Pat Rocks

No stopping for the gifted Eileen Chai

By Patrick ChngEvents - 10 June 2014 7:00 AM | Updated 16 June 2014

No stopping for the gifted Eileen Chai

If Eileen Chai’s life was a movie, it would probably be ‘Forrest Gump’, full of unexpected turns and well-timed successes.

The 35-year-old was a gymnastics child prodigy, representing Singapore at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 1985 when she was just seven years old.

Chai also excelled in athletics, taking part in the 1993 SEA Games.

At the age of 27, she broke the national record for the 100m Hurdles at the 16th Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon, South Korea in 2005. The record has since been broken by Dipna Lim Prasad in 2011.

Not just good on land, the sports champ is also into springboard diving and has won medals for Singapore.

But out of her training shoes, Chai slips easily into a different kind of performance – as a consummate musician.

She is a renowned violinist and teacher in the Singapore music scene. In the past couple of years, she has ventured into live-looping performances with the violin and vocals.

Now, she has even put all her life lessons and experiences into a book titled ‘Teach a Life, for Life’, which will be accompanied by the release of her debut EP of three originals.

InSing spoke to Eileen to find out more.

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Chai will be launching her new book 'Teach a Life, for Life’ on 14 June at Balaclava. Photo: Femke Tawari

When and how did the idea for the book come about?

It was about three years ago. It was written because I wanted to tell my story so that people can reflect on my life lessons learnt, which may be able to help people self-explore, discover and find their own paths, and learn from their past to make good for the present and future.

And I wanted to share with people, family and friends who have helped me in my journey through sports and music. In a way, the book is to give thanks to my family, teachers, coaches and friends.

Was it difficult to reveal some of your personal stories to the public?

It's always a struggle to talk about stories that involve pain and hurt, but I revealed whatever was necessary for the lessons to be learnt, to be relevant to the present.

How did you get into sports?

I was an active kid. I would jump on my bed till the spring coils in my bed gave way, and do various dangerous stunts. The last straw came when I jumped off the stairs, wearing my Superman cape, and landed flat on the ground with a bloody nose. I was four years old then.

My mum made up her mind to send me for gymnastics training before I injured myself again from another dangerous move! It’s in the prelude of the book.

Was it difficult when you had to walk away from competitive athletics?

I was at a crossroads in my life after I broke the 100m Hurdles national record. However, once a decision is made, there should be no more "what ifs". We should look forward to the future, and help to better the lives of one another.

What is your biggest regret in life?

No regrets. Let bygones be bygones. We should learn from our past and make good our present and future.

How and when did you get into music?

I picked up the piano and violin when I was four years old. But because of my training commitment in gymnastics then, I had to stop playing music.

I picked it up again when I entered the university to fill a void in my life. Music gave me something to look forward to in life. Find out more in chapter 5 of the book!

What is it about the violin that made you want to pursue the instrument?

It was quite natural choice when I wanted to pick an instrument to play with the National University of Singapore Symphony Orchestra. And my elder brother, who was once with the Singapore Youth Orchestra Music, still had his violin at home. So, I picked up his violin and continued where I left off.

What got you interested in live-looping and how did you get into it?

A few years ago, I wanted to “layer” the sound of my violin and keyboard, but was limited by my technical know-how. With work piling up, the arduous task became less of a priority until I read about Singapore musician Randolf Arriola’s live-looping on the guitar in an interview.

I was so fixated I almost became a stalker! Randolf and I later became friends, and he opened up a whole new world of technology, wizardry and gadgetry for me.

Eileen Chai Live Looping on Violin @ 4th Asian Gymnaestrada

You're not just a classical violinist, you've also played for rock, pop, jazz and blues bands. What's the biggest lesson you've learnt when playing with different musicians from different genres?

Commitment. When a band stays committed, the heart, mind and soul becomes one. The music flows, playing becomes enjoyable and you'll get the out-of-this-world sensation – with goosebumps.

What's the story behind the three songs on your EP?

The song ‘Spread Your Wings’ was inspired by my book. Every loop created in this music – from the percussive sound of the heartbeat to the high, shimmery notes – represents the journey that we take.

‘Enjoy the Ride’ is a reminder that even when westrive for success, achieve excellence and fulfill our dreams and goals, we must not forget to enjoy the moment and the process. 

‘Reborn’ is about that constantsearch for answers by trying, experiencing and falling down. However, we pick ourselves up again and persevere to find our purpose in life.

Are there other paths that you would like to pursue later in your life?

I will continue to teach, perform and create original Singapore music on the violin.

‘Teach a Life, for Life’ encourages people from all walks of life to share and pass on their life lessons learned to better the lives of others, to discover, inspire and motivate; to discover one’s strengths and overcome difficulties; to inspire the young ones to understand the meaning of resilience, commitment and friendship in their life journey; and to motivate people to embrace challenges. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

I'm beginning to give talks at events to share about ‘Teach a Life, for Life’. This will be an ongoing project.

‘Teach a Life, for Life’ and Eileen Chai’s EP are also available at http://www.eileenchai.com