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Sunday April 6, 2008

Labour of love

WITH the nimbleness of a cat, Susan Lankester, 46, climbs up a mound of earth, stands atop it like the queen of the hill, and surveys the ongoing work at the site of her construction project.

The owner of this single storey bungalow in Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya, wants the back portion of the house extended, Susan informs.

The original structure had been built in the 1960s and Susan comments on the beautiful architecture of that era.

In charge: Susan is constantly at the work site to make sure everything goes according to schedule.

“See the wood on the roof? It’s still good after all these years. Not like the chipboard they use today,” remarks Susan matter-of-factly.

Standing amidst the steel, concrete and bags of cement, Susan the actress no longer comes across as an English rose but a tough cookie. At an age when others are battling the bulge and facing the impending dread of middle age spread, this Cancerian is lean, toned and taut.

Some opine that Susan’s fit physique will come as no surprise. The woman is not only an actress but also a renovator, landscaper and water features consultant. Her five-year-old company, Lankester Designs, has completed eight projects to date and expectedly, her well-toned arms have pushed plenty of heavy wheelbarrows in the process.

“Acting is my passion but so is renovation work. Both jobs are very similar. I derive satisfaction from seeing the joy on people’s faces when they see the transformation. It’s like in a show when people enjoy a performance; I feel happy,” says Susan.

The idea of starting a renovation business came to Susan five years ago, having started from her love of DIY projects which she had done with friends. It was not long before she realised that this could also be a business opportunity.

“I only design. I don’t do the construction work because it is a specialised job which is best left to the experts. Fortunately, I have reliable contractors,” says Susan.

But that does not mean she is not in charge.

“I am constantly at the work site to make sure that everything goes according to schedule. Just like today, one of the lorries knocked down a telephone cable and I had to make a report and apologise to the neighbours,” says Susan, giving the rundown of the day’s work.

Acting is my passion but so is renovation work...Susan Lankester

And working in a construction site, reveals Susan, is no place for snobbery or chauvinism.

“I am aware that certain people regard labourers as low class. I am aware of such concepts but I don’t practise it. I believe that everybody should work together.

“I have never had any problems dealing with an all-male workforce. If there is a slip-up made by the men, you just tell them. If you are polite to them, they will respect you. You must also understand the hierarchy. They have their supervisors and managers and if you need to take something up, you have to talk to the correct people,” maintains Susan.

Halfway through, her main contractor trudges in and breaks her reverie. This lady boss obviously has a few things to settle with him. She does so and surprises him by speaking in fluent Cantonese.

“Hah? You know how to speak Cantonese, ah?” exclaims the rugged Chinese contractor, wide-eyed.

His expression makes Susan, who is of English and Chinese parentage, smile. Here is another one of Susan’s best-kept secrets revealed.

“Whenever I go to the pasar malam, I often overhear the Chinese traders telling one another not to charge me so cheaply because I am Caucasian. When I turn round and answer in Chinese, you should see their jaws drop,” laughs Susan, who can also speak a little Tamil.

And to combat on-job heat, Susan has the perfect answer in her weekend hobby – wakeboarding at The Mines.

“It’s a whole body workout,” says Susan, explaining her fit physique.

But, of late, a visit to the chiropractor has reminded Susan to slow down.

“He took one look at my spine and remarked that my body has been through a lot. In the past, I wanted to learn all the stunts so it was ‘Pow! Pow! Pow!’ all the way. That is not good for the body. So, now, I take it easy,” says Susan.

And listening to her body is something which Susan has learned to do. Having survived an accident in her teens, the actress had to learn to deal with mental and physical trauma.

Not only was she visibly scarred, the mishap had also smashed her womb, which nullified her prospects of motherhood.

To fill this void, Susan diverts her attention to animal causes and, lately, two godchildren, aged one and two. One belongs to her brother, and the other, her best friend, who is a single mother.

Meanwhile, she juggles her time between the stage, voiceovers and taking care of mum, Doris Tham, 67. They live 10 minutes from each other in Subang. She is still single and admits that she does not believe in marriage.

As she nears the half decade mark, one wonders if Susan will finally settle into an armchair and take up something more leisurely like knitting.

“Oh, no!” she replies instantly.

“But should the time come when I am not able to remember my lines or if I have arthritis, then, I will perhaps volunteer my services at PAWS or something,” she concludes.

Those interested in having their house renovated by this famous actress, contact Lankester Designs at lankesterdesigns@