Once famous heiress dies in obscurity

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.

25 thoughts on “Once famous heiress dies in obscurity

  1. Yes, Escape from Paradise was a long book, but certainly not slanderous. It told the truth, all based on volumes of evidence, and a timeline of over 1,300 items.

    This is the case with the entire book which has several filing cabinets of documents to back it up, and which was checked by lawyers prior to publication.

    Yes, Mamak has passed on. It is such a sad story – a story of generosity – some of it misplaced.. She was very kind, and gave all to her children and others who were in need.


  2. Thank you for dropping by JH. Afraid got to edit out some of your remarks as I don’t wish to take sides. You’ve had your say as to the veracity of your book’s contents. That should suffice! 😀

  3. My sons, Marc and Warren Chung, and I were very sad to hear about my grandmother’s n their ‘machor’s passing this Sept of 2010.
    My grandmother was a very generous person,… and people took full advantage of her wealth.- ‘rape and pillaged’ her, removing all visible assets and money from her bank accounts.
    I could see it so clearly and often wondered why she didn’t?
    It’s really sad. You know, like watching a train coming, and the person is tied to the racks, and I could nothing at all, to enlighten her….Not that she would listen to me.
    May Chu

  4. Hi May Chu: Thanks for dropping by. I had to edit yr reply slightly because like I said to TH, I don’t want this blog to get involved in the “quarrels”.

    As fr yr grandmother: guess it was her money and she chose to do with it in the way she wanted, even if bystanders might think it unwise. That’s life!

  5. Hi Pet: Think it’s available on Amazon or from the other respondents to this post. Sure it’s available across the Causeway too! :p

  6. I just received an email from my Spore friend on Yeo Cheow Tong and I have spent the whole going through the contents. I have also ordered a copy of Escape from Paradise. I was a friend of Jackie and was very sad to read all that had happened. I have noted Mabel’s address and will visit her when I next visit Spore. I hope to get Jackie’s contact then.
    Not quitter but disident of Singapore

  7. ps Not only was Jackie my banker (a very practical one), but I have worked with Datin on charity projects through the Lions Club.

  8. Auntie Lucia, Would you have Jackie’s Spore contact number? I am going to Spore from 14th Nov to 31st Dec. I am now living in Melbourne Australia

  9. Just want to know where Chu Chu is.
    Still in Arizona?
    Please forward her my E mail address.
    I am Aw Cheng Sin’s daughter. Cheng Hu’s niece.
    My aunt was 94 years old when she passed.
    Just clarifying.

  10. Update. Just back from Spore after 7 weeks there. Met up with Jackie and Maybel.They look very well. Got May Chu’s book(ordered from Amazon) when I arrived back in Melbourne and finished in 2 sittings. I have great respect for May after what she went through and for John for being there for her. Good on you John. Hope to make it to Arizona one day to shake both of your hands. You are most welcome to visit Melbourne and – maybe Geelong?

  11. Mr Lim, I will allow this comment this once. In future, will you and all the friends and family of May Chu pse contact her directly. TQ!

  12. Sorry. I do not have any contact email address, even yours as I enjoyed reading your blog and I have the same interest as you – friends, food and Marina Bay Sands. Thanks anyway. BTW my computer knowledge is very very limited

  13. We appreciate the fact that we have gotten in touch with both Lim Eng Seong, and Lily Khoonleng Lee thanks to your blog.
    I would like to add that we recently received an email from MDA telling us that Escape from Paradise was NEVER banned in Singapore.

  14. Auntie Lucia writes: Linda Lim (if that’s really your name?) I will not have you posting possibly defamatory comments against people in my blog. I’ve removed it. Please don’t come back! 😛

  15. Just wanted people to know that I am reading a pdf of the book on the iPad as we speak. I went to school with some of the Aws and will try to find out what became of them. Maybe I’ll write to May Chu herself, if I may.

  16. i got to know about the book after researching on Haw Par brothers. I was intrigued how Haw Par International is owned be Wee Cho Yaw…. etc.

    The book is indeed an insight to a very very wealthy family, that probably did all the wrong things to land themselves in where they are today (losing their wealth within 2 generations). Very sad.

    I sort of understand why certain family wealth continues (like Jardines)…having met them personally. Very wealthy, and yet well mannered, well brought up, humble and down to earth…. and very shrewd.

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