A couple weathers many ups and downs including a father’s objections and celebrates 55 years of marriage.
BY: Eleanor Yap
When Charles Low wanted to go out with Chee Kum Chee, her father objected as he was considered a “poor woman’s child”. But despite this hurdle, the two continued to see each other and today, have been married for 55 years with two children and two grandchildren!
The two met in 1955 at Charles’ cousin’s birthday, when he was in his 20s and she was in her teens. “I was only three years older than her,” he shared matter-of-factly. “It was infatuation on my side. I started writing letters to her expressing my feelings.”
The response by Kum Chee took sometime, more like after the second letter. “I was playing hard to get!” she laughed. “During that time, I didn’t know much about him. Even if he wrote to me, it didn’t mean I would automatically be friends with him.”
After the reply, they ended up meeting several times but her father was against it. “He didn’t want me to have boyfriends at my age,” said Kum Chee, who shared that at the time, they both also had other admirers. They were forbidden to meet up further and so both had no choice and didn’t see each other for a year or two. There were no phones at the time and they stopped corresponding as well.
But their fates were already sealed and their stars were meant to collide once again.
“After we parted, I wanted to join the Army. I was on my way to join as a volunteer when we met coincidentally and our relationship started up again,” said Charles, 81.
And Kum Chee’s father remained steadfast and objected to the relationship on the grounds that Charles was the only son of a poor woman and he couldn’t match the level and expectation of the Chee family. However, they were both determined to get together so they decided to meet up secretly. “I always went out with my mother’s youngest sister (who was Charles’ cousin’s friend). I would give the excuse that I was going to see my auntie and go dancing with her and her friends. Sometimes, I stayed at my auntie’s house so there was no need to ask my parents’ permission to go out dancing,” said Kum Chee, 77.
As her father was a well-known tailor, who made dresses for the rich and those with status, she often would go to his shop on Stamford Road to learn how to make evening gowns. “I would often wear those gowns in his store to go out dancing,” she explained. And, her parents didn’t suspect anything was amiss. It also helped that her father slept at 8pm.
At the same time, Charles wanted to get past what Kum Chee’s father thought about him. “I had the determination which was my forte to succeed in life. After leaving school, I worked for an American company, which sold cash registers to retailers and supermarkets. I treasured the job and worked very hard, and had various promotions,” he shared.
Few knew about what the two were up to. However, her mother’s ah mah chee (servant girl) knew and decided after several years of secrecy, it had to end. She pleaded with Kum Chee’s mother to let them go ahead and be friends and to get married. She was an important figure in the family and when she said something, her parents would listen. Said Kum Chee, “If my mother said yes, my father would then say yes.”
Her mother did finally give her blessing … but with a slight caveat – they had to agree to get engaged or else they wouldn’t be allowed to go out. Added Charles, “The family was very old fashion in that sense.”
For better & for worse
A year later, wedding bells rang on September 6, 1959. As it would be, Kum Chee’s father made her wedding dress. And who knew, things slowly turned around for the couple.
Said Kum Chee, “Later on, Charles became my father’s favourite son-in-law out of the four son-in-laws.” One time, her father hurt his back after falling. Her brother wanted to help massage him but he insisted on having Charles instead. And, after her mother passed away and her father wanted to go to Shanghai to look for his first wife and to stay there for good, her second brother and Charles chaperoned him, in hopes of convincing him later to return to Singapore with them. While there, after meeting his sisters, Kum Chee’s father made his own decision to come back to Singapore.
Also while in China, Kum Chee revealed that her father stayed in a village and ended up with constipation for nine days. Charles was the ever-caring son-in law, looking after him. “I was very close to him. I washed his cloths and inner pants. When we were coming back to Singapore, he nearly had another fall and I was able to save him as he was near to me. He knew I was there all the time and I was looking after him, and he appreciated that,” he said of his father-in-law, who passed away later at 74. Charles said that his father-in-law would praise him and even sang his praises to other relatives.
Ups & downs
And as with his relationship with his father-in-law had its share of ups and downs so did his marriage with Kum Chee. Laughed Charles, “I did most of the work.”
On a serious note, he added: “There are plenty of ups and downs. If you truly love your loved ones, you will forever forgive them and take all the knots and make up for the best.” He shared that these “knots” often are not financially-related and they would resolve themselves usually after a day.
He credits the teachings of Indian spritual guru Sai Baba for keeping him grounded, and for being forgiving and loving. Added Kum Chee, “He [Charles] is close to me and he is loving and caring. How not to give in?”
Noted Charles, “The true secret is really if you love your wife and she is always there for you, then you can forgive many things. However, if you don’t care about one another, you will not survive another day [of marriage].” He said though, that they fail to appreciate each other in public, however, “deep in our hearts, we appreciate each other”.
Being together for a long time, they have found activities that they can enjoy together including dancing, playing ukelele and going to the gym regularly. This has allowed them to grow their love for each other further and looking at their previous ups and downs with smiles.