Constance Choong and her remarkable life

At 97, Constance Choong Yoke Ying has remarkable memories of her life, beginning with her earliest recollection: travelling to China by sea with her parents when she was just five years old.

“It’s the earliest memory I have … I remember being on the steamer with my parents. We were going to China to get my brother who had remained behind with an aunt when my parents came to Malaya at the turn of the 20th century in search of a better life. I remember we went during Chinese New Year and I had a lot of goodies to eat. I ate so many lychees and oranges that I developed a cough!” recalls Choong who now lives in Old Klang Road in Kuala Lumpur with one of her sons. Her other four sons and two daughters often come by to visit her.

Choong was invited to speak at the Pudu English Girls School centenary celebration in 2014.

Choong was invited to speak at the Pudu English Girls School centenary celebration in 2014. Photo: Handout

Her parents, Choong Fook Lum and Wong Yan Oi, came to Malaya in the early 1900s and for many years life was tough for the family. Choong (the second child) was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1919.

“When they first came, my parents lived in a church where my mother helped care for orphaned girls, while my father worked as a handyman. The immediate years after the first world war were tough for everyone, my parents included. Although we were poor, my siblings and I had a happy childhood. We always looked out for each other,” shares Choong who has four brothers and two sisters. Three of her siblings are still around – one sister, 90, lives in Canada, her 87-year-old brother lives in Perth, while her youngest sister who is 83 lives in Petaling Jaya.

A large part of her childhood was spent in school: at the Pudu English Girls School (now known as SMK Perempuan Pudu) where she remained until she completed her Senior Cambridge examination in 1937.

“Till today, I am deeply grateful to my headmistress Josephine Foss. She was a kind, capable lady who did a lot for the school. She even paid my school fees and exam fees when my parents could not afford to. She raised funds to develop the school and went around recruiting students to increase the school intake,” recalls Choong with unmistakable fondness.

After she finished high school, Choong worked as a clerk at her alma mater for a year before she was encouraged by Foss to become a registered teacher.

“I taught at the Yuk Sam Chinese Mission School in Bukit Bintang Road for 15 years until I resigned to look after my children,” she says.

Choong married Chan Kum Leong when she was 23 and the couple spent many happy years together where she was “busy being a wife, mother and teacher”.

“One of the happiest times of my life was travelling to Europe with my husband in 1974. We met so many people from all over the world and it was really nice,” she says adding that they subsequently travelled together to Disneyland in America, Quebec in Canada, the Great Wall of China, Australia, England, Hong Kong and Vietnam, among other places.

Chan passed away in 2004 at the age of 87.

Though she loved travelling, Choong relishes spending time with her family.

“I enjoyed looking after my grandchildren, many of whom spent their infancies and childhood at our residence in Old Klang Road. I have 12 grandchildren … six boys and six girls, and four great-grandchildren,” says Choong.

Constance Choong (seated fourth from left) with her extended family.

Constance Choong (seated fourth from left) with her extended family. Photo: Handout

Two years ago, Choong was invited to speak at the centenary celebration of her alma mater, Pudu English Girls School which she regards as being one of the highlights of her life.

“I was honoured to be invited by the Old Girls Association to address the crowd. There were more than a thousand people present and I didn’t expect such an overwhelming response from the crowd!

“My advice to my beloved PES girls is to always be happy and contented, be kind and friendly, smile and always love unconditionally,” says Choong.

Her secret to a long, happy and healthy life? “Eat in moderation … less sugar and very little salt. Be contented, positive and forgiving. The best vitamins are your friends. It is beyond words to describe how grateful I feel for the blessings and joy I have felt throughout my life. At 97, I feel relieved that there is nothing more to prove to anyone beyond looking after my health and be a blessing to others,” adds Choong.

Lee Ah Eng’s indomitable spirit has taken her far in life.

Lee Ah Eng turned 90 earlier this month and so far, life’s looking good.

“I feel blessed … although I do feel that it is more important to have a meaningful life than a long life,” she says.

The best part about being a nonagenarian, says Lee, is that she can take each day as it comes without any goals left to accomplish.

1. Lee with daughter, Chew Ah Nee, and granddaughter Ann Cheah. 2. Lee was 15 when she was married off to Chew Keat Hock, 17. She sewed her own wedding gown.

Lee with daughter, Chew Ah Nee, and granddaughter Ann Cheah.

“Well, the best part is that I am very settled in life already. Everything that I needed to get done has already been done and now I just take each day as it comes.

“My knees feel a little weak now. About 30 years ago, I climbed the Great Wall of China and made it all the way to the top! Nowadays I won’t be able to do that but I can still go on shopping sprees,” says Lee.

Life wasn’t always so carefree for her though.

“I had a tough childhood. My mother died when I was seven and my father remarried but the marriage didn’t last. I was then fostered by a lady who had two other daughters. It was my father’s decision as he thought I needed the care of a ‘mother’. Back then, not many girls went to school and my father would tell me, ‘You are a girl. Why do you want to study so much?’ I yearned to go to school. Eventually, I became resigned to my fate,” recalls Lee.

Lee began helping her father in his shop. One day, he noticed how good she was at keeping simple accounts for the shop and he realised that perhaps his daughter had the potential to do well in school. And so he changed his mind.

“I was overjoyed. At the age of 13, I attended Standard One. I stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the seven-year-olds but I wasn’t bothered. I was overjoyed just to be able to go to school,” recalls Lee.

As fate would have it, halfway through Standard Two, Lee’s father told her she had to quit school and get married.

Right: Lee was 15 when she was married off to Chew Keat Hock, 17. She sewed her own wedding gown.

Right: Lee was 15 when she was married off to Chew Keat Hock, 17. She sewed her own wedding gown.

“And so, I got married at 15. I remember sewing my own wedding gown. Even though I was married, I was still a child. You would find me playing hopscotch outside our house. My husband, Chew Keat Hock, was 17. He also felt he was too young to get married but he went along with it as it was his father’s orders. Back then, you didn’t have a say. You don’t question anything; you just do as you are told,” says Lee.

Lee had her first child when she was 17. She had three daughters and then a son. When her fifth child, a girl, came along, Lee’s mother-in-law implored her to give the child away to a relative who could not conceive.

“I was devastated but didn’t feel I had a choice. I had to obey my elders and so, with a heavy heart, I gave away my own flesh and blood. My heart grieved the loss in silence,” recalls Lee.

It was tragic but she didn’t have time to dwell on the loss. Life was hard and Lee had to work hard to help raise her family.

“I tapped rubber, sold fruits, washed clothes, sewed clothes and later on became a wedding emcee; my job included getting the bride made up. I had to be quick and articulate, and familiar with wise sayings and proverbs for weddings.

“My husband and I worked hard to make ends meet and to support our kids. He passed away when I was 58 and I have been a widow for more than 30 years now. But I am blessed to have my family around me,” says Lee who is staying with one of her daughters.

Nowadays, Lee spends her days reading.

“I read anything I can get my hands on. I also like to read dictionaries. With my limited education, this is how I broaden my vocabulary. Even though I only had a year and a half of schooling, it made a world of difference to me. Because I learned how to read at the time, it gave me a foundation to build on. Without that little schooling, I would be illiterate now,” says Lee.

Apart from some aches and pains, Lee is healthy and she attributes that to a few simple things.

“The secret to a long life is ginseng. And don’t worry too much … be happy. I also believe I am healthy because I used to walk and cycle a lot as we didn’t have a car,” says Lee.

At 91, Tan Chong Keng is a familiar figure in his neighbourhood.

Tan Chong Keng has a routine which he follows religiously every morning. The 91-year-old starts his day at the crack of dawn with prayers before he heads out to meet his friends for their regular “catch-up”.

“My day starts at 5.30 in the morning with prayer and meditation. After a shower, I take my morning walk to the morning market near my house for breakfast with some friends. I enjoy meeting up with my friends. It makes me happy exchanging stories with old pals about our golden days and the many fond memories we share,” says Tan who lives in Bayan Baru in Penang with his son.

Despite his age, Tan isn’t one to be confined to his home. Although he enjoys tending to his garden in the evenings – he has several fruit trees which regularly bear fruits which he distributes to neighbours – Tan likes to be out exploring the city.

I hope I can live many more years as there is still a lot I want to see, says Tan, 91. -- Photos: DESMOND TAN

I hope I can live many more years as there is still a lot I want to see, says Tan, 91. Photo: Desmond Tan

“Sometimes, I take the Rapid Penang bus to Komtar in the heart of the city. People will come forward to help me alight from the bus. Sometimes people I don’t know also offer assistance and greet me with a smile. Some will offer to help me cross the road; others give up their seats on the bus for me.

“I feel happy that the younger generation is civic-conscious and respect the elderly. I still feel healthy and I have the energy to move around and for that I am grateful. I hope I can live many more years as there is still a lot I want to see,” says Tan enthusiastically.

Tan’s zest for life came after he survived a major surgery some 20 years ago which literally gave him a second lease on life.

When he was 71, Tan had to undergo a stomach operation.

“The surgeon explained that it was a major and risky operation. There could be post-surgery complications due to my age. He told me quite frankly that my chances of coming out of the surgery were 50-50,” recalls Tan.

Thankfully, the operation was a success.

“I really owe my life to the surgeon,” says Tan with much gratitude.

Though he had a few other health scares, Tan learnt that a positive attitude and prayer could pull him through any challenge.

“I had some complications with my spine when I was 76. That was another high-risk surgery and I was quite worried. I started to chant diligently all day long before the surgery was scheduled to take place. During my follow-up with the surgeon prior to the surgery, he found that my spine had healed on its own and I no longer needed the surgery. From that day onwards, I believe anything is possible in life. It was truly a miracle and I continued to chant and meditate until today,” says Tan.

Born in a rubber plantation in Kedah in 1925, Tan is the eldest of three children. Life was not easy for young Tan. He was just three years old when his mother passed away after delivering his youngest sister. Tan and his two sisters then went to live with their grandmother in Penang.

Tan celebrating his 91st birthday with family members, two months ago.

Tan celebrating his 91st birthday with family members, two months ago. Photo: Desmond Tan

“My father had to work and could not take care of three young children. So my two sisters and I went to live with my grandma in Penang,” he shares.

When they were older, the three Tan siblings went back to Kedah to live with their father.

“My father had remarried and our family had grown quite big. My father found it hard to support all of us, so I decided to quit school and followed my father around and helped him. He had some small businesses and he would take me along and teach me the ropes,” shares Tan.

When times were tough, Tan and his father also tended a small farm and sold their produce in nearby villages.

“Income from farming was uncertain but I am grateful I had friends who helped me. Once when we were out of work, a friend offered me a job at his bicycle repair garage. I worked hard and managed to make pretty good money,” says Tan.

But the hardest times were yet to come. The Japanese Occupation in Penang during the second world war exposed Tan to atrocities he will never forget.

“I am thankful I survived that period. I was working in a factory inside one of the British colonies at the time the Japanese came. When the troops barged in, they started shooting with their machine guns in all directions, without mercy. I was terrified.

“There were bunkers in the factory and everyone was allotted a bunker. Mine was Bunker No.3. That day, I ran to the nearest bunker, Bunker No.1, even though it was packed. Thankfully, people made space for me. Minutes later, a bomb went off. Bunker No.3 had been bombed, killing everyone inside. I was supposed to have died that day; thankfully I am still alive,” he recalls.

When Tan was 28, he fell in love with a girl who was introduced by his friends.

“They showed me a photo of this beautiful lady and I liked what I saw. I passed them my photo to show her mother and they approved and we met at her house. At the first meeting, we took a liking to each other. Shortly after, I proposed and we got married soon after. She was 21 at the time. Love at first sight lasted a lifetime for us,” shares Tan, adding that his beloved wife passed away some 20 years ago. She was in her late 60s.

“I have seen all my children and grandchildren grow up and make a success of their lives. My first grandson will be getting married this year, and I am looking forward to the wedding. I feel so privileged and blessed to be a part of their lives,” says Tan.

For Tan, living a long, fulfilling life is not just about healthy eating, although he makes a conscious effort to cut down on oily or fried food. What’s more important, says Tan, is living a good life.

“In order to live a long, fulfilling life, we must not cause pain or suffering to others and we must always be honest and do good and be kind. What goes around comes around, I believe. Help those in need if you can and always have good intentions,” says Tan.