CHIJ Katong stall owners: The school was our family

Bookshop owners Mrs Shirley Lim and Mr Lim Poh Heng treat the school’s students like their own children.

"My girls."

This is how Mrs Shirley Lim, 75, addresses the students of CHIJ Katong Convent when she talks about them.

It reflects the pride and love she feels for each girl in pinafore who has walked through the school since she first started to run the bookshop in 1969.

Mrs Lim, better known to the girls as "Auntie Lim" and "Auntie Shirley", says: "My girls here are so sweet. I tell you, you can tell a KCian the minute you see or speak to one."

Her husband, Mr Lim Poh Heng, 78, smiles broadly in agreement. Especially since all his three daughters are KCians - a term used to refer to students from the school.

The couple will retire when Katong Convent moves from Marine Terrace to a holding school at Geylang Bahru Lane next month for a two-year Prime Upgrading Programme.

The school will move back to Marine Terrace after the facelift is completed.

Mr Tan Chew Yong, 65, and Madam Low Kar Nong, 61, who manage the drinks stall, will also be retiring.

The news has evoked many memories among the alumnae.

While many remember Mr Lim's cheerfulness and Mrs Lim's kindness, they also recall that "Auntie Lim is the more fierce one".

Mrs Lim laughs, then says: "Uncle is the nice one, the girls prefer to approach him, but a lot of them will remember me scolding them." But her chiding stems from treating each child as her own, she adds in a more serious tone.

"You see, one reason is that the bookshop used to be located next to two classrooms and I didn't want the girls getting in trouble when they came over and started making too much noise," explains Mrs Lim.

"Then there were some girls who would keep buying stuff. You recognise and remember them, and I'd ask, 'why do you need to keep buying, say for example, erasers?' I felt 'sim tiah' (heart pain in Hokkien) for them because I didn't want them to spend their money unnecessarily."

Mr Lim says: "She feels that way because she has been poor before."

When Mrs Lim first wanted to run the bookshop, she had no money for the start-up.

She had been working as a lab attendant in the school for 12 years and decided to quit.

She recounts: "At that time, Uncle (Mr Lim) was still working as a clerk with Borneo Motors but we had four young kids, and didn't really have the money to invest."

Mr Lim was later retrenched in 1976 and joined her in the business.

Their four children are now aged between 48 and 53. They have four grandchildren, aged between seven and 22.

Mrs Lim says she is grateful to the then-principal, the late Sister Finbarr.

"I had no money to pay for the store's stock, and she told the supplier that she'd stand as guarantor for the $500 worth of goods put on credit," she shares.

"Without Sister Finbarr and two others nuns who helped me out in other ways, my family and I would not be what we are today."

Both Mr and Mrs Lim say they will miss the school but they have decided to take this opportunity to retire.

For several years, they have been spending about six months each year in Portland, Oregon, where their youngest daughter is living.

Drinks stallholders Mr Tan and Madam Low also say they will miss the school.

Mr Tan says in Mandarin: "In the past, we could make our own drinks and sell them, a different kind each day. The pineapple drink was the most popular one."

Mr Tan started out as a helper at the drinks stall when he was just 12 years old.

He recalls arriving at school by 2am to get the stall ready for the day. "I'd be there to cut the fresh fruits. I used to sell bread too and had to make sure that the loaves of bread were ready."

Mr Tan began as a stall helper with a starting monthly salary of $30, which later increased to $500 a month in 1977. He later rose to take ownership of the stall in 1987, and later made a monthly profit of about $2,000.

Like the Lims, Mr Tan and his wife have chosen to retire mainly because Madam Low is unable to stand for long hours, due to her weak knees.

She says: "Our children have been urging us to call it quits for a few years already, but we had been reluctant. It's now timely since the school is relocating."

They have three children and four grandchildren.

Mr Tan says: "I have spent virtually my whole life here, so of course there is much 'she bu de' (Mandarin for reluctance to leave). The school is like our extended family, where we take care of one another.

"I wish the school management and every student all the best."

This article was first published on Oct 26, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.