Rebels for love: Singapore's mixed-race couples

Rebels for love: Singapore's mixed-race couples
The Choos met in Sydney and have been married for 40 years.

Walk around the streets of Singapore today and no one will bat an eyelid at a mixed-race couple.

In fact, interracial marriages here accounted for one in four unions in 2013 - up from one in eight in 2001.

But backtrack 30 years and having a spouse of a different race was practically unheard of.

For those bold enough to wed outside their race, they could expect a serious dose of parental disapproval and judgmental side-eye from strangers.

Yet if the recent 11-minute viral video featuring the 46-year love story of 70-somethings, Mrs Raelene Tan and Mr Tan Soo Ren, is anything to go by, there are those who dared to be rebels for love.

Produced by the Singapore Memory Project, the video of the love story between the Australian native and her Singaporean-Chinese husband hit a chord with locals and was viewed more than 377,000 times on Facebook.

SundayLife! speaks to three other interracial couples who have celebrated more than 30 years of marriage to find out why love for them is truly more than skin deep.

 "Marrying an Asian man was unheard of then"

In March 1967, Australian nurse Penny Daley married Singaporean-Chinese Jerry Choo in Sydney. Ten days later, as Mrs Penny Choo, she moved to Singapore.

She recalls that the excitement of moving to a new country was overshadowed by her nerves, since she was meeting her husband's family for the first time.

"It didn't help that I got all his brothers and relatives mixed up at the airport," the 78-year-old says.

Their romance had started four years earlier, while the two were living in the same building in Sydney.

Mrs Choo, then 26, was working in a third-floor apartment as a live-in nurse for a family, while 23-year-old Mr Choo lived on the 26th floor with five other men, studying economics in Sydney University.

Mr Choo, now 75 and retired, spent his career working in the marketing industry for large multi-national corporations.

A chance encounter when Mr Choo and his flatmates visited Mrs Choo's apartment sparked a friendship between the pair.

They dated for four years before deciding to get married in a simple courthouse ceremony in Sydney, attended by Mrs Choo's family and some close friends. And though Mr Choo's liberal Englisheducated family was more than accepting of the union (despite having never met Mrs Choo), his wife admits her Caucasian parents were slightly worried.

"Getting married to an Asian man and moving to Singapore was quite unheard of at the time," she says. "But they eventually gave in when they realised I was old enough to make my own decisions."

Still, despite Mr Choo's very welcoming family, she quickly learnt that life and cultures were dramatically different across the oceans.

For starters, during the wedding dinner that Mr Choo's family threw for the newlyweds in the courtyard of their Bukit Timah home, the 40 guests who attended were quick to leave after finishing their meal.

Knowing nothing of the quintessentially Singaporean style of dining-and-dashing, she recalls standing at the top of the stairs asking exiting guests to return to the party.

"I was busy telling guests not to go - the dancing hadn't even started yet!" she says.

"They must have thought it so strange, this white woman asking them to dance after dinner."

And during their day-to-day life, the young couple also had to get used to the stares they got when they went out together, given how mixed-race couples were uncommon in 1970s Singapore.

Mr Choo recalls a man he met in the market clapping him on the back and congratulating him on having a white wife.

"He must have thought I was kept in luxury given that I was married to a Caucasian woman," he says with a grin.

In contrast, Mrs Choo once had a woman tell her to "go home" after calling her a "white-faced monkey" when Mrs Choo accidentally blocked the woman's car with her own.

"It shocked me, but I guess I was asking for it since I did block her car," she says.

Still, over the years, the couple did their best to adapt to life in Singapore and respect each other's cultures.

For Mrs Choo, it meant overcoming her fear of firecrackers exploding on the streets during Chinese New Year, getting used to the constant floods in Bukit Timah, where they lived, and regularly accompanying her mother-in-law to watch Chinese movies at the cinema.

"They didn't have subtitles back then, so I would just watch the screen and imagine what the movie was about," she says.

In turn, Mr Choo encouraged his wife to join the Cosmopolitan Women's Club, a social club favoured by expatriate families.

It was there that she made many friends - some of whom were foreign wives like herself - who helped her get used to life in Singapore.

A book club that she joined with friends from the now-deregistered club is still going strong today, more than 30 years later.

For Mrs Choo, Singapore finally started feeling like home after the couple adopted their first daughter, Samantha, four years after getting married. They adopted a second daughter, Stephanie, 61/2 years later.

Samantha, 44, who is married to a ChineseSingaporean, is a contract manager with facility services firm ISS and Stephanie, 38, who is single, runs deejay school E-TracX.

The couple also have three granddaughters and live in an HUDC apartment in Braddell.

Earlier this year on March 10, the Choos celebrated their 48th year of marriage.

And it takes only one glance around their beautifully decorated home to see that the journey has been a happy one.

Near the doorway, a large rosewood cabinet they bought in the 1960s using money from their wedding hongbao sits proudly - having survived the many floods that the couple had to battle.

The display cabinets showcase little souvenirs from their travels together. And in the dining room, the walls are decorated with brightly painted artworks - presents from their granddaughters.

When asked what has been their secret to a happy marriage, Mrs Choo says simply: "It didn't matter to us that I was Caucasian and Jerry was Chinese because we have mutual respect for each other. That's what makes a marriage tick - whatever the colour of your skin."

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