Learning > Inspiration

It Changed My Life: Life is full of speed bumps for plastic surgeon Woffles Wu

Woffles Wu on his fatherless childhood, his cross-dressing tutor Miss Vee Vee and his high-octane career in plastic surgery

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Wong Kim Hoh on 05 Aug 2018

The Straits Times

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Dr Woffles Wu is sitting on the patio of his late grandparents' house in Thomson, scarfing down kuih bahulu and kuih lapis, and sipping coffee as he animatedly fields questions about the trials and tribulations in his colourful life.

 

His feet are shod in plastic Japanese otafuku sandals - available only in Chinatown apparently - and the 58-year-old's white short-sleeved shirt with double chest pockets is unbuttoned, revealing a white Crocodile singlet usually spotted on men a couple of decades older.

 

A pair of tailored blue pin-striped pants complete his unique Ah Pek sartorial get-up which blends in with his surroundings.

 

Built in the early 1950s, the house retains its vintage charm in the aged mosaic tiles and window grilles, sturdy teak and marble furniture and assortment of paintings and whimsical knick-knacks adorning its interiors.

 

Except for a few years during his childhood spent in London with his mother, Dr Wu has lived in this house all his life. He has a newer home at the back of the property, but this is where he has dinner with his mother and family every night.

 

Dr Wu is extremely attached to the property because it is a repository of memories, both tender and bittersweet, of important people and events in his life. Many of these memories have been chronicled in his recently released book, Life In Plastic.

 

Among other things, the book reveals his parents' short-lived marriage, an unsettling childhood in London, his less-than-ideal relationship with his late father, the people who helped to shape him including a cross-dressing tuition teacher, as well as peaks and troughs in his professional and personal life.

 

Some of these accounts are wry and funny, others pensive and loaded with pathos.

 

His parents met and fell in love in 1950s London. Sent there by her parents to study law, his mother Ong Beng Khim, then 18, ended up studying beauty culture instead and marrying Malaysian Wu Teh Hua, who had just qualified as a pilot at Hamble College Of Air Training.

 

Woffles - named after a white rabbit in Enid Blyton's children classic The Magic Faraway Tree - came along soon after in 1960.

 

Dr Wu says: "It was normal for a while but Mum said the marriage became untenable because my father was a Romeo."

 

Shortly after his fourth birthday, he was told he was going with Madam Ong, now 79, to London where she would begin law studies at the Middle Temple.

 

"I thought it was an adventure. It was only along the way that I realised something was not quite right," he says.

Their six years in London were unsettling because money was tight.

 

"When I tell people I lived in London, they can't imagine my life was packing and moving every year from one horrible dingy flat to another because that was all we could afford," he says, adding that he changed schools each time they moved.

 

Not having his father and loved ones around affected him.

 

"Mum used to ask me if I was OK. Sometimes I'd tell her I wasn't. But you seem okay, she would say. I remember telling her: 'I'm an onion. I have many layers and you're only seeing the outer layer'."

 

Mother and son returned to Singapore when he was 10. Dr Wu initially had a hard time fitting in at St Andrew's because he spoke with a strong English accent and was hopeless in Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay.

 

He faltered academically, barely passing his Primary School Leaving Examination. It was not until Secondary Two that his "neurons started firing", thanks to his maths tutor Mr Chee.

 

A kindly old man, Mr Chee was patient, systematic and logical and helped him improve his grades dramatically.

 

Dr Wu says: "He made me realise that there was a method to everything: from studying to answering a question and taking the exams. I just needed someone to teach me."

 

Other influential teachers include a vice-principal in a boys' school who gave English tuition to him and his friends. At their first session in his home, the man appeared in a lacy negligee and frilly women's underwear.

 

The man wanted to be addressed as Miss Vee Vee, explained that he was a woman trapped in a man's body, that he would not harm Dr Wu and his friends and hoped that they would not judge him.

 

Miss Vee Vee proved to be an English teacher par excellence as well as a good friend.

 

"We learnt many valuable lessons during those two years but none more important than the incredible diversity of the human race and not to judge a book by its cover," says the plastic surgeon who now counts transsexuals as his clients.

 

Becoming a doctor was a dream he harboured, especially since he came from a family of doctors. His grand-uncles Lim Han Hoe and Lim Chwee Leong were leading doctors in Singapore.

 

Serendipity stepped in to get him into medical school in 1979. Ordinarily, his A-level results - two As, a B and a C - would not have met entry requirements. But as luck would have it, Singapore had a shortage of engineers that year.

 

Many straight-A students who would have qualified for medical school were offered full engineering scholarships, giving students with second-tier results a shot at becoming doctors.

 

He more than made up for the shaky start by doing well throughout his course at the National University of Singapore.

 

He had no idea what he was going to specialise in but a book on plastic surgery inexplicably given to him by his mother on his 16th birthday had opened a window of possibility in his head. "I realised I didn't have to be involved in the conventional medical specialities and that I could do something which was creative," he says. Also, by then, he'd realised he was creative, and had flights of creativity and an eye for beauty.

 

He is not being immodest. He is an accomplished Chinese ink painter who learnt the basics from his grandfather as well as the late Earl Lu, a prominent surgeon as well as art patron and painter.

 

Dr Wu staged a solo exhibition of his psycho-erotic paintings, centred around an imaginary character called Lewd Lew, in a Taipei gallery in 1987. It was widely covered by Taiwanese journalists and art critics who dubbed him the new "Asian whizz-kid" for his unique style and use of colours.

 

In many paintings, Lewd Lew, a virile and powerful Chinese general, is seen with naked women. He always has an audience: salivating lackeys, voyeurs peering in through a window, even a guard holding a cane and carrying a boy stricken by polio.

 

"Are there Freudian implications? Yes. Maybe I'd love to be Lewd Lew. Maybe I'm the guy looking in through the window, maybe I'm the boy with polio who feels he is being marginalised.

 

"If we don't bare our souls, how can we be artistically honest? Do the paintings show something? Yes. Do I understand fully what? No, I don't," says Dr Wu who also has one of the most impressive collections of contemporary Chinese art in the region.

 

Complicated the good doctor certainly is. And multi-talented too, so much so he has been dubbed a Renaissance man. Among other things, he was once a national-level bowler, a top snooker player who represented Singapore in various international tournaments, a seasoned squash player who doubles as the president of the Singapore Squash Rackets Association and a film producer who produced the 2006 film Singapore Dreaming.

 

After graduating from medical school, he toyed with the idea of going into disciplines such as paediatrics, orthopaedics or urology. The door to plastic surgery opened by accident one day. Then already a well-known snooker player, he was giving a demonstration to some medical alumni when he met well-known plastic surgeon S.T. Lee.

 

Dr Lee told him: "You have good hands. I like your dexterity. You should think of going into plastic surgery."

 

He did. Under Dr Lee's mentorship at Singapore General Hospital, he qualified as a craniofacial plastic reconstructive surgeon. For his work on nasal anatomy, Dr Wu won the coveted Young Surgeon Of The Year award in 1991.

 

He was a rising star when non-surgical facial rejuvenation and new aesthetic technology - like Botox and intense pulsed light (IPL) machines - arrived in Singapore in the 1990s. He was one of the first to ride this new wave. "Botox landed in my hands in 1995. I started doing things like facial slimming with it. In fact, I coined that term and talked about it before anyone else at international conferences," says Dr Wu, who also organised the first IPL symposium in Singapore.

 

After 12 years at SGH, he went into private practice in 2000. He pioneered several techniques including The Woffles Lift - which incorporates the use of special threads to suspend sagging facial tissue - and WW Stealth Incision, a breast augmentation method which led to speaking engagements at international conferences and interviews with leading publications such as The New York Times and Vogue.

 

A brush with the law, however, put a blight on his career. In 2012, he was fined $1,000 for asking his godfather, who works for him, to take the rap for his

speeding offences committed in 2005 and 2006.

 

The charge and sentence sparked off a big debate in public and even in Parliament on favouritism and the equitability of the legal system. It eventually led to a four-month suspension for Dr Wu by the Singapore Medical Council in 2014.

 

He sighs when the issue is brought up but does not evade it.

 

"I paid the price for that."

 

He was lynched on the Internet, he says. Among other things, he was accused of abusing an elderly employee by making him take the blame for his traffic violations.

 

It was a painful period, one which sent him into depression. "When people see that you are down, they will kick you," says Dr Wu, who then started spending time in China, especially Shanghai and Hangzhou where he is licensed to practise his craft. He says philosophically: "Life is full of speed bumps. We have to learn how to drive over or navigate them. The traffic incident was one. I accepted it and have moved on. There will be many more. It's part and parcel of a high-octane profession such as plastic surgery."

 

One way of coping was to write a weekly column about his life and his observations for 8 Days magazine. Many of these articles have been rewritten for Life In Plastic.

 

He was especially encouraged by the many touching letters he received when he wrote a series of articles about his father who died about four years ago.

 

"I grew up full of resentment because I felt I was fatherless. I wasn't. He was always there and extending his hand but I didn't take it because I was too mixed up. We can go through life making such bad decisions and assumptions. And the only thing that was really happy for me was we managed to resolve that before he passed on," says Dr Wu.

 

He is married to his medical school classmate Lim Juay Yong, who is now a research administrator with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. The couple have two teenage children.

 

Asked what his hopes for Life In Plastic are, he smiles: "We never know who's reading us. And we don't know what they're taking away from what they read. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and put our feelings on paper. It's up to the readers to decide if what we write resonates with or reflects their life."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.