Chen is one of those rare women described warmly by others as “such a lovely person”, and in this case they are absolutely right.
Malaysia-born, her parents emigrated to Sydney when she was just 14 years old, and she lived there for the next 25 years. “I do feel like an Aussie,” she says, when asked – “Australia is my home.”
It’s also where she met her husband, Victor, similarly born in Malaysia but an Aussie citizen. His work brought them to Singapore some four and a half years ago; he has a fund management partnership with three others: another Australian, a Brit and a Greek-American. A good balance of nationalities, Chen points out with a smile.
The glossy piano is not just for show – Chen trained as a music teacher at Sydney University, and taught for a good five years before daughter Amy was born. There’s little in the way of domestic help in Australia, of course; and as she wanted to be with her child, and piano lessons generally take place after school hours, her career fell by the wayside.
Amy the Bookworm
Amy (now 16) is in Year 10 at the Australian school. She’s a talented all-round student and is extremely happy there, says her mum, clearly relieved that she never has to push the apple of her eye to study.
“An only child, she developed a passion for reading when she was just a toddler, walking around with her nose in a book most of the time – so much so that we would tell her to stop reading and talk to us!
“It’s probably my fault, though. When we went shopping, I would put her into the child seat of the supermarket trolley, with a storybook picked up in the stationery aisle and a punnet of strawberries; they would keep her engrossed until we left the store.”
The Ongs are all great readers, it seems. “The three of us sit and read at the breakfast table, I have to confess. But at other shared mealtimes, there’s a ‘no-reading’ rule – we have to talk to one another!”
Having survived a bout with cancer about 14 years ago, Chen felt that she wanted to do something meaningful with her life as an expat spouse, and give back something to society. She wanted to have a purpose beyond the social round of coffee mornings.
“When we packed up to move to Singapore, we had so many books that we couldn’t possibly bring them all with us. I shipped a load of them to our family in Perth; but it wasn’t long before they built up again.”
Just over two years ago, the idea of redistributing second-hand children’s and reference books to needy youngsters came to her and Victor as they sat on their patio over a bottle of wine, she recalls.
“He said: ‘What can we do that involves books?’, and that’s where it all started.” They had heard of the organisation Room to Read, which promotes literacy and reading in various African and Asian countries; but Chen thought she’d do something of her own on a smaller scale, recycling second-hand books.
She started off with just the members of her walking group, which meets one morning a week at the Botanic Gardens. Those friends brought her their children’s unwanted books, and so did their friends, and that’s how it started to grow: by word of mouth.
How Read-4-Life Works
“Either I collect the books, or, more usually, the donors bring them here. When we have enough books, our volunteers cover them with adhesive plastic and box them up, and then we send them to 12 different shelters in the Philippines. It’s a good destination country, because English is widely spoken and there is a real need for reading materials.”
They are shipped in three-foot-square boxes for a set price; interestingly, the price is the same regardless of the weight, which works in your favour when you’re shipping a heavy commodity such as books. The Ongs’ helper, Ledy, told them about this useful service; apparently, it is very popular with foreign domestic workers who need to send stuff back home. Victor’s company pay the freight, so all costs related to the operation are kept within the family.
“We sent out a big shipment last week, and for days before that this entire living area was stacked with books and boxes,” says Chen. “We are lucky to have a lot of help with the packing; not only my walking group helps, but Amy’s friends from NYAA (the National Youth Achievement Award programme) do it to build up their hours of community service.”
I wonder: where do the books keep on coming from? After Chen gave a presentation to the senior students at the Australian school at a morning assembly, the school library adopted Read-4-Life as its charity: any spare or unneeded books go to Chen.
And in June, Chen and Victor bought 1,000 books from the National Library’s annual book sale – for just $2 each. “They were in good condition; already laminated; and included many reference books, just what the shelter we had in mind needed.”
Word is getting around, it seems. Chen was thrilled when 14-year-old Angela from St Margaret’s School called the other day to say she was organising a community book drive during October, and wanted Chen to distribute the books she planned to collect.
There’s a good reason that Read-4-Life is just that: not the Read-4-Life Foundation, or the Read-4-Life Association.
“By legal definition, a foundation in Singapore has to have funds, and we don’t deal with money at all – just books and volunteers. An association, on the other hand, needs to have at least two members on the board, and sometimes the expat community does not have the necessary continuity for that to work.”
Chen doesn’t just ship crates of books into the blue on a one-off basis; she builds relationships with the shelters. “I like to stay in touch, and keep some continuity.”
Last year, she, Victor and Amy visited the Cebu Hope Centre, where just four dedicated Catholic nuns take care of more than 40 abused and neglected girls.
They also went to the Children’s Shelter of Cebu, run by missionaries from Minnesota. Next to it, she tells me, is a small school and a little infirmary; it was very satisfying to see that a number of quarantined children were happily reading books and listening to CDs supplied by Read-4-Life.
“It’s a pleasure to meet and get to know the people of the Philippines in this way; they are such beautiful and welcoming people.”
To date, Chen has shipped more than 5,000 books; mainly to the Philippines, but also to Cambodia, where she also helps Tabitha build houses for those in need. It’s a bit different there, she says, as the children read and learn more in Khmer and less in English. She is looking at diversifying to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, too, and has friends in Australia who want to join in the act.
“The librarian at the Australian school is trying to link me up with the International School Libraries Network, which meets regularly to exchange ideas about books. That would be a wonderful way to grow this enterprise.”
It was Amy who designed A.J., Read-4-Life’s monkey mascot, by the way, and at the time of writing, another creative individual was setting up the website: www.read-4-life.org.