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A Real Character

Photo by: Wee Khim, Women Make a Difference

Photo by: Wee Khim, Women Make a Difference

If variety is the spice of life, then Karen Tan must have a very flavourful one. The prolific actress, whose career in theatre spans more than 20 years, has worked with almost all the different theatre companies in Singapore. She’s tackled a diverse range of roles in wildly disparate plays, from musicals and comedies to dramas and political satires.

The straight-talking actress has a lot to say about cervical cancer. Together with her husband Swee Chong, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, this Ambassador for Power Over Cervical Cancer – who also shaved her head to raise cancer awareness for Hair for Hope in 2009

– strongly urges women to protect themselves against this devastating but very preventable disease.

Ezyhealth: How do you select your roles? They are so diverse, from serious dramas like Family Outing to pantomimes like Aladdin.

Karen: I’m very fortunate, the roles pick me. I dare not call people and say, “I heard you’re doing this show, can I do this?” I think if they wanted to work with you, they would have called you. I really admire people who call and ask to audition – that takes a lot of guts. If I do get a particular role, that’s great, but if I don’t get it, I just don’t. It’s somebody else’s turn. It’s good to have ideals but if your ideals are not met, don’t stay miserable for too long.

Ezyhealth: Acting and being on the go all the time must take a lot of stamina. How do you stay healthy and take care of your body?

Karen: I don’t snack so I just need my three meals. I moisturise. Sleep is very important. I tried running and Pilates for a while. Running is free – I would always encourage running and walking because you literally just walk out of your house and do it.

Ezyhealth: Do you do anything to unwind?

Karen: I do cross stitch, which I love. I made a cross stich for a friend. Sometimes I frame stuff. I’ve been trying to do all these handicraft things that I always wanted to do. I’ve been making my own ‘macramé’ but instead of beads I use nylon strings and tie to make flowerpots to hang. I bought my own staple gun and I did my own uphold strings. I like to play games on my phone too. It’s nice to just ‘switch off’ sometimes.

Ezyhealth: Usually mothers are the ‘healthkeepers’ of the family. Do you encourage your family to have healthy habits?

Karen: I read somewhere that all you need to get on for the rest of your life is to pick up one sport and one musical instrument or something cultural. And you don’t have to do really well in them! I try to push my children. My husband takes the girls cycling. My girls love swimming. My older daughter Rachel has taught Olivia to throw a Frisbee properly. They teach each other stuff like that. In school they do a lot of active stuff too. My husband Swee Chong is an obstetrician and gynaecologist so he’s in the clinic a lot. When he comes back he does what he wants to do. If he feels like riding on a bike then he goes.

Photo by: Tan Ngiap Heng, Children’s Cancer Foundation

Photo by: Tan Ngiap Heng, Children’s Cancer Foundation

Ezyhealth:  You and your husband are pretty big on cancer awareness. Tell us more about that.

Karen: Swee Chong does a lot of cervical cancer research. He reminds people over and over, cervical cancer is the only cancer you can prevent, but it still kills a woman every day in Singapore alone. We were in England for seven years, while he was doing his specialist degree and then working. Shockingly, he saw more cases of cervical cases in Singapore in the first few months that he was back than in all the years he was in England.

Here, nobody goes for Pap smear. We Asians are always so scared about the whole ‘down there’ business and you think, “I’m a virgin, I won’t get cervical cancer. I’m not promiscuous”, “There’s no cervical cancer in my family”, “I’m too old” and so on. The number of excuses that people come up with is amazing.

The Singapore Cancer Society actually provides free Pap smears. It’s free but nobody goes. They’ll say, “My office is very far away.” If you suggest doing it somewhere else, they’ll say, “It’s so expensive to see a gynaecologist, but I don’t trust my GP to do it.” or “My gynaecologist is a male, I only want a female…” It’s endless. And then, “Oh gosh, I’ve got cervical cancer. How come nobody told me? Why didn’t my doctor push me? Why didn’t the government do something?” We don’t want to take responsibility for ourselves.

Ovarian and cervical cancers are one of the most painful ways to die. It’s caused by a virus that you can prevent yourself from catching. If you get vaccinated and go for regular Pap smears, you will be 99% free from cancer. It’s quite an amazing thing to wake up and go, “That’s one cancer I’m not going to get.” If every woman in the world can prevent this then it’s one thing that’s not going to kill women.

Ezyhealth: Another sickness you’ve shared about is depression, which you have had a personal struggle with. How did the depression start and how do you handle it now?

Karen: Today is a pretty ‘okay’ day. Sometimes when it’s difficult, I stay home. It started with post-natal depression with my older child, Rachel. Rachel is 18 and Olivia is nine. I had Rachel in England, and I was all alone. I didn’t realise I was suffering from post-natal depression until two to three years later. I never took any medication because I thought it would turn me into a zombie. It got better as Rachel grew up. I’ve always been prone to being low and depressed anyway. Then Olivia was born and it was completely different. I had everyone around me – my maid, my mother, friends and work – and I still had post-natal

Mind your Body talked to me about it. After the interview came out, Rachel came home crying one day. She was about ten. Two girls at school said to her, “You were the one who made your mother sick.” That was when I realised, all the more I should talk about it. Dr Helen Chen, who is in charge of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s Mental Wellness service, called me to help out with a forum on pre-natal depression. It’s important that people talk about it.

Where we live, perfection and success are so important. To be depressed and not be able to look after your child is such failure. No one can deal with it. People say, “What’s wrong with you? Your baby is healthy. You don’t have to worry about working. Your husband can support you. Why are you depressed?” I have no reason – that’s why I know it’s an illness.

Now, I tell my girls about it. Sometimes Rachel will say, “Are you all right? How are things?” and I’ll say, “Not so good today.” and she’ll just sit next to me and play. We don’t say anything. Or Olivia will say, “Are you okay, Mama?” and I’ll say, “Today, I’m not so happy.” She’ll just draw me a picture. They need to know that their mum doesn’t have to be super great all the time and that Mama can have good and bad days.

Ezyhealth: You have pretty strong ideas about how you want your kids to be raised. What are some of the rules you’ve taught them?

Karen:I bring them up to be children that I like to be with. I don’t have many rules but I do have specific ones that they have to keep, like you must greet people before you eat, and you cannot tell lies. Other than that, whatever they want to do, I say “yes”. It’s like a credit card system. You can sign all you want but you have to pay. They don’t have any tuition or enrichment classes. People complain that their children have too many activities. They have to go for ballet, art or swimming. You don’t have to, it’s a choice.

In Singapore, your education is a privilege. You don’t have to fight, ask or beg for it, or take risks to get it. Use your education to make a difference in people’s lives. I think every job you choose will make a difference. Like if you’re an architect, you should volunteer to build houses for people in need every once in a while.

You have to respect people, be polite and considerate. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what qualifications you have. If the Ministry of Education burned down, all the computers exploded and there were no trace of our educational records, the only thing that you have left is yourself. It’s more important to be a good person than a qualified person. You can learn diction, and to build a house and cross stitch. But it’s not easy being kind, considerate and sensitive to others.

Ezyhealth: In your upcoming play, Frozen, you play a mother who retreats into a state of frozen hope for 20 years after her daughter goes missing. As a mother yourself, how did you feel about the role?

Karen:Even before this play came about, I always read about these mothers… All these famous cases, where the children are abducted. How do people go through that? To lose a child and not know what’s happened to them. I couldn’t imagine. I can’t identify with that at all. I don’t think it should be anything that anybody does identify with. That’s horrible. Terrifying, but it still goes on.


Karen at Random

a. If you were a colour, what would you be?

Red. I like red. My favorite flower is the hibiscus – the big red ones are the most beautiful.

b. What is one thing you have always wanted to do?

I’ve always wanted to be able to make a dress! Recently I signed up for a sewing class. So far, I made a bag, a cushion… Eventually I’ll make a dress.

c. What’s your secret fear?

I’m terrified of snakes!


Karen will be starring in Pangdemonium Theatre Company’s Frozen from 23 October to 9 November 2014 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. For more information, go to

Actress Karen Tan talks about children, choices and cervical cancer
Posted by ezyhealth on Oct 13 2014. Filed under Cover Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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