It was the littlest of obituaries. A single column, about 5 cm long, and tucked into an obscure corner almost at the bottom of the Straits Times obituary page.
It appeared in an old copy of the newspaper, perhaps sometime last month or this month. In any case, that paper was among a pile that my nephew dropped for me to scan through be4 discarding, since I no longer subscribe to the ST.
Her name caught my eye. As did that tiny, tiny photograph. Perhaps her age too. In the 90s. Then I remembered who she was.
She was the woman whom a Western journalist — making it big in Singapore in days when they came here in droves to make the fortune they couldn’t at home (some things never change, hur hur!) — drew my attention to years ago.
She asked why this woman with her millions bothered to head fund raising drives. Why couldn’t she just open her cheque book? I didn’t know enough back then to retort that many hands made light work and it wasn’t just about writing a cheque but about raising awareness on the plight of the poor.
The woman who died almost in obscurity was none other the widow of the founder of Chung Khiaw Bank, now part of United Overseas Bank.
Here is what was written about her by her grand-daughter in the grand-daughter’s infamous biography called Escape from Paradise, a long slanderous slam against Singapore and some members of her family but not her grandmother!
Aw Cheng Hu, known as “Emma,” was born in Rangoon, and brought to Singapore by her father, Aw Boon Par, who formed one half of the famous Haw Par brothers. Emma is May Chu’s grandmother.
From the book:
“My grandfather’s name was Lee Chee Shan, but I called him “Kong Kong,” Cantonese for grandfather. My grandmother, Emma, was “Mamak,” literally, “great mother.” Formally, my grandfather was known as Dato Lee Chee Shan, and my grandmother, Datin. Dato and Datin are Malaysian titles originally bestowed on tribal chiefs and their wives, but now reserved for the rich—especially the Chinese rich. Of course, at the time, I knew nothing of such things.
So much deference was shown to Kong Kong by Mamak, that you would never guess that she was the one with all the money. This did not mean that Mamak was subdued, or mousy. Not at all. While Kong Kong usually ate in silence, Mamak did all the talking. She was very animated, gesturing as she talked.
She enjoyed herself and laughed easily. She was truly Boon Par’s daughter. Still, out of respect for her husband, Mamak always dressed as he wished—colorfully, in traditional Chinese cheongsams, always with matching red lipstick and nail polish. Each cheongsam had its own matching set of jewelry—nothing subdued ever, not even during the day. Mamak made Kong Kong very happy. Everybody made Kong Kong very happy, and even at the bank, all the ladies wore cheongsams—they had to.”
Contrast this to the last known report about “Emma” in the TODAY free sheet from which I’ve extracted this telling paragraph:
“ Today, the matriarch of the clan, Datin Aw Cheng Hu, 88, the daughter of Mr Aw Boon Par, lives in a spartanly-furnished rented HDB flat. When Today traced her to her humble dwelling last week, Datin Aw was lying in bed, about to start on her evening meal – a bowl of porridge.”
Those circumstances explain why her passing has attracted no fanfare.