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.”

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.

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.

Easter Blessings

It’s Easter weekend and there’s much to be grateful for.

Once again, the pink Amaryllis lilies have bloomed in my neighbourhood. Like clockwork, they never fail to share their beauty once a year during Lent, right through to Easter.

Easter lilies

My red Amaryllis also decided to favour us with her brilliance on Good Friday. This is a special flower for the family as I brought the bulbs over from dad’s place when I moved to my new home years ago. When it blooms, I think of dad and I believe that he is not far from me.

It’s also time for Hot Cross Buns, a favourite of mine since my school days in Oz-land. The kids enjoy them too, so while Good Friday is for fasting, abstinence and long church services, Holy Saturday is for baking.

I am no Delia Smith or Martha Stewart and my creations don’t make a pretty picture, but I’m grateful that they’re good enough for thefamily.

Easter is a celebration of light, love, joy, renewal and hope. Here’s wishing everybody light, love, joy and blessings this holy season.

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Lemon cupcakes and very amateur hot cross buns

 

Of Qing Ming and Aeroplanes

I don’t observe Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day but a coffee chat with one of my oldest friends, V, reminded me of the quirkiness of this Chinese festival that recently took place in early April.

Qing Ming falls on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox. On that day,  many Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects and also to give the graves a good cleaning.  When I was young, dad used to drive the family, complete with pails, brooms, brushes, detergent and gardening tools to remove stubborn weeds and wash a year’s worth of grime from Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves at the Bidadari cemetery.   These visits became less and less frequent with dad’s advancing age. Eventually, they petered out altogether when the cemetery land was reclaimed by the government and the graves all exhumed.

Now most Chinese pay their respects by visiting the niches in the neatly laid out blocks of the various columbariums throughout Singapore. Yes, these are the perils of living in a land-scarce country. Even the dead are relocated to HDB block-equivalents!

V paid her respects during Qing Ming by visiting her late grandparents’ niches. Being the caring eldest grandchild that she was, she went one further. Her grandpa never got to travel in an airplane in his lifetime, so she thought that a little springtime jaunt would be a nice gift to him.

An Airbus 380, no less, for V's Grandpa

An Airbus 380, no less, for V’s Grandpa

V bought an airplane, complete with air tickets and itinerary, as well as a passport.

Air Tickets & itinerary for the afterworld

Air Tickets & itinerary for the afterworld

Passport for the dead, very authentic except for the typo!

Passport for the dead, very authentic except for the typo!

 All these were purchased at a very reasonable $20. The next step was to make sure he got his gifts. These were offered before his niche before burning.

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When V told me what she did during Qing Ming, I just knew I had to share this. It was bizarre, funny but also very, very sweet. Love shows itself in various forms, and I’m sure V’s grandpa would have been very touched by his grand daughter’s loving,  filial actions.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Four things my furry kids teach me

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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.

Chinese New Year 2014

The Tseng Family. Standling (left to right):  Rosy, William, Nancy, George, Dorothy, Seated: Nelly, Grandma Lau Hing Yee, Alice and Godfrey is seated on lap

The Tseng Family. Standling left to right: Rosy, William, Nancy, George, Dorothy, Seated: Nelly, Grandma Lau Hing Yee, Alice and Godfrey is seated on lap

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Chinese New Year 2014: (left to right) Sarah Yap, Grand Aunty Nancy, Joseph Wong and Yours truly

Festive season. The end of year and the beginning of another is a special time for me. Christmas continues to be my favourite holiday, but Chinese New Year is a close second. Family and friends who are not in Singapore often fly back at this time of year, so the months of December and January involve a whole lot of reunions and feasting. During this period, happy memories of past celebrations and present get-togethers collide in a happy, sweet mix.

This year is especially poignant because it’s the first proper CNY without dad presiding. He’s the central figure, the family stalwart, and relatives would come by to visit us because of him.  This time, mum takes centrestage and it’s heartwarming to see dad’s relatives come to see her.

Yesterday, we visited Aunty Nancy who turns 90 this year. She is the only aunt left alive on my dad’s side that I am close to, and she’s also my Godma. Aunty Nancy is now wheelchair ridden and so frail, but she still is chatty and alert. Looking at her, I see living proof that beauty in a good woman does withstand the ravages of time.

I also found a gem on her wall, a family portrait of the Tsengs that is at least 65 years old. In black and white, the sharp, almost Eurasian features of my family stare back at me. Aunts and uncle, still young and fresh, their lives stretched before them in the hope of a new life after the horror of the Second World war.  Their lives were hard. A philandering father and the war meant that they were always struggling to make ends meet, but as a family they were very close.

This closeness is their greatest legacy. Two generations on, we still meet. Everyone is busy, but the Chinese got it right in defining one day when family should get together to celebrate new beginnings.

Happy Chinese New Year!