3-month search for kin of man who died abroad

SINGAPORE - Eight years ago, the daughter of Mr Wong Hong Kong tried to have him declared dead so she could use his Central Provident Fund savings for her studies in the United States.

She told the High Court that her father had left the family in 1979 and was believed to be in the US, but that he had left them no contact details.

The application failed as she did not have enough evidence to prove that he had died.

Mr Wong actually died only in April this year, and his body remains unclaimed in the US territory of Puerto Rico.

The 74-year-old, who succumbed to liver cancer, was said to have been a poor, lonely man. For the past three months, a private detective based on the Caribbean island has been trying to trace his family here in order to give Mr Wong a respectful burial.

"He was not a criminal," Mr Fernando Fernandez told The Sunday Times. "He had been a good man. I feel that he deserves a proper funeral and for his body to be treated with respect so that he can rest in peace."

Mr Fernandez read of Mr Wong's death in a Puerto Rican newspaper and was so moved that he took up the case on a pro bono basis.

"I would be happy if someone could place flowers on his grave," he said.

He found out that Mr Wong moved to Puerto Rico about a decade ago and had worked in a souvenir shop in the old part of San Juan, the island's capital. But he did not speak Spanish and lost his job two or three years ago when ill health took its toll on him.

A former colleague then allowed Mr Wong to live in her home, before he died in hospital.

"His co-worker said he was a quiet man who did not reveal much about his life or talk about his family," said Mr Fernandez. "He told her that he had a son working as an engineer in Singapore, a daughter who is a pianist and another daughter working as a bank manager in Chicago.

"I was shown his belongings, which were contained in just one bag. I found his Singapore identity card, his Singapore passport, some old photographs which I believe are of his family members, a 'Happy Father's Day' greeting card and an old driver's licence registered in New York."

The driver's licence led Mr Fernandez, 40, to rope in New York-based private investigator Bob Rahn, to help.

"My friend Bob tried to search for leads at the old apartment where he used to live. He also put up posters in Chinatown and asked if anyone knew Mr Wong, but no one did," said Mr Fernandez.

"Bob managed to find a couple who used to work for Mr Wong, and they told Bob that his family is in Singapore."

Mr Fernandez then contacted veteran Singapore private investigator Ponno Kalastree, 66, who told The Sunday Times about the search for Mr Wong's next of kin.

The Sunday Times managed to locate one of Mr Wong's friends from his days in New York in the 1980s. The friend, who declined to be named, described him as "a lonely man who lived by himself" and worked in the rosewood business for a Thai boss.

Mr Wong had also run a rosewood business with his wife in Bendemeer Road in Singapore. He married Madam Grace Chin Moi Yon on Dec 2, 1963, and they had two daughters and a son.

But that business closed down in 1979 and Mr Wong left his family for the US. The last time the family heard from him was in 1994.

In 2005, his younger daughter applied to the High Court to have her father declared dead.

The court heard that the family had suffered from Mr Wong's prolonged absence and had appealed to the Central Provident Fund Board to withdraw his savings. But by law, the board cannot do this unless the person is deemed to be dead legally.

The daughter told the court of the family's many unsuccessful attempts to locate her father, including going through the Singapore mission in the US and the Controller of Immigration.

His last contact with them was a 1994 letter to his older daughter, which gave her the authority to deal with matters related to his share of the family home.

The legal documents, which originated from the state of New York, seemed to be intended to bring an end to his marriage.

Mr Wong did not turn up for the divorce proceedings here and his divorce was finalised in 1996. He then apparently vanished from the lives of his children.

Last week, The Sunday Times managed to inform Mr Wong's family of his death through Mr Raymond Lam, director at Drew & Napier, who helped his daughter with her application to the High Court in 2005.

His daughter contacted The Sunday Times on Saturday night and said: "The family is still in shock. We don't know what to do. We will need some time to think about it.

"I am still discussing with my siblings if we should claim his body."

She said that after her father left the family in 1979, he did not send any money home to support them. The family made many attempts to locate him, including placing advertisements in The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao and USA Today. But they did not manage to locate him.

Finally, the family knows his fate for certain. "Now, we have closure," she said.

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