Poor, yet family ties stay strong

Madam Cheong Mui (far right), 96, lives with sister Madam Chong Ah Khew, 102.

SINGAPORE - The Commissioner of Charities has asked social initiative group Project Awareness to detail fund-raising procedures and how it identifies beneficiaries by Wednesday.

The group's 500-plus volunteers help give free food to the elderly, the less well-off and those in need. KOH HUI THENG (kohht@sph.com.sg) chats with two such families, the Changs and the Chongs.

He goes hungry so his son won't


Mr Chang Meng King (above right), 63, used to be a lounge manager, earning thousands every month. But the business deal turned sour and he lost his entire life savings.

He took over the care of his only son Hock Lye (above left), 38, more than 20 years ago, because his wife could not cope. His son is intellectually disabled.

Mr Chang said in Mandarin: "He's actually very independent. He can take the MRT on his own and knows how to visit Orchard Road.

"He's the one who keeps track of things and will remind me, 'Papa, we must pay for utilities at the beginning of every month.'"

Daily life

The younger Mr Chang works as a cleaner.

His father did too, before poor health forced him to retire in April. He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and arthritis.

Now he stays home and occasionally steps out for groceries.

The Changs pay $26 monthly to rent a oneroomer in Bukit Panjang.

They make ends meet with the son's $800 pay.

Ask the father about allowance and he looks aghast. "I don't dare to ask for money. I feel shy if I take hard-earned cash from my son," Mr Chang said.

"He works so hard for it and is very careful about what he spends on. Each time he goes to the ATM, he'll withdraw only $20."

Helping Hand

As the son said thank you for an ice cream treat, the elder Mr Chang made light of the fact that he sometimes goes hungry so his son won't have to.

"(My son) has a big appetite and can eat up to five burgers (for a meal)," he said.

"One visit to the fast food outlet costs more than $10, where got so much money to spend on both of us?

"So I tell him I've eaten and I'm not hungry. "

Project Awareness volunteers met the Changs while distributing rice dumplings in their estate. Another beneficiary living in the same block now cooks and delivers lunch to Mr Chang while his son is at work.

Project coordinator William Soh, 37, said they sometimes buy groceries for Mr Chang, who tends to eat pickled lettuce and porridge.

"Our volunteers remind him to eat more vegetables and fruits, and buy the items for him."

The Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) is keen to meet the Changs and discuss long-term plans.

Chief executive Keh Eng Song said job support officers can assess the younger Mr Chang's skills to "help him find a suitable job-fit or a better-paying job".

Their Love

Like many parents, Mr Chang's worries are focused on his son. Concerns ranged from workplace tension ("His previous colleagues teased and bullied him, so he got angry and left") to planning for the future.

But unlike many parents, Mr Chang hopes to outlive his son.

"If I go first, what will happen to him?"


They stay close over the years


Madam Chong Ah Khew, 102, and Madam Cheong Mui, 96.

They are sisters, though their surnames are spelt differently on their pink identity cards. The two, originally from Guangdong province in China, have two brothers.

Madam Cheong said in Cantonese: "The males stayed home because they were favoured, so the girls went out to work. There was no choice. Our family was poor."

At 16, she sailed alone to Singapore and worked as a maid for a wealthy Chinese household. At night, she slept in a Chinatown dormitory for coolies.

Elder sister Madam Chong came to Singapore at 18. The former rubber tapper retired more than 30 years ago.

Daily Life

The Sago Lane dorm has long been demolished.

Home now is a two-room rental flat in central Singapore.

Madam Cheong had worked for the same employer since day one, washing clothes by hand and looking after three generations of children before stopping at age 94.

"Touch a bit here and there (around the house) and the day passes quickly," she told actress and deejay Kwan Seck Mui, who sometimes helps in Project Awareness activities.

A Helping Hand

Madam Cheong had a steel plate inserted in her left hip after a fall some years ago and now finds it tough to visit the wet market (a 20-30 minute walk away). So volunteers from social initiative group Project Awareness stepped in to deliver lunch daily and make weekly grocery runs.

Their Love

When asked about her sister's jade ring, Madam Cheong smiled.

"It's a present from me. I saved and saved, it took me a very long time to save enough money."

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