Photos: Lee Lay Na
AH BENG MADE GOOD: That’s a phrase used to describe local comedian Mark Lee, who’s unarguably one of the most well-loved beng kias on this little red dot, adored not just for his irrepressible sense of humour but his sense of loyalty and righteousness.
This 48-year-old’s rags to riches story never gets old: his dad was a “failure” and his mother became the sole breadwinner of the family; when Mark was in secondary school in the 1980s, his family’s finances were in such dire straits they “couldn’t even afford to buy 50 cents worth of rice”. You’d think life picked up when they finally moved into a home—a HDB flat—of their own and when he finally started working in 1989, but that’s not the way the story goes.
“I was so cash-strapped that I couldn’t even afford to buy a copy of the newspaper which costs around 50 to 60 cents [during 1992 or 1993], and I walked home crying that day,” Mark revealed, “I did not take the bus home from work because I really wanted to save on the bus fare to buy a copy of the newspaper, but the irony is I didn’t have enough [cash] to afford the papers.”
Contrary to what you might think, he did not shed tears over his poor and penniless state, said Mark, who made light of his pitiable plight. “I cried because I could have taken the easier route home (by bus) instead of walking.”
Back then, he remembered getting paid $25 on a weekly basis (or $100 per month), for a grand total of 18 months, for his stint in popular sketch comedy show, Comedy Nite. The budding comedian barely scraped by as his take-home pay was close to nothing, leaving him with no choice but to rely on additional allowance from his sister’s income and mother’s “meagre” earnings from her food stall.
Before he hit the big league, attained a spot in the All-time Favourite Artistes’ hall of fame, set up his own talent agency, production company, and co-invested in a hair salon and Old Town cafe business, Mark was truly a rich poor boy – rich in talent, poor in cash. But he roughed it out, paid his dues, and things started to pick up for him -- just look at who and where Mark Lee is at today.
We speak to “Singapore’s most good looking guy” (claims Mark – not us, and based on his official Facebook fan page name) and pick up a thing or two from his lessons learned through the school of hard knocks. Read on and watch the videos for more!
Watch: Mark tells all about his personal life and assets
#1 He plans for the second generation, but does not overindulge them
Mark has come a long, long way, from having no money in his pockets to becoming an owner of two private apartments and several cars. The funnyman explains that his goal is to own three condominium units, which will be given to his kids in future, in order to give them a better life when they grow up. What they will eventually do with it – be it selling or staying in it – is none of his business, said Mark.
“In my parents’ generation, they could afford a three-room flat in three to five years’ time if they scrimped and saved, but for the young today, you can’t even afford a piece of COE (Certificate of Entitlement) in 15 years’ time even if you scrimped and saved. Am I right?” he pointed out. “It’s not easy!”
To sound slightly morbid, he only has one condition for his three kids: “They’d need to stay in a flat first, before I die and they will only inherit my fortune after I have signed the papers, closed my eyes and passed on. I think this is the most basic [they can do].”
#2 His mysterious affinity with the number ‘4’
While most Chinese frown on and avoid the number “4” like plague (it sounds like ‘death’ when said in Chinese), Mark embraces the number and calls it his “good luck charm”. His uncanny affinity for it began many years ago when he purchased a new ride that had a number “4” in its car plate number.
“I didn’t like it in the beginning too because of how ominous it sounded. But a fengshui master, who is also my godfather, told me that the number 4 is my lucky number,” he recalled.
On the day he was told the good news, Mark said he bumped into Fann Wong, who was behind him, at the TV station. She gave him the thumbs up sign and he struck 4D second prize for the number “0400” on that very day.
Looking back on his fortuitous encounter with Fann, he jokingly remarked, “Thank goodness I bumped into the second Ah Jie-in-waiting and she gave me a ‘good’ sign which helped me to win the second prize. Luckily it’s not the sixth Ah Jie-in-waiting, can you imagine if it’s Ann Kok [I met]? I’d have won the consolation prize instead. (Laughs)”
From that moment on, he’d try to include the number “4” in his life wherever possible, like staying on the fourth floor, or having four of everything – four kids, four cars, four houses, just not “having four wives,” Mark reiterated firmly.
#3 An AV (adult video) film ended his eight-year wait for a child
Mark and his wife are infamous for their attempts to conceive a child in the early years of their marriage – they have tried all types of traditional methods and even sat on Zoe Tay’s bed after she gave birth (a traditional belief that’d help with the chances of conceiving). But nothing worked for them and after eight years of trying, they were stressed out by the very mention of “come home early tonight” because that’d signify a long night of you-know-what ahead of them.
It got so bad they’d avoid full month birthday parties to evade pregnancy-related questions, said Mark. “My mum did not pressure us to have a child, neither did her mum. And all the more we felt guilty and sorry so things got extremely stressful.”
Well, you know when they say good things come when you least expect it and the couple finally struck gold, during a work trip to Japan – with the help of a Japanese AV (Adult Video) film.
“After dinner we returned to our room and turned on the TV. We didn’t understand the Japanese programmes and we’ve already seen the movies showing in Singapore, so we decided to give their AV films a try since it’s not available here… And my first daughter was conceived under such circumstances,” he laughed.
Given his long wait for Calista’s arrival, it’s no wonder he babies her the most. “I’ve always thought I’d treat them equally, but I finally realised that is not the case,” he confessed.
When Calista is crying in her room, Mark’s immediate reaction would be to check in on her; if Marksonn is crying, he’d ask his wife to go check in on him; and if his youngest daughter Calynn is crying, Mark said, “I’d just be sitting there, watching my TV programme.”
Watch: Mark gets candid about his baby-making adventures
#4 He gets grief for his poor grasp of English
Due to his poor education background, Mark leaves his wife in-charge of the children’s academic matters while he schools them in “things that are unseen” like moral values and being street smart.
But that has not stopped him from telling them bedtime stories in English (he spent a month telling them the story about the Monkey King’s journey to the west) or joking around with them in a mixture of dialect and English, which has, unfortunately, backfired.
Once, his son’s school teacher requested for him not to communicate with his kids in English when Marksonn repeated a nonsensical joke Mark shared with him in school. “I said ‘yes-si or no-si, no-si is pi-sai (nose booger)’ and I didn’t think a 3-year-old would pick it up and he actually said the same thing in school!
“It felt like a slap in my face when the teacher said: ‘Mr Lee, next time you don’t try to speak English to your children’… it was both painful and funny at the same time,” he chuckled.
How does Mark avoid unwanted advances from women? Continued on the next page.
#5 His honest take on affairs and infidelity in a marriage
Remember what Mark said about having four of everything “except wives”? The comedian told us upfront that all men are alike and do harbor thoughts of cheating but, he said, “You can think about it but you should not act on it. Why? Because if it happens once, it will happen for the second time and a third time.”
According to Mark, the reasons that men often give for their infidelities are bollocks: "The talk about having no more feelings for one’s wife are all nonsense. Men just want a change of environment and to have the feeling of being in love…"
Using the example of his mentor, Jack Neo’s extramarital affair six years ago, he said, “Honestly, when I found out about it (Jack Neo’s cheating scandal) I was really disappointed because he had a good relationship with his wife. But it has been some time since the incident happened and I’m really happy to see them leading such blissful lives now… his wife did a good job at handling the entire thing.”
With temptation lying at every turn, it’s no wonder Mark doesn’t mind that Catherine tags along for all his overseas work trips – even at the expense of being known as a “hen-pecked husband”.
“You’d rather people talk about you [being hen-pecked] than have them discover trouble’s brewing at home. It’s better that they say “his wife is here” than have them say “he got caught cheating”, right?” Mark said.
Given his success and stature in showbiz, the 48-year-old shared that he has a few ground rules to avoid unnecessary trouble at home. Firstly, he doesn’t have the habit of sending colleagues home—unless they worked till the wee hours of the night and secondly, he doesn’t entertain requests for his mobile number and usually gives his manager or partner’s contact details instead.
Ultimately, what keeps him grounded is his rough start in life, “Growing up, I’ve been through worse than what people at my age would have gone through,” said Mark, “After Marcus Chin and Jack Neo, people are waiting for Mark Lee to be the third person to fall into temptation and I won’t let that happen.”
#6 Rumours of his elder sister living off him are unfounded
It’s an open secret that Mark’s mum and elder sister lives together with him, Catherine and their three kids and this has gave rise to rumours that his sister is living off him. Refuting these speculations with a laugh, he said, “My sister is richer than me. She used to work in a global MNC (Multi National Corporation) and would earn tens of thousands of dollars just from her commission alone.”
Sometimes she helps out doing production work too, said Mark, although it is not commonly known by people in the industry. After years of taking “additional allowance” from his sister, when he first started out on a monthly paycheck of $100, Mark feels that it’s only right that he takes care of her now. “People may say that she lives off me now, but what they do not know is I used to depend on her, and I was still taking money from home even after turning 21.”
“There’s no need to clearly define the boundaries. Unless she is married and has a family of her own, if not there’s no need to chase her out of the house. But if she doesn’t have that, I don’t mind [having her around], right? She’s still a Lee after all,” he pointed out.
Mark and Catherine with their brood. Photo: Mark Lee/Instagram
#7 His secrets to a happy family and marital life
So how does he avoid in-law problems and manage the relationship between his wife and his mother, especially since they both live together and under the same roof?
Apparently, it’s a no-brainer. Really.
“I’d tell the both of them (his sister and his mother) not to interfere in my family matters… I’d tell my mum that her job is to just play with the grandchildren, because this can reduce a lot of potential friction,” he said, “But if it’s my wife’s mother, my wife would take charge and I’d let her be, especially since my mother in-law has taken care of her sister and brother’s kids so she’s not a newb at it.”
“My wife can be direct [in her words] with her mother but she can’t do that with her mother-in-law.”
Husbands, we hope you're taking notes.
Mark debunks unfounded rumours about his elder sister
#8 He wants to retire from the “Best Host Award” category
The 2010 All-Time Favourite Artiste winner and four-time Best Variety Host award winner intends to sit out of running for the best host award because he feels it’s time to groom a new generation of talent. He addressed the problem by raising a rhetorical question, “If one day all the hosts travel to Thailand on the same plane to film a show and the plane disappeared halfway, how many hosts will there be left in Singapore?”
“After 10 years, we finally saw Pornsak—a new face—winning the [Best Variety Show Host] award last year and we are all elated for him. Just look at what’s happening with the drama side, it’s always the same few nominees too… It’s high time we gave the younger artistes some chances.”
Serious about making good on his word, he added confidently, “I’ll say my piece now – I’m not playing the game anymore. Please do not nominate me for the Best Variety Host Award because I am the best.”
Now, with his family and work life progressing swimmingly well, what’s next for this comedian who’s set to hit the ripe ol’ age of 5-0 in two years’ time? Will Mark still be acting, DJ-ing, or will he focus on working behind the scenes?
“I’ll never leave TV. A lot of audiences know of Mark Lee through TV and not [my stint as a deejay] on Love 97.2, so I’ll never leave TV. A lot of overseas friends know of Mark Lee because he directs movies and acts in them. So I’ll never give [these] up,” he concluded. And we’ll mark his word on that.
Special thanks to Grand Hyatt Singapore.