Challenges, conflicts, cancer… they’ve been flung at her but actress Pan Lingling shows how she rolls with the punches to come out tops By SANDHYA MAHADEVAN

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Challenges, conflicts, cancer… they’ve been flung at her but actress Pan Lingling shows how she rolls with the punches to come out tops By SANDHYA MAHADEVAN

Dress from Tory Burch. Ring, $899, from Atelier Swarovski.

Pan Lingling walks in, wearing a casual striped knit dress. She’s come right off the set of Channel 8’s drama series Reach For The Sky, but despite the arduous filming hours, that sparkle in her eyes is distinct. For someone who’s won six Star Awards, there’s no ceremony and the down-toearth star lands in her seat without fanfare.

“I’ve been shooting for the series for almost nine months now,” starts Lingling (the last episode airs this month). “The last 20 days have been exciting for me, because my character goes through a change – I become this brooding and depressed person, which is challenging,” she shares. “My dream is to play the role of a psychotic, and this one’s quite close.”

Nine months is but a dent in a career span of 30 years, but Lingling reveals acting was not in her plans growing up. “No, this was not my dream. During my school years, I wanted to be a flight stewardess, because I love to travel,” she says. But a trip to help a relative enrol in a drama course at the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) shaped her destiny: “The lady at the registration desk suggested I sign up too, just for fun. I told her I had no thoughts of being a star. Besides, I was only 16.” But Lingling did on the lady’s insistence and got selected.

She was the youngest in the group, with neither the desire to act nor knowledge of acting, but Lingling says she was lucky to be surrounded by people who doted on her and guided her like older siblings would.

And it kept her busy. “I was in the polytechnic at that time. I’d give tuition after school, then go for my drama classes. I’d be tired, but also very happy with what I was doing.” She was happy to be able to pitch in on the family’s expenses – “I just wanted to earn money so I could help my dad,” she reveals.

Some deep friendships were formed as well, such as with fellow actors Madeline Chu and Huang Biren, who were also in their late teens then. And they, along with another good friend, Zoe Tay, have seen her through her difficult times, including her personal battle with breast cancer.


“It was the most difficult year of my life. In March 2013, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then I found out my father had lung cancer!” she says, almost shuddering at the thought.

The eldest child (she has two brothers), and also the closest to her father, Lingling spent all her time and energy by his bedside – albeit wearing a mask due to her own delicate state of health – motivating and leading him through his illness. They set out to beat their cancers together, she at the age of 44 and her father, at 75. Sadly, he succumbed to the disease in February 2014, after a brave struggle.

Lingling found out she had cancer almost by accident. It started with pain in her breasts, which she put to breast tenderness during PMS. She detected a lump, but again thought it was PMS as it was painful to the touch. “People always told me that if the lump is very painful, it’s not cancer. So I believed it,” she says.

But three months later, she realised the lump had grown – and sure enough, her regular health checkup confirmed the worst. “My advice to all women: Regular checkups are a must, and if you find anything unusual in your breasts or body, please go have it checked right away. Let the doctor decide!” she says firmly.

She was at a celebrity charity golf tournament at Jurong Country Club when she got the call from her doctor. Her cancer was at the end of Stage 1 and she’d have to go for a partial mastectomy. “I was at Hole 7, and the hole-in-one prize was a Maserati. My only thought was, at least, can I have that? But I couldn’t make it,” she says cheekily. Her husband Huang Shinan, however, did not take the news as lightly.

If I were 21… “I would want to fly. I still dream of being an air stewardess and wearing that purple kebaya. So beautiful!”


The next few months went by quickly for Lingling. After her two surgeries, one for the cancer and the other, reconstructive, she went right on to her radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions for the next seven months. Lingling took the gruelling sessions and their side effects, all in her stride, but she admits her family had a tough time dealing with it. “I’d never seen Shinan so sad,” she recalls. Yet he and their sons, Beckham, now 19, and Kynaston, 17, stood bravely by her.

Talk to Lingling and you can tell family means a lot to her, with Shinan’s name punctuating almost every other sentence. She recalls one particular incident, involving her father, fondly. He had expressed a desire to see snow, and particularly, in Switzerland. Lingling wanted to fulfil her father’s dream, but it was Shinan readily agreeing to go for their “second” honeymoon to Switzerland with 10 members from her family that left an impression. “How many husbands can accept that? He’s truly my best friend,” she says.

He was also her first love. Lingling met Shinan when she was still in drama school. She was 17 and he was 26, and already a known actor at that time. “One day, I had finished my class early and was waiting for my family, when I heard footsteps. I was so sure it was my brothers approaching. Without thinking, I jumped to surprise them!” she recalls. But, it wasn’t them, it was Shinan. The couple married in 1996.

Three years later, they appeared on The Weekly’s birthday issue cover (October 1999). Lingling tries to remember, “Yes, I was either pregnant with Beckham or had just given birth.” She also recalls how Shinan had to be convinced about naming their son after her favourite football star, David Beckham, which to him sounded like a last name. But it’s clear who won that battle.

Lingling has grown into her relationship with Shinan. In the beginning, because of their age difference, she left him to make most of the decisions. “I was like the girl-next-door, and I’d listen to everything he said. He took care of everything in my life.” But that dynamic has changed as she matured and became more confident in herself. Shinan was fine with that too, as long as she was happy. “I do think that I have taken him for granted many times. He loves me so much, and I’ve done things that have angered him. Yet he’s always the one who apologises first,” she laughs.


Lingling is celebrating her fifth year of being cancer free. It means no more having to lug around a host of medication while travelling. And although she never became a flight stewardess, she’s now able to live her flying dreams, having recently tied up with Chan Brothers to be a tour leader to Dalian.

Lingling seems to be in a good place. There have been challenges, made all the more public as she’s constantly in the spotlight, but the actress is grateful for her career and her family. She says matter-of-factly, “I feel my time here is limited, so I want to live my life as wisely as I can. Value your life and value your family. This is most important.

“I have also learnt to let some things pass, as long as my family isn’t hurt. Of course, we learn from our mistakes, but it’s also okay to have some negatives because you can’t please everyone.” As for her much-publicised spat with fellow actor Hong Huifang, does she think things will get sorted out? “Definitely!” she asserts.

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Maxi dress, $4,990; and belt, $1,090, both from Salvatore Ferragamo.


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