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Close Up Ladies And Their Legacies

Ladies And Their Legacies

Ladies And Their Legacies
By Natalie Lee
May 04, 2015

As Singapore celebrates its jubilee year, Mrs Betty Chen, president of the Chinese Women's Association waxes lyrical about the nation’s first female doctor, the first Chinese girl to drive a car in America, and more legacies of the association’s illustrious women over 100 years.

Your mother May Wong left an incredible legacy, one which you decided to bravely uphold. Now that CWA has reached a milestone centennial year, what words would you love for her to hear, as a daughter, and as president?

It’s been in my life but I never intended to take over because it was huge. She never asked me to, but always hoped I would join...you know when you are young you just don't like to be told what you should do?

When my mother passed away I had to think about it, because she spent so many years doing so many things, raising money for charity, and then she started the Henderson Senior Citizens' Home. I thought it was such a pity to leave the people in the lurch all of a sudden. So I became president when my mother passed at 90 years of age in 1989…and yes my mum was right to join the CWA. I did not appreciate when I was younger, but I've since made lots of friends & gained a lot in my life here. It's not a job, it's for our enjoyment. I really, inherited this job…and that’s a fortunate thing.

The CWA has got a new book in the works. Tell us more.

100 years – it’s time somebody wrote something. And since I’m the only active member now that links the past and the present, it was up to me to do it, and luckily I have good memory.

Actually, when we were about 78 years old, we already thought about having a book. Being 100 years old put an impetus to it, especially when EDM Books offered to publish us. I don’t think they ever expected such a big book; it’s going to be 300 pages. Well how could you pack 100 years into a small little book?

It talks about all the founding members, past presidents, works and programmes we’ve been doing, what life was like 100 years ago…I think a lot of young people would never know what that’s like. A lot of pictures are from our own members, many are black and white images.

In this 100-year journey, who were the most unlikely candidates but are now the best allies with CWA?

People come and they are hesitant to join because they don’t know who they’ll meet. But the one I can say that’s turned out to be the most energetic of all our new members, is an English girl who married a Chinese gentleman here. When her best friend left Singapore, I suggested she joined our committee but she wasn’t sure – and I went, “why not, you are married to a Chinese you might as well get to know the Chinese ladies”! And she’s been on the committee ever since – for 20 years.

There is a very real issue of an aging population in Singapore, a gauge of 900,000 seniors over 65 years by 2030. Does the CWA have any upcoming fundraising plans?

This year we will be donating money to the St. Andrew's Mission Hospital. This was the first community hospital in 1913, started from the $30,000 donation of our founding President Mrs Lee Choon Guan. We have been supporting them for 100 years, so we decided to go full circle, it's a connection. They’ve also just built a beautiful new community hospital, doing things for autistic people, psychiatric patients, and that's besides women and children, whom they've always been supporting. They are doing some very good work so we decided to have a centenary dinner and give the proceeds to them. 

Compared to Singapore 30 years ago, what has been the greatest improvement(s) for the elderly, and the least improved?

Everybody is taking more notice of the elderly, and there are homes now for them. I remember when they first started the Henderson Senior Citizens' Home, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) used to have vans scouring the streets, looking for people sleeping on the pavements and counters where they worked in the day. Now it's changed - everybody has a home. The government has also expanded their social welfare services measures, more money to look after the elderly, and getting more innovative ways of keeping the people occupied, so they don't get dementia so much - that's a big problem.

Anybody can bring their elderly to a social centre and join programmes, and even have their meals there. In the Henderson Senior Citizens' Home - depending on how far one stays - we fetch them and send them home too. Find out from NCSS, they'll suggest homes to your nearest address. When there's no stimulation and nobody home, elderly get dementia. 

My advice is to first go to the different social homes to check them out - and then arrange for your elderly to join the one you think fits best. Accompany your elderly parent for a few times till he feels a bit more settled, made some friends, and he can relax. A lot of people don't know Singapore has such facilities - this is the least improved area. People should be informed, and understand why they should take their parents out, to understand what gives them dementia and try to stop before it happens.

When it comes to Singapore’s socio-economic and political roles for women, what life lessons do you always share with the younger generations?

Take for instance Singapore's history; it is only this year that a lot has come to the forefront. Young people take their country for granted; that it has always been this lovely and comfortable. They don't have enough respect for their seniors to know that we've done a lot so their lives are so comfortable. Parents are so affluent now that they don't think about teaching their children values of life. Everybody's had it so good that they expect it. But life is not always going to be that way. They should be prepared, and learn to respect the wisdom of their elders.

My mother has always taught that we should count our blessings. I was brought up during the war; we all had to find jobs, become independent. I worked my way through university; my first job was as a salesgirl in a shop for Christmas. It was dreadful because I couldn't stand for so long! I would sit down behind the counter and the manager would go, 'Miss Wong".  

We were very fortunate we were able to study, girls in my time already started going to school, unlike in the 1910s. But in 1915, Doctor Lee Choo Neo, who was one of our founding members and the great aunt of our Prime Minister, she was sent to university and that was a great thing - she became Singapore's first woman doctor because of her father's far sightedness! 

What are the things that are closest to your heart, which the public rarely gets a glimpse of?

I think my goal in life is to have my family members bonded. I've seen too many families split because they are not communicating. It's a very sad thing. So I’ve really concentrated on family bonding, we get together at least once a year. It's important they stay connected - because in the end, it's only your family members who care. Right?

When they were young I would take my family out of Singapore for vacations, because if not here they are all with their friends. Now they are all grown, I still take all three generations out! I'm blessed that they also want to come home.

My mother liked to travel too; she was the first Chinese girl to drive a car in America, when she was 14! When China first opened up in 1980, a group of ladies from CWA went, though there was a limit to where we could go because in the second year back I could not go visit the place I was born. Singapore remains my favourite home, that's why I'm still living here.

What would you hope people to remember when they mention Betty Chen’s legacy?

That mine is a life lived, and I'd advise everybody to do the same, live every moment. If they feel inspired that I still live a very active life at my age, then go for it - it is all possible. My friends say they can't be bothered to go out and I go, "what are you waiting for?" One should live one's life to the fullest, because it is a gift. 

"Chinese Women's Association - 100 Fabulous Years" is now available at the National Museum of Singapore.

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