Everyone's favourite love story

Everyone's favourite love story

After 46 years of marriage, the last thing 70-somethings Raelene Tan and Tan Soo Ren expected was to become an instant celebrity couple.

Friends have called and sent e-mails. When Mrs Tan went to Huber's Butchery in Dempsey Road, the cashier hugged her.

And when the couple went to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital for Mr Tan's therapy, strangers in the lift greeted them and one squealed: "It's so romantic!"

Everyone has been reacting to a video on how the couple, from different backgrounds, fell in love and married in London, then moved to Australia - and now their story plays out each day in an executive flat in Jurong West.

The video, shared by the Singapore Memory Project's Facebook community irememberSG last Monday, has been seen over 320,000 times.

"It's amazing. I can't believe that many people have looked at that video," Mrs Tan told The Sunday Times.

The 11-minute clip, part of a series on Singapore's pioneers, describes how they met and kept up a cross-cultural union in the face of prejudice, and grew old together.

They met in 1965 when they lived in the same boarding house in London. He was a Singaporean architecture student and she was an Australian working at her country's high commission.

They became "boyfriend and girlfriend" after 18 months of friendship, got engaged in 1967, and married a year later.

They experienced racism while strolling down Bond Street holding hands one December evening in 1967.

Mrs Tan, an Australian, was spat at and called a prostitute.

They were so shocked, they stopped getting too close to each other in public. They kept a slight distance even during the interview.

A few months after that incident in 1967, a woman came up to Mrs Tan and whispered: "Dear, don't get too close, he's Chinese."

"This was in the 1960s when you would never love someone of a different culture," said Mrs Tan.

The couple moved to Australia and were living in Sydney when, in 1970, his parents asked them to visit Singapore.

They arrived by ship, and never left. There were cultural challenges not least because the couple moved in with his extended family of over 30 people in Cuscaden Road.

Mr Tan had nine brothers and two sisters, and all lived together with their spouses and children. Mrs Tan also had to get used to eating rice.

"They had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she quipped. She could not speak Mandarin and her parents-in-law did not know English.

But miming proved enough to build a close relationship. Mr Tan worked as an architect and went on to start his own practice.

Mrs Tan became an etiquette guru, writing books on how to behave at Indian, Malay and Chinese functions. She started a club to help foreign wives of Singapore men adapt to the culture here.

They raised two children. Lauren is a pre-school teacher who is married with three children, while Darren, a polytechnic lecturer, and his wife have one child.

Mr and Mrs Tan bought their Jurong West flat in 1999. Their kids moved out after marrying.

Mr Tan turned 77 a week ago and his wife is two years younger. Their toughest times came a decade ago when Mr Tan suffered a stroke.

It impaired his hearing, took away his language skills and even altered his personality, from lively and friendly to more withdrawn.

"It was very overwhelming," recalled Mrs Tan. "And because Soo Ren couldn't speak or read or write or hear, it was a bit of a nightmare."

She worried about losing not just her husband but also her best friend. Mr Tan recovered his linguistic skills, but is less talkative and jovial after his stroke.

"He used to have a wonderful sense of humour," Mrs Tan said, turning to her husband and telling him "you're just a grumpy old man now".

Mr Tan let out a laugh. She herself underwent radiotherapy for skin cancer recently, which made her left eye watery.

Now they make up for each other's shortcomings. Mr Tan points out to her where she should step, while she draws closer to him and speaks into his ear so he can hear better, as she does through the interview.

"Compromise is the main thing," said Mr Tan. He may have been raised a Buddhist for instance, but he accompanies his wife to church on special occasions such as Christmas.

Mrs Tan added: "We never argue, we just disagree. If you love and respect someone and that person is your friend, how can the relationship deteriorate? But maybe we're both lucky, our parents were both loving couples so maybe we just learnt it from them."

amirh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 19, 2015.
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