Abandoned kid crafts own success

Abandoned kid crafts own success

Calsia Lee has a gentle voice, lilting and well modulated, and a fluid command of the English language.

It is not a long stretch to assume that she was educated in a top-tier school.

But that, she will have you know, could not be further from the truth.

She was a foul-mouthed, trouble-making teenage delinquent, and barely scraped through her O levels in a neighbourhood school.

Her vocabulary of Hokkien vulgarities, she assures you, is truly impressive.

"Just get me mad on a worksite," says the founder and managing director of Mudian, a company which specialises in custom-made kitchens and wardrobes.

The polished diction is the result of two years spent in a girls' home run by Catholic nuns during her teens, and a two-year relationship with an older Englishman when she was barely 20.

Articulate and self-deprecating, Ms Lee, 44, has the calm and expansive personality often possessed by individuals who have gone through turbulence, tamed their wild side and found their bearings.

And hers has been a colourful life: she was an abandoned baby who grew into a rebellious teen and later a gutsy entrepreneur in the male-dominated industry of furniture manufacturing. Besides Mudian which has an annual turnover of $4 million, she is also a partner in several other businesses, from interior design to outdoor furniture and renovations.

She was born out of wedlock and her mother entrusted her to the care of a babysitter.

"After a month, money for milk powder ran out so my babysitter took me to see my mother, who said: 'I don't want the child. Why don't you go and look for her father?'"

And so the babysitter did. But the infant's father - who already had a family - did not want her either.

The babysitter decided to adopt the baby herself. A hawker, she was a single parent with a son who was then 10 years old.

"She got my father to sign a transfer paper. I still have it, it says, 'Transfer of child from this person to this other person.' It's rather sad."

She grew up in a kampung in the East Coast with her adoptive mother, brother, grandmother, uncle and aunt.

She attended the former Bedok Primary School and was a happy but unruly kid who forged her mother's signature on report cards which had more red marks than blue.

"I was a handful. I wouldn't go home because I was busy catching spiders, playing marbles and beating up boys," she says.

She was a savvy little money maker as well, often peddling kueh her mother could not sell at her Siglap stall.

"When opera troupes performed at the kampung during the Hungry Ghost month, I'd ask my grandmother for a couple of dollars to buy a few tins of canned pineapples. I'd add water, sugar and ice to make drinks, and could earn about $20."

Then there were the tikam scams she ran. Popular in the 1960s and 1970s, tikam was a game where children bought slips of numbered paper hoping to win prizes, ranging from sweets to toys.

"I charged five cents a ticket. There were no prizes, but nobody knew," she says with a grin.

That she was adopted was no secret. She had to drop in regularly at a social service centre in Pearl's Centre.

"The social workers would ask me the same thing over and over again. Basically it was to ensure that I was not being tortured by the family although in my case, it was probably the other way around," she says, breaking into a guffaw.

Her adoptive mother would also threaten to send her back to her natural parents whenever she became too much to handle.

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