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Creatives in the Lion City: Meet Loretta Chen, Author, Professor and Creative Director

Beneath Loretta’s infectious exuberance is a strong soul. The iron-willed multi-hyphenate battled suicide and other physical ailments, and at one point, even lost her theatre company, Zebra Crossing which explored controversial issues in the re-conceptualized “The Vagina Monologues”.

Bouncing back, she fought through her difficulties and has worn many hats since. Her wide-spanning career saw her as curator at the now-defunct Lush 99.5, creative director for a branding agency The Activation Group, Nominated Member of Parliament (arts & culture), business adviser to Tesla, founder of social enterprises (A Common Purpose and Beyond Individual Good Instituteand is presently serving as visiting professors of various universities in Hawaii, US and Japan. Chen shares with us her personal struggles, how important it is to respect creative talent and above all, to ground all actions in kindness and compassion.

She is also an advocate of women empowerment and published Madonnas and Mavericks last year which features Halimah Yacob, Chan Heng Chee, Theresa Goh, to name a few.

Review of The Vagina Monologues

Popspoken: How did you get into your current line of work?

I always knew I wanted to become a professor as I was very much inspired by my professors, Dr KK Seet who was then at NUS and Professor Sue-Ellen Case, the leading queer and feminist scholar in the 1990s and my Doctoral Chair at UCLA.

Directing happened by chance. I was asked to step in to cover a director who had suffered a miscarriage. I said “yes” as my altruistic self took over but I had no clue what I was in for, nor that it was going to be this addictive and life-defining. Various theatrical projects kept coming and later on, corporate clients came knocking and I ended up becoming a theater and creative director.

Image result for ucla loretta chen

As for writing, that started when I decided to migrate to Hawaii. I knew that I could not take on as many directing gigs in Asia but knew that I wanted to stay connected to my Singaporean community and Asian culture, so writing became a wonderful way to do so, while being a part of the diaspora.

It was also timely as I was diagnosed with Miserable Malalignment Syndrome, which is an anatomical abnormality of the lower limbs that cause knee pain, instability and severe osteoarthritis. I have since had 8 surgeries on my lower limbs and have had to overhaul my usually very highly active lifestyle.

Popspoken: How does a normal day look like?

There are no normal days. Each day is different and brings a new surprise as I am surrounded by people, work predominantly in the education and the arts. I live with seven fur babies (Scout, Hoku, Tara, Nyinje, Phoenix, Maui Pearl and Trinity Spring) and am married to a K-Pop star lookalike husband (laughter).

That said, I do have a 2-hour morning routine which is wholly me-time where I have my coffee, stretch, meditate and read inspiring, motivational, philosophical books. My work day typically begins with a long drive to the West Coast and listening to my podcasts.

Popspoken: What are the top 3 apps you use in your creative work?

I am a tech idiot and use basic apps – WhatsApp to communicate, Pandora for my music and podcast and Aaptiv for my workouts. They don’t help in my creative work per se but they help me stay connected, mentally and physically, which is necessary for creativity.

Popspoken: What is the biggest challenge you face as a creative in Singapore?

That there is no respect for creative talent amongst the masses, educated elite withstanding. Most clients want excellent creative but “cheaper, faster and better”, which is, by the way, an old NTUC slogan that I am so relieved they got rid off as it is just so crass. Imagine – a National Trades Union Congress using that as a rallying cry for its union members? Salah optics and messaging right? Clearly, they hired a “cheaper and faster” creative who does not grasp self-reflexivity, irony and is not necessarily better.

And yes, it is 2019, and I literally just had a head honcho at a private bank text to ask for a designer “that is Poly [student] price” but “professional standard”. The head honcho also wanted the designer to “do it for the portfolio and for passion” when it was them who approached us for our professionalism! I do remind my prospects that we don’t usually haggle with brain surgeons so why would we do so with creative minds? That they would prey on our passionate impulses is quite unbecoming especially when they do not offer to work quid pro quo, much less at “Poly price” or pro bono.

I don’t usually face this anymore now that I am an established creative and know how to navigate these difficult conversations with prospects. I do make it a point to mentor younger creatives on how to manage our passion projects and professional pathways in order to have sustainability and longevity in the field. Long-term clients tend to be very respectful of the work we do so that’s always a joy and a blessing.

Popspoken: What is your biggest creative pet peeve?

Cheap skate copy cats. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, yes, but it isn’t imitation if you take the idea and pass it off as your own original thing leaving no chance for anyone to realize who the real deal is.  The Big Boys are most guilty of this too.

Again, I no longer experience this now that I am older and wiser, but when I was younger, I have been taken for a ride numerous times by known names and major players. I am not bitter at all, but it is something we need to be aware of in the industry.

Popspoken: Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives?

It is best to find a mentor who will guide you. And not be afraid to take risks, make mistakes and fall hard and fast when you are young.  Leave your ego at the door, pick yourself up – albeit bruised and bumped- but get back on the horse. Setbacks aren’t failures if you learn something from the experience and that can be powerful. In fact, my TED talk is titled, The Power (of) Failure. And remember, nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Popspoken: Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere. Being mindful, conscious and woke allows you to take in all the nuances, ironies, surprises and magic that abounds.

Popspoken: Are there any books or blogs you’d recommend?

My own (laughter)! Woman on Top: The Art of Smashing Stereotypes and Breaking all the Rules; The Elim Chew Story: Driven by Purpose, Destined for Change and Madonnas & Mavericks : Power Women in Singapore.

I usually read non-fiction: biographies, philosophy and books on leadership and spirituality. My personal faves are books by Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Osho and Eckhart Tolle. The last fiction book I enjoyed was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and I am currently reading So Close to Heaven by Barbara Crossette which is a book on the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, a country close to my heart and my spiritual sanctuary.

Popspoken: Favourite travel destination and why.

Bhutan! Because it takes me back to a medieval world where altruism, kindness, subliminal natural beauty and magic abounds. It has changed my life and made me more firmly grounded because I have unraveled a fuller appreciation of the transcience of life.

Popspoken: What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?

As a CD, I was proud of my work with clients such as Samsung, the inaugural BNP Paribas’ All Star Women’s Tennis Tournament (featuring Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova), Louis Vuitton, and World Wide Fund amongst others. I was also humbled to have received PR Week’s Ethical Campaign of the Year for my work with Pfizer promoting pneumococcal vaccinations to toddlers. As you can imagine, crafting a creative campaign that posits to draw blood from terrible twos must require immense creativity and tangential thinking!

As a theater director, I am most proud of Victor Victoria starring jazz legend Laura Fygi that was staged during President Obama’s APEC visit to Singapore a decade ago. It was my Achilles’ heel as I lost money but gained so much in experience and exposure. I also received an Amnesty Freedom of Expression award for my creation of The F Word that debuted in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011.

Image result for Victor Victoria loretta chen

But above all, the one that has stood the test of time that I am most passionate about is my advocacy work in supporting women, LGBTQIA and youth communities. I am proud of the work I do now in my new role, working in the arts and education (my first loves) and being of service to a predominantly native Hawaiian population in the Waianae coast of Hawaii.

Popspoken: How do you approach getting stakeholders on board?

I am deeply human – unapologetically and mortally flawed but my strongest suit lies in my consciousness and willingness to create, connect and communicate. I love bringing out the best of my team and all around me.

I have over the years worked hard to hone and suture my artistic sensibilities; passion for education and knack for storytelling to create a shared vision and in the process, mentor aspiring leaders to achieve greater heights. The key to getting stakeholders on board lies in having compassion, kindness, empathy, and that starts with having a willingness to listen. The more you listen, the more you learn.

Popspoken: Is there anything you want to promote?

If you need a jolt of inspiration, read my 3rd book, Madonnas and Mavericks (2017) that features some of Singapore’s movers and shakers including our President. My 4th book, Inspiring Women of Hawai’i (2019) touches about how leading female change-makers have propelled the Aloha State forward and was recently launched.

I’m already working on my 5th, tentatively titled M/other that explores alternative modalities of motherhood. I also produced a film, Secrets to Happiness, shot entirely in Bhutan by a wholly Bhutanese team, helmed by the Kingdom’s leading journalist and media personality, Namgay Zam which will be out in 2020.

Image result for loretta chen madonnas and maverick

Popspoken: Where can people find you?

In my home in Hawaii Kai surrounded by love from my seven kitty kids, on the beaches during the weekends and online at drlorettachen.com.

Popspoken: How would you like to be remembered?

As a kind and loving daughter and wife, sister to all, lover of life. She died as she lived – on her own terms and always having the last laugh.

(More laughter)

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Creatives In The Lion City is a series hosted by Sheryl Teo on Popspoken. Read exclusive interviews with artisan souls in Singapore, as we get behind-the-scenes with the dreamers and doers in various artistic spheres and creative disciplines.

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