Celeb dad Mark Lee: If they lie ― I won't hesitate to cane my kids

Singapore’s beloved Ah Beng discusses his youngest daughter’s kidney condition and carving family time from a crazy work schedule. 

Mark Lee photo 1 transparent

Mark Lee image 1

You could say that comedian-host-director Mark Lee’s 2019 is off to an excellent start.

In January, the curtains rose on the movie directorial debut of Singapore’s favourite funnyman. Make It Big Big is a rib-tickler packed with off-mic shenanigans of Mark and his fellow LOVE 97.2FM radio presenters ― Chen Biyu, Dennis Chew and Marcus Chin ― from the hit morning show Breakfast Quartet.

Mark’s foray into directing is his latest feat in a three decade-long showbiz career that took off with recurring appearances on Channel 8’s Comedy Night during the 1990s. And the 50-year-old father of three is just getting started.

This month, the Malaysian-born entertainer jets off to Hong Kong this month to direct his second feature, a “ghost story”, he says. The movie is scheduled to be released by the end of the year.

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Pretty darned good for someone who was only hired as a production assistant on joining Jack Neo’s acting class in 1988 after completing National Service. When Mark was chosen as an extra by Jack for a performance, the rest, as they say, is history.      

Thanks to his endearing Everyman likability and impeccable comic timing, everyone’s favourite Ah Beng became an instant hit on local TV. True to his iconic status, Mark continues to win new fans.

After three kids, I’ve learnt to enjoy each child at his or her own stage and to deal with the challenges at each stage.

Still, not content with just playing ne’er-do-wells and hungry for new challenges, he sought hosting opportunities. Not surprisingly, his quick wit and grounded approach won over audiences in shows like Top Fun, Be My Guest, Home Décor and It’s A Small World.

Today, Mark’s eight Star Awards for hosting and 10 for Most Popular Male Artiste, which culminated in an All Time-Favourite Artiste trophy in 2010, are tangible symbols of his success. 

Making movies and people laugh aside, the serial entrepreneur has his sights firmly set on making money. Besides being a co-owner of the Monsoon hair salon chain, he has an artiste management company Galaxy, as well as a media production company King Kong. He’s also behind F&B ventures like Old Town White Coffee and chicken rice eatery 13 Stages.

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“We opened 13 Stages as a joint venture in Kuala Lumpur last year,” he says. “In 2019, we’re looking forward to bringing it to the US and China.”

Once so cash-strapped he needed financial help from his mum and sis, the doting dad is going all out as he’s eager to fulfil his goal of buying a house each for his children, daughters, Calynn, 5, and Calista, 10, and son, Marksonn, 7.

“How many houses do I own now? No, I can’t tell you that!” exclaims Mark, who lives with his family in a condominium in the Bukit Timah district.

I was really stressed out but I told myself I had to face the situation calmly. I didn’t want production to be delayed or affected by my own problems.”

Little wonder then that retirement is the farthest thing from his mind. Work keeps one active, he insists, and allows him to share his experience with the younger ones in the industry.   

Sharing, he notes, is one of his greatest pleasures in life. “I’m happiest when I can share good food, like delicious durian, with my friends!”

Read on to find out how Mark spends time with loved ones despite his punishing schedule.

 

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Hi Mark! Congratulations on Make It Big Big. Was directing anything like what you expected? 

Directing comes with so many challenges. I never knew what I’d be dealing with every day, whether it’s bad weather or actors calling in sick. I had to discuss with my crew if we should work around these challenges and continue for the day. For example, if we’re shooting outdoors and there’s a thunderstorm, can we set up a canopy quickly to protect our equipment and people? I had to decide quickly and move on. Each day of filming cost up to $40,000, so that was a lot of money!  

Directing this movie was made more difficult when your youngest child Calynn became diagnosed with glomerulonephritis.

The day I had to visit the hospital for the diagnosis, we had to complete filming at two locations. So, I ended up sketching out the scenes and instructed my assistant director to shoot accordingly. I was really stressed out but I told myself I had to face the situation calmly. I didn’t want production to be delayed or affected by my own problems so I made the effort to schedule and plan everything properly.  

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How’s Calynn doing?

Calynn was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis in May last year. It is a type of kidney disease caused by lupus, where her body’s autoimmune system attacks her own cells and organs. When she first fell sick, we worried if the condition was acute or chronic. She spent three months in the hospital and is now back home. The lupus is now under control but she’s still on medication. We don’t know how long she will be on medication for but I was told it might be until she’s 16 years old, by then her immunity would have sufficiently strengthened

Has she returned to school?

Yes, she’s in K2 this year. We have been very careful with her diet ― nothing too salty or too sweet as it affects the kidney. If she goes to the playground, she needs to wear a mask for protection against inhaling germs. She also cannot participate in learning journeys that involve exposure to animals such as rabbits to prevent associated infection.

“I know she’s afraid sometimes but she’s trying very hard to be brave. She’s hardly cried, unless she felt overwhelmed by the needles used during the blood tests.”

How much does Calynn understand about her illness?

I haven’t told her the details. When she had to start doing blood tests, I simply said, “You are not well, so you have to visit the doctor”. I know she’s afraid sometimes but she’s trying very hard to be brave. She’s hardly cried, unless she felt overwhelmed by the needles used during the blood tests. I feel she’s more obedient after falling sick.    

Do your two older kids complain that Calynn gets all the attention? 

We explain to them that their sister is sick, so they should not feel jealous if we are focused on her for now. My eldest daughter Calista understands, so she is okay but my boy Marksonn doesn’t yet. But we have emphasised to them that they can always talk to us about any problems.

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You and your wife Catherine tried very hard to have kids after getting married. How did Calista come along?

For eight years, we tried so many methods! For example, we were on Traditional Chinese Medicine for a year. We had friends who took only three months to conceive after using TCM. Yes, it’s true, what you heard about us getting Zoe Tay’s boy to sit on our bed. Calista came along soon after that!

Which method did you reckon worked?

I think we were basically stressed out. It was especially more so for my wife because she had to deal with the disappointment every month. So, if I had any secret to share with other couples, it would be to let nature take its course. I’m grateful that our mothers never hurried us. If relatives and friends nag you at Chinese New Year gatherings, just say you want to take it slowly. Never have sex just to have a baby! 

 

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Are you enjoying fatherhood?

I am. When Calista first came along, going out was like a military exercise. My friends couldn’t stop teasing me: I had to push the stroller, carry a big bag, and sometimes stop to clean her butt and change her diapers. After three kids, I’ve learnt to enjoy each child at his or her own stage and to deal with the challenges at each stage.

Who’s your favourite child?

I can’t tell you ― my kids might be reading this story!     

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How do you tag-team with your wife for parenting duties? 

I have a more flexible work schedule, so I try to fetch the kids to and from school every day. My wife, who helps oversee my businesses, handles other duties. We have a helper at home to help with household chores. My wife is more likely to play the bad guy because she’s more worried about the kids ― she carried them for nine months and delivered them! The kids know too well that daddy is okay with everything [laughs]. That’s why I’m learning to say “no” this year!

“If I had any secret to share with other couples, it would be to let nature take its course… Never have sex just to have a baby!”

Please fill in the blanks:

The first thing I do with my kids’ report book… Is to sign it. I won’t say whether I think the grades are good or bad. I would, however, read the teacher’s comments.

My kids must… Develop the right learning attitude. If you’re interested to learn, you can achieve decent results. It’s important not to become complacent.

My kids must not… Lie, or I won’t hesitate to cane them! I won’t even hit them if they never did their homework. But being truthful is something I want to inculcate in them from a young age.  

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As a family, we love… LEGO. Calista is into LEGO Friends and Marksonn loves the Harry Potter series. Calynn is having fun building the simpler shapes. My wife and I pick up these sets on our overseas work trips.  

My wife and I make time to… Watch a movie every two months. But it’s tough to plan date nights when you have three kids to care for.

My role model is… My mother, Madam Kua Soon Wan. She couldn’t afford a cake for her kids’ birthday but gave us enough money to put us through school and get an education.

If I were to lose all my money tomorrow, I would… Start all over again. I have been through tough times, so it’s okay. Money, we can earn again. But it’s different when it comes to loved ones ― once lost, they are gone forever. So, we must get our priorities right.

Photos: Instagram/marklee4444 

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