Two evenings ago, my eldest sister Lucy came by with her husband Richard, to visit my mother. They brought some durians for her. It was dinner time. While we were talking, she told us matter-of-factly that it was their 46th wedding anniversary. The 5th of November. They celebrated with their children the night before. Sitting at the dinner table, I felt blessed to be, however remotely, a part of this milestone. I started to reflect on this marriage. It was a feeling, not a conscious thought. But now it is clearer to me. That this is a marriage that works. In life there are no guarantees. Yet somehow I have never doubted this marriage. All marriages have their ups and downs. But this one, in its most unassuming ways, is one of those marriages which is set for success from the get go.
Lucy is a name she gave herself during a time when having a Christian name was fashionable. She is Woon Kim Fong, my eldest sister, who came to Singapore with my mother from Hainan island to join my father, when she was four years old. Life would be difficult, although it would probably be worse back in China. Growing up, she would be taken by the trends of the 1960s, dressing up, going to some parties. But on the whole, it would all be about survival. She is the eldest of four siblings, but would be the one with the least formal education. It was a time when being the eldest meant taking on responsibilities beyond your years. She had to give up school when my brother and I were born. We lived in a government-aided long house in Geylang. Every morning when it was still pitch dark, she would have to ‘carry water’ from the communal tap. When she was barely ten years old, she joined the workforce, helping in a drink stall at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. By the time she was fifteen, she would become a live-in domestic help with a British expatriate family.
Even though she met friends of the opposite sex, Lucy and Richard were introduced through a matchmaker. Then it was still important that the boyfriend be of the same dialect group, and even more important, that he had a steady job. After the introduction, they started to ‘walk’, a phrase for courtship. As a child, I looked forward to the ‘goodies’ of this courtship. At night, I would listen out for the sound of Richard’s scooter. Because they would bring home night snacks. Richard would also take us to the movies. As this relationship was ‘approved’ by my parents, developments were fast and furious. Soon they were engaged and then married. It was 1967. She was 18 and he was 21. The following year, they had their first child, a son. Their second, a daughter, came 3 years later. By which time Richard was working as a ship foreman, then a supervisor, at Shell Petroleum. They were provided living quarters on Pulau Bukom. He could be out at sea for days to a week. She became a housewife on the island, taking care of the household with her in-laws.
Audrey Hepburn famously said, ‘If I get married, I want to be very married.’ Lucy and Richard are very married, if there was such a thing. They went through good and bad times. He would leave Shell to start a packaging business with my other sister. This business would be hit by the financial crisis. Lucy would rejoin the workforce again to help out. With her self-taught culinary skills, she ventured into the food business with limited success. Their children progressively started working. Life was not easy. Yet through it all, somehow there was never a concern about Lucy and Richard as a couple. If there was a big problem, it was not about their marriage. In our family, Lucy did not have a brilliant career. She does not have the most money. In fact she has had the toughest life among us. But Lucy has the most successful marriage among a lot of people I know. It is something money cannot buy. What is the secret of a long and happy marriage? I do not think Lucy or Richard has an answer. I think they know hardship. They were focused on making a living for themselves and for their children. Their marriage thrived through their strive. But what do I know? I only know that this is a marriage that works…
‘Being in a long marriage is a little bit like that nice cup of coffee every morning. I might have it every day, but I still enjoy it.’