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Why Hong Kong actress Fala Chen went back to school

An actress is born Like most kids born in China back in the 1980s, I didn’t have any siblings. I spent my childhood in Chengdu and had the privilege of being both a boy and a girl. I was a rebel, the worst kid you could ask for. I did the opposite of everything my parents asked me to do, and I was well known for my rebellion. Our neighbours were afraid of me because I once stole their bike, disassembled it, split the parts and gave it to other kids.

My parents were the opposite of tiger parents. They were willing to let me discover the world on my own and I appreciate them for that. Once, when I was five or six, they put me on a train to Beijing by myself with my bags. They told the train operators that someone would pick me up there. That someone was my parents’ friend. I didn’t even know what he looked like and I stayed with him and his wife for the entire summer.

My parents just allowed me to be independent. They weren’t worried I’d get abducted or anything like that because, back then, life in China was much simpler. We never had to worry about locking our doors when we went to the wet market or to buy groceries. Small-town life was great.

The big C My mother had breast surgery when I was three or four. One of my earliest memories is running to the hospital, and my dad telling me my mum was sick and would need surgery. I had no idea what it was about. Later on, when I became an ambassador for the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, I asked my mum about it. She said she dis­covered a lump on her breast in her early 30s and, after surgery, found out it was benign. Since then, she’s been extra-cautious about body check-ups and mammograms.

My grandmother had battled cancer. She had leukaemia and underwent therapy for 10 years, but she never once complained. Even towards the end of her life, when cancer had spread throughout her body, she wouldn’t complain. She was such a strong and independent woman and she was a real fighter. I admire her a lot for that.

Going to America I was about nine or 10 when my dad moved to the US to get another degree. Me and my mother moved to Atlanta to join him when I was 14. Being in a new environment was difficult for me, but I had enough new stimuli in my life, so I wasn’t bored. I was pretty much the only Asian kid in class and my classmates were curious about me. College was much more diverse. I came to Hong Kong for the first time for an exchange programme during college.

During my first summer in college, I travelled to California for the first time for a beauty pageant. It was solely for monetary reasons because winners were to get scholarships. It was all new to me, but they paid for tickets and accommodation, so I decided to go. I didn’t expect to win so I didn’t invite anyone – not my parents or friends – but I won and was introduced to more people in the pageant circle. They suggested I participate in another pageant, which led to Miss Chinese International 2005 in Hong Kong. I placed second and was then scouted by TVB.

It was my fourth year in college and in order to avoid the tedious interview process and business-school recruiting, I was like “OK, I’ll go to Hong Kong and become an actress so I don’t have to sit in an office. This sounds great.”

Stepping into the limelight I came to Hong Kong with two suitcases, not knowing what was going to happen. It was all very exciting at first. I remember being on set on the first day for a fainting scene on the street and thinking, “Wow, this is amazing. I can pretend like I’m fainting!” From then on, I fell in love with acting. I had no training at all but there were always people willing to help – directors and fellow actors.

After doing TV for seven to eight years, I felt like I hit a bottleneck. There were a lot of people who watched the shows (she starred in), and they were broadcast and sold worldwide. Knowing that millions of people watched them and were affected and entertained, I felt this great sense of responsibility. That’s when I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing. Initially, it was really exciting, but later on I was frustrated with the process.

Back to school About eight years into my acting career, I decided it was time to get back to a training programme. I searched out the best drama schools in the world, and applied to some of those that topped the list. I went through many layers of interviews and auditions. Nobody would even know me. Then I got accepted into Juilliard School in New York.

I wasn’t sure if I should put my life in Hong Kong on hold, but I was, like, this is probably my calling. A once-in-a-lifetime chance. I hope to get back into acting after grad school. I have a manager here and I come back every summer this year to perform in the play Skylight, which ran at the Academy of Performing Arts last month. It’s great to come back in the summer and reconnect with the audience.

I’ve also been thinking about family life a little more in the past two years, since stepping away from the limelight. At a certain age, I want a family, and I do want to have children. It’s not something you can plan, but it appears more frequently at the back of my mind. I’ve seen people find a balance and do both career and family in a brilliant way. There are many artists I admire who can do that.

Fala Chen is Hong Kong Cancer Fund’s Pink Ambassador for the Pink Revolution Campaign, which is held every October to promote breast cancer awareness and raise funds to support free services for patients and their families.