Banner Image for SG100: A Celebration of Our Centenarians

Duke-NUS - SG100 A Celebration of Our Centenarians

Koh Ah Boh
Chum Ai Haw
Seah Sor Yuan
Oon Thow
Goh Beng
Tan Swan Eng
Yip Kwai Heng
Soo Too Mie
Chung Wah Sun

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Koh Ah Boh

Mr Koh Ah Boh


“I am one hundred plus years old.” 

“Now cannot work…the eyes can’t see. Old already, old people don't work.”

“I used to catch fish…eat fish”

Mr Koh Ah Boh, aged 108, was born in Guangdong, China. He arrived in Singapore in his early 20s as a fisherman who also made attap roofs in his village. When Mr Koh was 34, he agreed to an arranged marriage to a girl years his junior. The marriage was intended to protect his late wife, then 13, from becoming a “comfort woman” during the Japanese Occupation. The couple lived and raised their children on a kelong around Changi South. They were a hardworking family—Mrs Koh would sell all the fish that Mr Koh caught himself while the children tended to their fish farm. 

In the 1980s, when the family had to be relocated to Tampines due to developments in Changi, Mr Koh became a landscaper-gardener, toiling long hours under the scorching sun. He even planted some of the trees that now line our expressways. Family is most important to Mr Koh. He never resented the hard physical labour, because he was focused on providing for and raising his children well. His children admire his strong work ethic, which he continued to display as a karang guni man, right up to his 90s. He preferred to work, as it gave him something to do even though he was comfortably cared for. In his younger days, he was known for creating and inventing things.

Mr Koh looks forward to family gatherings—he loves seeing everyone. With his memory still lucid, he is able to match names to faces easily, keeping tabs on his grandchildren’s attendance at family gatherings. At home, he still wins at mental sums. Mr Koh has a weakness for century egg porridge and Old Chang Kee’s curry puffs, which he eats daily. He regularly consumes bird’s nest, which explains why, as his daughter puts it, his face is still so “well preserved”.

The family attributes Mr Koh’s longevity to genes and an active lifestyle. His son jokes, “My father has no illnesses, which makes him even healthier than me!” Their father is apparently the fittest in the family because he never misses his twice daily exercises! Mr Koh’s favourite activity is using the pebbled reflexology path and lifting logs at the fitness corner. He was often seen pushing his wheelchair as part of his exercise routine.

(Mr Koh has since passed on)

Chum Ai Haw

Mdm Chum Ai Haw


“I forgot my childhood.” 

“Happy…got people come…I happy...”

Madam Chum Ai Haw was born in 1915, in the month of November on the sixth day of the Chinese lunar calendar. When she was 20, she left her birthplace in the Hainan province of China for an arranged marriage to a man 16 years her senior. She joined her husband and built a life with him in Singapore. Madam Chum described her husband as a shy man who started his early career as a hawker at a stall they used to owned on Bain Street and later retired as a bar waiter with Cathay Organization.

Despite owning a food stall, food was scarce in the Chum household. Madam Chum and her husband would have porridge every day, with coconut and salt for added seasoning and texture. This, however, did not stop Madam Chum from developing a passion for cooking and eventually passing down heirloom Hainan recipes to her current Indonesian helper and caregiver, whom she treats like her own daughter and best friend. According to her helper, Madam Chum is a jovial, kind and caring person who does not bear grudges.

Madam Chum claims never to have worked a single day in her life. Yet, her children remembers her dedication to nurturing and taking care of all of them- five sons and three daughters, including also, fourteen grandchildren. Madam Chum had plenty of advice for her children, and the values she continually stressed were “Don’t gamble, don’t be too playful (and) don’t spend too much”.

In 1989, a year after her husband had passed away, Madam Chum - then aged 60 - went on a short trip to her village in China. Most of her kin had already migrated to Singapore but she continued to maintain strong ties with those who chose to remain and often bought gifts for them. Her husband had also built a house in her village for their family members. The last time she visited China was in 2010, at 80 years of age.

Three years ago, when she became a centenarian, Madam Chum started developing pains in her leg which eventually made it difficult for her to move without a walker. She insists on continuing her daily routines—making her way downstairs to savour her favourite bee hoon noodles and fried chicken wings. At 102, Madam Chum has no history of chronic illness, but is no longer as mobile as she used to be. Although she spends most of her time in her bed, she maintains a positive disposition, playing mahjong with her helper from time to time, and reminiscing over pictures of her travels to China. Madam Chum is 104 years old. 

Seah Sor Yuan

Mdm Seah Sor Yuan


“I am one hundred…plus…one!” 

“Live for so long…very painful”

“I used to be fat, my jade bracelet is here [points to forearm], now left the bones, my bracelet can go all the way up!”

Madam Seah Sor Yuan was born in 1916, in Jinmen, an island considered a part of the Fujian Province of China. She married there, but left for Singapore to join her husband and his family who had a provision shop along Beach Road (near Golden Mile Complex). As newly-weds, they spent time managing the family business.

By the time she turned 25, Madam Seah had given birth to two young children, a daughter and a newborn son. On February 15 1941, the young wife became a single mother when her husband, then 29 was captured and killed by the Japanese, never to come home. She would spend the next months grieving while still hoping for his miraculous return, before accepting the fate of his execution. To overcome her grief, she busied herself by managing a thriving provision business. She had to shuttle to and from different shops located between Beach Rd and Tanjong Rhu.

The “running here and there”, according to her son, Mr Tan, must have been the ‘secret’ to her longevity. The other ‘secret’ is her carefree personality. She is also fiercely independent, without being intimidating. She also exercises regularly and has even developed her own ‘style’ of keeping fit! Madam Seah demonstrated her exercise stance, moving her hips from side to side and swaying her arms back and forth. Her family watched on and recorded a video of her doing so. Madam Seah did not lose focus of the television screen in front of her. “She has poor vision and hearing”, her daughter-in-law explains, “but sometimes she surprises us when she responds to what we are saying or points out something someone was wearing!”

Madam Seah also remains meticulous even at the age of 101. Her bedsheet is crisp, with the edges ironed flat and held down with metal clips. Her wardrobe contains clothes that she sewed herself—all hung neatly, arranged according to occasion and colour. It is her attention to the little things that endears her to her loved ones. She is also generous to her loved ones, placing her needs before theirs. When her son got married, she gave him her brand-new furniture, insisting that she preferred her older furniture. She wanted to bless them with the best, as a sign of good fortune, without making it look like charity. From a family of two children, Madam Seah has been blessed with five granddaughters, two grandsons and eight great-grandchildren. She remembers all of their names, and even their birthdates.

Madam Seah is also not one to forget what it means to have loved and lost. On February 15 every year, since her husband’s disappearance, Madam Seah makes a mark on her calendar and buys flowers to commemorate her husband’s life. When the base of The Cenotaph was extended to commemorate the lives lost in World War II (1939- 1945), Madam Seah would join fellow clan members from the Kim Mui Hoey Kuan (clan association) to offer prayers to their loved ones at the memorial’s steps. It was an annual ritual for her—getting flowers and heading to The Cenotaph. It was easier to get flowers before Valentine’s Day became highly commercialized in Singapore. “Now it’s harder,” her daughter-in-law sighs matter-of-factly. “People don’t focus on the dead for Valentine’s, but the living.”

(Madam Seah has since passed on)

Oon Thow

Mr Oon Thow

“People can't believe my actual age because I am still young”

In 2016, a 107 year-old Mr Oon Thow was already making headlines for active ageing after being spotted by a Member of Parliament making their rounds in his Bukit Batok neighbourhood. Just two to three years ago, Mr Oon would head to the coffee shop every day, in his wheelchair, for his early morning kopi and egg prata which he takes with sugar. 

Born in 1908, Mr Oon Thow is a native son of An Xi, the Fujian Province of China. He was a shy and introverted man who came to Singapore alone, leaving briefly, only to return with a wife. Together, they set up a farm around the Bukit Timah area growing some vegetables, and rearing chickens and pigs for subsistence, with a little for trade. They raised their four daughters and three sons on the farm. He was a family man who was constantly working hard in order to provide for his household. Life was tough on the farm, where all three sons had to start helping out at a very young age. The family eventually moved to Sungei Kadut but had to be evicted in the 70s to make way for other developmental plans. Mr Oon switched to lacquer woodworking, and retired when he was in his mid-70s. 

During the Japanese Occupation, Mr Oon was captured by Japanese soldiers with truckloads of other men. Out of respect for comrades who did not manage to escape, he is tight-lipped about his experience. He holds the trauma close to himself to this very day, and, as a matter of principle, refuses to adorn garments that have been manufactured in Japan. 

The secret behind Mr Oon’s longevity, according to his family, is the fervent insistence that he is still young. He believes that he can still do what others who are much younger than him are able to do, such as travel. He was at least 95 years old on his last visit to Fujian and would have continued to travel if not under doctors’ strict orders. At 108, he maintains good vision. He sees clearly that we are having a conversation, but is unable to hear what is being said because of his hearing loss. Yet, he occasionally chimes in with a “What did they ask?”, because he feels very protective of his family and cautious about giving away too many intimate details about their lives. 

Time also seems to have stopped for Mr Oon. The past feels like yesterday, but whenever Mr Oon asks about his friends, no one has an answer—no one knows because it was a lifetime ago. This is possibly what it means to have lived a life—especially when your past, present and a future seems to exist in the same time, and come together in one full circle. 

(Mr Oon Thow has since passed on)

Goh Beng

Mr Goh Beng

“Young people of this era do not have much worries, you are all very lucky.”

When the Japanese came, I decided to become my own boss. I had two other partners, but they have both passed away.

When I was young, only when you work, then can you get to eat.  If you don’t work you have nothing to eat. 

In China, you can work and earn for half a year and then enjoy the other half of the year. I wanted to grow old in China. Here, even when you are old, you have to keep working until you die. Money runs out fast in Singapore. 

I prefer taking the ship to travel to China. The aeroplane is fast…a ship takes five weeks, but there were more things to see.

The money I’ve earned, I sent some to China to build a temple…to repay Ma Zu for giving me safe passage to Singapore. I donated money for a school so village children can study, because I did not have the opportunity to go to school. 

I want to open a shop. At home, everyday sit down, nothing to do. 

Mr Goh Beng was born in 1913 in Fujian, China. He travelled to Singapore at 21 to work for a relative. He sold joss sticks at Joo Chiat for 3 years, going back to China for an arranged marriage. He then returned to Singapore at 26 to raise a family with his wife. He got married to his second wife during the Japanese invasion so she would not be taken in as a “comfort woman”. She left him after the Japanese surrendered. After supplying and trading joss sticks for over 60 years, Mr Goh retired in the 80s and handed his business over to his son. Raising children was the most important thing in Mr Goh’s life. He has six sons and two daughters. Throughout his entire career, Mr Goh had frequently donated money and visited China to help his relatives and villagers in Fujian, sometimes at the expense of his own family in Singapore. Leaving behind a legacy at his birthplace was of paramount importance to Mr Goh. 

(Mr Goh has since passed on)


Mdm Bulkis

“Make good of the time you have”

I started cooking at a very young age. I had no choice. We were a family of many daughters. Every daughter took turns cooking for the family during the week. That’s how I became a good cook.

I made a lot of friends from the “club” (Young Muslim Women’s Association). We learned how to sew and do floral arrangements. What else could a young girl do at that time?

If someone asks for my age, I will say I am 200 or more. My answer is a prayer. If I give a higher number, Allah will bless me with longevity. Why lie about being younger? Why must we be afraid about being old? Do not fear!

Always remember God. Don’t be easily influenced by others. Don’t wish ill upon others. Be kind. Follow your own path. Sit at home, cook…sew…use your hands! Make good of the time you have.

Madam Bulkis Yahya was born in Singapore in 1915. She grew up in a Jewish neighborhood around Wilkie Road. Her best friend, Sophie, taught her some recipes for baking and cooking. She married at 21, and the couple toured around Singapore, as newlyweds, for their “honeymoon”. Madam Bulkis’s lifelong passion is sewing. She taught her granddaughters to sew during their school holidays. She was 95 when she made her last item—a knitted hat (as shown in the photograph). Family members describe Madam Bulkis as a highly creative person who was always doing something because she has trouble “keeping still”. Madam Bulkis enjoys sitting in her chair, reciting verses from the Quran and people watching out of her window.  

(Madam Bulkis has since passed on)

Tan Swan Eng

Mdm Tan Swan Eng

“You live better when you work for yourself”

Last time nothing to do, not enough to eat. Must find work to do. 

You can’t be happy working for others. It’s not good to work for other people. You live better when you work for yourself. Work from home, you earn a little bit but it is your own hard-earned money. 

My grandchildren sayang me. They take care of me so I don’t suffer but I prefer to work, earn my own money, so I don’t have to depend on my family. 

I still want to work. Never mind if I become a cleaner. If I don’t work, there is no money.

Thinking about my husband, children and grandchildren makes me happy. I am also happy when the government gives me money. 

I’m 98…I don't remember. You’re asking what it’s like to be this old? No good. I am too old. Don’t live until such an old age. The brain does not work well anymore.

Thank you…thank you…thank you for coming and talking.

Madam Tan Swan Eng was born in Hainan, China in 1914. In the 1950s, together with her son, she joined her husband, a chicken rice seller, in Singapore. They had enough money for one child and had to leave their elder daughter behind. Madam Tan enjoyed keeping herself busy by working-from-home. After retiring as a British amah, she made Chinese knot buttons, sewed, went door-to-door selling roti, and packed items for Singapore Airlines. After a bad fall, Madam Tan was certified bedridden, but she proved doctors wrong when she started walking again. She relaxes by listening to Hainanese opera using the cassette radio she purchased during her last visit to China in 2012. Madam Tan is 105 years old in 2018.

Yip Kwai Heng

Mdm Yip Kwai Heng

“Young people must learn how to do everything”

I started working at 14. Grow crops…rear cows…I had to do everything to support my family. One day I heard someone say, “We are going to Singapore!” So I quickly went along. They said coming to Singapore is good. You can earn money. You can earn a lot of money!

I was 19 when I arrived in Singapore. I did not tell my father or mother. They would not have let me come otherwise. 

What’s there to not be happy? I just sleep every day, and live every day.

I teach our helper how to cook. She does not know how. Boil old cucumber soup. Add some pork bones and honey dates…very delicious! For soya sauce chicken…first you stir-fry the vegetables and then you add the chicken piece-by-piece in soya sauce. 

I want to mati. Life stops having meaning when you have lived too long. My wish is to die at night, peacefully in my sleep. Pray to Guan Yin, that I get my wish. 

Young people must learn how to do everything. I sewed clothes, swept floors, rolled cigars, and peddled goods. I carried mud! I do, what I can do. I will teach you to roll cigars. You must do everything to earn money. Then save a lot of money. 

We were so poor then. I work all my life. I have saved a lot of money by myself and for my daughter’s education.

Born in 1916, Madam Yip started working at 14, rearing crops and cows in Guangzhou, China. She stayed in a coolie house upon arrival in Singapore. Madam Yip had to pay her friends to be match-made to her late husband. In her late 30s, Madam Yip adopted her only daughter. Her daughter admires her spunk and describes Madam Yip as a highly independent, very outspoken and friendly woman who was good at earning and saving money. Madam Yip was also brave. She marched in to her husband’s workplace to resolve a conflict between her husband and his colleagues at a time where Chinese women were expected to be docile and quiet. At 96, Madam Yip was actively doing marketing rounds for her household until a bad fall necessitated a hip replacement. Despite her ailments, Madam Yip still insists on cooking for her daughter. 

(Madam Yip has since passed on)

Soo Too Mie

Mdm Soo Too Mie

“I miss everyone”

I did not know my husband but I was still excited to get married. He and I had each taken a photo for our wedding. After the ceremony, a man offered to turn them into portraits. I love taking photos but studio shoots are expensive. 

When the Japanese came, we evacuated to Pulau Ubin for safety. My first son was just born. We lived there for twenty over years. Life was very free and easy. Although we did not have much at home, there were more things to do then unlike now. 

How to be happy when you can’t remember? 

I miss everyone. My husband, my parents…but what is the point of missing? Everyone’s gone.

Thank you, thank you for taking my picture, I miss studio photos. Reminds me of my early days. 

Madam Soo was born in Guangdong, China in 1916. Shortly after her arranged marriage, her husband was posted to Singapore to work as a clerk for a construction company. In 1936 when she was 20, Madam Soo departed on a five-week journey from Hong Kong to join her husband and raise a family in Singapore. Madam Soo is an introvert and a devoted homemaker who loves looking after young children. One of her most memorable experiences was watching her eldest son receive education. She also showed us her wedding portrait and was incredibly excited to have her photo professionally taken. Madam Soo was smiling throughout the photo shoot. Madam Soo constantly reminds her son to “get another house”. She misses the carefree island life in Ubin where she feels free to roam around her compound compared to living in an urban high-rise flat.

Chung Wah Sun

Mr Chung Wah Sun

“I can build better than the youngsters.”

The Japanese soldiers asked me to chase a duck. I tried but I lost it so I ran home. They shot through my wooden door, leaving a gaping hole. Lucky I was not shot dead!

I repaired and built the meeting door at the Parliament house in the 70s…Lee Kuan Yew was efficient, he paid my overtime! The spiral staircase at Kallang Cinema, is it still there? I made that too. The boss requested for teak and paid me a lump sum. 

I enjoyed going to bars. I earned a lot, spent a lot. I did not save. Why should I save? Now I don’t have money.

I bet I can build better than the youngsters. I can do it. But companies refuse to insure me because I’m too old. I cannot build anymore. 

I carry pens in my pocket not because I write. I seldom write. It’s just a habit. But for now…it’s just to look good. 

My wife is not my first love. She is my only one.  

Mr Chung Wah Sun was born in 1915 and grew up in Malacca. A carpenter by profession, Mr Chung started as an apprentice during the Japanese Occupation. In his late 20s, he met and fell in love with his wife (now 89). They moved to Singapore after the war. Mr Chung was in the construction industry for over 30 years. He owned a small company specializing in Teak carpentry. Mr Chung built the beautiful doors in his flat by himself 17 years ago, when he was 88. Mr Chung is 104 years old in 2018.