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Welcome to Talking Heads and the world of Poh Ling Yeow.
'You know her as someone who loves food and cooking,
but this actually an unlikely path
for a shy, Chinese-Malay
Mormon called Sharon.'
Poh, welcome to Talking Heads.
Thank you very much for having me, Peter.
Now, in a slightly different life - it is a slightly different life -
I would have introduced you as Sharon... Yes. (LAUGHS)
..make-up artist to the stars in New York.
Yeah, perhaps. That was my fantasy, anyway.
You started down that road. Yes.
What grabbed you about make-up?
I don't know. I think it's definitely related
to the fact that when I grew up, um...
..I always had this chip on my shoulder
about looking not the way I wanted... Sorry.
(LAUGHS) Yeah, couldn't really do much about that.
Um...I don't know.
In some weird way, perhaps it was...
..cathartic of me to be able to do this thing where I could
change someone's face, and something about that appealed to me.
If anything, food...
Yes. ..association with food is the least likely.
Yeah, in a way, but it was always there.
Recently, I only just realised that my Year 12 project
was on food in art and art in food.
Well, it's very much Chinese cultural tradition, isn't it?
Very much so. Very much so. People live to eat.
Yeah, completely.
After you finish breakfast, you talk about what you're having for lunch,
At lunch you talk about dinner. Is that what happens?
It's actually a huge part of, not just eating, but...
..it's a huge part of what we do for recreation, really -
shop and eat. (LAUGHS) Yeah.
Now, life for you has been something...
..there's an issue there about fitting in.
To be brief, you didn't really feel like you fitted in
as a young kid in Malaysia.
You joined the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints -
the Mormons - and struggled to fit into that.
Yeah. You struggled to fit into commercial art.
Yeah. You do fit into cooking,
but life's been a lot about this sort of finding the path.
Yeah, and I do acknowledge that a lot of it is...
..obviously, it's an issue with myself.
And I did struggle with shyness,
so I think that was a little bit of a problem with friends,
and I got brought up in quite a strict home. Yeah.
Is it right to say you felt pressured to be the good, Chinese girl?
Yes. I did. (LAUGHS) But I was.
'I think a lot of people
would describe me as having quite a sort of bubbly,
effervescent personality,
but I've certainly not always been like this.
I think until very recently,
I've felt fairly uncomfortable in my own skin,
and very much so, when I was younger.
I'm fifth generation Chinese-Malaysian,
and have to say that most of my cultural influence
definitely come from the women in my family.
I was born in Malaysia and lived there until the age of nine.
And the strange thing is that
I always felt...out of place.
I always had this weird, strange feeling
that I wasn't quite where I was meant to be.
When my parents announced to my brother and I,
"Hey, we're moving to Australia,"
I remember this cloud just lifting from me -
It was so vivid -
and thinking, "My life is going to finally make sense."'
'As soon as we landed in Australia, I just remember thinking,
I love everything, I love the street signs,
I love these weird eucalyptus trees, the magpies -
I love everything about this country.
I didn't want to be Chinese when I was younger, I have to say.
I remember the first day of school,
I opened my lunchbox
and already, the smell of it was a bit of warning.
Braised chicken giblets in star anise and soy -
one of favourite dishes.
That lunchbox got snapped shut very promptly.
"Oh, this is so not a sandwich."
And I didn't eat anything for lunch.
I just remember thinking, yuck - I want to be blonde with freckles.
So, Poh do you still a line in chicken giblets...in star anise?
No. Haven't had it for ages, actually. My dear auntie...
..she's lived with us since I was a child.
She thought, poor girl - first day at school.
I'll give her everything that she loves. (LAUGHS)
Give her some comfort food. Yeah, give her some comfort food.
Let's take you back to Malaysia.
You're growing up. You're there till you're nine,
so it's quite a bit of the journey. Mm.
In Kuala Lumpur? Yes.
What was life like for you there?
I really, really struggled all through school
till I came to Australia.
I literally just... It was just this confused haze every single day,
and I just remember my routine was, get there,
cry my eyes out till recess time.
That was like a little break for me. (LAUGHS)
You could stop crying at recess? Yeah, I could stop crying at recess.
Then I'd take... Must've been a great student to have in class.
I know. And then, I'd take out my hanky,
and I'd always have this really self-indulgent moment
where I'd go, "Oh, look, I'm so sad.
Look how wet my hanky is." I'd do it every single day,
and then, I'd struggle through to the end of class that day.
Then my mum, my auntie would actually have to come
the next morning
to copy down the homework that was on the blackboard
from the day before.
And my mum would do my homework for me. (LAUGHS)
What motivated your parents then, to...
..take the big step of coming to Australia?
The main reason was to give my brother and I a good education.
It's quite hard to get into universities in Malaysia.
It's investing a lot in the kids? Mm, it is.
Expectations. Yeah, yeah.
What was that like for you?
I guess I was very shy, so even when...
..like I had to put up my hand in class, or whatever,
I would find that quite difficult.
And then, early on in high school, I actually saw it was such a problem
that I decided to enrol in some drama classes.
That's what actually started to help me a little bit
with my confidence problem.
At home, how big a deal is food as you grow up?
Oh, huge. Especially with my auntie.
She cooks pretty much 24/7. Must come around sometime.
There seems to be something or other about...
There's a relationship between food and love, isn't there?
I didn't grow up in a house that was overly affectionate,
so food definitely plays that role.
It's got that sort of currency as affection and love.
'When I was 16 my family joined the Church of Jesus Christ
of the Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormonism.
At the time, that environment really appealed to me.
An environment that was very clean-cut. I felt really safe.
But then, I did start to feel a bit trapped.
I'd never had a boyfriend.
So I thought, I think I have to actually remove myself
from this situation, entirely.
I went overseas with my best friend.
Most of it was spent in Utah, because she was Mormon, as well,
and we thought it would be a good way to be able to do fun things,
date and that all kind of stuff
in an environment that was in line with our values.'
'A real turning point in my travels was when I went to Canada,
and I suddenly realised there was this whole, big world out there.
The first person who took me under their wing
was a transvestite named Arnie. (LAUGHS)
Little things like this suddenly just
blew my little Mormon world to pieces.
I suddenly realised I can't live with this set of values,
this doctrine, any more.
When I came back to Australia,
I managed to attract this friend at church, Matthew,
and we fell in love, we got married,
and together, we helped each other leave the church.
I could not believe
how light I felt as soon as I'd made that decision.
Just felt like my whole life
had been lived under this cloud of guilt,
and I think from there on,
is where I started to understand
how I could finally be comfortable in my own skin.
When you think back on it, what was it that drew you - and your mother,
initially, wasn't it - to the Mormon church?
For me, having been a bit of nerd at school,
it really appealed to me, 'cause I thought,
I don't feel threat of all those things that might scare a teenager
about being out socialising.
Like, there wasn't the peer pressure with drinking and sex,
and all that kind of stuff, so I really liked the idea of that.
Safe environment? Yes. Safe environment.
Let's go on that trip with you to Utah. Mm.
Seat of the Mormon church, Salt Lake City.
Yeah. There you are.
You meet a boyfriend... Oh, yes.
Here's a Mormon, but a bad one. (LAUGHS)
A bad Mormon? Yes.
When I first him he was fully clad in leather,
he was riding a Harley.
I later found out that he was pierced to buggery.
So, I was just a magnet for all things that were...
..wrong for me, apparently. It was interesting.
This must have been scary on the one hand,
but sort of liberating on the other? It was.
I just couldn't do it any more.
I couldn't do it any more, because after I'd travelled,
and delved into a bit of... started going to university...
..I realised so many things - well, most things in life - are grey.
You come back to Australia,
and you meet Matt? Yes.
Tell us about why that was significant
in the way you fitted into Mormonism.
Well, we sort of chose getting married
to break the news to the folks,
which was quite traumatic, because...
You chose when you decided to get married?
'Cause in the Mormon church, you get married in a temple,
and we had to explain to our parents
that we weren't going to go to the temple,
'cause we were actually going the other way.
Yeah, we had to break that news to our parents...
around...the wedding.
The preparations for the wedding,
so that was pretty heavy going,
especially for my family.
When you leave school,
and you're transacting all these things around Mormonism...
Mm. ..you don't quite get to art, but you get to graphic design?
Yeah, I wasn't quite ready to make that leap into...
the abyss - which is what visual art is.
I thought, well, if I apply it...
..in commercial art, I might have a little bit more...
..of a better hit rate, in terms of getting a job.
I think I'm allowed to say this, as an Asian.
I think Asian parents tend to be very ambitious for their children.
Well, they give up a lot to come, too.
They give so much up for the kids to come,
so you really don't want to hear your child
say they want to be an artist, after all that. (LAUGHS)
But you know strangely... What, an artist?! Yeah, I know.
Strangely, I think because my dad's got a bit of, um...
..he's quite creative...
they both have been very supportive to me, all through uni
and my interest in art, so that's been really great.
I studied graphic design, specialising in illustration.
I always had this feeling
that I needed more creative autonomy over what I did.
I was pretty determined to carve a creative career
that wasn't in a corporate environment,
and that wasn't in an office.
'When I started painting
I knew this was going to be a journey of finding myself,
as sort of cheesy and cliche as it seems.
I realise that all my work had to be about me being a Chinese-Australian.
That was a really big moment for me.
That's where the girl emerged, and I don't know where she came from.
She was in my first exhibition,
and her face I suppose,
an amalgamation of these things that I hated about myself as a child.
So, she's got an even bigger head,
and it's like, yeah, OK, I accept I've got a big head,
so it's like... (LAUGHS) ..this exaggeration
of everything I hated about myself.
It is a very narcissistic process I think, painting,
and I admit that.'
'Zed's sort of the love of my life, really.
I identify with him with also, 'cause he's got black hair,
short legs and a big head, which I also have.
I don't why, he eternally inspires me,
'cause I just find him so comical to look at.
Just from looking at the sheer size of his head.
He's a third head.
Been waiting for the moment to bring up Zed. Think this it, don't you?
Yeah. (LAUGHS)
Zed's just made a big appearance.
Yeah, yeah.
Zed represents continuity?
He does, he does.
I bought him with Matt,
and Matt very generously allowed me to have him when we broke up.
He's just been there, for me, you know?
Through some really harrowing emotional periods in my life,
and he's just always...
..he just makes me smile all day long.
I just have to look at him, and he's just gorgeous.
He's a little ray of sunshine in my life.
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Poh Ling Yeow on ABC's "Talking Heads" - Part 1

3016 Folder Collection
Andrew published on July 11, 2013
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