Picture a 95 year old lady who has spent more than half her life caring for the elderly and the needy. Imagine that despite being a penniless, illiterate single woman when she first arrived in Singapore, she later established a nursing home costing around $11 million for more than 200 old folks. Time for a well-earned rest perhaps?
Not for the Venerable Ho Yuen Hoe. At the age of 95, she was still eager to make a difference. “When I met her at her 95th birthday, (Ven. Ho) was seized with a new project to build an orphanage to bring love to the children,” recalled then-Minister for Health Khaw Boon Wan in 2007.
“(She was) an extraordinary human being who taught us how to live an ordinary life to its fullest: not for ourselves, but for others. Her mind was ever young and active. She would always be an inspiration to all,” the minister said.
Today, the Man Fut Tong Nursing Home is a modern facility with medical, residential and social care for the elderly of all races and both genders. With space for 232 residents, the Home is testament to Yuen Hoe’s unflagging efforts, having grown from a small establishment she founded for around 40 women in 1969.
Yuen Hoe’s life was a long and remarkable one. Born to a poor family in Guangzhou, China, she was sold at the age of nine to a childless couple, in order to provide food for her family. When her adopted parents passed away, Yuen Hoe was sold again, this time to serve as the second wife of a wealthy landowner’s son.
After finding out that her new family was involved in opium smuggling, Yuen Hoe resolved to make a new life for herself. She left her husband and Hong Kong, where they had moved to, vowing never to return. Arriving in Singapore in the late 1930s or early 1940s (the exact date is unclear), she worked as a maid with a monthly salary of $2.
Yuen Hoe then became a hair-bun maker in Chinatown, weaving and plaiting hair buns for amahs (domestic servants) and Samsui women (immigrant Cantonese and Hakka labourers). With a comb, a stool and a kerosene lamp her only implements, she worked from 8am to 3am each day, patiently adding to her savings.
With her carefully managed savings, Yuen Hoe acquired property and became a landlord. She also set up the Man Fut Tong Mutual Aid Association, which acted as an informal banking system for Chinese immigrants, and adopted six daughters from poor families.
When she was in her 50s, Yuen Hoe left to study Buddhism at a monastery on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. After three years, she was ordained as a nun and returned to Singapore to become abbess of the Lin Chee Cheng Sia Temple that she founded. At the temple in Richards Avenue, Yuen Hoe housed for free some 40 elderly Samsui women who had become destitute.
In an interview in 2004, Yuen Hoe said: “I used to feed the old folks at some of the homes, and it would sadden me to see them so yellow and sallow. One of them told me, they would go in vertical and probably exit horizontal. I might be illiterate but I wanted to give back to society. I didn't want to sit around and wait to die.”
The Home was moved to another site on Richards Avenue and in 1977, rebuilt with a combination of Yuen Hoe’s savings, a bank loan and donations from her fundraising efforts. To maintain the Home as well as feed and care for its residents, she cooked vegetarian food to sell at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery and sold prize-winning orchids she cultivated herself.
From 1987, Yuen Hoe brought in volunteers to run the Home in a more structured fashion, with an accounting system put into place and the Home registered as a charity. Yuen Hoe and her volunteers then started consultations with the government for an expanded nursing home in 1998, and a plot of land in Woodlands was offered for Man Fut Tong’s use.
At this news, the then-89 year old Yuen Hoe put her heart and soul into raising funds for the new Home. Together with her volunteers, she organised a charity dinner and a golf tournament, solicited donations and published a vegetarian food cookbook, providing her personal collection of recipes and even supervising photography sessions. Altogether, Yuen Hoe and her volunteers helped raise S$2.6 million towards the new Man Fut Tong, with the government funding the remainder.
Yuen Hoe was astute enough to recruit experienced healthcare professionals to manage the new Home, but she still remained active and involved with the Home. In 2002, she received the Public Service Award (PBM) for her humanitarian contributions.
Even after suffering a stroke in 2005, Yuen Hoe remained concerned about the residents of the Home. After her death, Ong Chin Keng, one of the residents, said: “With no schooling and little money, the abbess built a temple and a home to help needy old folks like us.
“Even though she was sick in bed last month, she never forgot us. She reminded her staff to prepare us good food and tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) to celebrate the Winter Solstice. She was an exceptional person, big-hearted and spirited.”
Yuen Hoe’s life of service was informed by her Buddhist religion, and those teachings provide an apt encapsulation of her philosophy of giving. In an interview in 2004, she said: “Everything in life is transient. Only charity is real and enduring. When you give, you receive. Charity is the best antidote to bad karma.”
By Alvin Chua