Wong Li Lin: I saw prostitutes and a fatal fight growing up
Famously private, celebrity Wong Li-Lin opens up about her childhood of gambling dens, brothels, and violence
Local celebrity Wong Li-Lin, 41, is known as a pretty actress, an elegant ballerina and a loving mother-of-two.
But as a child, she was fostered to different families.
She had also been to brothels and gambling dens, where she witnessed brutal fights.
And this traumatic childhood is why she is helping troubled youth.
Wong was recently appointed the Community Chest's ambassador and she says her immediate plan will be to help youth-at-risk and the elderly.
The Community Chest helps 83 charitable organisations by raising funds on a yearly basis to meet the needs of their social service programmes.
The ComChest Care & Share Charity Show was held last Sunday. Telepoll lines for the show close on Aug 10 at midnight. Visit www.comchest.org.sg for details.
Though there have been reports on her difficult childhood before, the usually media-shy celebrity opened up with vivid details to The New Paper on Sunday.
She reveals that for several years - from the age of two - she was sent to different foster homes.
Wong tells this reporter she remembers living with a Malay family, then a Hokkien family before returning to live with her own troubled family when she was six.
Things did not improve.
The former Triple Nine actress details in an e-mail interview: "They were very unstable times. I lived mostly in and out of gambling dens, and I grew up with prostitutes, gamblers and thieves."
She first saw the inside of a brothel when she was eight, when her mum went to visit a friend.
At 10, she says, she witnessed her first fatal fight.
Her parents also fought a lot, she adds.
Yet, looking back, Wong describes her childhood as colourful and dramatic.
"I got to meet people from all walks of life and I had the opportunity to learn and study human behaviour from a young age," she says.
"There was a lot of drama, some amount of violence.
"As a young child, I didn't think to comprehend or not comprehend. It was just what it was."
She was introduced to ballet by regularly tagging along with her best friend to weekend dance classes.
At 13, Wong started teaching ballet to pay for her fees. She says she went to live with her ballet teacher, Mrs Skipp, for two years when she was 14.
Then at 16, Wong won the prestigious Loke Cheng Kim scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London, and danced her way out of her difficult life.
Perhaps her dark years can be best summed up with this: When she returned from London to her Lorong Melayu home in Kembangan, she found out that her parents had split up and moved away - and no one told her.
Yet the local star is not bitter.
She says: "I have been extremely fortunate to have had benefactors in my life, however turbulent it was.
"My ballet teacher and the ballet community provided me with a haven and skills.
"The goodwill that has been extended to me is not forgotten. The lack of guidelines and boundaries in my childhood was not helpful."
Wong, known to be a fiercely private person in the past, is slowly opening up.
She even updates her Instagram account (@lilinwong) regularly, sharing bits and pieces of her life with her over 10,000 followers.
However, she is still a little uncomfortable delving into too much details about her childhood as it touches on sensitive topics.
Wong hopes to use her influence to make a difference to society.
"I had a tough childhood, so I understand what these youth are going through," she says.
"We must learn to help whenever we can. In this way, we can earn good fortune and blessings."
On picking Wong as its ambassador, Ms Ng Ling Ling, managing director of Community Chest, says: "Li-Lin's childhood and growing-up experiences allow her to empathise and understand some of the difficulties faced by our youth-at-risk."
She adds: "Her story of overcoming life's challenges and staying resilient will also help to motivate many beneficiaries we support, who are striving to live life with dignity to their fullest potential despite various difficulties."
Wong comes across as a tough cookie and someone who stands strong in times of adversity.
When asked if her younger days haunt her, she replies: "No."
She says: "I believe my childhood was what it was for good reason. How often does one get to see the drama of life in its extremes unfold?
"It is fascinating as an anthropology and in the study of being human."
Having not worked full-time for the past nine years, Wong wants to focus her attention on her career now.
Besides her Community Chest work, she is also a lifestyle health adviser and provides consultancy services to companies that want to introduce fitness programmes to their employees.
However, Wong laments the most difficult part about being a busy single mum is making time for her two children.
She says: "I explained to my kids that I have to spend more time at work these days to make money, and they told me, 'Mum, sometimes we'd rather be poor!'"
"I got to meet people from all walks of life and I had the opportunity to learn and study human behaviour from a young age. There was a lot of drama, some amount of violence."
– Wong Li-Lin
Me, my children & career
FAMILY: Wong Li-Lin with Sage, nine, and Jonas, eight. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/LILINWONG
Single for about a year now, Wong Li-Lin intends to stay that way, at least in the near future.
She divorced Allan Wu last June after nine years of marriage, and they have two children - daughter Sage, nine, and son Jonas, eight.
Speaking to The New Paper on Sunday at the ComChest Care & Share Charity Show 2014 last Sunday, a bubbly Wong says: "I am at the stage where I am looking at making more friends and knowing more people. But I am not looking for an exclusive relationship right now.
"I don't want anything serious."
The Community Chest ambassador adds: "I am in an exclusive relationship with myself, my children and my career. I want to focus on myself."
She explains that she had three serious boyfriends since she started dating 22 years ago and was single for only six months in between each relationship.
She says: "I have always been attached. I want to use this time for myself to heal so I can learn and do better in the next relationship."
Wong was notably chattier and friendlier during the short interview with the local media, a far cry from her former private and guarded self when dealing with reporters.
She credits that to being more comfortable with who she is now.
She also seems to have gotten over her divorce fairly well, sharing her feelings openly during the interview.
Speaking fondly of Wu, she says: "When a marriage breaks down, it is a big thing. The children get affected.
"But we can still be friends and Allan is still a fantastic dad to the children."
She adds: "It is unfortunate that we cannot show our kids how we handle an argument or a quarrel, but we can still be respectful and dignified towards each other.
"We just cannot remain in the husband-and-wife set-up anymore."
Other celebs who had it tough
Born in 1954 to poverty-stricken unwed teens in Mississippi, she was raised on a farm by her equally poor grandmother. She was later sent to live with her mother in inner city Milwaukee.
Winfrey revealed in 2012 that she was raped at age nine and often molested by relatives and her mother's friend.
Winfrey started to get into trouble and often tried running away from home. Her mother tried to have Winfrey sent to juvenile detention.
At 14, she gave birth to a premature baby who died a short time later.
Her life changed for the better when she went to live with her father, who was a strict disciplinarian.
Winfrey's media career took off when she became a TV station's youngest and first black female news anchor.
Dawson's mother was 16 when she became pregnant with her in 1979.
At one point the family was living in what Dawson described as "a railroad apartment run by a slumlord".
Her mother, then 21, moved the family into an abandoned apartment.
At 15, Dawson was discovered by director Larry Clark. He offered her her first movie role in 1995's Kids.
The 33-year-old singer and The Voice judge has been vocal about physical abuse she and her mother suffered at the hands of her father, a US Army sergeant.
She told E! in 2009: "Growing up, I did not feel safe. Feeling powerless is the worst feeling in the world."
It became the basis of a song - I'm Okay - from her 2002 album Stripped. When her father got violent, the police were called but Aguilera says little was done to punish him.
Aguilera's mother Shelly recalled finding the then four-year-old Christina on the floor with her face bloodied. Her father had wanted to take a nap but the girl was making too much noise. Aguilera's father has denied the allegations.