Happenings, News

Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home: An inspiring, uplifting story

Dr Chen Su Lan … after whom the Methodist Children’s Home was named. – Methodist Church Archives picture.

A pioneering Social Concerns project of Wesley Methodist Church, Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home provides needy children between ages four and 14 years from broken homes with Christian nurture and prepares them for useful citizenship in a home atmosphere. It is a registered charity administered by a committee that includes a number of Methodist laymen, as well as the Pastor-in-Charge of Wesley Church and began functioning in 1968. Today, it continues in an expanded ministry at Serangoon Garden Way after the original chalets in Wing Loong Road were acquired by the Government to build the Changi Airport runway.

THE words inspiring, heartwarming and uplifting are so hackneyed that they have largely lost their meaning, and yet they sum up the story of Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home.

Miss Lim Cheng Kiok, its first matron, took early retirement from the Singapore General Hospital where she had been a nursing sister in order to “serve God”. This was the more notable, as she had nothing specific in mind.

She waited. She was offered a salary of $250 a month – not a princely sum even in 1968. Her initial reaction was that it underestimated her worth, almost a slight to someone who has been in the highest grade of nursing. At a deeper level she felt that since this job could be the way she could serve God, what the pay was did not really matter.

Furthermore, even her only request was granted, for permission for her friend Miss Lee Soo Yong, who was the matron of a hospital, to move in to help out in running the home. As it turned out she held the job for nine years, the last three of which were without pay at her own request.

It was not just a job, a nine-to-five sort of posting. It meant moving to the countryside in the midst of a kampong to be “mother” to up to 30 children who would soon move in with her. The new home was in Ayer Gemuroh in Changi on a piece of land located a hundred yards from the sea beach. On it were three brick chalets designed by Mr Edwin Chan whose architectural flair matched the vision for the home being a real home and not just an institution to warehouse unwanted children.

One of the chalets would be home to a dozen or more boys and another for the same number of girls, each with a housemother. Ms Chew Ah Chok and Ms Beatrice Lim were the first housemothers. The third chalet housed the kitchen, the pantry, the office and rooms for Miss Lim and for Miss Lee, who helped out while keeping her day job at the hospital.

When word spread that there was such a home, donations of food came, some from unexpected sources, such as food which had been confiscated by the police from unlicensed hawkers. No one questioned the ethics of accepting such food! The policemen who made the deliveries were obviously pleased to do so as they were greeted by the kids as visitors were being called uncle this or uncle that. They had in season loads of melons and durians. Gifts of fish and meat called for a new freezer. The airport kitchen sent fresh unutilised food. Oliver Twist could only have dreamt of all this as “food, glorious food”. Clearly, this was not an old-style “orphanage”.

Miss Lim was clear about the three emphases she had for the home. The first priority for the children was their spiritual life, then their physical health and their education. The daily routine for the children reflected this.
The usual programme for the day began with preparations for school, being driven there in a van, back for lunch, free time for play, homework, dinner, a half-hour service of worship and bed. For those with the ability and the interest there were piano lessons for which the home subsidised their fees.

One of the girls played for the evening services which everyone attended, including the cook and the driver of the van. Miss Lee recalled that the service was the best part of the day. Years later, Jasmine, one of the girls singled this out in a letter as one of what she was most thankful for. The cook and the driver in time became Christians.
The children attended the Hokkien-speaking Telok Ayer Church Sunday School, choosing to be baptised in the churches they attended after leaving the home. When the time came for them to choose their spouses, they chose fellow Christians and some are still active members of their churches.

Most of the children stayed on till they finished schooling or till the age of 16. This in itself was remarkable for a household of more than two dozen adolescent boys and girls whose behaviour gave no real problems, and this was attributed to their Christian code of conduct. While others found work either in the workforce or at home, one went on to study at the university, graduated and became a teacher.

So by any measure the home was fulfilling the purposes for which it was founded.

When interviewed more than 30 years later, Miss Lim and Miss Lee recalled many happy memories of the home and the children but they still sighed when they thought of how some of them were when they first arrived. There was obvious satisfaction in the knowledge that the children had been given a good start and had outgrown their initial difficulties, in a Christian home setting, a satisfaction no doubt shared by the church and all those who devoted so much of their time, imagination, money and their prayers to this project.

How did the home get started and what went into its establishment? Apart from just building a home for children who were deprived of parental care for one reason or another, the hope was that this one home could be a model for others to follow. Accordingly, the proposal was made to the Wesley Church Official Board.

Another factor was a casual comment made by a doctor to Miss Lim that since she was so fond of children, why did she not start an orphanage? It was then an impossible idea but she did not forget it and it fell in place.

Involving Wesley Methodist Church as the sponsor would give the church an outreach programme, an avenue to express its professed message of love for all of God’s creatures. It could provide support and talent for management. It had the advantage of being a long established congregation which would provide a continuity that was not contingent on the commitment of a single individual or two.

Besides, the Chen Su Lan Trust offered a two-acre parcel of land and an initial sum of $100,000 for the buildings.


Home officially opened in 1968 with Government’s blessings

Although the Wesley Church Board debated it long and hard, hesitant about making a long-term commitment, with some dissent to attaching the name of Chen Su Lan while he was living, it adopted the project, passed its constitution and elected its first committee members. The Chairman was Mr Koh Seat Wee and the Vice-Chairman was Dr C. N. Chen. Mr Kon Choon Kooi was the Honorary Treasurer and a seat kept for a representative from the Social Welfare Department was filled by Mrs Chai. Mr Tan Boon Chiang, who was the next Chairman, did yeoman service during the setting up of the home and served faithfully for many years.
In 1968 the home was officially opened with a ceremony with the Rev Christopher Smith presiding. Present were members and dignitaries of the church as well as Radio Singapore, which indicated the good wishes of the Government. Dr Chen Su Lan, having suffered a stroke, did not attend.

Dr Chen Chi Nan, a son of Dr Chen Su Lan, was a leading Methodist layman in Wesley Methodist Church and is now a consulting psychiatrist in Vancouver. He was one of the early proponents of the project.