McRefugee: 'Despite all this, he's still standing by my side'

McRefugee: 'Despite all this, he's still standing by my side'
Singaporean McRefugee Mary Seow video calling her son, Mr Edward Goh, from Hong Kong on November 18, 2015 -- the first time she has spoken to him face to face in more than four years after disappearing in China.
PHOTO: The New Paper

Her hair was a wild mess of unfamiliar curls, her face lined and drawn with age.

But she was without a doubt his mother, whom he had last seen more than four years ago.

Mr Edward Goh, 28, could not stop crying as he took in the sight of his mother's wrinkly, smiling face, which was beamed to Singapore from Hong Kong in a video call yesterday.

It was their first face-to-face conversation since his mother, Ms Mary Seow, became uncontactable after abruptly selling their Singapore flat and going on business trips to China in 2011, apparently at the persuasion of her church friend, a Chinese national she met in 2005. After her Chinese investments fell through, Ms Seow, a single parent now aged 60, was found living as a "McRefugee" in Hong Kong last week. But it was welcome news to her son, who had feared her kidnapped or dead.

A McRefugee in Hong Kong is typically a homeless individual who seeks overnight shelter in a 24-hour McDonald's outlet.

Ms Seow was mentioned in an online Associated Press feature on McRefugees last Thursday.

The New Paper followed up with a report on Monday, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirming that Ms Seow had been located. That night, her uncle Roland Seow, 59, contacted TNP to help the family get in touch with her.

After years apart, mother and son were emotional during their call and the conversation often lapsed into silence as Mr Goh tried to dry his eyes while his mother admired how he had matured since she last saw him.

Seeing her son's face on the phone, her first words were: "You look fatter."

She added immediately: "But more handsome. Do you have a girlfriend?"

Her words were greeted with more tears from Mr Goh, who had spent the last few years living alone in a rented room after his maternal grandparents passed on.

During the call, mother and son promised each other they would be well and would try to put the past behind them to start afresh.

GUILT-RIDDEN

Ms Seow later told TNP that she had kept herself from contacting her son all these years because she was guilt-ridden from having wrongly sold the flat that should have been his home and for losing a large chunk of her money in China.

"But after everything, he is still standing on my side," she said.

"Other children might have scolded their parents and blamed them, but he said to me over the phone, 'Mummy, as long as you find happiness, it's okay to me'.

"He said: 'What has happened, don't think about it. We start anew'."

Mr Goh, meanwhile, is busy preparing to travel to Hong Kong. He hopes to convince his mother to return to Singapore with him.

He had planned to save up enough money from his $2,000-a-month invoice processing job to make the trip, but after TNP's report yesterday on his family's plight, several readers have offered to help pay for his trip.

The Singapore Association Hong Kong is also looking into how it can help fund Ms Seow's flight back to Singapore, said its chairman, Mr Stanley Tee.

Mr Goh told TNP over the phone yesterday evening: "I'm very grateful, words can't describe my gratitude.

"I was delighted to see her for the first time in so long and also relieved that she's ready to face me.

"I had expected more rejection because she's quite stubborn and I was afraid she would decide to stay away.

"I can't wait to go over and bring her back home."

She worked as sweeper, illegal 'parallel trader'

It sounded like a great money-making venture: Invest in a friend's transportation company to earn $3,000 a month - far more than the $700 she was making as a part-time clerk in Singapore.

So Ms Mary Seow jumped at the offer from the friend, a Chinese national she had befriended in church. Under her persuasion, Ms Seow married her uncle in what ended up being a scam to pressure her into selling the four-room family flat she shared with her only child, Mr Edward Goh.

Ms Seow was persuaded to invest the flat's sales proceeds, plus about $20,000 of her savings, into the woman's brother's company in China.

After all, Ms Seow counted her as a good friend, someone who called her "sister", and whose child was Ms Seow's "god-daughter".

But after Ms Seow started going to China in 2010 to help out with the business, she realised things were not quite what she had been promised.

"I was too naive," she told The New Paper yesterday.

"The business was not doing well and I asked them to sell the vehicles to recover whatever money they could, but they refused.

"They couldn't care less because it was not their money."

Ms Seow did not think she had any legal recourse as she no longer had the receipts of all the transactions involving her money or any written agreements with the woman.

"I was ashamed of myself, I had all this guilt," said Ms Seow of her failure to realise that she had walked into a trap.

In 2011, she felt she could not face her family back in Singapore and sought a means to remain in China by trying to earn the money back through other jobs. That year marked the last time her son would see her.

With no work visa, Ms Seow married the woman's cousin to obtain a renewable spousal permit that would allow her to stay in China for a year at a time.

She found a job as a street sweeper in Shenyang, earning 800 yuan (S$180) a month. When her spousal permit was up, she would travel to Macau and renew it upon re-entering the mainland.

This went on till around August this year when Ms Seow travelled to Hong Kong to renew her permit as she had not been there in more than 10 years.

With just 800 yuan left on her, she took a train to Shenzhen and then a coach to Kowloon in Hong Kong.

Wandering around, she found respite in a fenced-up recreation area near Temple Street, which was conveniently located near two public toilets and a public library that offered air-conditioned shelter and free Wi-Fi.

ILLEGAL

After several nights on a bench there, a stranger offered her a job as an illegal "parallel trader" carrying goods such as diapers, milk powder and other branded items across the border to the mainland for 200 yuan a trip.

By then, Ms Seow had taken a liking to Hong Kong, where she found the people to be more honest and less judgmental than in the mainland.

So she took up the job, making up to two trips a day, and moved from the recreation area to sleeping in a McDonald's at the recommendation of other homeless people she had met.

She lasted a month in her new job before getting caught at the border by a Hong Kong customs officer.

"He told me he could send me to the police but he would let me go this time. He said he did not want to catch me doing this again, so I stopped," said Ms Seow.

She tried looking for other jobs but said no one would hire her at her age.

Since then, she has been wandering aimlessly around Hong Kong trying to devise a way to get back her money and some property of hers that the woman had taken, she said.

When TNP first saw Ms Seow last Friday, she was huddled in the corner of a 24-hour McDonald's among other McRefugees.

Yesterday, Ms Seow told TNP: "I'm escaping reality. I know my son says he's not ashamed of me, but I am ashamed of myself." - Hoe Pei shan

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Singapore Consulate-General in Hong Kong will continue to offer consular assistance to Ms Mary Seow and her family and facilitate her return to Singapore.

In a statement last night, the MFA said the consulate located Ms Seow at a 24-hour McDonald's in the Jordan district in Hong Kong after searching several McDonald's outlets.

They are also in touch with her son, Mr Edward Goh, to keep him informed of developments.

hpeishan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on November 19, 2015.
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