A WHOLE NEW WORLD FOR LEA SALONGA
Quezon City, August 10, 2002 (STAR) CONVERSATIONS with Ricky Lo - The "urgent" call from Boy Abunda came at around 1 oíclock early Sunday morning, July 28 (5 p.m. Monday, July 29, Manila time), while I was desperately trying to shake off jet lag in my room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, preparatory to the press screening later that day of Columbia Picturesí potential blockbuster spy-action thriller XXX (starring Vin Diesel, touted as "The New Action Hero") for the press junket of which I and GMAís Miriam Quiambao, along with more than 50 other entertainment journalists from all over the world, were invited to L.A.
"The buzz here," said Boy, "is that Lea Salonga is getting engaged to her boyfriend of nine months, Robert Chien. Iíll give you Leaís cellphone number. Call her for an Ďexclusiveí."
So I did.
Lea and I agreed to meet at the Four Seasons coffee shop Monday after lunch, during the break from the round of print interviews with Vin Diesel, his co-stars Asia Argento and Michael Roof, and Rob Cohen, director of XXX (and last yearís surprise car-racing hit flick The Fast and the Furious where Diesel was a mere "supporting" actor).
When I rushed into the coffee shop at 30 minutes past 12, I saw Lea seated alone in one corner. She had no make-up on. She said she herself drove (her own) car. Asked where Robert (whom Lea simply called Rob) was, she smiled. "Heís at work."
She ordered a turkey sandwich and iced tea which she leisurely ate during the interview in which she traced how she and Rob met and fell in love and how, just the night before, the "dramatic and suspenseful" engagement took place at Robís place. All the while, Lea would tenderly touch the 1.5-carat diamond engagement ring around her finger, her face lit up by great expectations and her eyes sparkling like those of a woman deeply in love.
The person who volunteered to videotape the Conversation got stuck in the freeway traffic. Lea said she had another appointment at 2:30 p.m. We waited. And waited. The videocam-owner didnít show up. Lea beat me to the bill and assured me that she would come back the next day, same venue and same time, for the "on cam" interview. We swapped "íbye, see-you" kisses and off she drove, something she couldnít do in the risky, forever-traffic-clogged streets of Manila.
True enough and true to her word, Lea was back at the Four Seasons coffee shop Tuesday after lunch, two hours after our group finished the TV interviews with the XXX foursome. In five days, she said, she was going to New York to start rehearsing for Flower Drum Song.
Come. Eavesdrop on my Conversation with Lea Salonga, soon-to-be Mrs. Robert Chien.
Was it a spur-of-the-moment decision or did you "secretly" plan it?
"I donít know if it was sudden... maybe the announcement did catch many people by surprise. But the truth is that Rob and I had been talking about getting married for quite a while. I was kind of expecting that we would get engaged before Iíd leave for New York. But the way Rob set everything up was... well, it turned out to be a big, big surprise for me!"
Was it? How did it happen?
"Itís a long story... it was a long weekend. First, we went to a library and then we went to his momís place for a swim and then we decided to go shopping and just walk around. It turned out to be more of window-shopping than actual shopping. I didnít know that Rob was already looking for the things that he needed that night Ė you know, candle-holders, etc. But I kind of suspected already. It was even Rob who chose the date."
Yeah, why July 28?
"Well, in Chinese, Ď8í is supposed to be a lucky number."
So what happened on that memorable day?
"Rob sort of recreated our first date. He told me, ĎSo, okay, I have to tell you where weíre going because you have to tell me how to get there.í I acted as some kind of Ďnavigator,í as I always have been in a lot of our dates. So that night, we went to a Korean food place, the same one we went to on our first date. Rob kasi liked a particular kind of Korean food which I also liked. Then we went to a Cuban restaurant. All the time, I was thinking that Ďití would happen Ė the proposal, you know Ė in one of those places but it didnít. I was hoping that it would happen but it wasnít happening Ė yet."
Oh, he was keeping you in suspense. Binibitin ka niya.
"Well, in a way. When he didnít propose to me in the best restaurant we went to, I kind of began feeling disappointed. I told myself, ĎOkay, I have to resign myself to the fact that Iím not gonna get proposed to before I leave for New York.í Rob went like, ĎHoney, Iím sorry, you know... It will happen but, you know... Donít be mad if it isnít gonna happen now. It could happen in New York, you know.í Ganoon siya. I was sad on the way home; I felt really sad. Rob was driving to his house and I was getting depressed."
Did you break down, in tears perhaps, due to extreme disappointment?
"At the driveway, I got out of the car to open the door. Itís a narrow garage, you know, and I couldnít open the door of the car once we were inside the garage. As I very slowly walked toward the house, I opened the door and I thought, ĎOkay, when you open the door, the alarm is supposed to go off.í Inside the house, I asked, ĎOkay, why didnít the alarm go off?í Just then, I looked straight and I saw the glow of candle lights in the balcony. I turned to Rob, ĎHoney, what the hell is going on here?í He answered, ĎWhy, whatís going on here?í He was pretending that nothing was happening."
Very dramatic, full of suspense!
"I headed straight to the balcony and I saw dozens of candles on the ground, forming a path to a small table on top of which stood a rabbit wearing a tuxedo, surrounded by rose petals and a bunch of red roses and Babyís Breath. In the background were drapes hung on the trees trimmed with bright Christmas lights. I was just... I was speechless! All I could say was, ĎOh, my God! Oh, my God!í Then I noticed a burgundy pillow in front of the table. Rob knelt on the pillow, got a little box out of his pocket and then, well, it happened! All the time I was just crying and crying."
Tears of joy, Iím sure. And of relief (that the suspense finally ended)?
(Breaking into laughter) "I guess it was relief on Robís part Ė relief that it finally happened. I was just overwhelmed. When he opened the box and I saw the ring, I kept screaming, ĎOh, no, no, no, no!í I was just overwhelmed!"
Looks like a very expensive ring.
(Holding hand up to show me the ring) "Itís almost colorless, almost perfect!"
May I guess... 1.5 carats, Iím sure.
(Looking lovingly at the ring) "You guessed it right."
How did Rob propose to you?
"He wasnít even able to talk. I didnít let him. He fell on his knees and so did I. And then both of us just started crying. Three of his friends came out of the balcony, one of them filming the whole thing, with another camera set up to take another view. So there was an aerial view and a front view. And then two other friends at the balcony began singing A Whole New World (Which Lea sang in the smash-hit Disney movie Aladdin. Ė RFL). All the while, Rob and I were hugging and crying."
It happened Sunday night (L.A. time) and people in Manila learned about it at the same time.
"Because a few minutes after it happened, I called my mother (Ligaya Salonga). And you know my mother, once she knows, everybody else will know. Sheís like CNN, very effective in breaking the news."
So you really feel that this is the right time for you to settle down...
"Oh, yeah. Weíre really the right people for each other. The minute we started going out in November last year, it felt like we knew each other for a very long time. It never felt like we were strangers."
Which means you are compatible.
"Absolutely! We love the same things; our sense of humor is very similar. The way we express ourselves to each other and to other people is very similar, too. Neither of us ever felt uncomfortable with each other. Our relationship is relatively, actually and extremely harmonious. We are very expressive toward each other. We never felt that we had to hide anything from each other emotionally. Itís a very affectionate kind of relationship. Rob holds the key to the kingdom as far as my brother (Gerard, whom Lea sent to the Berkelee school of music where he graduated summa cum laude. Ė RFL)."
But Rob is not into theater.
"No. But he can sing. Heís in a different field. He works in a customer-relations firm for technology. Companies go to them for out-sourcing for customer service. Soon, their company might have representatives in Manila."
How did you meet?
"Through his cousin, Christine Yasunoga, who was with me in Flower Drum Song during its L.A. run."
Was it a blind date?
"Not really. First, we saw each other during another show that he and his group and I and my group we watched. That was sometime in July last year. Then we saw each other again several weeks later at a gathering to which Christine brought him. That was in September. The next time I saw him was in another party in October and thatís when we exchanged phone numbers. Our first date was in November Ė in that Korean food place where we first went to the day we had the engagement."
Of course, he knew that you were the Lea Salonga. Wasnít he, perhaps, overwhelmed and/or intimidated?
"Iím not sure if he knew a lot of what Iíve done, although he was there at the opening of Flower Drum Song to support Christine. I donít think Rob was overwhelmed or intimidated. I donít think he ever was."
What sort of wedding will you have Ė and when and where?
"It will probably be on Dec. 6 next year yet, maybe in Hawaii where we also plan to spend our honeymoon. I have my family in Manila and I have friends in the US so we have to meet somewhere in the middle."
Why next year and not this year?
"Well, Flower Drum Song will open in New York in October and I will be in it almost all of next year. Iíll be in the show for at least nine months. Then we might go on a tour pa, so the best date is late next year, in December."
Itís a good thing Robert is willing to wait. By the way, is Robert part-Filipino?
"No, he doesnít have any Filipino blood. Heís one-half Chinese (fatherís side) and one-half Japanese (motherís side). He was born and raised in California."
Heís not remotely involved in theater (performing arts). Is that the way you want it?
"Preferably yes, because there wonít be any professional jealousy at home; he has his own field and I have my own field and we excel in what weíre doing, so thereís neither envy nor jealousy between us, neither is there conflict or insecurity in either of us. And itís good. Everything at home will be harmonious. He can be a superstar in whatever he does and I can be the same thing, too, in whatever I do."
After the wedding, will you go on with your career?
"Oh, yeah. Thatís just how it is. I have to work."
Once you have a baby, it might get in the way of your work.
"Weíll see. I mean, Iíve always been willing to give up everything for my family, absolutely! No question about it. If it happens, it will happen. When God dictates, then thatís it. Weíre not gonna not try but weíre not gonna try, either. Weíre just gonna see how things will go."
Itís really the right age for both of you to get married.
"Yeah. Ideally, before either of us turns 35. Iím 31 and Rob is two months younger."
Heís okay with your mom, I presume.
"My Mom has met him; she knows him very well. Itís very important to me that my family likes him. My Mom is excited about the engagement. When I talked to her, she was very calm. Sabi niya, ĎOkay, congratulations, anak!í And then I started getting calls from my friends, telling me, ĎYour Mom called me; your Mom told me!í Early on, when Rob was in Manila, he actually asked permission from my Mom. Since then, my Mom has been asking me, ĎHasnít he proposed yet?í She was very excited about the whole thing."
Where do you plan to settle down eventually?
"Here in L.A. I like it here more than New York. Itís laid-back here. I like the space and the weather. Itís kind of like being in Manila. New York life is much too hectic and frenetic, and it can be claustrophobic. Here, the pace is more relaxed. When we have children, I want them to be in a place where they can run around and not feel crammed, you know. The style of living here is quite high but itís not that expensive."
In Manila, you canít live a normal life, unlike here where you can be yourself.
"In Manila, I feel pretty much like a goldfish in a bowl. Here, I can move around freely. I donít want my children to feel like they are in a fishbowl. Itís unfair to them. I want to be able to do my work and have the freedom to roam around. Thatís the kind of life I like. I donít feel like being watched all the time. In Manila, I go to the mall and I feel that all eyes are on me; it can make you feel absolutely uncomfortable. Until now, I havenít really gotten used to it Ė being stared at. I have accepted it as a part of my life but itís not exactly something that Iím comfortable with. Itís fine when Iím onstage because thatís when you want the attention. But when youíre shopping in the mall and your hair is a mess, you always have to think that, okay, Iím being watched, so... Itís being Ďoní all the time."
I saw you drive coming here...
"...here, I can do that. But in Manila, I canít. Driving in Manila is very dangerous, I wonít even try. But I learned how to drive in New York, although itís more comfortable and easier driving in California."
Was your mom the first person you broke the good news to? Or did you spring a surprise on her?
"As I was saying... As early as June, Rob had already asked permission from my Mom, parang pamanhikan. Rob was then in Manila. (Rob came to support Lea during her show last June. He was also here early this year for another concert of Lea. Ė RFL) He asked for my Momís blessing and she gave it to him. My Mom was just basically expectant, always asking me kung nag-propose na ba o hindi pa. Everytime we talked, she would ask, ĎDid he ask you yet?í And then sheíd remind me, ĎJust make sure that he gets down on his knees when he proposes.í I guess sheís just like all mothers."
Now that you and Robert are engaged, I suppose thereís no more turning back...
"...no more turning back. Rob was telling me, ĎThis is a big commitment, Honey, and thereís no turning backí."
Does Robert come from a big family?
"Heís an only child with both parents. His parents were divorced and his dad has three more sons from a later marriage."
What does Robert have that made you fall deeply in love with him, something your past boyfriends didnít have?
"Heís everything that I fell in love with and everybody whom I fell in love with. Very maasikaso and very affectionate; great looking, too, with a great sense of humor. Weíre both very considerate and very honest. He never pretends to be something or someone heís not. Very confident, successful in his own field."
What sort of family values do you have in common?
"Heís also conservative, raised by his mom like me. Our upbringing is very similar. I understand his upbringing and he understands my upbringing. I donít know of any other guy I dated who quite understood that dynamic; Rob does. He still has his dad and his brothers but it was really his mom who raised him. Heís very respectful to my mom. First time he met my mom, he told me, ĎIím nervous. What am I gonna do?í I told him, ĎBe yourself.í He never pretended to be what heís not."
Youíre also close to his family, arenít you?
"Pretty much. Robís other brothers are much younger than he is. One is 21, the second is 17 and the third is 13. If and when Rob and I have a child, he/she will be the first grandchild in his family and in my family, too."
So in five days youíre flying to New York to start rehearsals for Flower Drum Song. Why do you still have to rehearse when youíve done the musical in L.A.?
"The rehearsals will take six weeks, with the special preview scheduled on Sept. 23 and the opening night on Oct. 17. I still have to rehearse because itís a new theater, a new venue, and there are a lot of new people in the play. The cast is made up of Asian actors. Besides me, thereís another Filipino in the play, Jose Llana, whoís my leading man. Heís based in Virginia. He was only four-years-old when the family migrated to the States. He played Lun Ta in The King and I (also on Broadway). My understudy is a Filipina."
Youíve been working since you were small. I canít imagine you settling down as plain housewife.
"I wouldnít say Ďplainí."
Stay-home wife and mom is more like it.
"I will have to be, once the children start coming."
Do you think youíll be comfortable in that real-life role?
"Yes, I will be. Thatís how I was brought up. The big influence in my life is having my Mom at home all the time. Everytime I get home, my Mom is there. I can always reach her anytime, all the time. Thatís how I was raised and thatís how I will raise my children. At the same time, I will continue working without sacrificing my being mom and wife. Itís just a matter of time management and finding a balance and putting your priorities in order."
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
2002 by PHILIPPINE HEADLINE NEWS
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