A Woman of Substance: Sister Valerie Tseng IJS

Sister Valerie in the 1950s
Sister Valerie in the 1950s

Sister Valerie Tseng, or Aunty Mary will celebrate her 91st birthday this year. It will also mark the 62nd year of her vocation as a nun with the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, a Catholic order founded in France in 1675.

While many of us would be in awe of her life-long commitment to her vocation, it is her achievements within the Order that mark her truly as a woman of substance.

Sister Valerie was born in 1924. She was the third in a large family of eight siblings, and the only girl. Originally named Mary, she was confident, intelligent and outspoken. They were Anglicans but after a few years of attending school at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, she and her brothers, who attended St Joseph’s Institution decided to convert to Catholicism. She remembers that her brothers egged her on to represent the siblings to get permission from her mum and dad. Her parents were strict, and it took guts to broach such a sensitive topic, but she did it. The parents relented, and they converted shortly after.

Aunty Mary never intended to be a nun. She was a qualified teacher, had a steady boyfriend and the plan was to get married and settle down.

Mary at her family home

God obviously had other plans for her.

It was 1950. The boyfriend had gone for an extended business trip to India. While he was away, Aunty Mary went with her friend, Margaret, to Kota Kinabalu (it was called Jesselton then) to promote the Legion of Mary in the nearby villages. The mission trip was far from easy. There were no roads, no running water, no proper sanitation. Her mode of transport was on foot via  muddy ruts through padi fields and the Mill House Congregation of nuns that worked in the area lived with only the barest of necessities.

It was then that she received the calling to serve.

“Why me, Lord? I have a boyfriend already!” was her initial reaction. Confused, she returned to Singapore and went to her parish priest, Father Meisonniere, for guidance.

Father Meisonniere, however, sent her on her way. “It is not a calling,” he told her. Little did she know that this was actually the padre’s test. The religious life was not for everyone, and it would mean a lifetime of sacrifices for Mary.  If the calling was real, it would persist.

Mary (centre in flowered dress) with her family

True enough, the gentle urging never went away. “No matter how hard I tried to push the voice away, it kept coming back,” she reminisced. She was conflicted and confided in Margaret. “If I were you, I would go see Father again,” urged Margaret. When she went back again to see the priest, he knew that this was the real thing. “When he finally confirmed that this was genuine and I accepted that this would be the path I would take, the urging went away and I felt a great peace,” she said.

In her nun's habit
In her nun’s habit

The priest then asked her which religious order she planned to join. The Mill House Congregation based in Jesselton was her first choice but at the time, they did not accept local girls, as it was a British order. The Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus (now known as the Sisters of the Infant Jesus) was the other option that she was familiar with but it was not her preference. She had an unpleasant experience with a few of the Lay Sisters, Europeans who were too “colonial” in mindset. They were kind and friendly to the privileged but were rude and gave no time of day to the poorer students. Father Meisonniere had a different view point. “Pray, don’t imitate the Lay Sisters. Be a good religious and an example for them to follow,” was his advice.

A full fledged sister of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus
A full fledged sister of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus

So it was settled. Mary joined the Infant Jesus Sisters and was sent to Penang. After her first year, she took the first formal step with the Pris D’Habit, or the donning of the habit. Wearing the nun’s habit in the fifities was a sacrifice in itself. Made for the cold European climate, the habit was made of serge and and comprised many layers. Aunty Mary remembered quite a few novices passing out from the heat at the Pris D’Habit ceremony – it was just too hot in those clothes!

As a young nun, Mary’s task was to teach Mathematics to the senior middle students in the Ave Maria Convent in Ipoh, a task she initially found daunting as she felt she was not qualified enough to teach Advanced Mathematics. Nevertheless, she soldiered on.

Three years flew by and in 1957, Mary travelled to Paris, France where she received her Final Vows and took on the name of Sister Valerie. Thereafter, she was sent to Liverpool in the United Kingdom to study Advanced Mathematics for a year before returning to Malaya to teach.

The Malaya that Sister Valerie returned to was radically different. It was no longer a British Colony and was now an independent nation. As a holder of a Malayan passport, Sister Valerie taught at the IJ Convent in Pulau Tikus, Penang, for the next 13 years.  A capable and strong leader, Sister Valerie was eventually elected Mother Superior in Malaysia.

In 1971, Sister Valerie was sent to attend the General Chapter, a meeting of the IJ Order that took place once every five years to chart the future of the Order and to elect the international leadership team. At the General Chapter, Sister Valerie was one of five Council members elected to assist the Superior General, Mother Maria Del Rosario Brandoly, in leading the Order. This was a significant step as Sister Valerie was the first ever Asian Sister to be elected to the Council. She went on to serve two terms on the Council, each lasting six years.

For the next 12 years, Sister Valerie was based in Rome, Italy, as part of the core group that developed the new constitution for the Order. As part of the Council, she had a hectic schedule and travelled the world, accompanying the Superior General in seeing to the smooth running of the Order. Not unlike a busy CEO, Sister Valerie travelled from Japan to Spain to Bolivia, learning Spanish, Japanese and Italian to better communicate with the people in each market. She did not like Rome much – ‘much too hot in Summer, and dust everywhere!’, but relished her travels, as it opened her to new experiences and viewpoints in engaging with the community and ensuring the growth and renewal of the IJ Order.

With IJ students in Malaysia
With IJ students in Malaysia

When her term was over, Sister Valerie returned to Asia where she was tasked with explaining the recently amended constitution to IJ institutions in the region. Ironically, despite being home, she did not feel entirely welcome. The nuns in Asia were too much in awe of her ‘seniority’, and kept her at arms length. “They sent me to Cameron Highlands when I first returned. I guess they had no idea what to do with me and probably felt a little threatened. It was a bit of a double-edged sword,” she mused.

Sister Valerie, ISJ, hale and hearty at 90 years
Sister Valerie, IJS, hale and hearty at 90 years

Over the years, she went wherever she was needed, travelling throughout Asia and moving from Convent to Convent in Malaysia as a teacher.

Today, she lives quietly in Johor Bahru, still helping out with the community. Until recently, she cared for a little girl who was abandoned by parents who were drug addicts. Looking back at her life, she says simply: “This was my path. The Lord had planned it this way. No matter how hard you try, if he calls, you follow, or you will never truly know peace.”


Sick Puppy

photo 2 (17)
my sick puppy

Poor Dozy is sick. Sick as in admitted to doggy hospital and on a saline and antibiotic drip sick. He had an ultrasound and the poor pup’s pancreas and liver are looking pretty bad. His stomach is all distended and he’s wheezing a little. Looks like organ failure. Worst still, his appetite is going (this is a BIG deal for my greedy boy) and he has no energy to do much but flop on the floor.

In recent years, I’ve become something of a veteran in dealing with sick old people and shuttling in and out of hospitals. All this, I’ve dealt with quite calmly. No tears, except for daddy, and even then, all that was saved for the end when he had gone.

Not so with my poor pooch. One look at his big, sad, wondering eyes in his hospital cage and the dams burst. My poor mum was quite beside herself as I blubbed on my sick dawgy.

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I think it’s because animals are so helpless, vulnerable yet so trusting. Dozy was weak as anything but still tried to perk up for his mummy and brother when we came to visit. Totally gut-wrenching.

In the meantime, it’s a waiting game till we see if he responds to the medicines and fluid therapy.  We’re blowing $$$$ on this but I’m hoping against hope that a minor miracle will happen and he will pull through.

Rooting for you, pooch. And hoping you’ll come home.

The Quiet Evangelist: Father Gerald Tseng, S.J.

Father Gerald Tseng S.J. with my family in the sixties
Father Gerald Tseng S.J. with my family in the sixties. I was not born then.

When I was a child, I looked forward to Chinese New Year, not just for the feasting, but also because a special guest would come round to visit. As I come from a very Catholic family, the presence of Father Gerald Tseng S.J., or Uncle Jerry in our house was always an honour, and most of my relatives would try to coincide their visits to be at our place when he came by.

Father Jerry is one of the most congenial men I know. Always smiling and eternally affable, his mild manners and gentle ways are for me the epitome of Christian gentleness.  I’ve always had a fascination with people who receive the Calling and consequently dedicate their lives to God.  I asked Uncle Jerry about his journey and it was interestingly his school experiences that converted him to Catholicism and subsequently to becoming a priest.

SJI football team, 1946. Father Jerry on the front row, extreme right
SJI class football team, 1946. Father Jerry on the front row, extreme right
Class Photo SJI, 1948. Brother Ignatius and Uncle Mallen were his teachers
Class Photo SJI, 1948. Brother Ignatius and Uncle Mallen (Nicholas) were his teachers. Father Jerry is standing behind Bro. Ignatius

Father Jerry studied at St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) for most of his early school life,except during WWII when he hunkered down with his family in Devonshire Road.

During those tumultous years before and after the war, school was a place that had a semblance of normalcy for most teenagers. The La Salle brothers who taught at SJI had a profound influence on Father Jerry and he aspired to be a teacher like them, dedicating his life to moulding young boys to be men for the future.

Father Gerald Tseng's ordination in Dublin, Ireland in 1963
Father Gerald Tseng’s ordination in Dublin, Ireland in 1963

Father Jerry wanted to be a priest as well as a teacher and therefore chose to be a Jesuit. After receiving his Senior Cambridge certificate at SJI at the age of 21 in 1950,  he left Singapore to join the Jesuit Novitiate in The Philippines.

What followed then was a path round the world in an arduous 13-year journey to become a Jesuit priest: seven years in The Philippines; another four years studying theology in Dublin, Ireland (he hated the cold); a year of tertianship (the final year of formation in the Society of Jesus) in Murcia, Spain, followed by a final year stint in London at St. Mary’s College.

After his ordination in 1963, Father Jerry was posted to Kowloon to teach before transferring to St Francis Xavier church in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia for eight years. He finally returned to Singapore in 1976 to teach at his alma mater, SJI while playing the role of chaplain at the Catholic Junior College hostel.

Father Jerry’s quiet spirituality touched many throughout his journey as a priest and teacher, and ex-students speak fondly of him as one of the nicest teachers at SJI. “Father Tseng taught me Science and he was very kind. He would tell us to mark topics in order of 1st importance, 2nd importance and 3rd importance, Basically, if you studied only the 1st importance topics, you would be all set,” reminisced Matt Lee, an old boy of SJI who was taught by Father Jerry in the eighties.

Father Jerry speaks with pride about the many boys under his care who have gone on to be ordained as Brothers and Priests in various Catholic denominations. He recalls how he encouraged many boys, even non-Christians, to join the Legion of Mary, and it was through a deeper experience with prayer and fellowship that led to many finding their calling. In a recent Catholic News article, Deacon Gerard Louis cited Father Jerry as a source of inspiration during his days as a student at SJI. “He was such a simple man,” he recalls.

Father Jerry is retired now, and passes his days in prayer and contemplation at Kingsmead Hall, a residence for the Jesuits located next to St. Ignatius church in Bukit Timah. I drop by to see Uncle Jerry every few months, and I always come away with a sense of peace after my visits. With him, the passage about Ezekiel’s encounter with God (1 Kings 19:11-13) comes to mind: that God comes not as a strong wind or force but as a gentle breeze.  Or like the shepherd in Isaiah 40:11: He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.

One does not need to be a rockstar preacher to be a fisher of men, and Uncle Jerry, the quiet evangelist,  is a shining example.

Devon Days

The front garden at grandma's in Torquay
The front garden at grandma’s in Torquay

Knowledge is best gained from experience , and I am blessed that my children get to experience life in very different environments. Once every couple of years, we exchange our city slicker lifestyles in Singapore for a few short weeks with the in-laws in the English West country.

My in-laws settled in the UK over 50 years ago and have been living in Torquay for the last 40. While firmly Chinese (they make their own Char siew, roast duck, fish balls and pau), they’re also very British. MIL Anne is an avid soccer fan, tea drinker and a maniacal gardener. Here’s a preview of just some of the gorgeous blooms in their garden:

Grandma Anne's Garden
A lovely gazebo in the neighbour’s yard gives grandma’s garden a special perspective
Giant Purple Poppies
Giant Purple Poppies
Giant poppies that give off poppy seeds in late summer for cakes and cooking
Giant poppies that give off poppy seeds in late summer for cakes and cooking
Just some of the blooms in grandma’s garden
Wild strawberries and lavender from the garden
Wild strawberries and lavender from the garden

Apart from a large front and back garden, they also have a massive allotment at the back of their house. Dating from the first world war, the concept of allotments  was to provide plots of land for returning soldiers to grow crops and find means of subsistence. The practice continues today and Anne rents her 1/5 acre plot for about £35 a year. It comes with free water for watering the plants.


The allotment aka mini farm at the back of the house
The allotment aka mini farm at the back of the house
Organic Goodness: Cos lettuce, broad beans, raspberries, gooseberries, chinese vegetables, herbs and more in my MIL's allotment
Organic Goodness: Cos lettuce, sugar bons, broad beans, raspberries, gooseberries, chinese vegetables, herbs and more in my MIL’s allotment

My MIL is 76 but she is out at her allotment everyday. She hoes, turns the soil, weeds, and plants everything by herself. She also makes her own fertiliser out of wild comfrey and nettle, as well as ash from cutting back her plants and burning them every year.  She also has a large compost bin in the allotment that freaks me to no end because of the family of small adders that live there.

So whenever our family goes over, we turn into farmers, helping grandma with the weeding, planting and pruning. The kids also engage in a healthy dose of DIY as there are always things to be fixed in a household of ageing people. B&Q, the British DIY megastore, becomes our new hangout.

Father and son refurbishing and tiling the old garden table to better weather the elements
Father and son refurbishing and tiling the old garden table to better weather the elements
Megan giving the gnomes that papa had as a kid a new lease of life with pots of tester paint from B&Q
Megan giving the gnomes that papa had as a kid a new lease of life with pots of tester paint from B&Q

When the work is done, Sean engages in his favourite country pastime, shooting targets with grandpa’s old air rifle.

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So when people ask me if I’m going on a holiday, I tell them technically, not really. We won’t be engaging in a frenzied schedule rushing from one tourist attraction to another. We will be going native and working hard at grandma’s, in a very different, and refreshing environment.


Letter from The Past

An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past
An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past

This post would be appreciated most by the Tseng clan, but anyone with an interest in old letters and China in the last days of the Qing dynasty may find something in it.

My Uncle Michael (Mike) Tseng faxed me an old letter a few weeks ago. It was dated 1978 and possibly the last letter from a relative still residing in China to our family. It was written by our Grand Uncle, Professor Gordon Kuo Cheng Wong, to Roland Tseng, eldest son of Harry Wei Han Tseng.

The letter sheds a little light on the childhood of Peter and Harry, the forefathers who brought us Tsengs to Singapore. I’ve tried to copy it verbatim so you’ll see some grammatical mistakes (this was not his native language), but bits have faded away and the Chinese characters are garbled.

Bear in mind that when he wrote this, he had been living in Communist China for decades already and correspondence with family and friends outside China would have been limited. It’s long but it is family history, after all:

Peking, March 10, 1978

My dear Roland,

 It is indeed a great surprise to me to receive a dear letter from the Tseng’s family. Your brother John’s last letter to me, was about a year ago. I was longing for his answer, but no result. I don’t know the reason and I am intending to write to him, and I get yours.

As relatives, the Wong family and the Tseng family were very closely and intimately related to each other. In the olden days,  I and your father lived, ate, drank and slept under the same roof, and went to school together. That was a joyful and delightful memory. It is my duty to tell you your family tree and our relationship. It was so many years ago, and now I am already seventy-five years old and have a bad or poor memory of the past which was so many years ago. But anyway I shall try my best to recollect and to tell you what I can remember (of) the old facts. To begin with, in regard to your family tree. As far as I can remember your great grandfather when I was only three or four years old, I saw him. He was a tall fellow, with a small moustache under his nose and wearing spectacles. At present, I cannot recall his name.*  He spoke very good English and was educated in Hongkong. He had a wife and a concubine with six sons and nine daughters. His first son or eldest one was your grandfather (Ho Tung) had a wife and two sons. The eldest son (Wai Mun)** your uncle, you must have seen and his family when you were young in Singapore. The younger son was your father (Wei Han).

Your grandfather was a customs clerk for the Ching dynasty which was controlled by the Imperialist British and other foreigners. The foreign service commissioner, because your father was in ill health, dismissed him. He was out of a job then. So since 1908, he and his family came to Hankow and lived with us and were taken care of by my mother and father. We were getting along very happy and well. Your father and uncle’s education was taken care of by my father*** because your grandfather was out of a job, without any income. Their early education, in the middle school in Hankow was (XX–couldn’t make out the Chinese character) middle school. I and my sisters with your father and uncle went to the same school. Later your father and uncle were graduated from XX school,  and they were sent for higher education to Shanghai, St John University, this was also taken care of by my father. While in the University, your father was a good athlete, he was chosen to be the team member of the football and crew varsity team.  

Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.
Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.

In 1914, my father was transferred to Singapore as the Manager of the Bank of Communications, then my family and your family were all sent to Singapore and lived together. Your father and uncle then worked in the Bank of Communications as accountants and ever since your family has settled in Singapore.

In 1919, I as an overseas’ representative, took an examination in the Chinese Consulate office, got the scholarship and entered the Tsing Hua College in Peking. This college was sponsored by the American Boxer Indemnity Fund board and was controlled by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. When I graduated (I was) automatically sent to America for high education. When I went to America in 1926 I entered Oberlin University in Ohio and in 1923 I went to New York to take up graduate study in Columbia University till 1931, then I came back to China and worked in the banks***. After liberation**** I and my family came to Peking and got into the Institute of Foreign Trade, as professor. In 1972, I retired with a monthly pension. Now I live in a suburb in the northern part of Peking. 

Your ancestors’ place of origin or native place was the village (Sai Kiu San or Xi Qiao Shan) in the county (Nan Hai) Kwangtung (GuangDong) Province in South China.

Your great grandfather (Tseng Hai) was born in Hong Kong and educated there an once the Consulate-General of Honolulu for several years, after retired he died in Hongkong.

Your father (Harry Wei Han) returned to China twice:

1)In 1925, I was in Tsing Hua College then, so I did not see them. Your father and mother came to Shanghai, to paid a visit to my father and mother and your sixth granduncle and they also visited Hangchow, I was told they had a very good time. Your granduncle had no son, so he adopted your father as his legal son. My father was the witness, and your father was entitled to at least a share of your granduncle’s inherited properties. But after the death of your granduncle, his second wife ran away with the inherited properties, perhaps to Hongkong, nobody knows.

2. In 1932, when he came to Shanghai to attend your sixth granduncle’s funeral, which I did not see him also because I was not in Shanghai then and went for a business trip. So far the above summary, are what I remember now and later if I recall anything regards your family  shall write and tell you about it. Good-bye and good luck to you and your family.

Yours affectionately,

K.C. Wong*****

*He was referring to Tseng Hai, father of Tseng Ho Tung, my great grandfather

**Wai Mun was my grandfather, Peter Tseng

***I know, the dates don’t add up but that’s what was on the letter

****Notice that he called the rise of the Communist regime “liberation”

*****KC Wong was the son of Tseng Ho Tung’s sister, who married into the Wong family who managed the Bank of Communications.




Simple Lives: The Tale of Nelly and Rosy

Nelly and Rosy Tseng in 1949
Nelly and Rosy Tseng in 1949

This is the tale of two sisters, Nelly and Rosy.

Nelly was born in 1924, the fourth of a family of nine kids. She was small, rail-thin and frail.  Plainer, quieter, gentler and more retiring than her other sisters, you could call her the runty one in the family.  The one who would stay home and serve, the one who would not likely marry.

Rosy in her hey day
Rosy in her hey day

Rosy, born three years later, was vivacious and smart as a whip. She had a formidable memory, and even without the benefit of any schooling had taught herself enough to do simple accounting and book keeping.  Less kindly people would have called her calculating because of her strong personality and frank tongue. To me, Seventh Aunty (let’s call her Gu Por as that’s what my children know her as) would have been a brilliant CEO if she had the chance.

My aunts were like chalk and cheese, but they were inseparable, bound by the tiny horizons set upon them as women of that generation and the circumstances in their lives.

Samsui women http://bit.ly/ScI0TI
Samsui women http://bit.ly/ScI0TI

Like the heroines in any Jane Austen novel, marriage was the sole ambition of most Chinese women with no education right up to the fifties. Those who did not get the chance to marry ended up as servants, sam-sui women labourers (lady construction workers), hawkers or seamstresses. Otherwise, they ended up as the  spinster aunties to be called upon to help with the nieces and nephews of their married siblings.

Breaking out of the mould, to go out into the workforce and to lead an independent life, this would have taken sheer courage and a devil-may-care attitude for a woman with no schooling  in those times. Even now, most of my friends would have at least one unmarried aunty or two, and yes, it was and still is usually their lot to look after kids, grand-nieces or nephews and the old ones in the family.

Okay, back to my aunties.

Gu Por had a beau when she was young, a strapping, handsome young man. He was her grande passion. They pledged their hearts to each other and when he went away to America to study, he promised that they would marry when he returned.

And yup, you guessed it. He never returned.

He died tragically in a car crash while in the States. Gu Por’s heart was broken, and from that day on, never looked at another man. Finding a future beyond the family for herself, contemplating a career somehow was never an option or even a consideration. She just turned inward to her family, and thus to her mother, my grandmum, and to Aunty Nelly, who remained while all the sisters married out to larger lives beyond Number 12, Siang Lim Park, Geylang.

My childhood is filled with memories of my two aunts. They were always there in their flowered samfoos. If they were not helping my dad out at our home during the times when mum was in hospital, they were  pottering around in the kitchen or sweeping the garden of their pre-war home in Geylang. They used to make little paper monsters for me when I was very little (they had the strangest names – Hood-tutus – must throw in Cantonese accent), and taught us all traditional Cantonese rhymes, cute verses that my sisters and I remember to this day.

Maybe it’s the richness of the Cantonese language, but my aunts also had the absolute best descriptions of people they encountered. Aunty Nelly was particularly adept. A young nephew with fair skin and a sharp nose was “bird-head” and “white board boy”; a skinny man was “Mr shoulders-higher than-ears”; a cousin that hunched was “camel-back girl” and another one “tortoise-boy”. Nobody was immune, everyone was labelled. Forget political correctness and sensitivity. It was not ill-meant and it was just their way. If you had a nick-name, consider yourself lucky. You were family.

Nelly and Rosy, 1987
Nelly and Rosy, 1987

My aunts’ little lives revolved round household chores, gossip and the church. Like frogs in wells, they bickered and chafed over the pettiest things. They were complete OCD cleanliness freaks, and I often marvelled how many times they could sweep one floor in a day. Yes, they’d fight over cleaning too, but come end of day, all was forgotten. Umbrellas in hand and rosaries in tow, they would then walk amiably arm in arm together to Queen of Peace church for their daily mass and devotions.

As a child of a luckier generation and the benefits it brings- education, career opportunities, travel and wide, wide horizons, I have often wondered what it would be like if our lives were reversed and I lived the life of my aunts. It is said that those who have more will always want more, and I guess I am no different. One thing I know.  I would have totally hated the confines of their tiny worlds.

But. But…

I do not think they were any less happy than I. They accepted their lot and they gave grace in the fastidious way they tended to the simple details of their day. They have since passed on but the memories of their presence, the Cantonese culture that they passed on have left their mark on me and my sisters. It is part of who we are.

Perhaps that Paulo Coelho adage is true, and one I should constantly bear in mind should I get tetchy and discontented: The simple things in life are often the most extraordinary.

Actions and Consequences

Seated on steps: Peter Wai Mun and Harry Wei Han; their aunt and uncle are seated behind
Seated on steps: Peter Wai Mun and Harry Wei Han; their aunt and uncle are seated behind

Once upon a time in China, there were two brothers, Peter (Wai Mun) and Harry (Wei Han).

Coming from a reasonably illustrious and wealthy family, Peter and Harry were privileged boys. They wanted for nothing and true to Chinese tradition, were spoiled by indulgent family members and servants.  They were males,  and unlike females who  get married out to other families, Peter and Harry would carry on the family name.

Harry was a studious, fastidious young man. When both young men were sent from their hometown in GuangZhou to university in Shanghai,  Harry studied hard and passed his Accountancy exams with flying colours.

Peter (left) with friend at a riding party
Peter (left) with friend at a riding party

Peter, on the other hand, was the proverbial firstborn dandy.  As the eldest, he was treated as a princeling and given into at every turn. As with the Tsengs of that generation, Peter and Harry were blessed with good looks. Peter, in particular, had the high, scholarly forehead that was the hallmark of the Tseng clan, high cheekbones, the almost aquiline nose, and a pleasant bearing.  He  was also a great fan of parties and  and dance halls, and there was probably not a dance hostess in Shanghai who did not know fun-loving Peter. At home however, he was petulant, short-tempered and used to getting his way in everything. He was also a spendthrift, and spent all his allowances on fine clothes and shoes for the dance halls.

Peter, still in China, with a young relative
Peter, still in China, with a young relative
Peter with his wife, Hing Yee, 4th daughter Nelly and the first of the male children, William
Peter with his wife, Hing Yee, 4th daughter Nelly and the first of the male children, William

In time, both boys graduated (Peter just about scraping through) and were recruited to work as accountants at the family bank in Hong Kong. Both were match-made with girls from suitable families. Peter got to work immediately, and babies started appearing in quick succession. However, to the disappointment of the family, one girl after another was born, with no male heir.  In time, Peter grew disillusioned with his sweet, docile wife who gave him no heirs. To show his disdain, his daughters were not given special names but named after books. They were to have no education, no special treatment. He often left the wife and babies at home and continued carousing at the bars.

Hardworking Harry had his fair share of trials too. His first wife passed away unexpectedly, leaving him bereft and devastated. The family, already alarmed at the lack of male heirs, proceeded post haste to find another wife for Harry. Ever the good son, Harry remarried and was blessed with many boys, seven, to be exact and a very healthy girl. Very early on, like the Book of Wisdom, fortune favoured the wise and industrious, and left nothing for the foolish wastrel.

The lure of business opportunities in the lands of the South China Seas was great and both Peter and Harry were eventually sent to Singapore, with their parents and families, to expand the bank’s operations there. They had a house in Devonshire Road that was big enough to house two families. Unfortunately, Peter’s truculent behaviour and stubborn pride led to a falling out, and he soon moved his family out to a little rental house in Geylang.

Actions beget consequences and the tale of the Tseng brothers is a living legacy that spans a generation.

Peter, you see, is my grandfather.

I never knew him as he died from his excesses even before my dad and mum got married. I would very much have liked to tell a tale of a loving grandpa (Ye Ye) but this is not to be.   Everything that I recount here is based on the reminisces of my dad, uncle and aunts. They too, have passed on now, but what struck me is that not one of them had anything nice to say about their old man.

In essence, my Ye Ye’s selfish actions created a life of struggle for his family, and morass of missed opportunities for the children. I’m sure he did not have a mean heart, but an indulgent childhood, a perception that he would be first in all things and a temperament for the finer things in life made him what he was.  Harry, on the other hand, stayed to the straight and narrow, and his children and grandchildren grew reap the fruit of his labours. Many of them, whom I am proud to call uncles, aunt and cousins, were and are scions of Singapore. They are leaders in their fields of Medicine, Law, Education, Religion and to this day remain a closely-knit family.

Outside the house in Siang Lim Park, Geylang Lorong 40
Outside the house in Siang Lim Park, Geylang Lorong 40

Ye Ye, on the other hand, left the family bank after some years (probably after another falling out) and became a salesman. He continued his partying at the dance halls and what little he earned was spent only on himself. Meanwhile, his neglected, stoic wife struggled, stinged and scrounged in order feed her nine children (seven girls and two boys that were born much later). The family was poor, and the onset of the Second World War made things much worse.  The girls did not get the chance to attend a single day of school and the boys made it only to the “O” Levels. Although they were top students, the needs of the family were too great. Both my dad and Uncle William were obliged to leave school to look for work in order to ease their exhausted mother’s load and to feed the family.

George and William with their beloved mother
George and William, now working, with their beloved mother

Dad used to tell me that they were so deprived when young that there were days when the entire family shared one orange, a treat that they all relished. Looking though his diary as a seventeen-year-old, I learned that dad and Uncle William would walk 20 kilometres weekly to collect rice rations for the family. The bitterness at their father’s actions led to three of the siblings never marrying. My Uncle William vowed never to step into a bar or dance hall because of the misery his dad’s actions had given to his mother and ultimately to the family. As the eldest son, he took on the father mantle and supported the household, remaining a bachelor to the end.

If not for dad’s sheer grit and fighting spirit to make his way in the workforce, my sisters and I would not have the life we enjoyed as children too. Thanks to him, the values of economy and frugality are well ingrained in our psyche, and today, I still balk at paying too much for something that can be had for cheaper elsewhere.

Actions and consequences played out in reality. In my family.





Procrastination, with a Capital P

ImageOne never really knows one’s demons, till you see them displayed in full gory glory.  In your kids.

“Megan,  what homework do you have for today?”


“Hallo? Earth calling Megan Moon?”

“Waiiit, mum. I need to check my student planner.”

Fifteen minutes pass by while mum bashes out a work-related email.   

“Oi, Megan,  what homework do you have for today?”

“Hmmm…Math worksheets, one Science paper, some Chinese…”

“Okay, get to it, I don’t want to be screaming at you at 9pm again, okay?”

“Can I take a break, muuum? I’m so tired.”

“Okay, twenty minutes, then you MUST start work.”

One hour comes and goes, because mum is either #1 checking emails, #2 mucking about in kitchen, #3, sorting out family-related admin, #4 wasting time on FaceBook, Scramble with Friends, Words with Friends, #5 on the phone etc.


“Muum, but Dozy has got heat spots, you see? I need to put cream on him. And he’s sooo cute, I must cuddle him a little bit more.”


Megan: “GRRR!!” Stomps off to her schoolbag, “GRRR!!”

Half an hour later.


And so this plays out, mum descending into shrieking banshee mode, depending on the strength of the coffee she’s just consumed.  

Procrastination is evil incarnate. If not for the dreaded P-word, I’m sure Megan would be right on top of her work load, have gotten the requisite amount of exercise, and sufficient rest time daily.

And yes, of course this her well-meaning mummy speaking. I would have done much better in my studies back then too, if I was actually studying and not hanging out in the school canteen with my buddies. So I resolve to do better each day, with to-do lists and reminders on my i-phone. 

And then my good friend drops off a copy of Longbourn, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

Guess that to-do list is just going to have to wait.




Four things my furry kids teach me


People wonder why I have a zoo at my place. Two dogs, and when mum comes over, four. A cat, a tortoise and fish. For a while, Megan had a snake, but I gave up because its diet of baby lizards was just too hard to manage. I also had another tortoise but it had a wandering nature and I think it’s gone off on an adventure in our neighbourhood drain. Hasn’t returned yet.

So…here are my four reasons. I have many more but I’ll keep them for future posts:

1. Don’t be shy, just Ask 

Patches, Dozy and Le Cat are 100% food motivated. Which means that they will stalk you, sidle up to you, look at you with their googly eyes (see photo above for proof). They have learned the art of asking in the most heart-melting ways possible. Nine times out of ten, we throw the training and disciplining out of the window and they get what they want. Us humans are usually too proud or paiseh to ask, and then we wonder why we don’t get what we want. Wise pets say – Throw out the dignity and pride, and learn the arts of sweet persuasion. 

2. Patience Rules

Similar to #1, ze pets know that patience and fortitude will eventually result in something. They wait endless hours till mum and dad get home, they wait for their walkies, they wait at the table in the hope of a morsel or two. They can afford to teach my kids that instant gratification ain’t everything. They wait, and the joy on their faces when they get what they want – priceless.

3. Dogs show us what unconditional Love is

My dad had dogs all his life, and I asked him why many years ago. “Look at them. They don’t question, they don’t manipulate, you can be your true self and they will still love you.” How very true. I could look like and smell shite and they still love me. Dogs have amazing empathy and they always know when I’m miserable and feeling sorry for myself. They’ll come up to me without fail and sit at my feet. Even after a thrashing for eating kor kor’s brand new crocs, they come back, grinning and tongue lolling for more hugs. It’s true, given their amazing capacity for love, there is a reason why D-O-G is G-O-D in reverse.

4. Being proud of who you are

Anyone who’s had dogs and cats will know that they are supremely comfortable and confident in their skins. Just look at how they roll lazily onto their backs to let their junk hang out on hot days, in the open, for all the world to see. When visitors come by, that’s when my babes will hunker down in front of the guests to clean their bits most fastidiously. I’m not saying we should let our bits hang out too. But there’s a lot to be said for being self-confident and happy with what God has blessed us with.

My non-homo-sapien kids may leave the floors sandy and there’s fur flying everywhere, but the lessons they hold for me are bountiful. Be happy with yourself, learn love unconditionally, be patient and be brave.

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