Travel to bond

Travel to bond
PHOTO: Indonesia travel

These Singaporeans each wear the same blue T-shirt printed with a logo of Chinese characters and bond over tug-of-war and captain's ball at a hotel resort in Phuket.

Employees on a company team- building retreat? Try extended family members on holiday instead.

Recently, the Zhang (or Teo in dialect) family went on its third overseas trip together. The descendants of the late businessman Teo Eng Aun, who has nine children and 43 grandchildren, the extended Teo family has gone on two other similar bonding trips to holiday resorts in Johor Baru and Batam. Each adult paid between $380 and $600.

Mr Teow Boon Ling, 54, one of Mr Teo's grandsons, is the main man behind these Teo family retreats.

"With families growing smaller these days, it's important for people to know their extended families so that in times of need, they can get help," says Mr Teow, who has one child, a son.

Mr Teow, a CEO of an IT firm, himself experienced the benefits of growing up in an extended family where people helped one another. The eldest of four children, he spent his childhood in a bungalow at Trevose Crescent, where he lived with his family, his late grandmother and two uncles and their families.

After he married and moved out in 1989, Mr Teow - along with more than 100 family members - used to congregate at the Bukit Batok flat his grandmother and parents moved into, on special occasions such as her birthday and Chinese New Year. They also met at weddings and funerals.

But the interaction was "superficial and often did not go beyond pleasantries", says Mr Teow.

He got the idea for the big family trips from his best friend, aviation security officer Samad Ali.

Mr Samad, who used to work as an operations manager and hotel events organiser, says he has been organising family-bonding activities in Singapore and Malaysia for his parents, nine siblings, uncles, aunts and their families for more than 10 years.

The furthest they have gone is to Kelantan. More than 60 of them filled up two busloads for the five-day trip in 2004. Says Mr Samad, 54:

"Although it's not easy to get a large group of people to come together, once it's done, it helps bring the different generations closer together."

After hearing about family retreats from Mr Samad, Mr Teow sounded out a few of his cousins. They were supportive.

Getting the rest of his relatives to sign up was easy. Of the 40 or so family members that he and his two nieces rang up to invite on the first trip in 2013, almost all agreed to go.

The three-day, two-night trip to Tanjong Puteri in Johor Baru involved a two-hour coach ride. Mr Teow hired the coach to pick them up from Singapore and booked four bungalows.

Planning activities suitable for both young and old was more challenging. The youngest member of their entourage, Mr Teow's grandniece, was only three months old then, while the oldest, his mother, was 70.

Says Mr Teow: "The activities could not be too strenuous, so that people from different age groups could take part."

With help from Mr Samad, Mr Teow decided on games such as telematches and bowling.

Family members were more than eager to take part in these games. Mr Teow's cousin, Mrs Lim Peck Hoon, 51, who went there with her sisters, says: "It didn't matter what games we played, we managed to have fun."

Comparing it with corporate retreats, Mrs Lim, head of country finance in a bank, says it was "very different". "Our only KPI was to relax and have fun."

To ensure that there was enough interaction, the group was split into four teams, cutting across different age groups and families. During the day, the team hung out together, returning to their own family only at night.

Everyone had such a good time that, on the last night, they agreed spontaneously to make the retreat an annual event. A date was promptly fixed for the next trip.

For the second trip, which was held last year, the family ventured further to Nongsa resort in Batam, a 45-minute ferry ride away, for three days.

And three weeks ago, they flew Tigerair and spent four days, from May 30 to June 2, at the Village Coconut Island in Phuket. Airline bookings had to be confirmed four months in advance.

More than 40 relatives went along each time, including newer co-travellers such as Mr Teow's cousins from Australia and the United States. Their T-shirt logo depicts the Chinese character Zhang, surrounded by 12 other Chinese surnames related to the family. Mr Teow's surname, however, was the result of an English spelling error when his father's birth was registered.

Professor Tan Ern Ser, a council member at Families For Life, says such bonding activities can help enhance family ties. "Strong kinship generates social capital which family members can fall back on for support."

Indeed, the retreats have brought the extended family closer, says Mr Teow.

"We now know how we are related to one another. We even know what schools or jobs people are in and learn about one another's likes and dislikes," he says. One cousin, for instance, would not take his meals without hae bee hiam (spicy dried shrimp) and ikan bilis.

What Mrs Lim found most amazing was that there were no quarrels, not even minor ones, even though the family comprises people from different ages and backgrounds.

They include accountants, bankers, teachers, taxi drivers, social workers, businessmen and housewives; the Chinese- as well as English-educated. The clan converses in a mix of Hokkien, Mandarin and English.

Says Mrs Lim: "Maybe it is because the sense of family is so strong. We were always looking out for one another, ensuring that everyone woke up on time or got adequate care for minor cuts and injuries."

Since the retreats, the family has started to meet more often, for instance, during durian and dumpling seasons.

Mr Teow, who is in the midst of drawing up the family tree comprising more than 100 people, hopes to get all of the different branches for a gathering in Singapore. So far, he has already gotten the bulk of the family on board and he says convincing others to join "shouldn't be a problem".

He adds: "It is very likely to happen."

This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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