Story of Mr & Mrs Tan Soo Ren by Lily Bok


Singapore Memory Project
Mr Tan Soo Ren

Mr & Mrs. Tan Soo Ren are in their seventies. At present they live in a flat in Jurong. Mr. Tan met his Australian wife in London when he went there to study architecture. They married in London in 1968. They have a daughter and a son who gave them four grandchildren.
Mr. Tan came from a large family of ten boys and two girls. He was born in 1938 and was the sixth child. He lived through the Japanese Occupation and had a traumatic experience. At that time his family lived in Roberts Lane in Little India. Soldiers would walk along the five foot way, passing his house. One day, they walked into his house, fascinated by a piano and started playing it. Fearing for their lives, Soo Ren and his siblings hid in a secret place up in the loft at the back of the house. When he was four years old, the Japanese took him away for it seemed they missed their own family. He was fed contaminated milk causing him to have an infection and fever. As a result he became hearing impaired in the left ear. When the war ended, he witnessed hundreds of Japanese soldiers marching to Race course Road which was near his house in Little India.
His growing up years in Little India was fun as children in this neighbourhood  were friendly and he often played marbles with them in the backlane. Sometimes they played 'hantam bola' in the field at Farrer Park. He especially enjoyed batting the ball. Today the scene is different. Many foreign workers meet at this place and congregate in the backlanes. 
In 1953, his family moved to a large villa at Cuscaden Road off Orchard Road. He studied at Nanyang Primary and had his secondary education in Hwa Chong. His father being forward-looking felt learning of English was important. He and two brothers were enrolled at St Andrews to study English in the afternoon after school. They had to stop after one year as it was too tiring. He remembered going to primary school in a rickshaw but in the secondary school years, it was a trishaw. Discipline in school was strict. He liked the English lessons taught by a Canadian teacher. He was a school swimmer.
As a child he enjoyed the celebrations of traditional festivals like the lantern (or moon-cake) festival and the dumpling festival. He was fascinated as he watched his mother make delicious dumplings by the hundreds for their large family.  He learned to speak dialects like Cantonese, Teochew and Malay from the babysitter, the driver and the gardener. After graduating from Hwa Chong he left by ship for London for higher education. From London, he applied to work as an architect in Sydney. He and his wife loved the life there but in less than a year, his mother asked him to return to Singapore. They went to Singapore in a ship. Today the mode of travelling for long distance would be by air. 
Mr. and Mrs Tan thought that their stay would be a short one but they have lived in Singapore since then. Raelene, his wife, remembered that particular day of their arrival which was 10 August 1970, a public holiday. She was amazed by the large crowd of relatives waiting at the pier to welcome them. She moved in to stay with his parents in the big house at Cuscaden Road . There were fourteen rooms housing thirty residents. She soon adapted to the life in Singapore and learned about Asian values and culture. As there was a language barrier, much of her learning was through observation. 
Her mother-in-law told her to serve 'mee sua' (thin white noodle) to Soo Ren on his birthday as was the traditional Chinese way of celebrating one's birthday and for longevity. She began learning to cook this dish and also enjoyed eating it herself. 
The Cuscaden neighbourhood was forested and there was a kampong nearby. On her way to the wet market, which is the present Tanglin Mall she remembered seeing chickens, monkeys and wild dogs roaming about.  Back then it was difficult to have western food unlike now.  Most of the time Raelene had Chinese food for her three main meals. From her own experiences, she realised that it was quite a cultural shock and that it would be helpful if information was available. After doing some research and her own observation, she wrote 'Etiquette- A matter of course' which is a series of 4 books covering Chinese, Indian & Malay, Western and Japanese table etiquette. In 1973, Soo Ren and Raelene joined the Tanglin Club to give Raelene the opportunity to interact with expatriates and have Western food.  She soon helped to set up the Cosmopolitan Women's Club to provide support and companionship to others in cross-cultural marriages.
In the 1980's, more choices of food became available and Raelene did reviews on them. She also gave talks on etiquette to schools and corporations. 
After returning to Singapore, Mr Tan worked with his brother in their architect firm at Finlayson Green. His designs included shops, temples and apartments. He redesigned a conserved terrace house in Blair Road for the late minister, Dr. Tay Eng Soon. The Chinese temple at Toa Payoh and a 3-storey Confucian Pagoda in Telok Ayer St. were projects he enjoyed doing. He also designed the Tung Ann Building in Cecil St. which at present houses the Tung Ann District Guild. He is a council member of this Hokkien Clan Association. He later became the treasurer and honorary head of properties. He is also a member of the Hokkien Huay Kuan, (another clan association). In his leisure time, he would make miniature wooden models of buildings. He also liked to enlarge drawings of interesting patterns or figures. He also helped to promote cultural activities at the Hokkien association. In 1980, he enrolled in a sculpture course at NAFA and successfully did the sculpture of both his father and mother.
Mr. and Mrs Tan Soo Ren, of the pioneer generation have led an active life and contributed much to the community. They have sent their two children to Australia for higher education and are happy that their children have returned to live and work in Singapore. This is truly a successful and interesting cross-cultural marriage.

(This story was documented as part of SMP’s collaboration with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Alexandra Health System.)