Mum's here, for life

Most people go through a rebellious phase in their teens.

Ex-national gymnast Eileen Chai, unusually, had hers when she was an adult - at the age of 23 - when she decided to go against her parents' wishes and marry a man she had dated for just three months.

Her mother, Madam Yu Yang Hua, 67, recalls: "Back then, I kept asking myself why she had to wait till she was in her 20s to rebel, rather than at 16 or 17 years old, when I could at least have had more say over her life."

Ms Chai, now 36, says her impulsive decision to marry was motivated by a desire to lead a life on her own without having to rely on her parents. "My parents, especially my mum, have done so much for me in my life that I felt like I owed them too much. I wanted to run away and be independent."

She did not speak to them in the first two years of her marriage. In the third year, she divorced her first husband. Last year, she married Mr Ben Kranen, 50, a flavourist from Holland, after dating him for two years and receiving the blessings of her parents.

Her sudden act of defiance with her first marriage was unexpected, for she was a high achiever as a child.

She took violin, ballet, Chinese dance, piano and gymnastics classes before becoming a competitive gymnast at six. At seven, she participated in the 1985 South-east Asian Games. She won a bronze medal six years later at the SEA Games in Manila when she was 13.

At 16, she ventured into competitive diving, before completely retiring from sports when she was 17 years old.

She returned to the sports scene nine years later - as a track and field athlete. A year after that, in 2005, she broke the national 100m hurdles record for women that had been held for 30 years. She retired from sports again in 2006 and became a full-time violin teacher in 2011.

Ms Chai, who has a bachelor's degree in microbiology, has written a biography, Teach A Life, For Life, which was launched last month. It is available at major bookstores and her website ( at $19.90.

She says: "I wrote this book because I hope people will be inspired by the lessons I have learnt to reflect on themselves as well, and make good of their present and future."

Her father Chai Chiap Fam, 72, is a businessman who is based in Suzhou, China, and she has two older brothers.

How did Eileen get into gymnastics?

Ms Chai: When I was very young, I would always be jumping around like a monkey. I was so active and did so many crazy twists and turns on my bed to the point where the bedsprings actually broke.

Madam Yu: She was a very hyperactive kid. Whenever I took her out, she would climb lampposts, scaring me to death. I asked her whether she wanted to attend gymnastics classes, so she could receive proper training instead of possibly getting injured doing all those stunts on her own.

You were only nine years old when you started training in China during your school holidays. How tough was the training?

Ms Chai: Sometimes I would cry every day because my body was so physically beaten down.

My parents have always supported me and it pained them a lot to see what I was going through.

Knowing that made me force myself to go for training because I didn't want to let them down.

My mum was my everything. She was driving me to and from training, waking up early in the morning to prepare my breakfast and was there with me in all my competitions. She was basically there every step of the way.

Madam Yu: My heart ached seeing her suffer and I kept asking her to quit gymnastics and focus on her studies or pursue music. If I could make the decision again, I would not let her do sports.

How has it been not having your father around much?

Ms Chai: Although I did not see him frequently, he provided me with the financial resources needed to pursue my dreams.

I'm closer to my mum as my dad has always travelled a lot since I was a child. It has been very hard on my mum, which is why she has devoted her entire life to her children.

Madam Yu: It was initially difficult having him away but I got used to it. We still go on holiday every year together as a family.

Madam Yu, how difficult were those two years when Eileen did not speak to you during her first marriage?

Madam Yu: It was one of the darkest periods and I kept crying every day. I had to find out about her life through other people. I even took up psychology classes to get answers and to try to understand why my daughter was rebelling.

But the door to our home for her was always open and she could come back anytime.

Ms Chai: It was only during my first marriage that I experienced an epiphany - that my parents would always be there for me no matter what and I realised I treated them really badly.

Madam Yu: I learnt to let go of her. Also, if she had never experienced her divorce, she might have never found her current happiness.

Was Eileen difficult to manage when she was growing up?

Madam Yu: No, not at all. She was a really good and obedient child.

Ms Chai: Whenever anyone wanted me to do something, I would definitely do it and never questioned authority.

What kind of mother do you think you would be?

Ms Chai: I would be a mother who lets go of her children more easily and is less authoritarian.

You have a butterfly tattoo on your chest just below the collarbone. Why and how did you get it?

Ms Chai: I got it in 2006 after my divorce to symbolise a significant departure from my old self.

I told my mum it was a transfer-on back then, but now, in retrospect, I'm sure she would have approved if she had known the truth anyway.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Ms Chai: If I were my mum, I would have done everything the same as she did. If she did not let me go through those knocks in my life, I would not be who I am today.

Madam Yu: I think I would have made the same mistake as she did with her previous marriage. I would have done the same if I were in love.

This article was first published on July 6, 2014.
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