Behind The Byline: Woffles Wu On Growing Up In London, Family and Plastic Surgery
“I’m a bit of a sentimentalist and a bit of a romantic—I like to hold onto things which are old and dear,” says plastic surgeon Woffles Wu. Perhaps, this provides an insight into the facets of his life that he has chosen to share in his book.
Through a series of short stories—many of them compiled from his weekly columns for 8 Days magazine, which span a period of eight years—Woffles offers a narrative of his life from three different perspectives: growing up in London in the 1960s and Singapore in the 1970s; his family, who has shaped him to become who he is today; and his career as a craniofacial plastic surgeon in a public hospital before going into private practice in 2000.
But first, he satisfies this curiosity about his rather unusual name. For the record, it has a literary inspiration, rather than a culinary one—his mother had nicknamed him Woffles, after the white rabbit in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree, and he had adopted it when he was in school in London, when nobody could pronounce his Chinese name, Wu Tze Liang, properly.
He had moved to the UK at age four in the mid-1960s with his mother, who was starting her law studies. Little did he know that his parents had just divorced. He recalled living the nomadic lifestyle, moving from one rented room to another for six years before they returned to Singapore.
Coming from a family of doctors—many of his uncles and aunties were in the medical field—Woffles found his calling, first in paediatrics and then, plastic surgery. He started off in reconstructive surgery, before “events in your life take you on a different path” to that of aesthetic surgery, which was still a developing field then. He has since pioneered several techniques, among them The Woffles Lift, which uses a special thread to suspend sagging facial tissue. But what gives him the most satisfaction about his job is “being able to change things for a variety of reasons, because change is transformation, and you can transform people’s lives through the way they look”.
Today, he has come full circle—he does pro bono reconstructive surgery in China every year, correcting cleft lip and palate deformities for the underprivileged.
Never one to forget his roots, Woffles also paid tribute to those who have helped him throughout his life, from his family members and teachers growing up, to his bosses and mentors at work. And with his airline pilot father absent from most of his life, his policeman maternal grandfather was his first role model. He describes “confronting my relationship with my father” as the most difficult part of the book to write, but also the most meaningful. “Finding the words to describe how I felt and how I feel now was challenging. I wanted people to go away with the message that everyone goes through rough patches in life, but there are ways to pick yourself up, see things positively, and move forward. That’s the message of the book—how to keep moving forward even though you may be going over speed bumps and other obstacles in your life.”
Perhaps the postscript, The Sand Between the Pebbles, sums it up best that there are other aspects to life than “your career or the way you were brought up”. Woffles shares the story of being heartbroken over his dogs dying—especially since they were his constant companions in his childhood. “The story has a lot of family values; a lot of love and care for animals other than human beings. It’s very relatable on many levels.” Much like the man himself, who writes in the same way as he speaks—forthcoming, honest and candid.
Life in Plastic is available at Straits Times Press and leading bookstores.
This story was first published in Singapore Tatler December 2018.