Actress Laura Kee plays her grandmother in the touching love story behind the Risis business founded by her grandfather.
As far as you possibly can.
The Taj Mahal and gold-plated orchids, are just some of the creations featured on Designed By Love, a TV series on Channel News Asia.
The series featured stories of how love has pushed the boundaries of design. The Taj Mahal, for example, was and created by Shah Jahan, emperor of India, for his third wife whom he loved dearly. It was a labor of love—it took over 17 years to complete the now legendary structure.
Apart from feats of love of yore, Designed By Love also featured modern-day love stories. Singapore brand Risis was featured in the series’ final episode, proving that despite popular belief—Singaporean men actually do have a romantic streak.
Risis made its name by immortalizing orchids in plated gold, making them perfect gifts for loved ones or guests from overseas. One of the brand’s perennial bestsellers is the Vanda Miss Joaquim, the Singapore national flower.
The inspiration for the plated orchid was the founder’s wife—Once, the late Dr. Lee Kum Tatt was walking through the Singapore Botanic Gardens when he recalled an incident that happened years ago, when he was courting his wife-to-be then, Engeline Lee.
Touched by the beauty of the elegant flowers, she said to him, “If only these could last forever.” He kept her words in his heart, and 20 years later, presented her with the gold-plated blooms created by his company, Risis. His first flower, the Oncidium Engeline Lee, was named after her.
The love behind the gesture would melt the iciest of hearts. Lee not only remembered a casual remark his wife made, but took effort to make her wish come true.
For actress and host Laura Kee, 26, this story has double the sentimental value. She is the granddaughter of Dr. Lee Kum Tatt and Engeline Lee. When the producers of Designed By Love found out through Engeline that Kee was an actress, they asked her to play her grandmother in that episode.
“I am very privileged to have been able to play my own grandmother as a young woman,” said Kee. “It’s not everyday that an actor gets an opportunity to do that.”
Romantic though her grandfather’s gesture was, the Lee’s courtship was an unusual love story. The Lees were married at what was considered a late age during the ‘50s, and her grandmother was older. “She was 31, and my grandfather was 29, when they got married,” said Kee.
It was not love at first sight for the Lees—in fact, there was barely a spark at the start. They met in the Physics and Chemistry Society of the University of Malaya. Dr. Lee was the treasurer of the club who had to collect fees from his future wife. The two were just friends until Engeline left Singapore to further her studies.
|CN PHOTO: Jere Chong
When she came back armed with a Master’s Degree in Physics, Engeline was afraid that “she would be left on the shelf, because she was too highly educated for a woman in her time.” But something about her caught Dr. Lee’s eye. They started a six-month courtship. “Maybe it was the foundation of friendship which strengthened their relationship,” noted Kee.
“Their love was very special,” said Lee of her outspoken grandfather and her demure grandmother. “They balanced each other out, which was very sweet.” Lee’s mother described her parents’ relationship as being “as comfortable as a pair of old shoes.”
The couple had three girls and a boy during their marriage, and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in July 2006. Sadly, Dr. Lee passed away in June 2008 before they could celebrate their 52nd anniversary.
While she was thrilled to take on the role, Kee soon realized that it was not going to be so easy. “I know my grandmother as she is now but not as she was then.” To prepare for her role, the oldest of Engeline’s seven grandchildren started spending a lot more time with her grandmother to learn more about her character.
Portraying her grandmother’s physicality and personality presented more challenges. “I had to put on a wig as my grandmother had really short hair then.” She also had to learn a whole new demeanor as “girls in the ‘50s were really coy when they went on dates, completely different from girls now!” she laughed.
Did Kee manage to portray her grandmother accurately in the end? “My grandmother was very happy when watching the episode. She said I really looked like her and I had a way of carrying myself, of positioning my neck, that was just like her. Watching the episode on TV together has really created a greater bond between us,” she added with a smile.
If he was still alive, how did Kee think her grandfather would feel about this?
“I’m sure he would be very proud and happy,” she replied. “The Risis orchid is a national souvenir and his love gift for my grandmother. But more than that, his love for my grandmother was showcased on the program.”