The Different Types of Love: Cheryl Lee & Stephanie Lee
In this series, we explore the different forms and facets of love that exist in this world. Some may be more straightforward, while others can’t be easily defined. But love holds no boundaries and the celebration of the human heart should be captured with richness, colour and dimension.
Cheryl Lee, 43, Entrepreneur & Stephanie Lee, 33, Executive Director
How would you describe Cheryl as a person?
STEPHANIE: She’s like my second mother. Our age gap is 10 years, and since young, she has always been there for me—even till now. She’s very generous and giving (especially to me) and sometimes I feel that I take it for granted. I know that she loves me a lot. She will drop everything if I need her and I will do the same for her. Growing up, I really looked up to her… now that we are older, sometimes we may have different opinions and quarrel, but we never take it to heart and will give each other space. It normally doesn’t last longer than a day. She has also taught me about the good and bad—and exposed me to a different perspective on life. A lot of people think that I am very mature for my age when I was younger, and it’s all because of her.
So it’s only the two of you? You don’t have other siblings?
STEPHANIE: Yes. I remember in primary school, she would be present at my award ceremony during National Day as our mother was a career woman. Sometimes I feel that she is a bit too ‘formal’, because I’m a little bit of a closet Ah Lian. She would tell me, “Steph, don’t say wah lau. Steph, can you sit up properly?” The decorum comes from her and my mum.
CHERYL: There is a genesis to all of that…
STEPHANIE: Those are the things that I can think of at the moment. Obviously, there are so many things I would like to describe my sister but she’s very generous of heart… and of her love.
How would you describe Stephanie?
CHERYL: She’s the sibling that I always wanted. Although I was the only child until she came along, I always loved other children. Before Steph was born, I was in a school that had an orphanage, so a lot of my tuckshop money would go towards buying food for the kids at the orphanage. It was CHIJ at Chijmes, Victoria Street. Growing up, I remember feeling miserable—I had cousins, mostly boys (which was why I was a bit of a tomboy), and I just wanted a sibling. My parents were high-flying corporates and I think they could see that I wasn’t a happy camper. In my bedroom, I used to build a cave using my mattresses and I would put a blanket over with a torchlight, wishing that I had a playmate.
STEPHANIE: She did eventually have one! We would play dress up and transform her entire bedroom. She dressed me up as a little princess.
CHERYL: I took polaroids of her and even used her as my Barbie doll. Prior to her being born, the best thing was when my parents had a conversation with me (I was in primary 2 or 3) at a fondue restaurant in Lady Hill Hotel. They were sitting opposite me—it was as though I was going for a job interview—and my mum said, “Dad and I want to tell you that you’re going to have a sibling.” It was so officious. I was brought up as the eldest child/grandchild and that came with a level of behaviour expectations. Anyway, I was so happy, I started running around the restaurant. As the months went on, I kept pestering my mum if it was a boy or a girl, until she told me that I was going to have a sister. When my mum gave birth to Steph, she took very short maternity leave and went back to work. So I would look after her—I wanted to carry her, feed her and even change her pampers all the time… naturally, I became ultra-protective of her.
STEPHANIE: When we cross the road, she grips me so tightly that I have to tell her: “Jie, I’m not an auntie.” [laughs]
CHERYL: It’s an instinctive thing. I do a lot of PDA too, but it goes through phases.
What other memories do you have of your childhood?
CHERYL: I remember the time when we went to Disneyland and that incident scared the shit out of me. I regretted bringing her to Space Mountain.
STEPHANIE: I was five and definitely underage.
CHERYL: But she looked older and met the height requirement. I thought that it was a double seater, so I could hold her hand. But it turned out to be a single seater, and we couldn’t turn back. I nearly dislocated my arm because I grabbed onto her so tightly as I could hear her screaming the entire time. When it was over, she was sobbing and I felt so sorry.
STEPHANIE: When I was one and a half years old, I used to bite the cot a lot and my sister would help me remove the paint from my mouth.
CHERYL: Oh geez, yeah. There was a large wooden playpen, so that she could learn how to crawl and stand up. My mum painted the playpen white, and despite it all, she kept nibbling away. I always had to check to see if she had paint in her mouth.
STEPHANIE: Oddly enough, I also remember how you used to sing to me. It was an Indonesian kampung song.
CHERYL: We had an Indonesian maid who loved us very much and I learnt the song from her.
STEPHANIE: It was very hypnotic [laughs].
CHERYL: When she was 15, I brought her to Zouk. Steph looked mature and was all dressed up—of course, as a sister, I was proud. My guy friends tried to pick her up and realised that she wasn’t in college, but was about to take her ‘O’ Levels.
Omg, you totally pimped her out. [laughs]
CHERYL: [laughs] Window shop… see no touch.
STEPHANIE: [laughs] Sick, right?
I get it, she’s like your new show pony. Growing up, did you feel the need to follow in Cheryl’s footsteps? Or did you always know that you would carve out your own path?
STEPHANIE: I knew that eventually we would have our own way of doing things and perspectives. I think we are very different people, and have very different personalities. My sister is the creative one, while I’m the numbers person. She used to help me do my art homework in primary school by the way [laughs]. Now, as a mother, and I have my own family, we have our own interests… we never followed each other. I think we balance each other out.
CHERYL: We always take the time to listen to each other and try to give advice from a different perspective, because sometimes you can’t see that when you are too caught up. And I will tell her my opinion whether she likes to hear it or not.
As the older sibling, did you guide Stephanie and tell her what to do or did you take a more hands-off approach?
CHERYL: I was particular about teaching her manners and social etiquette which have been passed down through generations. I think it’s because of our mum, so I wanted her to turn out prim and proper and ladylike. I won’t say that I am hands-on, if she asks for opinions, we will have a conversation. I recall during her college summer breaks, she would come over to my room and we would have sleepover talks. Age is just a number, and sometimes I go through a more old-fashioned approach to certain things and hit a roadblock. Suddenly, Steph says something and it opens up my mind. Likewise, if she is going through something, I will give her advice and she will ponder and reflect on it. She really internalises it… I guess it’s part of her Scorpio traits.
What’s your horoscope then?
CHERYL: I’m a Libra. I’m a person that sees the good in people… so innocent until proven guilty.
STEPHANIE: I’m on the cusp of Scorpio and Sagittarius. I think we are similar in that sense of how we view and treat people, but maybe I don’t tell her I love her as much as I should, because it’s all inside.
CHERYL: Oh, I tell her all the time.
STEPHANIE: I love her, maybe she doesn’t know that… but I really do.
CHERYL: She doesn’t tell me enough [laughs].
On that topic, how are you similar to one another, and how are you different?
STEPHANIE: She loves cooking, but I don’t, so I will eat whatever she cooks.
CHERYL: I am a movies and books person. I love literature.
STEPHANIE: She loves horror movies, and I really don’t like that genre. After a hard day, I just want to decompress and watch a no-brainer show or a rom-com that makes me feel good. Why would I want to scare myself?
CHERYL: We both have our own methodology, but eventually we arrive at the same conclusion. I think for us, we are in sync with one another. For example, we could have a family discussion, and sometimes there is no consensus, but at the back of our heads, we are thinking the same thing.
STEPHANIE: I started working for my family 6 years ago, so I know how they think and how they approach certain things. My sister sometimes does not understand why things are done a certain way.
CHERYL: I do, but I don’t accept it. That’s the difference. As a kid, I was exposed to a family culture where it’s old school and there are so many little nuances that the elderly say and do. It isn’t just black or white–there are many shades and it isn’t that straightforward. As I got older, I chose not to accept it.
STEPHANIE: Back then, she was the only child and the first child, naturally our parents were so overprotective. By the time I was born, they didn’t bother about what I was doing. So perhaps the grass is greener on the other side? I wish that my parents gave me more attention.
CHERYL: And for me, I wanted more freedom and a life.
STEPHANIE: Right now, I am the facilitator… so I am always the middle person.
CHERYL: With every family-owned business, you have to take the noise and filter it down to a rationale.
Are you still in the family business?
CHERYL: Not at this point. I didn’t want to be in the shadow of my family and I wanted to prove to myself that I can make it on my own.
STEPHANIE: She’s always been the entrepreneur in the family. Whereas for me, I was in banking and my dad pulled me out to join the family business. So far, I don’t have any regrets, but I want to carve out something on my own or do something together with my sister down the line.
CHERYL: Maybe when I hit my fifties, I will ease back into the family business again.
Do you sometimes wish that you had a closer age gap?
STEPHANIE: No. I don’t want that. I think if we had a closer age gap, we might quarrel a bit more.
CHERYL: Really? I feel like you talk to me as though there isn’t an age gap.
STEPHANIE: It’s not about the number. I respect you a lot, and you have so many experiences that I can learn from. If we had a 2-year age gap, we will probably go through the same things, and I think we will have different opinions.
CHERYL: Growing up, I was her pseudo mum. But when she started dating, got married and became a mother, I felt like the age gap didn’t matter anymore and that we were equal. I also don’t feel like I am older because I defer to you quite a bit.
STEPHANIE: But I will still always call you “Jie”.
So her getting married was the equaliser.
CHERYL: Basically, slightly before marriage—when she got a boyfriend. Even now, I still freak out and I want to tear, because I can’t believe that my baby sister is a mum.
STEPHANIE: I wouldn’t have changed anything. I am really thankful and blessed to have this relationship with her. I don’t know, maybe it’s always at the back of my mind that you’re my elder sister. The age gap is big… and that’s why a lot of things happened the way it did.
CHERYL: People get shocked when they find out about our age gap, but I don’t feel it.
Did your 10-year age gap have any effect on the way you form friendships?
STEPHANIE: No, we hang out with each other’s friends.
CHERYL: Yeah. I am at a stage where I am moving towards embracing my own challenges, but part of me is still holding on to my past because of how I was brought up like the emphasis on being prim and proper. When I hang out with her friends, sometimes I do feel out of place. Yet, on the other hand, these were the girls that I saw when they were little. And some of my friends went clubbing with Steph back in the day. Age didn’t matter because of common interests. I still feel awkward at times, probably more than she does. She blends and mixes well with older people easily.
How would you define your relationship as sisters?
CHERYL: She makes me embrace who I am as I tend to use escapism to cope with the issues that I face. I run away mentally in order to move forward, but Steph will tell me that I can’t leave certain aspects of my past behind. That’s why she is the glue in our whole family. She reins me back in, and is my emotional anchor. I didn’t want to be involved in my family business because it is very convoluted, but when she goes through the pain of being the middleman, I become more forgiving and… no man is an island. If I didn’t have her, I think the relationship with my family or my thought process could have been more dysfunctional or estranged. And that’s her sacrifice—which I am very grateful for, yet I also feel very bad about it.
STEPHANIE: I think because of that sometimes I am also misjudged in some sense.
CHERYL: You think I am angry with you?
STEPHANIE: Yeah. Exactly.
CHERYL: I knew you were going to say that.
STEPHANIE: Sometimes when we are angry, we are not angry at each other. We are angry because of the situation. And it’s unfortunate that because we are talking to each other, it can come across that way. Sometimes I also don’t realise that my tone may come across as a little irritated or annoyed. But my sister is very patient, generous and accommodating. Her love is unconditional and I am learning to very patient with her too when she has problems… I really don’t know how to define this relationship—we can just drop everything for each other.
CHERYL: It’s one of those moments where we need a drink man. You know what saddens me is that we don’t catch up that often. And we used to talk about everything. As we got older and have kids now, I don’t talk to her as much as before.
So you guys don’t hang out?
STEPHANIE: We do. It’s not like in the past where we used to lie on the bed together and talk, bitch, laugh and cry. We don’t have alone time with each other anymore since we have our own families. Although we try to make the time… it’s not long enough…
CHERYL: It is not as spontaneous as before. It’s very structured. Sometimes I can see that she is so stressed that I don’t want to bother her with what I am going through. I hold back and start to accumulate my frustrations about things at large as I have no one to talk to. I have my girlfriends but they only hear bits and pieces. The real, no judgement, unconditional love… comes from her—she is that person. If she is blunt with me, I will take it. With my girlfriends, they might not know the deeper nuances and make a statement in passing; I know that they mean well but there is so much underlying stuff. Right now, I am already in my forties, doing what I want to do, but when I lie alone in my bed thinking to myself and sometimes her WhatsApp messages suddenly start coming in… I just miss talking to her.
STEPHANIE: I think WhatsApp is bad.
Do you talk on the phone then?
STEPHANIE: I actually like talking on the phone and I prefer to see someone face-to-face, because miscommunication can arise over text messages. Sometimes I tell her I rather not talk over WhatsApp, as she can get very heated. And it’s so easy to misinterpret the tone of voice.
CHERYL: You know what the irony is, we are just one wall apart.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, we’re neighbours.
STEPHANIE: Since the beginning of this year! It’s weird, right? We have family commitments now that our kids and husbands are in the picture. Plus, we are both very busy, so we don’t have a lot of time to see each other. Actually, after this interview, we are going to have lunch together. And it’s very hard for us to have lunch together. Both of us normally just tar pau.
What do you love the most about the relationship with your sister?
CHERYL: I love the fact that you’re my sister and I can be myself when I am with you. Even as the older sister, I show my vulnerability to you and technically I don’t have to. But when she berates me…
STEPHANIE: I don’t berate you! [laughs]
CHERYL: In your own way, and I take it. Sibling hierarchies do exist, but I never use the “older sister” card on you.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, we are like friends.
CHERYL: Thank god, she is mature.
STEPHANIE: She’s the one who makes me open up and share everything that I internalise, which is good, because sometimes I need to vent.
Do you vent to your husband?
STEPHANIE: Yes, only the two of them. [tears up] But she knows when something is wrong and she will stop me and say, “What’s up?” Recently, I was just so frustrated and she said, “Look, I’m going to cook, okay? Come over, and we will talk about it.” Still waiting for that by the way. I know it’s going to happen.
CHERYL: She loves pasta.
STEPHANIE: So she will listen to me bitch, vent… and give me her advice and opinions. Whether I take her advice is a separate thing, but she allows me to make my own decisions.
How do you express your love for your sister?
CHERYL: Verbally with ‘I love you’ and I still like to hug and kiss her. I’m more effusive.
STEPHANIE: I do things for her, and I don’t need her to say ‘thank you’. I show my love through my actions. I will tell her that I love her when I know that she really needs the affirmation. I am quite sparing with my words.
When was the last time you told her that you loved her?
STEPHANIE: A few days ago.
CHERYL: After a lot of alcohol [laughs].
Throughout your life, has anyone come between the both of you?
CHERYL: We never allow that to happen.
STEPHANIE: And we will always side each other.
Who do you think has more power in the relationship?
CHERYL: We see it more as when I’m feeling low and the world is my kryptonite, I will go to her and she will take on a position of power and empowerment.
STEPHANIE: I will give her support, advice and encouragement. There isn’t a fight for power if that’s what you’re asking. We will take on a stronger role when the other person is feeling weaker to lift them up.
CHERYL: There isn’t a wrestle for dominance.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, we don’t usurp one another.
CHERYL: I take my hat off to my dad for raising us in a way where it’s not about who is younger or older.
STEPHANIE: He constantly tells us to always look out for each other, even when he is not around.
CHERYL: Inculcating those values are important. Steph’s son and my son are the same age. We were pregnant around the same time and my son is only 4 months older. They go to school together and I want them to grow up as brothers. They will have their own paths to take, but no matter what, their differences should make them stronger. And they shouldn’t be fighting to be better than the other.
Have you been jealous of each other?
STEPHANIE: Ummm, I wouldn’t say jealous. Sometimes I wish that I was as creative as her and that I could be an entrepreneur too.
CHERYL: I wish I was skinnier like you and can get back into shape after my second child.
STEPHANIE: Oh, I didn’t know that.
CHERYL: It’s also compounded by what dad says to me too. I am happy with my plus size now, although I used to be skinny. But it doesn’t help when people say, “Wah, your sister after two kids still so hot.” Plus, when dad tells me, “Why you so fat, ah?” How do you think I feel? I smile and grit my teeth.
STEPHANIE: Well, the more blunt side of me keeps telling you to exercise. Let’s go to the gym together.
CHERYL: I make excuses. I don’t want to go. ‘Gym’ is a bad three-letter word. ‘Diet’ is a bad four-letter word.
STEPHANIE: I don’t believe in dieting, but exercise is good for your well-being. It’s not about losing weight but you feel refreshed after a workout.
CHERYL: My husband preaches to me too. I like being sedentary and I’m being a masochist to myself.
STEPHANIE: Man… look, I admire my sister and sometimes wish I could be a rebel like her. She has that freedom to do what she wants.
CHERYL: Likewise, I feel the same way too. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.
When were you proudest of her?
CHERYL: When she was eight, we went on a family trip to the US and I remember being on the plane with her. I threw the word “photosynthesis” at her, explained what it was and she could spell it after that.
STEPHANIE: It’s never easy being an entrepreneur, so when I see her go through the ups and downs, I feel the proudest of her. Not everyone has the resilience and creativity to start something of their own and to do it well.
If you guys could take a sibling trip, no parents or relatives or significant others, where would you go?
CHERYL: We always talk about going on a holiday, but we never specify where [laughs].
STEPHANIE: Yeah! So funny.
CHERYL: I would love to do a Mediterranean road trip.
CHERYL: Spain, Portugal and Tuscany.
STEPHANIE: Spain’s good. Tuscany, yes. Portugal? Okay.
What do you wish for your sister in the next 5 years?
STEPHANIE: I always wish for the same 3 things: Health, Happiness and Heart.
CHERYL: I want her to find something that she truly wants to do and I really hope that we can do something together in the future. Obviously, have more children too… and I pray that no one will ever break us apart as sisters.