Rebecca Chu holds multiple degrees from Stanford and worked for Disney and Apple before engineering a career transition into the movie industry (she was even in Crazy Rich Asians). Here’s how the mama of 3 made it happen…
In our ongoing That Mama series just about every single mother that we talk to has a fascinating career path (and many are filled with insightful, spot-on career advice to share with other working mamas). Rebecca Chu just might take the cake for the biggest shift, however: following a high-flying corporate career (and academic success at the likes of Stanford and Oxford), in the last couple years she decided to pursue her creative passions and make a career transition to the movie industry. Unsurprisingly this wasn’t spur of the moment; she took careful, studied, incremental steps before taking the leap (and shares her incredibly insightful tips and career advice in the space below!). Oh and did we mention, she did all of this while pregnant with her third child? This culminated in her award-winning short film Rojak, which garnered awards at Singapore’s 2019 ciNE65 film festival, and has led to the formation of her own local production company. Rebecca dishes on how she makes it work and stays sane while raising her three kids (age 6, 4, and 10 months). Oh…and also how she managed to score a role in one of the highest-grossing rom-coms of all time (Crazy Rich Asians, perhaps you’ve heard of it?)…
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I am Chinese-American and grew up immersed in palm trees and sunshine in Irvine, a suburban utopia near Los Angeles. In 2010, together with my then-fiancé now-husband, we chased more palm trees and sunshine and landed in the tropical paradise of Singapore. In our decade living here, my husband and I expanded our tribe to welcome three beautiful children: Gabriella (6), Isabelle (4) and Connor (10 months). I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention our loveable furry friend, Bella the Corgi!
I arrived in Singapore as a newly minted Stanford MBA, and my professional life until recently focused on the business side of the entertainment and tech industries, driving commercial finance and strategy for Fortune 100 companies such as Disney and Apple. A couple years ago, amidst achieving PEAK workaholic status while also wearing my “exhausted-mama-of-two-toddlers” hat, I opted to take a break from Corporate America. With the support and encouragement of my husband, I embraced the opportunity to reinvest in myself holistically. The world was my oyster!
I took the time to redefine a personally meaningful career path for myself, and also reset my life’s priorities. The freedom allowed me to rediscover my first loves – creative media and writing – and through a series of key steps, I am now proud to call myself an independent filmmaker! I started my own production company last year and have partnered with other creatives in Singapore and the U.S. to create original content, currently of the short film variety. Though the career transition is still very much an ongoing journey, I’ve hit some important milestones along the way. My films have been featured and accoladed in film festivals, and I was accepted to a prestigious Los Angeles-based graduate film program to earn my master’s degree in Producing for Film & TV. During this period of change is when we also welcomed our third (and final, phew) baby to the family!
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Career and work-wise, I didn’t really slow down for the first few years post-baby, and I suffered for it. I kept up my moderate travel schedule, took conference calls at all hours of the day, and generally maintained the same intense drive I have always had. I did manage to integrate pumping breastmilk into the daily work schedule, which I continued for 13 months for each of my girls. Outside work, virtually every waking moment was dedicated to quality time with my kids and husband. Unfortunately, former essentials like sleep, fitness, and hobbies were relegated to the very bottom of my priorities. I’m quite extreme in that I needed to completely remove myself from my corporate job to be able to get clarity on boundaries and balance!
What did change for me post-baby was the increased desire to connect deeply with the work I was doing on a daily basis, given the opportunity cost of time allocation for working parents like myself. Time spent working, or distracted by work, is precious time that could instead be spent being present and engaged with the little ones. Therefore, I decided the content of my work had to be truly authentic to me and my passions, to ensure that time away from my kids was worth it beyond just the immediate financial rewards and status.
This is all easier said than done, because I’m actually naturally a very risk-averse person! And obviously, having a family also means having more economic considerations. So you can imagine, giving up stock options and a regular paycheck to pursue a dream was not something to be taken lightly. As such, my post-baby career has been about shifting the paradigm in my mind to understand the transition as a period of personal and family investment that will pay off in many different ways down the road.
Have you always balanced your business and creative sides, or do you find the latter has come on more in recent years?
I have always had a penchant for both the business and creative, but it so happened that I ended up cultivating the business aspect more, until recently. Truthfully, I believe most of us are multi-talented creatures, but we tend to be guided in certain directions and over time develop our own narratives of what we are destined for. Fortunately, life is not static, and neither are skill sets! There is so much emphasis on raising children to have a growth mindset, yet this concept is completely applicable to us jaded grown-ups, too!
As for my journey, at a young age, my immigrant dad instilled in me a love for American cinema, and I was often his default movie date to catch a flick at the neighborhood theater. This was the 90s, long before CGI became the norm in film. A lot of the movies I was watching were totally not age-appropriate, but nonetheless I was enamored with some greats: Dances with Wolves, The Shawshank Redemption, The Last Emperor, Braveheart…Terminator 2…Austin Powers (haha)…the list goes on. I was inspired to hijack my dad’s camcorder to make mini-movies at any chance I had. But filmmaking was never seen as a viable career path in our household, and certainly not encouraged. Instead, the time-honored Chinese values of pragmatism, a traditional education, and financial security eventually prevailed over any romanticized notions of following one’s dreams. With no minority role models in the industry to draw from, I invested in other skills and interests.
Thankfully, since I am a firm believer in lifelong education, I simply consider my creative side to have been untapped potential, and now I am properly cultivating it and balancing it along with my business side. This is my personal version of Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of climbing a career “jungle gym,” instead of a career ladder. On a jungle gym, there is no single trajectory; rather, I can venture down new paths, build new skills, course correct, all with the aim of seeking areas of growth and impact instead of resume building.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids?
When I was still breastfeeding, I started to get back into the swing of things by establishing a consistent eat-play-sleep schedule. Teaching my babies to self-settle helped with getting nap time to be a reliable gap for me to make my own plans, which helped me take back control of my day.
As my babies grew older, I then kindly asked the proverbial “village” to step in and step up! It would not be possible to get back into the swing if I did not have a trusted childcare alternative. My kids are lucky to have so many caregivers who love them and have their best interests at heart, including my parents who fly in from California and stay for weeks to months at a time (husband approves, don’t worry); my in-laws who now live in Tiong Bahru; and of course the lovely aunties we are so fortunate to employ in Singapore.
How do you maintain an identity separate from your children?
I make it a point to leave the house without them. Sometimes I even leave the country without them!
Seriously though, the ability to create, which is key to my identity, comes from long stretches of uninterrupted, intensely focused time…and boy, do we mamas get interrupted All. The. Time. So creating that physical space from the kids is necessary for artistic inspiration to take place.
I’m glad you asked, because in addition to being their mother who loves them unconditionally, I want my kids to know me as an individual with my own hopes and dreams, which I believe makes me a good role model to look up to. Having my own separate identity makes me a better parent to them, and frankly, it makes me a better spouse, too!
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
I might be the only mama out there who’s simply awful at multi-tasking (just ask my husband when I’m trying to drive and talk at the same time), but let me tell you, I think that actually makes me more efficient and saves me time overall. Intense bursts of focus on one thing at a time rather than diluted attention on many things—who knew?
Some other hacks: I depend on my color-coded iCals and give calendar sharing privileges to the key stakeholders in my life so any changes in plans are updated in real time on all our devices. We’re all on the same page about where to be, what to do, by when. Also, anything that can be bought online, is bought online. Birthday party gifts, toilet plungers, holiday clothes, sometimes even furniture! Wasting time in transit, roaming around in the crowded malls of Singapore sourcing things, just ain’t my bag. Prime Now two-hour delivery has changed my life!
We heard you had an extra role in Crazy Rich Asians. How did you manage that, and what was that experience like?
Did you know that extras have to audition for roles in Hollywood films? I didn’t have any acting experience, but I showed up to the casting call with four different snazzy outfits, “modelled” (okay, more like stood there awkwardly unsure what to do with my arms) while the casting agent took some snaps, and then basically mimed my way through the rest of the audition. In the end, I was selected to be a wedding guest at the glamorous wedding of Colin and Araminta.
The experience was phenomenal. I had already read Kevin Kwan’s book several years back, and given my passion for cinema, I was super excited to see how all the opulence would translate to the silver screen. More importantly, the cultural significance of the film in Asian-American circles and its potential to change diversity in Hollywood was not lost on me one bit. Asians have been historically underrepresented both in front of AND behind the camera, and the Asian audience has been underserved as a result. I can attest to this fact, because despite growing up on Hollywood’s doorstep, I myself never had role models in the entertainment industry who looked like me to aspire to. It was thus such a privilege to go behind the scenes and experience a part of the changing tide, and it served as even stronger evidence that I should seize the moment to develop my own storytelling voice, both as a woman and a person of color.
I wish I had more time for…
I always feel saner after….
A good pep talk from my husband, my biggest cheerleader. I owe a lot to him for giving me the courage to take this leap. This guy never fails to see the long-game and frame important decisions around becoming our best selves, achieving a balanced, fulfilled life by prioritizing what matters most. (Hint: It’s NOT money, according to him!)
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
We live in River Valley closer to the Orchard side. You can’t beat the location – it feels like everything we need as far as parks, greenery, restaurants, theaters, museums…are all just a short commute away.
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
Recently we went “Glamping” at East Coast Park, and the kids still can’t stop talking about it! You can also often find us at the ArtScience Museum, National Gallery, the free waterpark at Gardens by the Bay, or scootering at Robertson Quay.
Read more: Where to go Glamping in Singapore
Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?
Crystal Jade is the crowd pleaser in our family. I’ll admit it, we are total CJ junkies. The trifecta of carbs—dumplings, noodles, fried rice—satisfies all our cravings. We also like Café Melba at Mediapolis, for its great menu, bouncy castle and ample space to scooter! Same goes for Schmear at Sentosa’s Quayside Isle, which is also dog-friendly so the WHOLE family gets to come and play!
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
It’s not technically Asia but it’s so close that it deserves a mention – we love Margaret River and Perth, Australia! Wineries and delicious food for the adults, farms and animals for the kids, beautiful beaches, what more could you ask for in a holiday?
Read more: Top 5 Playgrounds in and around Perth
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
If you can make the childcare arrangements work, taking an annual vacation together sans kids does wonders to restore the chemistry.
For more regular connection, we’ve implemented Saturday nights as our standing “Adult Dinner” night. We call it Adult Dinner because it can either be date night OR dinner with another couple, but definitely no kids. Even if it’s not just the two of us sharing a steak (wait, who am I kidding, does my husband even share his steak?), being with other adults helps us interact with each other in a context that is removed from the transactional nature of running a family and household together.
We also respect each other’s “me time” to recharge. And we do our best to speak the other’s Language of Love, since we don’t actually speak the same one! (His: Acts of Service; Hers: Quality Time).
Do you have any tips for mamas in Singapore who are thinking about a major career shift?
Oh, so many thoughts on this matter, but I’ll just share a few here:
- Take it one step at a time. Perhaps you have no idea what it is you want to do next, but you just know that it’s time for a change. Adopt a “Bias Toward Action” and just start prototyping what the next phase of your career might look like. For me, the first step was as simple as taking a low stakes screenwriting class, which allowed me to make contacts in the Singapore film industry. One of these contacts went on to become an invaluable mentor to me and eventually produced one of my short films. The screenplay that I wrote from that course also formed a part of the application that got me in to a filmmaking boot camp in Los Angeles, which ultimately led to graduate school acceptance. So just start somewhere, anywhere, and things will incrementally build from there.
- Remember that your past experience is an asset! I have ZERO regrets for the original path I chose many years ago. The experience I gained in finance and strategy, not to mention the leadership experience of managing teams in the well-oiled machines of Corporate America, will serve me well no matter where the next road leads. And it’s a looong road ahead, if you consider people retire later and later these days, by choice. So we have a lot of time to put our newfound passions to work!
- Surround yourself with people who will be your cheerleaders. I’ll admit I have good days and bad days when it comes to the transition. Some days I wake up and know I was born to do this. Other days it looks more attractive to just take the path of least resistance, which is to rely on what I already have years of demonstrated expertise in. The bad days are when you need your cheerleaders most, to remind you that the path of least resistance is not necessarily the path of least regrets.
- It can be daunting to think of any change as a permanent one, so don’t. If it all seems too risky, remember that you can always go back to what you did before. And just as there are seasons in climate (well, maybe not in Singapore), there are also seasons in life. To put things in perspective, think of this period of change as another season of your long life. You may need to invest a few years, maybe more or maybe fewer, but I sincerely believe your future self will thank you for it. If all else fails, at least you will have gained a few new skills and life experiences to add to your tool kit, and you’ll be ready to take on your original career with a renewed sense of purpose! Which brings me to my final point, to borrow words from an icon…
- “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Read the full text from Steve Jobs here.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Guilt is a construct. Stop worrying about whether you’re doing enough. You are enough.
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
Surely anything I say here has occurred to other women…but here goes anyway:
- Don’t rush to leave the hospital just because you think you might be more comfortable at home. There is no nurse call button at home! And no lactation consultants on demand, for that matter.
- At the earliest sign of struggle, particularly with breastfeeding, reach out for help. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief and stress down the line.
- When baby sleeps, literally DROP EVERYTHING and make a beeline for bed yourself. And I’m not just talking about the household chores. Don’t even try to squeeze in that last article on your phone you were reading – getting enough rest is key to staying physically and mentally healthy enough to care for another human being…and not go bonkers yourself.
- You can still travel with an infant in tow – in fact, the best time is before baby turns 6 months, when he’s still on the boobs and not yet mobile. Escape the routine and get some fresh perspective with bub when things get chaotic.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Whipping up a meal in twenty minutes flat, that is both delicious AND nutritious!
What’s your favourite family ritual?
We wind down every night with an intimate chat before bedtime, and we each go around and say what we are grateful for. The answers range from the totally nonsensical, to entirely meta and philosophical…but the gratitude we have for this messy, beautiful and blessed life, is constant.
My favourite moment of the day is…
When I get to take an uninterrupted hot shower. Is that weird?
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
Whether baby Connor might put himself back to sleep this time, or if this mama needs to get out of bed and help him out…
That, and what story I want to tell the world next.
Thank you SO much Rebecca for your thoughtful and oh-so instructive answers! And a massive thank you to Irina Nilsson Photography for the gorgeous-as-ever snaps (and managing to get all three kids – including a baby – to look at the camera AND smile. She is truly a wizard!). Finally, Rebecca would like to give a shoutout to Bella Donna Artistry for helping her prep her hair and makeup for the family photo shoot!