Tag Archive | Escape from Paradise

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.

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Car ride down memory lane

Last Sunday afternoon, I took my mother for a car-ride around our neighbourhood. It had started with me wanting to show her how my aunt from China who was staying with us last month had led me on a wild goose chase while looking for her (my aunt’s) old class mate from pre-war days.

The old class mate’s home, my aunt said, is next to Anglo-Chinese School. But there are many sides to the school, I cautioned, so I must have a house number and road name.

As I live across two roads from that school, I had volunteered to drive my aunt there, instead of allowing the octogenarian cross the overhead bridge outside my home to try to get to her destination.

With house number and road name in hand, we started off. But it wasn’t house No14 Barker Road (there was a number 14 but that property has since been redeveloped and sub-divided into a row of terrace houses, all No 14 but followed with an A, B, C, D, E etc suffix).

My aunt called her friend on my mobile and found that it was house no 40, not 14! When we arrived, we found it was indeed nestled into the side of ACS. But what was so startling about that house was that time had stood still for it, even as change, demolition and rebuilding had taken place all around it.

So last Sunday, I retraced the route I took with my aunt to show Mum where we’d been. After we meandered through Barker Road and then back to Dunearn Road, I took a left into Chancery Lane and then looped into Mt Rosie Road through which we drove leisurely.

Then we were back again in Dunearn and Chancery and looped right into Jalan Pasiran followed by Gentle Road heading towards NewtonRoad. We turned back into Buckley Road which led us to Gilstead and Evelyn Roads. I drove up and down them a couple of times before I finally hit Newton Road in the direction of Novena.

At the traffic lights, just where IRAS House stands, we turned left into Thomson Road and a few hundred metres, after passing the famous chicken rice stall and the 7th Day Adventist Church, we turned left again into Chancery Lane, heading for Dunearn and Bukit Timah Roads and home. Along the way we passed Bukit Tunggal Road.

Wherever we were on those many roads, new developments have mostly replaced where grand old houses once stood. Some were low rise, some high rise, some mini developments, and some, while not exactly mega projects, could pack in dozens of families where one extended family once lived.

The only buildings left untouched by time (like the home of my aunt’s friend) were churches, some great mansions turned into alternative use like kindergartens and one block of 3-storey non-descript flats on Gilstead Road, next to the present Gracefields Kindergarten.

I remember those flats well. My charming French teacher from Alliance Francais, married to a Japanese wife, used to live there, so many, many years ago.

I wonder how those flats managed to escape the wrecker’s ball… I wonder also what happened to Philippe.

However, I need not wonder about two occupants of grand houses along Mt Rosie Road. One I know only by name, Mrs Alice Lee, widow of Lee Kong Chian. The other is Mr Peter Yap, son of Yap Twee (one time OCBC vice-chairman) — whom I knew as the brother of my school teacher and a director of OCBC. Though much younger than Mrs Lee, Mr Yap, like her, is no more.

Further up Mt Rosie was where the apartment block much referred to in the book, Escape from Paradise — a diatribe about her life and Singapore by the grand-daughter of Lee Chee San, who married Aw Boon Par’s daughter. Lee was also founder of Chung Khiaw Bank, now a subsidiary of UOB.

That “infamous” apartment block has since that book’s publication been replaced by a posher condominium.

Back down in Chancery Lane, the side lane branching off is called Bukit Tunggal Road. No 14 there was where Teh Cheang Wan, disgraced PAP politician, breathed his last while under police investigation for corruption.

Close by on Chancery Lane was where S Rajaratnam had his home. Raja, by contrast, was a megastar in the PAP pantheon. However, like Mr Teh, he too has passed into history.

Such a drive is both exhilirating and depressing. The old order yieldeth giving place to new. Exhilirating if you are the new. Depressing if you belong to the group who may have left their best years behind!