Former Singaporean Olympian still going strong at 90

SINGAPORE - Mr Chen Sho Fa represented Singapore in basketball at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Now aged 90, he's still going strong.

When The Straits Times visited him at the St John's Home for Elderly Persons, where he has been since 2011, he was moving about without any walking aid and shared his life story with great clarity of mind.

The former Chinese national's talent was spotted in Shanghai by local scouts in the late 1940s, when he was vice-captain of a local team.

The 1.8m-tall aspiring lawyer quit his studies at 25 to join the national team here, making the Olympic side and playing the sport until he was 35. In 1963, after a year spent studying engineering, he set up the Oriental Structural Company Civil Engineers & Contractors.

Its most prominent project was the now-defunct National Theatre and the firm also built a science wing at what was formerly the University of Singapore.

He ran a canned food business, selling mushrooms he grew on Pulau Tekong and even dabbled in selling hair care products.

Mr Chen married the eldest daughter of a construction company boss and they have four children - three sons and a daughter.

Life was good, but he was worried about his ageing parents in China. In 1978, Mr Chen went back alone to care for them, returning here only in 2011. "I went to China with a lot of money and used it to help family members there. Now, I've no money left," he said.

Before coming back, he sold his property in China to pay for his ailing wife's medical bills. Due to the years apart, the couple had become estranged. His children, too, were unable to care for him.

Asked if he regretted not being around for his family here, he said: "I tried my best for my parents. I had to be a filial son."

He was given a place in the St John's Home and is happy there. His children and grandchildren visit twice a year and the Singapore Basketball Association invites him to gatherings and matches.

"I lead a quiet, stable life now. My life has been filled with flavour and I must live happily for the rest of it," he said.

Active seniors all - at this home

Active seniors all - at this home

A former Olympian, a jazz guitarist who has toured the world, and a centenarian who still likes to exercise regularly.

They are all residents of St John's Home for Elderly Persons - a place not quite like your typical, sleepy old folks' home.

All of its 96 residents, half of whom are between 80 and 100 years old, are ambulant, and are able to feed and bathe themselves.

Because of their independence, the home allows them to go out in the day, as long as they obtain prior permission and return in time for dinner at 6pm.

Superintendent Goh Beng Hoe said: "Some of them go back to their old neighbourhoods to hang out with their friends at coffee shops."

The home has a monthly schedule for residents that includes daily activities such as bingo, hymn-singing and exercises.

The Christian home was established by a group of Protestant churches in 1958. It is one of the oldest here and is tucked away in a quiet private estate in Wan Tho Avenue, in Upper Serangoon.

Shelter is offered to needy elderly folk - regardless of race or religion - who have no home or suitable accommodation, or whose family is unable to take care of them. Residents are usually referred by medical social workers. Those who can afford it pay $730 a month but the home allows those with financial difficulties to pay less. The home is currently running at full capacity.

The home looks like a simple resort chalet, consisting of 15 single-storey dormitories, each housing about seven residents. There is also a 140-seat chapel.

The non-profit charity relies on public donations and does not receive any government grants. But its land lease expires in 2015, and it has been told that part of the land may be taken back.

Home chairman Woon Wee Yim said there are plans to build a new five-storey building, estimated to cost $12 million, which will better optimise land use.

However, the home has only $2 million in reserves, which Mr Goh said is a feat in itself, considering how nearly $4 million went missing from its accounts in 2007.

The home's former superintendent was fingered as the one who took the money and is believed to have fled the country. Since then, the home has stepped up checks on its accounts.

Mr Woon said there are plans for a gala dinner to raise funds for the new building.

"We could be healthier but we're above water and will work towards our goal."

brynasim@sph.com.sg


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