneer Goh Lay Kuan, a fellow Cultural Medallion recipient, and founded theatre company, The Theatre Practice. Today, elder daughter Kuo Jian Hong helms the company as artistic director, continuing her father’s legacy of directing celebrated theatrical productions, sometimes with her own daughter Olivia guest-performing in child roles. Meanwhile, KPK’s younger daughter, Kuo Jing Hong, has performed dance and physical theatre in various cities. She also directs plays.

TEAM ABISHEGANADEN

We know her simply as ‘Ja’ but jazz singer and actress Jacintha Abisheganaden’s family name probably reveals much more about her musical heritage. Her father, Alex Abisheganaden, is Singapore’s first home-grown classical guitarist and double-bassist, while her late uncle, Paul Abisheganaden, was a Singaporean conductor — both are Cultural Medallion recipients.

WE GOH TOGETHER

Mrs Goh Ah Chiam, nee Oon, is a respected street Hokkien Opera performer who became especially famous when one of her performances was televised. Growing up around her showbiz lifestyle, her elder son Goh Boon Teck developed an interest in theatre, and became a multi-award-winning playwright, director and designer. This Young Artist Award recipient, who founded theatre company Toy Factory, even created an internationally-acclaimed play Titoudao, based on his mother’s life. His brother Zachary Goh, a one-time dancer, actor and visual designer in Singapore, is now creative director of Shanghai creative agency, Untitled Collective.

THE PANG GANG

Their company name cannot be more apt: papa Adrian Pang and mama Tracie Pang are co-artistic directors of Pangdemonium, with Tracie directing all the company’s productions and Adrian acting in most of them. Sons Zack and Xander were both in Pangdemonium’s 2010 debut production The Full Monty, as well as in the 2012 musical Spring Awakening. Signs suggest the young Pangs are following in their parents’ footsteps: both are currently enrolled in the School of the Arts and pursuing theatre as their chosen art form. The brothers have also done some acting and hosting for television.

PHOTO  The Pang Family

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