Hsieh Ling-ling and Emily Lam-Ho have had their differences over the years. But what loving parent-child relationship hasn’t?
Words JOEY WONG
Creative Direction and Styling ALVIN GOH
Photography RICKY LO
Make-up GARY CHUNG
Hair JEAN T at ATEN Studio
Styling Assistants RENUS WAN and SUSANNA YEW
Mother Knows Best
It’s a girl,” the nurses chorused bedside as the excitable chitter-chatter belied the stifling dread unfurling through the maternity suite. It was an almost cloudless sky that one muggy Friday, but, in hindsight, perhaps a dark, blustery downpour would have been ever more poetic.
Because there’s no fanfare this time round. The jubilant parties and celebrations and bouquets after bouquets of congratulatory flowers that welcomed the birth of Hsieh Ling-ling’s first-born son are now, quietly, an empty room. “Go home,” Hsieh’s mother-in-law would mutter at her son. “It’s just a girl.”
Hsieh, who’d always wanted a daughter, sits alone. “It’s a girl,” she coos, to ears much too new to make sense of the words lovingly whispered. “It’s a girl.”
It may seem a Herculean task to imagine, considering her trademark Rapunzel lengths that tumble down, down and yet, still, further down, but Emily Lam-Ho grew up with hair cropped to her ears. “Like a boy’s,” she remembers, her distaste for the coiffure-of-choice as plain as day. And it’s by choice, just not her choice. “My grandmother wanted another grandson so badly,” Lam-Ho scoffs, “in all my childhood pictures, I had short hair. I wasn’t allowed to have long hair.”
To wit, the deep-rooted preference for sons hangs heavily in Chinese culture, be it a long-held response to the country’s agrarian economy – and with it, a need for strong, therefore male bodies – or a keenly felt desire to uphold family bloodlines. It’s an inequitable preference that’s since cast a long, looming shadow over the country’s gender ratio, skewed copiously male, as the now-defunct one-child policy once – and most probably still – made having girls an unfortunate problem that must be dealt with in ways both horrific and horrifically quotidian.
Old traditions, it seems, die astonishingly hard.
“I’m sixth out of nine siblings,” Hsieh explains. “All daughters before me.” The son-preference, in practice, transpires as a sons-preference – one is not enough, there must be two. And without today’s exploratory technology to say otherwise, it might very well take seven births before a male heir is born. And then, there’s still one left to complete the familial equation. “If I had a son after Lester and Emily, I probably wouldn’t have had more children,” Hsieh admits, as a mother of five including Evelyn and twins Eleanor, better known as Elly, and Lucas. “I think three is best.”
Boys, as one can imagine, had it much easier. Their gender assignment entitled them to attention, to discipline. Their sisters were left wayside, as afterthoughts. To barely be seen, definitely not heard. “That’s why I felt like I had to strive to stand out,” Lam-Ho says. “A lot of the attention went to my older brother because he was the first grandson in that generation.”
Hsieh, for whom academic achievement for her offspring, no matter their gender, has always been paramount, nods, adding: “I remember my mother-in-law asking, ‘Why do you want them to study so hard? They’re girls, they don’t need to be scholars.’” Having grown up on Taiwanese film sets as a child movie star, Hsieh was able to put her siblings through school – “My brother has a PhD,” she says, evidently proud – but her award-winning film career, which started as nothing beyond a chance encounter and a way to feed the many mouths at the Hsieh table, meant her own education was prematurely stunted. She’s one year short from graduating college.
“Education was very important to my mum because she didn’t get to graduate,” Lam-Ho says. “She wasn’t able to. And I’m sure, given the option, she might’ve studied for a PhD – maybe three PhDs, because she’s an overachiever.” Hsieh chuckles, clearly in agreement. “But because she wasn’t able to study, she always wanted to give us what she didn’t have as a child.
“When we were young, she refused to buy us fancy clothes or things like that,” Lam-Ho continues. “But when it comes to anything to do with school, she’d buy us the best computers, the best things. She’d always give us the best when it came to academics.”
“And I always put them in economy,” Hsieh pitched in. “Let them learn something, I thought.”
“Now our roles have changed,” Lam-Ho says. We’ve broached a sore topic. To preface, Lam-Ho’s son returned home from an examination having missed an entire page. And, as Lam-Ho makes crystal clear, it’s not the very last page, which would have been a more reasonable mistake. It’s the left-hand side of a double spread; the right side completed with ease. Like she said: careless mistake.
“I’m very upset because it’s careless,” Lam-Ho says, with hands. “It’s not like he didn’t know the assignment, we studied a lot. And now, mum is like, ‘Oh, don’t be so harsh on him. Take it easy.’ That’s what grandma used to say, that education isn’t everything. But this is against everything she’s been insisting upon for the past 30 years.
“It’s not about the grade,” Lam-Ho declares, with a note of finality. “It’s about the carelessness. That needs to be reprimanded.”
“But I saw some tears,” Hsieh, ever the doting grandmother, softens. “I was trying to prepare him mentally to tell you that he just didn’t see that page.”
“You weren’t like that with me, mummy,” Lam-Ho insists. “If I’d missed the page, I’d have never heard the end of it.”
And as much as it is terrifying to realise you might’ve grown up to be exactly like your mother, it might be as terrifying to then realise your mother, with all her lessons, her convictions, her truths, might also just be human. Someone who’s changed. Someone whose softness took time. Someone whose softness took meeting a beloved grandchild to fully materialise. Someone whose softness a wayward daughter wishes she’s had the chance to shelter under, too.
The tension breaks.
The divorce was a difficult time.
When Hsieh and her then-husband, Peter Lam, announced their separation, it soared into the headlines. Reporters, as Lam-Ho remembers, would crowd their home, their schools, would follow the family in cavalcades, would blindly phone their land-line, fingers-crossed for a tasteless scoop.
“Life wasn’t perfect,” Hsieh says, with the kind of grace one only hopes to someday achieve. “Even though my marriage ended, I’m still thankful for my ex-husband for giving me five children. Children that are still by my side. I feel the same way for my mother-in-law, we’re very, very close. This is what my father taught me. Just because my relationship ended, family is still family. And I also thought I could give my children some stability if I stayed close.”
“As a child, I didn’t know who to blame,” Lam-Ho says of the divorce. “I was blaming myself. I was blaming my mum, blaming my dad. It was just very difficult at that age, I was 10, to process.”
“She became very rebellious,” Hsieh says of the younger Emily. “She’s the difficult one. She loves challenging me.”
“And she’d agree that I wasn’t her favourite growing up,” Lam-Ho throws a glance at her mother. (Hsieh, who has steadfastly refused to pick favourites, was met with a swift rebuttal. “You have a huge soft spot for Lester,” Lam-Ho says, almost indignantly. “Huge, mummy.”) “I openly admit I got suspended a few times in high school. It was a cry for attention, because I realised every time I got suspended one of my parents had to fly over to take me out of school – and I got quality time with them. And that was my only quality time. And, so that was my path to destruction, not because I was necessarily a bad child but because I realised this is how I’d get my parents’ full attention. Good or bad.”
Lam-Ho, then miserable in the English countryside, wanted nothing to do with the school she felt she didn’t fit in, and wanted nothing more than to leave for blue, Californian skies. Anywhere but there. She’d use her own pocket money to fund her SATs and, at the age of 17 having not yet completed high school, she’d enrol in the University of Southern California. There, she’d earn two bachelor’s degrees before her master’s at Columbia in New York.
“When I came back to Hong Kong, I briefly worked for my father,” she says. “Very briefly. And I realised that’s not the path I wanted to go down. I went out and looked for my own job. I wanted to find my own interests, and I wanted to be independent.”
Ambition seems hard-wired into Lam-Ho’s countenance and, knowing her mother, it’s crystal-clear where these seeds of influence were first sown. Hsieh, who lived for her children, learned English for them in her late thirties/early forties to facilitate their boarding-school applications. “As you can hear it now,” Lam-Ho gestures, “for someone who didn’t learn English growing up, she actually speaks very well.” (Just conversational, Hsieh demurs.)
“I’m very proud of my mum because in spite of everything, she really always strives to take it to the next level,” Lam-Ho continues. In recent years, Hsieh became a graduate of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business two-year CEO programme, a master at pilates and yoga, a lover of dancing and particularly proficient at painting – another skill she didn’t learn until much later in life. Hsieh, who absolutely considers herself a novice at best, has since held handfuls of charity exhibitions from which net proceeds were donated to causes close to her heart: the Hong Kong Single Parents Association, for one.
“I think it’s rubbed off on me to see her keep on learning and striving, no matter what age she’s at,” says Lam-Ho, who begrudgingly admits to starting Hsieh’s Instagram for her. Hsieh is a big fan of commenting with emojis. “She is a strong influence in my life. Sometimes too strong.”
“I want to be close to my children,” Hsieh smiles. “Whatever they post, wherever they eat.”
“She stalks us,” Lam-Ho says.
“Once, I think Lucas blocked me,” Hsieh continues, as Emily sheepishly reveals every sibling has blocked her at some point in time.
“Well, whatever they know and use, I also want to know and use,” Hsieh says, matter-of-factly. “A lot of my friends have no email, no Instagram, no WeChat. They don’t know anything. But I do, and I’m proud of that. I feel closer to my children. Everything I learn, I want to be good at it – I think this is where Emily is like me.”
“I definitely wanted to make my own path,” says Lam-Ho. “I don’t want to be known as Peter Lam’s daughter. Or known as Kent Ho’s wife, or Charles Ho’s daughter-in-law. I want to be known as Emily Lam, myself. Maybe I’m not there yet, but I’m working towards that goal. And hopefully one day, I’ll be able to have a cover shoot of my own right without people writing about my family. I want people to see me for who I am. I want that complete control.”
Having launched social-environmental investment company Empact28 and EcoDrive in 2018, then sustainability-focused platform 8Shades in 2020, Lam-Ho has at least these three ventures to call her own. But, like mother like daughter, it’s not enough for her. There’s that next level to conquer.
“I’ve been building myself in the whole sustainability and women empowerment paths and I would like to carry on finding synergies between the two,” Lam-Ho says. “Because whatever I’m doing, I know my path is to help the next generation. Whatever I’m building, it’s not just for myself. It’s a ripple effect to help people around me.” And her big, blue-sky, end-game goal? “To be known as my own person,” she says, wistfully. “To have something that’s my own. I’m not there yet but I will be one day. Mark my words.”
As for right now, Lam-Ho is decidedly diverging from tradition by giving her young daughter exactly what she’s always wanted: a hairstyle chosen all my herself.
“I let mei mei be in control of how she wants her hair,” she says, her childhood’s forever-Samson’s cut clearly still hurting. “She’s never cut her hair, and her hair is all the way down her back. Now she says she wants to cut it. Then she wanted bangs, and I was going to give her bangs, but she changed her mind. I just want her to be in control of what she wants because I didn’t have that benefit.
“Well, mum told me I can start dyeing my hair when I have white hair, which I’m starting to have,” Lam-Ho says, picking at her tresses. “So, I might just start dyeing my hair and that’d be a way of gaining my own control, too.”
A fun mother-daughter activity, perchance?
“The funny thing is, sometimes, I’d say something to my kids and my siblings will be like, ‘Oh my “God, you sound just like mum,’ or ‘Oh, I thought it was mum talking.’” Lam-Ho giggles at her mother. “I’m still deciding whether or not to take that as a compliment.”
And, clear to everyone present, yes, she does. She absolutely does.