It is two in the afternoon. Lotus Soh and her youngest grandson, Cameron Akira Soh, are both in a fit of giggles from a game of peek-a-boo. The nine-month-old and his mother Kazuha Kondo, Soh’s daughter-in-law, are over at her penthouse apartment for the day and Soh is relishing her role as a doting grandmother.
In the corner, Kondo is peering over her cup of tea with a smile on her face as she watches the pair at play. It was only last April that Kondo, a former pageant queen, moved from Japan to Singapore to be with her husband Melvin, the eldest of Soh’s three children, but as she tells me: “They are my new family and they make me feel loved.”
“In Japan, individual families keep to themselves after they are married. Here, it is different. For instance, in the Soh family, they often come together for meals and organise gatherings. It is a cultural difference that I appreciate and am grateful for,” she adds.
In a sense, the Sohs are the very model of a modern Singapore family. Soh, her adult children and their spouses are exceptionally close, yet lead separate lives. Soh’s youngest son Aaron lives just eight floors down in the same building. Her daughter Lorna’s family lives across the road, and Melvin and Kondo are just a short 10-minute drive away.
“We each have our own space and freedom to do whatever we wish and go about our daily lives freely. We meet often for meals and my three grandkids — Christian, Alexandria and Cameron Akira — come over to play or I go over to visit them. It is an arrangement that works well,” shares Soh.
“Now that my kids are adults, I treat them like a friend. I try to not tell them what to do or nag excessively. We have to be realistic, our adult children do not like that,” she says. This belief in respecting her children’s personal space extends also to her children-in-law: “I treat them as how I would treat my own children — as a friend. They give me their full respect. We talk, we laugh and I’m mindful not to be a grumpy old lady. Nobody likes one right?” Soh says with a laugh.
The Respected Matriarch
A doyenne of high society, Soh is well-known for her soulful singing voice. Not only did she leave guests riveted when she dedicated a trio of songs (including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) to Kondo and her son Melvin at their wedding celebrations at The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore in November, she actually has a history of moving listeners to tears.
Her signature tune, “You Belong to My Heart” (the English version of the Mexican Bolero “Solamente Una Vez”), was once delivered with such intense emotion at a charity gala that complete strangers teared so hard that they had to remove their false eyelashes in the bathroom. “I bumped into these two young girls in the ladies who told me how touched they were,” Soh says with a smile. “It is the love song of my late husband Leonard Soh and I, which made me all the more emotional when I sang it.”
Soh first discovered a talent for singing at age five and was destined for the stage. She even studied Japanese for three years, so she could fully understand Japanese lyrics and enunciate the words accurately. “That’s the only way you can truly feel the song and deliver a good performance,” says Soh, who is also fluent in Mandarin. As a television personality in the 1970s, she also fronted a publicity campaign for homegrown gift-maker Risis, as well as a national fundraiser organised by cable radio station Rediffusion. “It was exciting times,” recalls Soh.
But having started a family with her husband, she decided to leave showbiz and channel her passion and energy into parenting instead. “True happiness is found in your children. I will always remember how I felt when I heard them cry for the first time shortly after giving birth. Nothing can ever match that happiness. So it was only fair that I gave them my all,” she shares.
With three kids who had school, tuition and other extracurricular activities on a daily basis, the full-time mum found herself ferrying them around the island, often in and out of their compound some 16 times a day. While others might have relied on the school bus or a driver, Soh saw it simply as a way to spend time with her kids. Yet while she always wanted the best for them, she was never overindulgent. “If my kids were to ask for a toy at the mall without any occasion, I’d refuse. If there’s no reason to, why should I? It was important to me that they earned it and learn the value of having something gifted to them,” she stresses.
But ask if she was a strict parent and Soh laughs, saying she was the softer one. Her late husband Leonard, the founder of Continental Steel, was very much a no-nonsense parent and just one bark from him would send the kids fleeing into their rooms to complete their homework or go to bed. It is what she describes as a complementary partnership.
Fast-forward to present day, the matriarch’s role as a mother has evolved. “I treat them like a friend.” she says.
Now in her 60s, Soh keeps a busy schedule catching up with friends from various social groups from all walks of life. “Your kids are important to you but so are your friends, especially at my age. You have to look for happiness outside your family and that is where your friends come in,” she advises.
For Soh, this involves regular lunches or dinners, involvement in charity affairs such as the Singapore Red Cross Society and Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, and trips around the world. Just earlier this year, she joined a few girlfriends on a two-week cruise exploring South America. And in the past month alone, she has visited Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan with close friends or her siblings.
“I am lucky to have them all in my life. And I probably have to thank my late mother and husband for that. The both of them have always reminded me to be kind to others, no matter which walk of life they come from. That has been my approach since my younger days,” she shares.
The Modern Woman
When Kondo made the big move to join her husband Melvin, executive director at Continental Steel, in Singapore last year, she did so with very little difficulty, even with a young son in tow. She chalks it all down to her husband’s family who have made her feel nothing but welcomed. “They are a very warm and loving family, and have made it very clear that I can approach them for anything at all. May it be a problem, a question or if I needed any form of help. This is reassuring and I feel very much part of the family,” says the 31-year-old computer science graduate from Keio University.
Adaptable by nature, the Japanese also found Singapore’s comparatively calmer temperament a welcome change. But she does have one gripe: “Singaporeans walk much too slowly for me!” she says with a laugh.
Appreciating foreign cultures has always been a passion of Kondo’s. This was one reason why she took part in the Miss World pageant 10 years ago. The then 21-year-old was walking down Omotesandō street in Tokyo when she was stopped by a scout. Attracted by the idea of meeting people from all over the world and to the charitable aspect of the pageant, she said yes. As fate would have it, she went on to represent Japan at Miss World 2006 in Warsaw, Poland, where she placed in the Top 24.
The one-month stint at the international pageant proved to be a life-defining experience for her. Contrary to popular belief, she reveals there were absolutely no cat fights or rivalry among the participants. Instead, all the women genuinely wanted to get to know each other. Till today, she remains friends with many of the contestants, including the representatives from Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Chile, France and Italy.
“Miss World is known for its outreach programmes with charitable organisations. When I was in Warsaw, we visited children hospitals and spent some time playing with the kids. Even when I returned to Japan, I was involved in a couple of causes to raise awareness for similar organisations,” she shares.
The pageant was also the launch pad for Kondo’s subsequent modelling career, which saw her walk for several well-known Japanese brands including Yumi Katsura and Hanae Mori. In what she terms as a natural progression, she started designing and producing lingerie under her own label, Honey Hearts, in 2010.
“But now, because of the move here and the birth of my son, I have temporarily stopped producing new designs but my lingerie can still be found at department stores such as Isetan and Takashimaya in Tokyo,” Kondo, whose mother is a judge and dad a high-ranking professional in the Japanese legal system, shares.
Prior to her move to Singapore, she also sold another company she founded, Omiyage, a firm that sources for signature products from all across Japan and packages them as souvenirs. Its products used to be found at Haneda Airport and at Tokyo Station.
“Right now, my life is about concentrating on my family,” she says with pride. Above all, it is the simple pleasures, such as going swimming with her husband and son, trying out new restaurants or taking a stroll in a park, that puts a smile on her face. And on weekdays, when Soh — who she met at a birthday party here in 2013 — is busy at the office, Kondo relishes in her alone time with Cameron Akira, often bringing him along for lunch with friends at the Tanglin Club or putting on her apron to cook him traditional Japanese meals with produce that she orders in from Hokkaido.
“I am happy to do it for my son and love spending time with him. He is only little once, so there is no better time to spend it with him, than now.”
Watch our behind-the-scenes video of Lotus Soh and Kazuha Kondo.