“You can tell /
From the scars on my arms /
And the cracks in my hips /
And the dents in my car /
And the blisters on my lips /
That I’m not the carefullest of girls.”
– ‘Girl Anachronism’ by The Dresden Dolls
This is the story of a girl who was sad.
She is 19, an age that’s not quite adult and past the safety of teenhood. This is also a moment where a confluence of events causes the cracks to appear: break-up with her first boyfriend; emotions building to a crescendo; angst. Her enrolment into an art school where the seemingly binary questions of life now bleed into the in-betweens of greys.
If sadness was a shape, it would be a bubble that’s slowly swelling up inside her. And if it had popped, it would be the end. Whatever the bubble contained would spill out from within her and it would affect the things that it touches. So, the girl kept it in her. But it was like holding her gut in as she continued to feed.
She could blog about it but she felt that the platform had enough scrutiny as it was. So, she pulled out a typewriter that she bought when she was 14 and started writing letters to herself. Short stories about her day, a rumination of what had transpired. She ended every letter with “You’ll get better”.
“Basically, I wrote a book,” Mae Tan says, “or something that’s the size of one.”
Mae Tan: 24 years old, influencer and now ex-creative manager of fashion boutique, Surrender. The title of ex-creative manager is recent. After four years, Tan sent out a farewell email on 28 June, effusively thanking her recipients for the support.
But for someone who is unemployed, she is still busy.
Her schedule is well-fed. Prior to our interview at PS Café, she had a meeting and, afterwards, she will meet her boyfriend, Leonard Wee, painter and lecturer at NAFA, for dinner at a place yet to be confirmed.
Tan planned to attend school in New York this year but missed the August intake. Apparently, she underestimated the work it would take to transition to another country. “There are so many things that I needed to do: find a place, enrolment, taking the tests…” But at least, she crossed the Rubicon by quitting. It’s an important step, that first step. So, she plans to move to New York at the start of next year, after the winter break.
Meanwhile, she’s making up for lost time. She is owed for the late nights at work and she is reaping in her share with interest. She’s working for The Contentment Foundation, a non-profit organisation that “offers well-being curricula to schools internationally,” Tan says. “We’re introducing the four pillars of well-being: mindfulness, balance, contentment and self-curiosity to kids as well as to teachers. Bhutan has given the green light to incorporate this in their schools. New Zealand is next.”
She sees this as integral for Singaporean children. Given how fast-paced our education system is, this introduces schools to a modern approach to being mindful. Tan is trying to raise awareness and getting investors for the programme.
I asked if she ever gave her book, the compilation of the letters she wrote to herself, a title?
“It’s called, A New Kind of Empty.” She says it like she’s revealing an embarrassing fact about herself.
Do you still have the manuscript?
“It’s somewhere,” Tan muses. “I’ll need to find it but it’s somewhere.”
This is the story of a girl who didn’t enter the world with the cool feel of the silver spoon in her mouth; she is the only girl, sandwiched between brothers. They resided in Pasir Ris just across the primary school that she attended. She would hang out at the void decks or at the nearby playground with her friends, where they would shriek like banshees, running pell-mell. She was happy.
Then the rest of her childhood involved moving to Indonesia, skirting the law, a sibling possession… crazy happenings that would make for another interesting tale. What the girl would remember was that after the dust died down and calm had taken the wheel, the bonds among her family strengthened. If they could weather this tempest together, nothing else could tear them apart.
Her father, as Tan tells it, is a workhorse. “With a never-say-die attitude.” He started working at 12. Her mother also possessed a similar work ethic and started working when she was in secondary two. Tan remembers them working in Lucky Plaza, hocking watches and jewellery. This wasn’t the only business her father did. There were others. Most of them failed but he picked himself up and tried again. Eventually, his mad persistence paid off.
It’s one of the many chapters in the big book of ‘rags-to-riches’ tales. They moved into a large house in an upscale neighbourhood. They were able to dine at fancy restaurants. But despite the shift in social class, they remembered living in the heartland, they recalled the skimping and saving.
“At no point in my life did I feel like I was missing something,” Tan says. “I was blessed. I didn’t have to struggle.”
And when Tan slipped, her parents would remind her. Be grounded. Remember where you came from. “It stopped us from being spoilt,” Tan says. “I don’t think me and my brothers are bougie.”
But an upgrade in living didn’t shield Tan from the cruelty of children. Her years in secondary school: adolescent sweat, awkward glances at other students, the pressure of fitting in.
“Back then, I was very tan because I was doing a lot of [sporty activities]: netball, swimming, whatever it was, it was always outdoors. And I didn’t hit puberty until I was in secondary two so I got taunted about how flat-chested I was. My complexion was made fun of… and all these were all coming from my friends.”
People might have found Tan disagreeable because she was an opinionated child. She talks too much, they said. So, her circle of friends remained small. She retreated further into her shell, she continued thinking that she wasn’t good enough. That’s when she started blogging. It clocked views and comments to her post. People were reading and reacting to her blog. She equated being famous on her blog with popularity. This was how she got back at the naysayers, this is how she would prove them wrong.
Naturally, she progressed to Instagram and then into the uncertain position of an influencer.
“I wanted to be famous,” Tan says, “then, I fell into superficiality. And then I came to a point where I wondered what does it all mean. Is this all there is?”
This is a story of a girl who went to Bhutan to find herself.
It’s a retreat. A place for entrepreneurs, movers and shakers, to break away from the rat race and reconnect with their well-being. It’s a mindfulness mixed with a business leadership powwow. The girl goes along to the meetings, to the seminars. She is the youngest person there but she listens with such fervency that her eyes could burn holes into the man at the front.
He addresses the people in the room, all seated around him. He tells them to write down your fears, write out your emotions and thank them, write down why you feel angry if you say you’re content. The girl trawls within and lays her find onto the pages. She’s reminded about when she click-clacked over the keys of the typewriter. Then the catharsis: she broke down, her defences lowered. The girl found herself.
Sometimes she’d wonder if she’s joining a cult. These hippy-dippy notions, New Age philosophies. But one of the common threads in cult leaders is narcissism. This group that Tan fraternises with, they have cast off their ego. Unshackled, they are afloat and the girl wants to join them as she brings a knife to her own ego.
When you strip everything away—all the privileges, the power, the wealth—what are you left with?
“As influencers,” Tan says, “when we walk into an event, we all think that we made it. But have we? To be recognised? To be noticed? There’s more to this, more that we can do.”
Tan wants to know what it’s like to be in a place where you’re nobody, where you have nothing. That’s what New York is to her. The last time she was there two years ago, she felt small. She went to a club and no one paid her any attention, no one wanted to serve her. Her ego was more than bruised. It suffered a dozen knife wounds and was set on fire.
That is why she chose New York for her studies. It’s a place that has humbled her. Here, it’s harder to kill her ego but she has to tamper it down. “My dad always said, ‘fix yourself, fix the world’. That stuck with me. So, whenever I’m faced with a situation, I’d ask myself, ‘how can I improve it’?”
She used to be plagued by that spectre, who whispers into her ear that she’s only here because of her father’s influence and richness. Anything that she has attained isn’t by her own merit.
“I used to feel that but not anymore. I did tell myself that I’ve to accept the cards I’m dealt with; so what am I going to do with that? Vinny Sharp said that I was cursed with comfort. I could have continued living in relative ease but, at the end of the day, does it feed my soul?”
If one were to track Mae Tan’s life, laid out like a piece of rope; if you were to cut it, one part will be Before Bhutan and the other, After Bhutan.
After Bhutan, people noticed something different about her. She was calmer, more sure of herself. Her brother, initially sceptical about her transformation, warmed up; maybe there’s something in what she says.
Not everybody gets her. When Tan told her friends about her experiences in Bhutan, some were ecstatic about her revelation, most were nonchalant. Ego held a tight grip around some of her friends and she knows that if she were to continue with her road to self-discovery, she needs to find a support group.
Her Instagram feed (her Instastories especially) has occasional postings that promote mindfulness, that extol eco-friendly ideas. She shares lessons on meditation, she puts out a homily about the value of silence. Her followers might find it off-brand or off-putting, but with 80,000-plus followers, Tan is in the ripe position of exerting her influence for good.
“My Instagram is still shots of fashion and me in the moment but they are usually from my personal point of view,” Tan says. “My content isn’t pre-planned. I’m not selling the idea, per se, but I’m just sharing experiences of my life.”
This is the story of a girl who has been wanting to move elsewhere—anywhere but here—since 2017. It was Christmas and usually, the culmination of feelings amplified by carols sung and the impending end of the year led her to take stock of her life; how had she lived this past year?
For the past few years, she had been languishing in an environment that was stagnant. She was stuck in a rut. She wasn’t fulfilled and thought if she were to leave these familiar plains, she could find something of worth outside and return with that knowledge for others to learn from.
And perhaps with these newfound insights, she can change the world.
Weeks after we last talked, this isn’t the ending that she wanted.
Her travel to New York is put on hold at the moment. Now she’s putting all her focus on her work with the Contentment Foundation. Recently, she was at a retreat in Bali and she was reminded about the importance of strengthening a community.
But who’s your tribe in Singapore? I asked.
“Well, there’s none here in Singapore yet,” Tan says. “In my circle of friends, I don’t see the kind of support system and openness that I experienced in Bali. But that’s something I wanna work on.”
Her schedule continues to be full. Aside from the Contentment Foundation and reconnecting with her friends, Tan is working with Vinny Sharp on a podcast. And she has just finished a book. Her first, really. She’d never been able to because she claims that she didn’t have the attention span. “I don’t know if I’m dyslexic but I always had trouble reading. I would skip words on a sentence. The same with numbers. But Leonard says maybe I’m just impatient. That it’s just my eyes skipping to the end instead of experiencing the journey.”
She takes out the book that was recommended by Leonard and shows me the cover: Normal People by Sally Rooney. “It’s the way that she writes that makes for easy reading.” She gushes over it, pointing out what she likes about it. It’s like watching a child beaming after arts-and-crafts period. We take our time.
We don’t skip to the end, we just enjoy the ride.
Another chapter added to the book as it gets fatter.
This is a story of a girl…
Photographs by Ronald Leong
Styling by Eugene Lim
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