The Straits Times
Saturday Special Report
Feb 9, 2008
By Ho Ai Li
Love blossomed for Mr and Mrs Chan at the Tiong Bahru market where they worked. They met 50 years ago.IN 1958, love matches were not yet in the air. Most couples here were still match-made.
But at the Tiong Bahru market though, two young people found each other amid heaps of kang kong and pork knuckles and fell in love.
Then 23, Mr Chan Lay Boo ran a fresh poultry stall to support his mother and four younger siblings. He became the man of the house at age 13 after his father, distraught over a failed business, left his family in Singapore and returned to Fujian, China.
Then 17, second daughter Chiang Yee Lui helped her mother sell cai xin and watercress from her grandmother's farm in Potong Pasir. She had lost her father too; he had died from a nasty cold when she was seven.
There was no money for school. Both learnt all they needed to know at the wet market.
For Mr Chan, now 73, it was 'yi jian zhong qing (love at first sight)'. Mrs Chan, now 67, was an outgoing beauty with a host of suitors, many of them educated young men from well-off families. But she preferred the quiet, steady and stoical Mr Chan.
While they were forward-looking for their time, they were traditional in other ways. He made the first move, by inviting her to a movie. 'Of course he asked me. How can it be me?' she asks with a chuckle.
After finishing work, the lovebirds would go to the Majestic cinema in Chinatown in the evenings to watch movies starring actresses like Lin Dai or Ge Lan.
Three years later, they inked a marriage certificate at a mass ceremony with 16 other couples at the Hokkien Huay Kuan in Telok Ayer Street.
Both their mothers approved. 'He was already very burdened. I was then running my own stall and a little boss myself. I didn't need anyone to support me. It was free love,' says Mrs Chan.
She did not mind the hard life at all, or taking care of his siblings. 'I was used to hardship. It was not like I was a xiao jie (rich man's daughter).'
After marriage, she gave up her own stall and went from sorting vegetables to slaughtering fowl. The couple would sleep at 11pm and rise by 2am to prepare and open for business.
At noon, they started their second shift and opened their chicken rice stall, Tiong Huat Chicken Rice, at the Margaret Drive hawker centre.
Their work day ended after 9pm. This went on every day, including the eve and first day of Chinese New Year for over 20 years.
'We had no choice but to work hard. We had a lot of mouths to feed, including his siblings and our children. At that time, I had the strength to kill a few tigers,' she jokes.
A year after they wed in 1961, Mrs Chan had her first baby. They went on to have nine children in all, seven girls and two boys.
The children work in fields like marketing, travel and graphic design.
All this time, the couple have never exchanged birthday gifts or celebrated wedding anniversaries. Nor do they hold hands, or display affection publicly.
Prompted to put their arms around each other during a photo shoot, Mr Chan mutters with some awkwardness: 'This is the first time we are doing so in tens of years.'
Their love is forged instead on years of solidarity and sacrifice. For example, to raise capital to expand the stall, Mrs Chan pawned her gold wedding ring - which she redeemed subsequently. She melted it down years later to make nine keys to give to each of her children when they reached 21.
Mr Chan says he admires his wife for how forthright, capable and 'wan neng' (which translates to omnipotent) she is. 'She doesn't lie to me, I don't lie to her,' he says.
She chimes in: 'Yes, I can do work, can talk and can scold.' She finds his laid-back nature endearing.
She is proudest of their nine children and 14 grandchildren. On weekends and evenings, their ground-floor flat in Tiong Bahru is abuzz with children zipping in and out, and adults crowding the living room chatting and watching TV.
They do not dish out love advice to their children, seven of whom are married.
'As long as they can communicate, it doesn't matter who they marry - whether they are Chinese or not,' says Mrs Chan. One daughter is married to a Caucasian, another to an African-American.
She sums up: 'You must show concern, understanding and forgiveness. If you are petty, you won't have any friends, let alone family.'