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  • THEME MUSIC

  • 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.

  • Yeah.

  • 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.

  • TRADITIONAL CHINESE MUSIC

  • 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."'

  • ROCK MUSIC

  • '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.

  • (LAUGHS)'

  • 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.

  • Yeah.

  • There seems to be something or other about...

  • There's a relationship between food and love, isn't there?

  • Completely.

  • 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.

  • CHORAL SINGING

  • '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.'

  • DANCE MUSIC

  • '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.

  • (LAUGHS)

  • 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?

  • Yeah.

  • '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,