Leading up to the release of James Lee’s latest film ‘Two Sisters’, we sit down with one of the leads, Lim Mei Fen, for the first of a two-part interview.
Guide us from the beginning, Mei Fen: how did you decide to get involved in acting? Can you identify for us that specific moment in greater detail?
After Form 5, I went to the United States to do an acting course in theatre arts. It was a five-year course, but I didn’t complete it. I came back after one semester simply because, at that time, my father’s business was not doing so well.
At the same time, my mother was also worried, because at that time, there was a culture of sex and drugs and all these issues in the United States. In the end, they forced me to come back, so I only did one semester there. But that journey, that one semester, impacted a lot of my life. That was the first time I was trained professionally as a stage performer. I would say I found my first love in theatre over there.
What did you do you you came back?
After I came back, I did what my parents wanted me to do. I studied accounting, and then after that I got into a reality show, a modelling reality show. So my journey as an actor, actually, is not that smooth. It’s on and off, on and off. I didn’t have the chance to act, and it was only a lot of modelling work.
How did acting come into the equation, then?
I only get to do acting at the age of 26. At that time, I had left this industry. After I left the reality TV show, I had a chance to work on a game show with NTV7, called ‘Deal or No Deal’, for two years. After that, I did script work for a production house, behind the scenes. Then my dad said, there’s no future in this, no money. He dragged me back to Penang, my hometown, to do business with him.
I basically had to leave and forget my dreams and passions until the age of 26, when an NTV7 producer called me to ask whether I want to be involved in their effort, which was the first ever Chinese film produced by Media Prima and Grand Brilliance, ‘The Cage’. So alhamdullilah, I got that role, and that’s how I first officially started acting!
It seems like family is a big issue. It’s not a new story, but I’m quite intrigued by how vehement your family was in affecting your career.
My parents are very typical and traditional Chinese parents. They want their kids to have a stable job and to be happy, that’s all. So actually, the entertainment industry in Malaysia is difficult. It’s challenging to be an anak seni. They know that, so that’s why they actually don’t support me in this. They want me to do business or something else that’s more stable.
That’s why at 21 years-old, my father pulled me back from KL to Penang, and at 22, 23, I was helping my father with his business. I went to Sichuan in China a lot. At that time, my father was a little ill. He had some hearing problems, so I was the one leading the business. It was a tough time!
Were you happy with this?
I did what my parents wanted at that time, but I think I wasn’t really happy. They can tell that as well, but at that time, the family is the priority. So I really put my dreams aside, and threw myself into my father’s business.
But because my father was sick, and because my background is not in business… remember, I did more modelling and theatre arts, and only a little bit of accounting. So it was very difficult for me. To set up the business is actually not so difficult, but to sustain it is very difficult.
So at the age of 26, when I wanted to discuss with my father whether I wanted to continue or stop, suddenly the NTV7 offer came in. This time, my father did not stop me. Dia pun sudah redha. He knows that I tried my best, and in the ends, things did not work out, so he let me go, letting me do what I want. He will always advise me, though, maybe every Chinese New Year when I come back home, to try and get a proper job.
So I became a producer, because I understand that if I am only an actress, I will not survive, and I will make my parents worry about me. So I took on the challenge of being a producer in TV.
Was there any particular personality or performer you look to as an inspiration?
I’m actually the kind of person who like the story, the journey of a person. So there’s a lot of people who inspire me.
But if you want to talk about the Malaysian context, the one person who really affected my life and inspired me is Erma Fatima. She is the one who brought me into the theatre world, and introduced me to the Malay entertainment industry. When I met her, that was the time when she was at a low ebb, but still she was driven to make the theatre production, ‘Takhta Tiga Ratu’.
So when I found that she’s having a lot of personal problems, it seems like a volcano, a volatile situation. But she was calm in her work as a director or as a producer for ‘Takhta Tiga Ratu’. She was still very professional. I really respect her partly because of this, and also because of how she rose from being actress to being a director and producer.
Can you give an example of this?
When I produced ‘Tanah Akhirku’, a show at Istana Budaya that Tun Mahathir came to watch, at a critical time three days before the show, one of our sponsors suddenly pulled out. They had an additional request which I could not accommodate, so at that time, our show could not go on due to these financial issues.
A lot of people were upset at me, but Erma Fatima was the one who stood up and gave me an amount of money to keep the show going, and I was very thankful to for that. At that time, she said, “This industry must go on. We need this industry to be sustained.” So that’s why she used her own money. “I’m a widow. I’m not a datin or orang kaya, but this is the amount I could give for the industry, because I want to see this industry grow.” Wah, at that time, she was like the hero to me! And not just me, but all the cast and crew members who were there at that time, all 140 of us. Her spirit truly inspired me.
That is amazing. I never knew that. Speaking of ‘Takhta Ratu Tiga’, how did that come about, and what was that experience like?
I honestly never thought of entering the Malay entertainment industry. Not once. But Soo Wincci called me and asked me to come and meet Erma Fatima, to replace her for the show because, at that time, she has a show in Taiwan, so she could not make it for ‘Takhta Ratu Tiga’.
So I went to meet her, and it was something really new for me. Not only that, I could not even speak Malay. So when I meet her, there were also a number of other Chinese girls who auditioned for that role. I was the one who could not speak Bahasa Malaysia. But Erma said, “I want you. You can act. You have that aura.”
She then asked if I can memorise a thick script in ten days. I also wanted this character, but I did not want to give empty promises, because I might be able to live up to them. At that time, I could not speak Bahasa Malaysia, so I told Erma, “Can I give it a try? If I can do it, then I will take on this challenge. If not, you can give someone else this opportunity.”
Fake it till you make it.
Yes. I saw her at 3.00 pm. I then memorised the script as much as possible, and we met again at 10.30 pm. Then I recited all that I could remember. The scene was scene number 17. I still remember it! It was the long climactic scene.
So you did not understand it at all?
A lot of the words, I had no idea what they meant! I just memorised and acted it out.
What was that like?
I would describe my journey as Hang Li Po from China, 600 years ago, who entered the Malay world in Malacca. I had that same feeling. I am a Chinese actress, from the Chinese world, without a Malay friend, then suddenly I entered the Malay world, mingling around.
In the end fell in love with them, until I eventually entered Akademi Seni Budaya Dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA) and produced a theatre production based on my true journey, which is ‘Tanah Akhirku’.
Speaking of ASWARA, how useful was that experience in setting you up for acting in Malaysia?
I guess I am not a very talented or naturally-gifted actor. I had to work hard to get to where I am today. I once shared on social media that when I was a model, I spoke with a director. “I want to be an actor,” I said, “because I love storytelling. I love to share a story through acting.” He said that if that’s the case, you need to go and touch up your face, which is his way of saying that I’m not pretty enough!
But what I did is I went and did an internal form of ‘plastic surgery’. I went to brush up on my acting skills by enrolling at ASWARA, because along the way, I found that acting can and cannot be taught. Many have debated about this, but for me, I believe that actors need to experience life. When you experience life, you accumulate experience along the way and emotions, and all the feelings that you’ve been through. When you act, you will be able to carry that weight. You will be able to convince your audience of your performance.
So if you ask me whether ASWARA has affected my acting, yes. A lot! Very much!
It’s not just in the classroom where I learn about acting. My journey in ASWARA has really impacted me and my life as an actor. I am a Chinese girl who entered ASWARA, another Malay world, without being able to speak Malay. I survived, spent a lot of time with my friends, until in the end I fell in love with this land and this Malay community. I mingle closely with my friends until they become my family. So all this precious journey at ASWARA, I experienced a lot of emotions which I had never experienced before.
As an actor, it has enriched my life. When I did ‘Tanah Akhirku’, it’s actually a recap of my journey in ASWARA. All the ups and downs and emotions I’ve been through. Alhamdullilah, I was so thankful for what ASWARA had given me.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training