PHOTOS THE STRAITS TIMES
Journalist and author Wong Kim Hoh has interviewed hundreds of people for his regular columns in The Sunday Times, about what life has taught them. Here he shares what he’s learnt from the most inspiring women he has spoken to.
ANNIE SIOW LEE KHOON
“It’s really been very edifying and satisfying,” says The Straits Times senior writer Wong Kim Hoh of his current book, It Changed My Life. The book is an adaptation of his “Wong Kim Hoh Meets…” and “It Changed My Life” columns from The Sunday Times, which feature extraordinary real stories of local people. The accounts are sometimes harrowing, often surprising, repeatedly heart-wrenching, yet always inspirational. Kim Hoh says of his interviewees: “These people have led lives which deserve the attention of our nation, and I hope that the anecdotes put a stop to the complaints that Singaporeans are boring, which is not true.” He believes that everyone has a story – and it’s often the most humble of us who are hiding the best. “I always tell people to keep their ears, eyes and mind open when speaking to someone. If you’re non-judgmental when you have a conversation, and express a real interest in what the person you’re conversing with has been through, you often get a really good tale.” He tells Her World about the women he’s interviewed over the years, and the undeniably enriching wisdom they’ve left him with.
The Female Species Is Phenomenal
“I’ve always been surrounded by aspirational females. My family grew up poor, and my grandmother and mother worked as washerwomen in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Back then, they were pioneers who had to pull more than their weight and help supplement the household income to support their families. The standout lesson I’ve learnt from the women I’ve spoken with is that they have a mental toughness and resilience way stronger than that of men. Men are physically tough, but when women are pushed to the edge… they’re pretty phenomenal!”
Hard Work Never Kills
“Balbina Wong is amazing. She left school at 14 and started out as a cosmetics salesgirl in the 1960s. Now, she’s the dowager of high fashion in China as the CEO of Imaginex, a $900-million-a-year business which imports more than 20 high-end labels – such as Prada and Gucci – into China, Taiwan and South-east Asia. What I like about Balbina is that she said hard work never kills. That’s a common refrain in my interviews. The Salvatore Ferragamo family deemed her smart enough to run their stores in North America, and I remember one of the Ferragamo brothers telling me that the first time he met her he couldn’t contain his excitement, because she was so smart and brilliant!”
Humans Are More Resilient Than They Think
“Rachel Wong was a hairdresser, then one of her clients invited her to join a business with a male Indonesian acquaintance. He took her for a ride and left her $1.5 million in debt, but she paid it off and is now the managing director of an engineering firm, Marunda. She admitted it was naivety that led her to take up this directorship, and what’s fascinating is that even though she knew nothing about the business, she was tenacious. She didn’t mind that people laughed at her or called her a bimbo. She had to learn on the spot, make mistakes and suffer setbacks, and it was important that people gave her time to prove herself. Many of the women I’ve met have had bad times with men, but their self-belief has pushed them to inspiring levels.”
Don’t Ignore Problems
“Catherine Foo was given away at birth. During her early life, she was exposed to drug addiction and gambling, then as she grew older, she found herself in millions of dollars of debt due to bad business decisions. She had to maintain a never-say-die fighting spirit for seven years before her furniture company, Scanteak, took off . It’s now a global business raking in $100 million a year. Catherine taught me the importance of facing your problems head-on and how you can’t simply brush hard times under the carpet. As she says: ‘If you want to be good to yourself, don’t look back.’”
Find Comfort in Faith
“Annie Siow Lee Khoon really stood out for me. She was a KTV hostess when a spurned suitor attacked her with a cleaver, leaving her terribly disfigured and wanting to kill herself. Today, she’s a social worker helping other people. Her story was an important lesson that awful things are always going to happen, but you can pull yourself up, even if it takes years. I’ve noticed with people like Annie that they have a calm sort of worldliness. They have gone through it, and they’re more accepting – they understand that people make mistakes. You can’t control what happens to you and your environment; you have to accept it and strive ahead.”
Fight Against the Haters
“Irene Ang may be a successful actress, entrepreneur and motivational speaker today, but not long after leaving school, she had a job selling executive hampers and flower arrangements. Despite having no experience, she was tasked to lead a sales team, and everyone laughed at her because she couldn’t pronounce ‘merlot’ or ‘cabernet sauvignon’. But she thought: ‘I’ll prove to you that I can do this.’ She realised that pronouncing those words was not what was important; what was key was selling! She got the last laugh, hit her target, and proved everyone wrong. Many of my interviewees had haters. Irene made it a point not to be deterred. She told me: ‘You have to fight for what you want. Things don’t come easy.’”
Education Is Important, but So Is Happiness
“Denise Lim was 24 years old, with a stellar career as a management consultant, but she went against the grain. Doing something which had a positive impact on peoples’ lives was important to her, so despite her parents’ fears, she quit her job and travelled to India, working with organisations for the underprivileged. Five years on, Denise is a yoga and Spanish teacher, and these jobs provide her with much fulfilment. It proves that sometimes you have to follow your heart. She’s also confirmation that it’s unfair to tarnish the younger generation with the brush that they’re all materialistic. In Denise’s case, she’s in search of purpose.”
It Changed My Life by Wong Kim Hoh is out now, and is priced at $29.96.