A Women We Love: Sarah Lian

Back in “the motherland” and now ready for the next phase of her career, Sarah Lian tells us more about her journey from where she started to where she is at now.

BY sim wie boon | Jun 25, 2016 | Women We Love

“I have a fear of complacency. I don’t want to end up in the same place where I first started, so I always challenge and push myself to try almost everything,” says 32-year-old, Taiping-born Sarah Lian. And indeed, Lian is a go-getter who’s constantly on the move from one thing to another, be it hosting, emceeing, acting or working out.

“I think it’s just what you want to get out of life and how much you’re willing to risk, and how much effort or investment you want to put in it. I could just be happy emceeing jobs here, but I wouldn’t be satiated,” she continues.

She’s referring to her sudden return to Canada after being in Malaysia for years, at a point in time that has seen her career hit its peak, with appearances in major commercials, hosting gigs for the Shout! Awards and ESPN, and magazine shoots every other week. “I thought I was going to be complacent about this, so what did I do? I packed my bags and moved back to Toronto in 2011 and I just became a nobody again,” she says.

She took up acting classes and, even though she has 20 commercials under her belt, she says that she just sat there as if she had never read a script before.

“You learn. You learn to be humble. You learn to enjoy learning, and you push yourself in certain areas that you thought you never could,” she observes. “When you’re in Canada and working with other actors, and about all of them are vying for that one role, you better stand out. It’s not your looks that are going to stand out, because everybody is freakin’ gorgeous there.”

But Lian is no stranger to sudden moves. Having lived in Vancouver since she was eight years old and, aside from a few summers in Malaysia, she decided to move back to her home country after graduation.

“Without sounding politically incorrect, I was like a white girl who was thinking, ‘Oh, I should know more about my family roots!’ but really, I just wanted to discover my motherland,” she says.

Of course, if she was told that she would be living in Malaysia when she was 16, she would never have believed it. But when the time came, she thought, why the hell not.

“I had so many friends who were like, ‘Are you sure? You don’t even know the place that well.’

There were a lot of naysayers and negative comments, but you only have one life to live, so just go and do it,” she asserts.

Making decisions and mistakes on one’s own time and not anyone else’s has become a belief system that Lian holds dear as she drives herself forward with whatever she does.

“I felt like it was my decision, so I didn’t feel like they [parents] were involved in the whole process. It was just a case of letting them know,” she recalls, “because when I moved, it was all on my own. I didn’t really expect to get any help from them. I do go back to see my parents whenever I can, but in this day and age, technology is so amazing that you can be a part of your loved ones’ lives everyday if you really wanted to.”

The parents were, of course, not very happy about her decision. But growing up in Canada, it didn’t bother her, as she felt that she wasn’t doing anything to hurt herself or anyone else.

“This is the life that I wanted to lead. I chose happiness. I didn’t choose sacrifice,” she asserts. “In Asian culture, I think a lot of people choose sacrifice and it’s almost like a badge of honour. That’s the currency that they work in, and I see that.”

Taking a step back and looking at it from a macro level and all the different types of relationships that occurred in her life, as well as her friends’ lives became the main theme.

“Oh, I sacrificed so much for you; therefore, I did a lot for you, so now you have to sacrifice for me,” says Lian, as she illustrates an example. “It becomes this self-perpetuating cycle of sacrifice and misery. Maybe, this is universal; parents stay together, even though they’re unhappy, so that their children can have a father and a mother. Well, they also can see that you’re miserable, and they equate that with the dynamics of a family! Is that more important? It creates a bad environment. Or women who get beaten by their partners, and they’re like, ‘Oh, but he needs a father. F**k that. You want to teach your kids that you can’t treat a woman like that.”

Despite doubts from friends and a lack of parental support, arriving here without any leads didn’t deter Lian from her goal to make it big in the showbiz scene. “When I first got here, I just took any opportunity that came knocking. I was in such an early point in my career. You don’t want to reject things,” she says. “So people started to take notice and offered me photo shoots or asked me to model and audition for various shows. I was just taking advantage of being new and fresh in the market and seeing what I could do and what I was comfortable with. The more you work, the more your work speaks for you.”

Having interned in Malaysia three years prior to her move, she got in touch with one of her ex-bosses who introduced her to a few producers. One of them offered her the chance to host a small event for their video content.

She continues, “That led to the first show that I did, which was Gua.com.my. It was Media Prima’s first online platform. I was one of their hosts for the show where they just covered events and things happening in town.”

The Media Prima online portal opened doors for Lian as she became the recognisable face of the show, and her journey into hosting and emceeing skyrocketed. Over the next few years, she would be involved in many NTV7 and 8TV shows before her move back to Canada.

Naturally, all the moving around and non-stop activities made it hard for Lian to juggle various aspects of her life.

“Dating, of course, was quite difficult, to be honest. It is probably one of the hardest aspects of this industry, unless you have someone who you’ve been with for the longest time, someone who understands.”

But despite that, she insists that relationships have always taken a backseat in her life.

“I would never move to any city for a man. I would never consider my boyfriend’s feelings, if I wanted to do something. I’m a very direct and straightforward person, but my approach in life has never been about those things,” she says. “I feel that a relationship will happen if you care about the person, and if you have a mutual understanding. To meet a guy who can understand my way of thinking or even understand that I have career goals was definitely difficult because, at the end of the day, a guy just wants to come home to someone who’s there, who will also be part of his life, his partner-in-crime. I wasn’t able to give that to anyone, so it was definitely a difficult time.”

While dating became a smaller struggle for Lian, the bigger struggle that she faced was probably the rejection that comes with the industry.

“All the jobs that I never got. Every single job I never got was a fall. And not just that; these weren’t small ‘Oh, I didn’t get this emcee job.’ These were six-figure, American network lead roles that I flew to another country to do a screen test for. And to find out that I didn’t get it was just such a blow. It was down to me and another girl, and I didn’t get it. I would be so depressed,” she recalls.

But like the proverb says, “Fall seven times, and get up eight,” Lian knows that, in the end, it’s really up to you to keep on trucking. “What are you going to do? Are you going to wallow? Or cry? There was no point to that. Clearly, I wasn’t good enough. Or maybe, it was something beyond my control; maybe, I was too short, or too tall,” she reflects with a playful smirk, which shows no signs of the regret or sadness that she so emphatically described earlier.

Malaysia, of course, has no shortage of pretty girls appearing on TV, but like all entertainment platforms around the world, sexism has remained a constant throughout her experience around the world.

“I think gender issues are more prevalent, because a lot of societies, regardless of whatever region you’re from, stem from men.Men were able to do all these things and women would just support them. But now, women are able to achieve just as much as men, and because they had such a long history of leading, it’s hard for people to get their heads around it,”

“I think gender issues are more prevalent, because a lot of societies, regardless of whatever region you’re from, stem from men.Men were able to do all these things and women would just support them. But now, women are able to achieve just as much as men, and because they had such a long history of leading, it’s hard for people to get their heads around it,” she observes. “I think there will always be biases. It’s so hard for some beautiful women to get a regular job or role because they’re always going to be seen as the lead. So when they play some random waitress, there’s a fear that they’re going to steal the show.”

Looking at the Malaysian film and TV industry, Lian agrees that our country has a lot of beautiful stories as well as amazingly talented directors and actors, but is often held back by unnecessary hindrances and petty politics that get in the way of making things happen. “I feel that the industry has been quite complacent with a lot of things that it does. People simply don’t take ownership. They’re more about the money, or the numbers that they get, or which actors or actresses can command more social media attention,” she notes.

Which makes sense in an age where things are more quantifiable through one’s reach, numbers and engagement. But this, of course, leads to situations where bloggers are appearing in movies, not because they have the acting skills or the nascent talent, but due to their perceived pull. “I think that our country can do well, but only when the government or the industry is willing to accept that there are people outside of the Malay-speaking population who can generate the numbers,” she adds.

She scales things back and begins to muse how someone who grew up in a farm in Sg Petani versus someone who grew up in Damansara can differ in culture, opinions and thoughts. “Why is it that their education and sets of values are completely different?” she asks. “We can’t just point our finger at something and blame it for that. But when you consider the bigger picture, we’ve already been segregated from the start: Chinese schools, government schools, private schools, etc. It already sets the tone for what kind of job you’re going to get, what kind of friends you’re going to have, where you’re going to live and such.”

She ties this back to the issues raised in the recent box-office hit Ola Bola, where some people questioned the validity and the historical accuracy of the film’s portrayal of the Malaysian national football team during qualifications for the 1980 Summer Olympics.

“It’s about a time in Malaysian history that people love, and a subject that we all love [football] in Malaysia, which is great. Whether the story is completely accurate is one thing, but what’s important is that you see this whole unification, a common goal. It doesn’t matter if you are Indian, Chinese or Malay. That’s almost a footnote in the whole point.

“You’ll always feel marginalised, if you’re not part of the majority. How do we overcome this? I can never imagine being in Malaysia without Malays or Indians. I can’t imagine that, so why do we ostracise each other and point fingers at each other every time something like that occurs?" 

“You’ll always feel marginalised, if you’re not part of the majority. How do we overcome this? I can never imagine being in Malaysia without Malays or Indians. I can’t imagine that, so why do we ostracise each other and point fingers at each other every time something like that occurs? It’s sad. You want to teach children to live an honest life and do the right thing. Don’t instil those kinds of values at a young age.”

But these racial issues aren’t just unique to Malaysia, I point out. It happens all around the world constantly. Just look at Hollywood and the whole #OscarsSoWhite debate.

“I think it’s a lot of not just casting people. Look at Fresh Off the Boat; it’s a brilliant ABC comedy about Eddie Huang’s childhood in the US. But white people wrote it. So you can put Asian faces there, but those are not the kind of conversations that we have with our parents. No means no, shut up and go upstairs; that’s it, that’s the end of the conversation,” she counters. “I think now’s the time for Asia to really step up and find some really great things that connect all of us to the same type of value system, the same problems, the same issues that anyone would be able to actually understand and get.”

Interestingly enough, TV and emceeing was not Lian’s first career choice.

“I did a Bachelor of Design in Fashion. I did it because I loved it. I did it because I could see myself spending 12 hours on that a day for work,” she says. “It’s interesting because a lot of people tend to look at financial security and career longevity when selecting their courses. I think different people have different value systems. Some people choose things to be more practical, and you become a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer where your skills will be useful. There are others who do it just for the money, so they see what’s the most lucrative. Some people don’t know what they want, so they choose something broad enough to encompass everything like Mass Communications.”

She continues, “I felt that if there was going to be any investment in my education that I wanted to do something that I wanted to do and not something that my parents wanted me to do, regardless of whether I could study hard and become a doctor or a lawyer. It didn’t appeal to me. At one point, it did, and then, for some reason, fashion started to appeal to me more. It wasn’t so much the fickleness of it, but the stories that are cultivated at certain periods of time. I like that you can understand the economic and social impact of a particular era when you look at a garment.”

While she still designs on the side, Lian feels that her education and decision to pursue fashion has helped with her career.

“I think when you sign up for a university education, you’re there to learn how to analyse and critique, you’re there to learn how to understand concepts and transform them into your own thinking and adapt them. So if you were to ask me if I have used any of my education, I’d say absolutely,” she says firmly. “Of course, with my skills, I can use different kinds of software and mediums such video and photography. Those kinds of things have really helped me with everything that I’ve done.”

Now the boss of her own agency, she looks at the younger generation from the viewpoint of an experienced mentor.

“I do think that the younger generation generally have a sense of entitlement. They see something amazing and feel like that’s where they should be, but they haven’t put in the five years,” she says.

For Lian, one has to pay one’s dues. She knows people don’t like to fall and feel defeated.

“They’re afraid of it and, because of that, they steer clear of it. If you don’t fall, you’ll never know how painful it is and you won’t be able to get up.”

“They’re afraid of it and, because of that, they steer clear of it. If you don’t fall, you’ll never know how painful it is and you won’t be able to get up,” she reflects. “I started an agency because I saw how people work in this line and what they try to do to make themselves known. And because I come from Canada, and we pride ourselves on being transparent, it’s almost like if you prosper, I prosper. There’s no reason to push someone down so that you can ascend. I think there’s a lot of that happening in my industry. Even with some of the people that I’ve managed before or helped with their careers, there was a huge sense of competition.”

Because of that, Lian aims to create a company with a clear set of standards.

“I just want to work honestly. So now, we have a few people that we’re managing, and they’re not all ‘celebrities’, but they’re definitely people who are incredibly talented. For us to brand them and help them move forward with their careers, it’s just one of those things that if I get to be a part of something wonderful, and if I can ignite someone’s flame to burn so big and so brightly, then that’s all I actually want,” she claims.

When asked if she feels like she has achieved all that she wants or if she’ll ever stop, Lian says that it’s just her attitude to pay it forward.

“I had so much help when I first started. A lot of people helped me with my career. I’ve always wondered where I’d be without them. The fact is, I’d be nowhere,” she says. “I’ve also wondered why they helped me. I think, in the end, it all boils down to my honesty. I’ve never been shady like, ‘Oh, I just want to hang out with you’, but had an ulterior motive. I would never exploit a friendship for that reason. People don’t want to communicate. They’re afraid though, and I don’t know why they’re afraid. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.”

Photographs by Kim Mun, produced by Hopscotch Photography; Styling by Ian Loh; Art Direction by Rebecca Chew; Hair by Chiaki Sabata; Makeup by Joey Yap; Stylist assisted by Sarah Chong and Nawaf Rahman; Art director assisted by Kathryn Tan. All Kimono's by Oldees.

First published in Esquire Malaysia, the May 2016 issue.