How Han Suyin changed a life
The Straits Times
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, a China-born Eurasian doctor whose best-selling novel, A Many-Splendoured Thing, had been published a year earlier.
The book was a semi-autobiographical novel on her romance with an Australian war correspondent she met in Hong Kong.
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, said 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 launched at Nanyang Technological University to mark the first anniversary of the doctor-turned-writer's death. Han died aged 95.
The writer 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, Madam 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. Madam Tang, 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 fund, and spoke about the woman who changed her life. "Han Suyin was a godsend 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 up in her eyes, Madam Chew, who is married with two 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.
"Every fortnight, when Han Suyin came to see me with pocket money and a bag full of goodies, the entire school would be abuzz (with excitement) and my schoolmates would come running to me shouting, 'Your mum is here! Your mum is here!'"
By the early 1970s, Han 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.
Proficient in English, Chinese and French, Han wrote more than 40 books. Madam Chew said that although she has not read all of Han's books, her favourite is still A Many-Splendoured 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 crowd."