Chew Chor Meng: "As long as I can watch my daughters grow up, it's happiness for me"

Local actor Chew Chor Meng at the release of his biography.
Local actor Chew Chor Meng at the release of his biography.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Local actor Chew Chor Meng has released his autobiography in hopes that his life story - from growing up with an abusive father to living with incurable motor neuron illness - will inspire and encourage others.

At Thursday's launch of his book, Stages Of Life, he showed that he walked the talk - living courageously by faith and coming to terms with spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy, or Kennedy's disease. While he had difficulty walking, he spoke freely about his condition and lightened up the atmosphere by cracking jokes.

But he showed a hint of vulnerability when talking about watching his two daughters grow up.

Speaking in a mix of Mandarin and English, Chew, 47, says: "I'm already very grateful. To me, as long as I'm alive, I can watch my daughters grow up, it's already happiness for me.

"Though I am ill, I'm not the only one in pain, the people around me are suffering even more than me. I try not to complain so much, I don't want to hurt their feelings."

In an interview with The Straits Times, he lights up when talking about his daughters, Chloe, 14, and Cheyenne, 12.

He does not want to burden his young daughters with the full details of his condition, saying: "They only know papa cannot climb stairs. Papa walks very slowly. Papa cannot squat down. If Papa sits on the floor, it's very difficult for him to get up."

Calling them his "infantry", he says when they go out as a family, they will recce the terrain in search of slopes and potential danger zones for him.

"They will tell me, 'Papa, the steps are steep. I will go and look for a slope for you.' 'Papa, you better not go to the toilet. The floor is wet.' Sometimes, my younger daughter will stop in her tracks, and suddenly walk behind me. She's afraid that I will fall."

Diagnosed with the condition in 2008, he is now also taking medication to control his diabetes, which is reportedly related to his condition.

Being a star in Mediacorp Channel 8 dramas and also the second winner of the local television station's talent hunt Star Search in 1990, his life is already well-documented in the media. But he wants to tell his life story from his perspective.

He says: "Interviews in the newspaper may not fully express what I want to say. I hope to share the details of my life. I may not be a great person, but I hope my story will be a source of motivation."

He narrated his memories to former veteran reporter Wong Oi Kuan, who penned his anecdotes in Chinese. English translations are included in the bilingual book because Chew wants to reach out to younger readers who may prefer reading in English.

Despite his current optimism, he confesses that he initially found it hard to stomach the stares and insensitive remarks that came his way.

"When I went out, people would look at my leg. Then I'd feel embarrassed. I used to think that the whole world was looking at me. I felt ashamed. Now, I don't feel this way. Step by step, I have overcome it."

Extolling the virtues of a positive attitude, he seeks solace in his Christian faith and constantly refers to his religion during the interview and in the book.

He also soldiers on with the support of family and friends, who packed the launch held at the cosy third floor of d'Good Café at Holland Village.

His wife of 15 years, Deon, who is a housewife, was present. Fellow artists spotted include actress Pan Lingling and actor-host Dennis Chew. Mediacorp's artiste management unit also "closed shop" for a day, so that staff could attend the event.

Clearly, Chew Chor Meng is a major figure in the local Chinese-language entertainment scene, in which he celebrates his 25th year.

Although he has largely had a successful career - he always made it into the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes list at Mediacorp's annual Star Awards - he confesses in the book that he used to feel frustrated that he could not change the public's perception of him as a comedic figure.

In the book, he says: "After the success of playing 'Ah Bee', my acting career hit a bottleneck (sic). I was in an awkward position in the showbiz hierarchy. I was a headliner in my own sitcom but was relegated to second lead when Li Nanxing came into the picture.

"People remember Yan Fei, the character played by Nanxing in The Unbeatables II, but who remembers my character Ding Zhaohui? It wasn't a good feeling watching from the sidelines. I did not complain but I did fear that one day there might not even be a place for me."

His roles have run the gamut from a sorcerer in Channel 8 series Immortal Love (1997) to his award-winning role as a mentally challenged student in The Golden Path (2007). Recently, viewers watched him play a coffee shop boss in long-running 255-episode Channel 8 drama 118 (2014- 2015).

He is best known as the penny-pinching Ah Bee in Channel 8 sitcom Don't Worry, Be Happy (1996 - 1998), but his favourite work is the telemovie Romance In The Seventh Month (1994), in which he played a boyish-looking ghost.

He says: "I like the telemovie because I feel it was filmed when I was most good-looking. I thought the telemovie scenes came out really beautiful."

Host Dennis Chew chimes in Mandarin: "We think that you look good at every stage of your life."

The quick-witted Chew Chor Meng retorts in jest, eliciting laughter from the crowd. He quipped: "I think you've had a little too much to drink. But looks like it was the right decision to get you to host this event."

nggwen@sph.com.sg

Stages Of Life is available for $15.90 at all major bookstores.

Catch Chew Chor Meng at his book-signing session at 2pm on Jan 23, at Times Bookstore at Tampines 1.