An indefatigable fund-raiser for charity

Mrs Betty Chen took over the presidency of the Chinese Women’s Association from her mother after she died. The oldest women’s association in Singapore turns 100 this year

Enjoying a curry puff and sipping weak tea served in fine bone china, Mrs Betty Chen is animatedly extolling the joys of ballroom dancing when she suddenly turns to my colleague, Ms Neo Xiaobin, the photographer.

"Does your boyfriend take you dancing?" she asks imperiously.

Xiaobin replies bashfully: "When we were younger, yes."

Upon learning that she is only 32 and married, Mrs Chen contorts her face into a mock grimace and grumbles: "You see lah, you marry them and they stop taking you dancing. What the heck!"

She then chortles, her merriment infecting everyone seated around the dining table in her airy, tastefully appointed apartment in Gilstead Road.

Hair immaculately coiffed and decked out in a cheery canary-coloured blouse and black slacks, the 88-year-old looks at least 20 years younger.

She bristles with energy, has a mind as sharp as a tack and delights in rapid-fire talk, clearly a woman used to being in charge.

She is into her 25th term as president of the Chinese Women's Association (CWA), the first and oldest women's association in Singapore. It turns 100 this year. The only other person to have helmed the association for a longer time is her late mother, who was president for 28 years.

"It's a great responsibility, you know. I'm at it every day. My husband complains that I don't spend enough time with him so I'm going to rectify that," she says, looking over to her husband resting in a corner.

A retired architect, Mr William Chen, 93, designed several iconic buildings, including the Bank of China Building in Battery Road and the University of Malaya campus in Kuala Lumpur.

Whether the CWA will let her retire remains to be seen because she is doing just too fine a job. Under her stewardship, the association has raised millions of dollars for charity and bodies ranging from the NTUC Eldercare Trust to the National Museum and St Andrew's Mission Hospital.

Meanwhile, she is swamped overseeing various projects to celebrate the association's centenary.

Together with international publisher Editions Didier Millet, the CWA has just released a beautifully produced book, Chinese Women's Association: 100 Fabulous Years.

It worked with the National Museum of Singapore on "Leading Ladies: Women Making A Difference", an exhibition paying tribute to women at the forefront of community service in the Little Red Dot. Featuring artefacts, photographs and furniture, the exhibition is on until June 21.

Up next is a gala dinner at the Raffles Hotel next month, when Mrs Chen and company hope to raise at least $500,000 for the St Andrew's Mission Hospital.

Her perky and nimble beavering is all the more remarkable especially since she had a stent inserted just last month, her second in two years. She is also a breast cancer survivor, and has undergone two mastectomies.

"I am positive; I don't think about these things. They are things that God gives you to remind you to take care of your health. And not to eat curry puffs," she says, laughing merrily as she takes another bite out of hers.

The vivacious fund-raiser was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, the third of four children of banker Wong Shiu Kei and his wife, May, a tireless champion of women's rights and charity fund-raiser.

Mrs Chen's progressive mindset and penchant for helping the poor were largely shaped by her mother, who was born in Sacramento and was said to be the first Chinese girl to drive a car in the capital city of California.

The family lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong before moving to Singapore in 1930. Very quickly, Mrs May Wong - who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley - joined the CWA and got busy with charity work, especially advancing the causes of women.

Among other things, she raised funds for the war orphans of China and Britain, which earned her an honorary Member of the British Empire Medal (MBE) in 1937. She also helped out at the Po Leung Kuk, a home which rescued women sent here from China by vice rackets.

Mrs Chen recalls: "I'd often follow her to the Po Leung Kuk. In fact, one of our maids - a deaf mute - was from there. She took care of my youngest brother, and always slept with one hand on his chest so that she would know if he moved at night."

The former student of Raffles Girls' School was roped in to help her mother's charity activities from a very young age. She remembers singing Top Hat, White Tie And Tails at the New World Cabaret when she was 11 to help raise money for a China relief fund.

"We had a wonderful childhood. It was very peaceful until the war came," she says.

The family missed the mass evacuation of Singaporeans on the luxury liner Felix Roussel, which set sail for Bombay after boarding passengers whose surnames started with O.

Fortunately, her mother managed to secure five visas and passage on a ship bound for Australia for herself and her children out of 50 given out by the Australian High Commission. The Gorgon left Singapore on Feb 12, 1942, three days before the Japanese invaded.

Also on board was Mr George Lien Ying Chow, the late founder of the Overseas Union Bank, which was acquired by United Overseas Bank in 2001.

"He was sleeping on a dining table. My mother and her children slept on dining chairs," she says. "It was a perilous journey. We were followed by planes for a few days and could see submarines in the distance."

Only three out of 24 ships out in the Sunda Straits escaped sinking by the Japanese Imperialist Navy during this period, and the Gorgon was one of them.

They arrived in Perth 10 days later and Mrs Wong then took her family to Melbourne.

Daughter Betty, who was about 16 then, worked as a department store salesgirl before landing a job as a secretarial assistant at the Chinese Legation Military Attache's Office. She also got herself into Melbourne University to study commerce.

"I'd go for lectures in the morning, go to work and then attend lectures again after work," she recalls.

It was at university that she met Mr Chen, whom she married. They have four children aged between 55 and 65.

"I've been married 67 years," she says, before adding drolly, "to the same man."

She and her husband returned to live in Singapore in 1953, after stints in Melbourne and San Francisco.

In 1957, the family moved to Kuala Lumpur, where, among other things, she joined the Young Women's Christian Association's executive committee and later set up the Y-Teens youth group, organising many outings and programmes for teenagers from disadvantaged families. She was also a founder member and president of the Ikebana International Chapter, which was active in raising funds for charity.

"My mother's personality really rubbed off on me. She was a people person and loved to do social work, which my father encouraged. He said we had to share our blessings," she says.

The family returned to Singapore in 1969 after racial riots broke out in Malaysia.

She continued with her community work, and her involvement with the CWA - then led by her mother - became stronger when she became an executive committee member in 1970. Mother and daughter were Singapore's official representatives to the International Conference on The Status of Women in Wisconsin in 1975.

In 1978, the CWA became the first Singaporean voluntary welfare organisation to officially take over the management of a home for the elderly - the Old People's Community Home - in the Henderson area.

"My mother, who was then 79, and (fellow CWA committee member) Violet Wong, 73, took up the challenge to turn it into a model home for the elderly," she says. And they did with the home they renamed the Henderson Senior Citizen's Home. "We put in nice things, matching curtains, bedspreads; the old folks liked that," Mrs Chen says. Her mother died in 1989, six weeks after her 90th birthday.

Mrs Chen says: "I was then vice-president and I was going to quit. But my mother had spent her life doing this and it wouldn't have been fair to the old people at the home."

So she stepped up, took over the presidency and under her, the Henderson home won the CWA a special award for Most Outstanding Civic Organisation from the United Nations Association of Singapore in 1985. In 1992, it was called a model home for seniors by the then Ministry of Community Development.

More facilities were added, including a May Wong Social Centre, which offers daycare facilities for the elderly, as well as a May Wong Lifestyle Centre, for seniors to sing karaoke, play card games and even pick up computer skills.

"We ran it for 32 years. A lot of organisations run on deficits but not us. I was taught by my father to never borrow if I could help it. So we never borrowed, we were always in the black," says Mrs Chen.

The home was handed over to NTUC Eldercare in early 2010 with a war chest of more than $600,000. The CWA remains founding friends of the home.

The association now has about 300 members, many of whom are from the fourth and fifth generations of the CWA's founding members.

Except for one year in 1995, when she took a break to care for her husband after he had a fall, Mrs Chen has been CWA president for the last 25 years.

Honorary secretary Christine Lim, one of the authors of the commemorative book, says it could not have been written without Mrs Chen.

"Her memory is incredible. She remembers everything. She keeps incredible notes and photographs and knows exactly where everything is."

Indeed, Mrs Chen has not slowed down, despite her health scares.

"There's nothing that a bit of hair dye won't take care of," she quips when asked the secret to her youthfulness. "I also enjoy my life; I am very positive."

Proceeds from the sale of Chinese Women's Association: 100 Fabulous Years, available at $100 a copy, will go to the National Museum Legacy Fund. To buy a copy, please call CWA at 6253-2912

This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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