Mothers pass their artistic passions on to their children

Four mothers in the arts tell The Straits Times the pride they experience seeing their offspring taking the same path as them

Some taught their children their craft from a young age, others tried to expose them to a variety of artforms.

With Mother's Day around the corner, The Straits Times looks at four mothers in the arts and how they have passed their passion on to their children.

While ballerina Jenny Chien, 51, never pushed her daughter Valerie Yeo, 19, to put on pointe shoes, Yeo went on to become a second-generation ballerina at the Singapore Dance Theatre 26 years after her mother's debut.

A love for dance also runs in the family of Jeyanthi Balasubramaniam, who founded dance company Bharathaa Arts with her sister and started teaching bharatanatyam dance to her two daughters from when they were four.

Peking opera vocalist Huang Ping, 52, would have her sons brought to her performances when they were babies. This exposure to traditional Chinese music would eventually lead them to join Chinese orchestras.

One mother-daughter pair also creates together.

Student Lesley-Anne Tan, 20, and her mother Monica Lim, 47, write the Danger Dan and Gadget Girl children's book series and used to argue about writing at the dinner table, but have since laid down ground rules: no emotional blackmail. "I cannot say, 'I'm your mother, so you must write this way,'" says Lim.

For these mothers, the sense of pride they feel when watching their children follow in their footsteps is immeasurable.

"When I see them perform, I feel so gratified," says Madam Huang of her sons, now teenagers. "They look so mature and I feel like they are going down a good path in life."

Son is the perfect accompanist

Flautist Bian Tong was introduced to traditional Chinese music as a baby and it did not go well.

He had been taken to see his mother, Peking opera singer Huang Ping, perform when he was an infant in arms. When she fell down on stage as part of her role, he began to scream in the audience and had to be removed.

Today, Bian Tong, 17, is his mother's harshest critic. "He can be counted on to tell me if I'm out of tune or sound off," says Huang, 52, in Mandarin. "When he says I did okay, I'm delighted."

Having spent their childhood watching Peking opera eased Bian Tong and his younger brother Bian Chang, 13, into the world of Chinese orchestral music.

Bian Chang plays the zhonghu, a bowed string instrument, in the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra (SNYCO), while Bian Tong, formerly an SNYCO member, is now part of the Dicapella Dizi Ensemble, the largest bamboo flute ensemble in South-east Asia. Last year, he won the grand prize in the senior category of the Symphony 92.4 Young Talents Project.

Their mother could not be prouder. "I get very emotional when I watch them play," says Huang. "Sometimes, I am even close to tears."

She and her husband, film-maker and former opera percussionist Bian Huibin, encouraged both boys to audition for SNYCO.

"I knew they would encounter so many Western influences as they grew older," she says. "I wanted them to remember their roots."

She and her husband, 53, came to Singapore 22 years ago from China, becoming Singapore citizens in 2005. In 2010, they founded the Singapore Chinese Opera Museum to showcase the history of opera across different dialect groups.

Keen to give both boys as many avenues of artistic expression as possible, they sent them for several classes when they were young - piano, art, even ballet for their elder son for a brief spell.

The piano lessons were met with animosity. Huang recalls how for her birthdays, her sons would draw her unsubtle cards of pianos beset by hammers and axes. "I thought it was very funny," she says. To her relief, they took much better to Chinese orchestra.

About three years ago, she took Bian Tong, who is in his first year of junior college at Dunman High, to China with her so he could be trained in playing kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera still existing today.

This, she says, makes him the perfect accompanist for her singing. "He knows all my rhythms and nuances. When he plays with the orchestra, he follows the score, but when I sing to him, he follows me."

Earlier this year, they performed the opera highlight Bai Hua Zeng Jian (Bestowing A Sword As A Token Of Love) at a gala dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel, accompanied by the elder Mr Bian on the drums. "It was very meaningful to be able to perform with my parents," says Bian Tong.

Although Bian Chang, a Secondary 1 student at Tanjong Katong Secondary School, has been too young to perform with them, Huang hopes an opportunity will arise some day. "I would like to take the stage as a family."

Dance is part of their lives

You can say that the love of bharatanatyam runs in their blood.

Jeyanthi Balasubramaniam started learning the classical Indian dance form which originated from Tamil Nadu at the age of six, along with her eight-year-old sister Suganthi Kumaraguru.

They were influenced by their mother who loved to dance.

Now 52, Jeyanthi is still actively teaching and choreographing dance along with her sister, 54.

They run dance company Bharathaa Arts, which conducts classes for students aged four to their 40s and perform at events and festivals.

Jeyanthi’s daughters, Lekshna, 22 and Brinda Balasubramaniam, 25, are bharatanatyam dancers too, as well as Suganthi’s daughter, who is based in Australia.

Lekshna and Brinda, who are Jeyanthi’s only children with her civil servant husband, completed their arangetram or dance debut last year. This Tamil word translates to “climbing the stage”.

The arangetram is an important achievement for students of Indian classical dance.

Lekshna and Brinda started going for classes conducted by their mother from age four, but their path towards bharatanatyam was not always smooth sailing.

“It was initially hard for me to explain to my friends why I always had to go for Indian dance training,” says Lekshna. “It’s quite weird to say that it’s part of your life, like an everyday thing.”

Says Brinda: “Because it was my mum’s class, I used to take it very lightly and go whenever I felt like it. I started to properly go for classes only when I was 13.”

“And because the other students see you as the teacher’s daughter, they have a higher expectation of you,” she adds.

But Jeyanthi has nothing but praise for her daughters.

She especially remembers their dedication to training for their arangetram, which took about a year and included running to build their stamina.

She was onstage with them during the debut, conducting the music, and had to watch the performance via a recording later.

She says: “I saw the video. They didn’t make a single mistake and were well-coordinated.”

Both girls still attend classes every Sunday morning with their mother, but have their sights set on higher education at the moment.

Brinda is taking her master’s degree in linguistics at the National University of Singapore this year.

From July, Lekshna will move to Perth to complete the last year of her finance-and-management degree in Murdoch University. It is part of her programme at Kaplan in Singapore.

Jeyanthi has already asked her to pack her dance costumes for any opportunity to showcase her talent.

And since dance is such a big part of their lives, Jeyanthi often jokes: “I tell them that I must be able to interview (their boyfriends). He must learn how to cook and take care of my daughter. And he must appreciate music and dance.”

Tough writing together

When Lesley-Anne Tan and her mother Monica Lim started writing books together, they would often shout at each other from across the study room.

Lesley-Anne Tan and her mother Monica Lim (both above) are creators of a series of children's books about young Singaporean superheroes Danger Dan and Gadget Girl.
Lesley-Anne Tan and her mother Monica Lim (both above) are creators of a series of children's books about young Singaporean superheroes Danger Dan and Gadget Girl. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The mother-and-daughter pair are the creators of their own series of children's books, featuring young Singaporean superheroes Danger Dan and Gadget Girl.

Lim, 47, runs a corporate writing agency while Tan, 20, is completing her first year studying liberal arts at Yale-National University of Singapore.

They write their books in the same Google document, but on separate computers, and this led to altercations when Lim would delete something Tan just wrote, or vice- versa.

"But we made a pact that we could not go to bed angry," says Lim, whose husband, Kenneth, 49, is an assistant director in human resources. After ironing out these "teething problems", they no longer fight as much while writing.

Lim's strengths are in writing dialogue and editing, but she relies on Tan to gauge what would seem funny to a younger audience.

This means removing outdated expressions such as "sonny-boy" and writing more scenes with food - ice balls, laksa, ice cream sandwiches and more. "Food descriptions bring kids joy," says Tan.

When Tan was little, her mother would read her bedtime stories in funny voices.

A particular favourite was Shel Silverstein's The Missing Piece, about the adventures of an incomplete circle. Her mother would do a comic rendition of the song the circle sings when it finds its missing piece and Tan would laugh uncontrollably. Nobody else, says Tan, could do it the way she did.

They first heard of the opportunity to write a children's book in 2013, when local publisher Epigram Books opened a pitch for a series about a boy who goes back into Singapore's past.

Tan, who was 16 at the time and already loved writing, jumped at the chance to do right by the pitch. "It had to be more than just a social studies textbook disguised as a kids' story," she says.

But with her O levels on the horizon, Lim was concerned she could not juggle being an author and her schoolwork.

Lim had already published a book by that point - The Good, The Bad And The PSLE, a humorous look at getting two very different children through the Primary School Leaving Examinations - and decided to join forces with her daughter.

They based the hyperactive, gungho Danger Dan on Tan's younger brother Andre, now 16.

Both wanted, however, to show young readers a complex female character who was more than a sidekick, and so they wrote in Melody, or Gadget Girl, whose meticulous tendencies form a counterpoint to Danny. Gadget Girl went on to get equal title billing with Danger Dan in the second series.

"I was always annoyed at kids' books with stereotypical girl characters who were ditzy or boy-crazy or always shopping and painting their nails," says Tan. "I couldn't identify with them at all."

They have written more than 10 books together and Tan aspires to branch out on her own: "I'd like to write my own novel one day."

Daughter did not like ballet at first

When her two daughters were younger, ballet teacher Jenny Chien, 51, was careful not to do any stretching exercises in the house.

Valerie Yeo wanted to quit ballet a few times but her mother Jenny Chien (both above) made her carry on.
Valerie Yeo wanted to quit ballet a few times but her mother Jenny Chien (both above) made her carry on. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

"I didn't want them to copy me. Children can hurt themselves if they stretch when they are too young," she says.

But during this interview, she learns that her efforts were futile.

"She was stretching in her sleep," says her elder daughter Valerie Yeo, demonstrating how her mother's legs were positioned in a diamond shape, with her feet together and knees bent, while asleep.

"I didn't know I was doing that," says Chien, with a laugh.

Yeo, 19, is certainly following in her mother's footsteps.

She made her professional debut as an apprentice dancer with ballet company Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) in March, in the company's production of whimsical ballet Coppelia.

Hong Kong-born Chien was also a company dancer with SDT from 1991 to 1996. It was then based in Fort Canning Centre.

Chien, who had started her ballet training late at age 14, retired from performing in 1996 at the age of 30.

She got married and had Yeo a year later. Her husband is an exercise therapist.

She teaches ballet regularly at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Lasalle College of the Arts and community centres.

Chien taught her two daughters ballet from the age of five, but did not expect either to pursue ballet as a profession.

"People say you shouldn't force your children to do what you want," says Chien.

Her younger daughter, Sabrina, 15, is in Secondary 3 in Pasir Ris Crest Secondary School. She does not dance, and prefers netball and art instead.

Yeo also loves art and helps to design merchandise for SDT. She confesses that her early ballet training had been challenging.

"I didn't like dancing at first, but I think it was because I didn't really try hard enough," says Yeo, who adds that her body was not as flexible when she was younger.

She had even wanted to quit a few times.

She says: "Luckily, my mum is a good teacher and made me carry on. I worked extra hard and slowly started to like dancing more."

She took dance at School of the Arts (Sota) from 2011 - the first time she had dance teachers other than her mother.

After two years in Sota, she auditioned for the Central School of Ballet in London and got in. She graduated with a degree last year.

Perhaps her early exposure gave her a leg-up. Chien remembers taking Yeo to dress rehearsals of SDT's classical ballet performances at the Esplanade when she was just two or three years old.

"I wish that more parents would take their kids to watch more performances. It's good bonding time," says Chien.

She says she is "very happy" that Yeo is in the SDT, and she did not expect it, though "secretly, I wished that she would" join the company.

She adds: "The path is not easy for a dancer. I hope that she will continue to grow and fulfil her dream."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2017, with the headline 'In mum's footsteps'. Print Edition | Subscribe