A Mother's Fortitude and Unwavering Love

This Mother's Day, we highlight the story of 92-year-old Mdm Ang Chio Tee, whose life is fraught with tribulations. Her biological father was an opium addict who sold her to her foster parents. She helped out with the household chores and never received an education. She tied the knot at 18. But when her mother-in-law turned her two eldest children against her, she abandoned the marital home with her younger son and daughter. As a single mother of two children, she started as a seamstress when her children were younger. When her children were older, she juggled two jobs; a dishwasher in the day, and a waitress at a nightclub. She also peddled in her vicinity selling tingkat to her neighbours. A chance encounter with a Singapore Red Cross employee acquainted her with the ElderAid programme. Since enrolling in the programme, she has led a more enriching life, as they lend a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. 

"My biological father was an opium addict. He sold me for $12 to my foster mother when I was a few months old," Mdm Ang Chio Tee, 92, said in Hokkien through a translator. 

Challenging Childhood

When she was four years old, she learnt about the heartbreaking fact that she was not the biological daughter of her foster parents and that she was adopted. She felt abandoned by her biological parents. Though she was grateful to her adoptive parents for bringing her up, her childhood living in Kallang with them was not filled with happy memories. From a young age, she was responsible for household chores.

"I helped out with the household chores from a young age. I cleaned the floor, washed the clothes, and cooked, although I was not tall enough to reach the stove. I stood on a stool," said Mdm Ang, whose wrinkles bore testimony to her weathering the vicissitudes of life and the sands of time. 

She also carried heavy and hot food that left her with scars. Some dark pigmentation still serves as poignant reminders of her childhood. She wanted to believe that her struggles were temporary. She pinned her hopes on leading a better life with her foster parents. Yet, as years went by, her glimmer of hope dissipated into disillusionment.

As Mdm Ang never went to school, she was illiterate. She lamented this, as it severely limited job opportunities for her. 

Rocky Marriage

At 18, Mdm Ang was compelled to marry a man in an arranged marriage in Jurong. She had four children with her husband; three sons, and a daughter. Her marriage was rocky. Living with her mother-in-law proved challenging; she ruled the roost with an iron fist. The mother-in-law turned her two eldest sons against Mdm Ang. Aggrieved by the emotional betrayal, she abandoned the marital home with her youngest son and only daughter. 

Toiling to Provide for her Family

Thankfully, her father-in-law rented a home for her and her children for some time. In the early days, when her children were younger, she eked out a living as a seamstress. 

When her children grew older, she juggled two jobs. During the day, she worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Chinatown.

"I would often bring leftover food for my children to eat. I paid attention to how the chefs prepared their cuisines. I worked at the Chinese restaurant when it opened until its subsequent closure 10 years later. I also worked at a Hainanese chicken rice stall at a shophouse in Bugis," said Mdm Ang.

In the night, she worked as a waitress at a nightclub at night, drawn by its more lucrative remuneration.  

"I served snacks to the patrons, and I knew the bouncers. But whenever I saw the bright lights on, and the police were there because of brawls or detention, I would quit," Mdm Ang said. 

Her keen sense of observation as a dishwasher, and her work experiences at the restaurant and chicken rice stall served her family well when she subsequently ventured into tingkat (food in metallic containers) business, peddling to sell her food to her neighbours in the vicinity, who have become her patrons.  

Ensuring Her Children Had a Good Education

As a single parent, she single-handedly brought up her two children. Through grit and sheer determination, she put her children through school. 

"As I rented rooms, we often had to shift from one place to another. We stayed at North Bridge Road, Whampoa, and Boon Keng. I enrolled my children in St Hilda's Primary and Secondary School, formerly located in Whampoa. I worked a block away and could come back and cook for them for lunch before returning to work. My son, now 59, pursued his tertiary education at a local university and has been working at a local transportation company. My daughter, now aged 58, graduated with a diploma, and has been working at a bank," Mdm Ang said.

Keeping Loneliness at Bay 

Since her son tied the knot, Mdm Ang shifted in to live with her son at a five-room flat in Tampines. Her daughter stays in the same block, on another storey.

Now, she has grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"My son has two children, a 25-year-old boy, and a girl who has two children, with triplets on the way in August 2024. My daughter has two daughters; one works as a finance manager while the other works at a Ministry," Mdm Ang said. 

However, she feels lonely when her children, and grandchildren work during office hours. Being sociable, Mdm Ang loves interacting with people. However, there is a language barrier between her and her daughter's helper. Mdm Ang could only converse in Hokkien while her daughter's helper could only communicate in English.

Once, Mdm Ang saw Ms Florence Sim — a team member with SRC's ElderAid programme — walking along her corridor, and invited her inside for a chat, some beverages and snacks.

Since then, she has enrolled in SRC's ElderAid programme. Volunteers visit her on weekdays, bringing her joy and offering a listening ear.  

Mdm Linda Lum, a Community Befriender with the ElderAid programme, would often visit Mdm Ang providing a listening ear and shoulder to lean on. Whenever Mdm Ang recounted the poignant memories of the past, it would inevitably fuel a labyrinth of emotions, that Mdm Lum would navigate to assuage. 

"I have a good relationship with Mdm Ang. I would bring snacks for her. I try to be a good listener. Mdm Ang would reminisce about her painful past. When she is sad, I provide a listening ear, comfort and solace. When she laughs, I laugh. I would hug her and bring her out of her negativity. She would share stories about her neighbours and pet rabbit that her family has been rearing for five to six years," said Mdm Lum, a retiree who used to work as a Quality and Safety manager in the manufacturing, electronics and construction sectors for 20 years.  

Besides Mdm Lum, some Red Cross Youth  from the Nanyang Junior College Chapter also visited Mdm Ang weekly for four months from October 2023. Mdm Lum would accompany the students, bridging the communication between Mdm Ang who converses in Hokkien and the students, who converse in English. 

"Mdm Ang enjoyed their visits. She was happy to befriend the students and forged a good rapport. Mdm Ang taught them to make Lunar New Year honeycomb, by cooking and frying dough. The youth also engaged Mdm Ang in games such as role-playing. Mdm Ang imparted values to the students and encouraged them to study hard and be a good and responsible person who contributes to society. She enjoyed chatting with the youth, and their youthful vigour. Mdm Ang was very appreciative and looked forward to their visits," said Mdm Lum, a Volunteer Leader, after attending a four-day course in April 2023. 

Akin to how she mentored and guided the Red Cross Youth - Nanyang Junior College Chapter students, she also showed new Community Befrienders the ropes.

"I try to walk the talk and encourage the volunteers to join the activities and embrace compassion, commitment, passion and enthusiasm," said Mdm Lum.

Her Labour of Love for Her Family

Despite her age, her passion for serving her family never wavered. She is as fit as a fiddle, with good eyesight and a good medical report except for her frail legs, which present mobility challenges. Her mobility issues started four years ago, which hampered her ability to venture out. 

To this day, at the sprightly age of 92, she remains active in serving her family. As her labour of love, Mdm Ang would sew pyjamas, blankets, quilts and cushion covers for her family members for the Lunar New Year with her decades-old sewing machine. Mdm Ang would also ask her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren about the food they wish to consume. She would go grocery shopping with her daughter-in-law's helper, who would accompany her by pushing her around in a wheelchair. Together with the helper, they would cook for the family every night, and her extended family every weekend. 

Though her life was fraught with tribulations, Mdm Ang proved her mettle. By single-handedly bringing up two of her children, she exemplifies tremendous resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity. Her indomitable spirit inspires other mothers, and mothers who bring up their children single-handedly. Her unconditional and unwavering love for her children despite the most challenging times, shaped them into responsible citizens who contribute positively to society. 

Community Befrienders provide the precious gift of friendship, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and a source of comfort and solace to the seniors. By bringing joy, vitality and vigour to seniors, the Community Befrienders enrich and interweave the rich tapestry of the seniors' lives. 

By Sondra Foo, Marketing & Communications

Inspired? Volunteer with the Singapore Red Cross!