Succeeding in the university of life

Sometimes, a young person may not need a university education to succeed in their dream career. Hariati Azizan speaks to two up-and-coming young talents who opted for no university to make it big in the world

DARE TO DREAM: Performing has made Lee's life full and fantastic.

LEE Sin Jie couldn’t have been luckier. While many of her friends were still waiting for their acceptance letter from the university of their choice, she had already received news of her successful application from the American university of her choice. 

Except that there was one minor problem – she had also been offered the opportunity to be an artiste by acclaimed Taiwanese director Sylvia Chang. 

Studies or career?  

“It was a tough decision but I understood myself. I know that I love to perform, so I chose to take up Sylvia Chang’s offer and join show business,” shares Lee. 

It was definitely the right choice for the Alor Star lass. Now 26, Lee is a rising star in Hong Kong and Taiwan.  

Last November, she won the Best Leading Actress title at the 39th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan for her role as a blind girl in the hit film, The Eye. In 2001, Lee won the Best New Talent award at the Berlin Film Festival for her role in Betelnut Beauty. 

Still, getting the awards is not the most important thing to Lee. “More important is the process and how you have worked in it – earnest, serious, hardworking – and what you have learnt from it. So no matter what people say (about my getting the award), I would see the award as a form of encouragement; it is a new beginning to go to another stage,” she says. 

To many parents’ chagrin, the number of young people opting to forgo tertiary education to follow their dreams is growing. While it is far from new – luminaries of the University of Hardknocks alumni include Bill Gates, John Mayer, Katie Holmes and Venus Williams – students diverting from the paper chase is still not common in Malaysia. However, in fields such as the arts, entertainment, sports and IT, grabbing the moment and learning on the job may be the best methods to get ahead.  

Tough Choice 

Lee got her big break when Chang came to Malaysia to cast for an actress for her movie. As she had just finished her secondary school, Lee decided to try out for fun.  

“I wasn’t serious, I just wanted to have a glimpse of my idol, so I went for an audition. I never expected to be chosen. I never had any serious ambition to get into the entertainment business, but I can’t deny that I loved performing even when young – singing, acting, and dancing,” she recalls. 

An avid performer in her school days, Lee was active in singing events and school functions and was involved in drama clubs at her alma mater SMJK Keat Hwa, Alor Star. 

“I sang a lot at home too because my mother likes to sing and she sings very well. We used to sing a lot of old Chinese songs together,” she adds. 

FAMILY TIES: The support of her parents keeps Lee going.

So, when she decided to “migrate” to the competitive Taiwanese entertainment world to pursue acting and singing, instead of heading to the safer environment of a university campus, her parents were hardly surprised. 

Fresh out of school, Lee had a slight cultural shock when she first got to Taiwan. “It was very difficult when I first went to Taiwan because I went there alone, straight after secondary school. I grew up in Alor Star, which is a very different place from Taipei culturally. It took me about two years to get used to it,” she says. 

When she was homesick she used to cry and write letters to her parents. But even at her lowest, she insists, she never regretted her decision to pursue showbiz in Taiwan instead of going to university. 

“I believe that when you get something, at the same time you must lose something. I believe that you have to invest or sacrifice something to get something. I was lucky because my family supports me wherever I am,” she shares. 

The most important thing for a young person surviving in the real world, she says, is to “never forget who you are”. 

The entertainment world, for example, is a complex world so it’s easy to get lost. “I have to keep reminding myself who I am. Don’t forget what you want and why you are here, why you are doing something. For me it’s very simple, I like to perform, and this is my life.” 

She tells that when she first started, she was determined to grab the opportunity and learn as much as possible: “I did not just study with one person but learnt from the whole environment, from everyone on the set.” 

Unperturbed by her lack of safety net in a university degree, Lee cherishes all her experiences and lessons learnt in entertainment. 

“ If I didn’t choose this job, my life would not be this full and fantastic. Every time I act in a movie it’s as if I am living a different life. I learn a lot from my roles. I don’t think that I would have learnt all this from university,” she says.  

With Maggie Cheung, Edward Norton, Cate Blanchett, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai as her idols, Lee is nevertheless content to take one day at a time where her career is concerned.  

“I would love to work in Hollywood but I try not to think too much about it and take each day as it comes. At the moment, I hope that I can continue to have the opportunity to make good films and mainly keep working and learning before I settle down and start a family.” 

Singing remains her first love though and she has five Mandarin albums to date, the latest of which, Man and Woman, was released recently. 

Her advice to young people who want to go into show business? 

“You have to be very sure that you love performing (music and film) because this field is not that easy, it’s not like what you see on TV. There are many things that you have to learn and many things that you have to sacrifice, so you have to have something to hold on to and support you, otherwise it will be easy to lose yourself and go crazy,” Lee shares. 

For her, family, friends and her hobby, painting, are the things that give meaning to her life.  

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