Han Suyin's many-splendored act of love here

SINGAPORE - Fifteen-year-old Chew Hui Im was helping out in her father's porcelain and earthenware shop at 236 Beach Road when an elderly English woman walked in and asked why she was not in school.

The young shop assistant had left school a year earlier because her widowed father found it a struggle running his business and raising six children, including herself - the third child.

The woman asked if she wanted to go back to school, and the girl said yes.

The next day, the woman returned with Han Suyin, the China- born Eurasian doctor whose best- selling novel, A Many-Splendored Thing, had been published a year earlier.

Han had just moved from Hong Kong to Malaya with her second husband, Leon Comber, an officer with the then Malayan Special Branch.

That was 60 years ago, in 1953.

Madam Chew, now 75, and a retired teacher, remembers only that the Englishwoman was Mrs Hill, but the day her life changed remains vivid. "I didn't know who Han Suyin was then, but she was a beautiful and elegant woman in a cheongsam who talked to my father about supporting me in school."

Last month, Madam Chew initiated the Han Suyin Translation Scholarship Fund which was launched at Nanyang Technological University to mark the first anniversary of the doctor-turned-writer's death.

Han sent the young girl in the Beach Road shop back to Stamford Girls' Primary School, paying her fees and more for several years, and adopted her.

She had another daughter, Tang Yongmei, whom she adopted in China in 1940, two years after marrying her first husband, Tang Baohuang, a Kuomintang officer who died during the Chinese civil war in 1947. Yongmei, now 74, is an educator living in New York.

Little has been known about the two adopted girls. Madam Chew stayed out of the public eye until she appeared at the launch of the translation scholarship fund, and spoke about the woman who changed her life.

"Han Suyin was Godsent and without her, I wouldn't be who I am today," she said.

In an interview at her Watten Estate home, she said her life took a turn for the better the moment Han plucked her out from her father's shop.

With tears welling in her eyes, Madam Chew, who is married with two grown-up sons and four grandchildren, recalled with great pride and joy what life was like as the daughter of a celebrity writer back in the 1950s.

"When I returned to Stamford Girls', I was in a Primary 3 class and the whole school, including the principal, were in awe when they saw Han Suyin bringing me back.

"And every fortnight, when Han Suyin came to see me with pocket money and a bag full of goodies, the entire school was abuzz and my schoolmates would come running to me shouting, 'Your mum is here! Your mum is here!' "

She said her adoptive mother was caring and ensured someone would take care of her whenever she could not go to the school.

Han once even delegated the task to the then British Commissioner-General in South-east Asia, Malcolm MacDonald, when she had to go overseas.

"She took me to his house and it was the biggest house I had ever seen then," said Madam Chew, who did so well at school that she had a double promotion before leaving for Tanjong Katong Girls' Secondary.

Another unforgettable memory was the day the movie Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing had its premier at the Cathay cinema in 1955. The American movie was based on Han's 1952 best-seller, a semi-autobiographical novel about her romance with an Australian war correspondent she had met in Hong Kong.

"My mother bought me a new dress with shoes to match and came to pick me up from my house in a car for the grand event and the attention I received that evening made me feel really special to be her daughter," she recalled.

She remembers Han as a generous mother as well.

In 1963, Madam Chew married Mr Lee Teng Hui, the son of a Chinese medical shop owner. It was the same year she completed her studies at the former Teachers' Training College. The newly-weds went to Han's house in Johor Baru to serve her tea in a ceremony.

"We were surprised to receive a $1,000 hongbao from her," said Madam Chew, who pointed out that it was a big sum of money at a time when two-storey houses in most areas cost no more than $20,000.

Han also threw the couple a big dinner at the former Cathay Restaurant, and many of the who's who in Singapore's society were invited.

"She also paid for our honeymoon to Japan," she said.

Han left Singapore for Hong Kong around 1964, when Madam Chew gave birth to her elder son, William, now 49, married and a senior pastor with the New Life Christian Church here.

Han continued visiting Singapore and Malaya frequently till the birth of Madam Chew's younger son, Wilson, in 1966, when she was barred from coming to Malaya and Singapore, probably because of her left-leaning views and close relationship with Communist China.

By the early 1970s, Han had left to live in Switzerland for good with her third husband, Indian army colonel Vincent Ruthnaswamy.

Madam Chew said she and Han then kept up a long-distance relationship. "We wrote a lot of letters to each other over the years and I visited her regularly," said Madam Chew, who used to accompany Han to China, up until the author was too old to travel.

"The last time was to Beijing in 1997, to attend the Hong Kong handover celebrations," said Madam Chew, adding that she learnt a lot more about China and her mother during those visits.

After Madam Chew retired from teaching in 1994, she visited Han more often in Switzerland, on many occasions taking her husband, sons and daughters-in-law.

"The most memorable was in 1996, when our whole family, including my four grandchildren, went to celebrate her 80th birthday at her home in Lausanne," said Madam Chew.

Proficient in English, Chinese and French, Han Suyin wrote more than 40 books including several autobiographical novels such as My House Has Two Doors, in 1980, which told of her life mainly in Singapore and Malaya between 1949 and 1979. It mentions how she adopted the Singapore teenager.

Madam Chew said that although she has not read all of Han's books, her favourite is still A Many-Splendored Thing because she understood her mother better after reading it.

She said: "She was a Eurasian and Eurasians were looked down upon, especially in China, where interracial marriages were viewed unkindly in the old days.

"And for her to write about her romance with a Caucasian man was a bold move which made her stand out from the rest."

wengkam@sph.com.sg

A DOCTOR AND AUTHOR

Han Suyin was born Rosalie Maltida Zhou Guanghu in China's Henan province to a Belgian-educated Chinese railway engineer and his Flemish wife.

The eldest of three girls and a boy, she studied medicine, first in China and then in Brussels, and worked at an American mission hospital in Chengdu as a midwife on her return in 1938. She later furthered her medical studies in London.

She published her first novel, Destination Chungking, in 1942 on her experience at the hospital, using the pen name Han Suyin for the first time.

She went to work in Hong Kong in 1949 and moved to Malaya and Singapore in the early 1950s. She lived mostly in Johor Baru during her time in Singapore between 1952 and 1964. She worked at a clinic in Upper Pickering Street and taught at the former Nanyang University, which she supported.

She was among the few foreigners who visited China frequently during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Thrice married, she lived in India and Hong Kong before moving to Lausanne in Switzerland, where she died on Nov 2 last year at age 95.

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