Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Teresa with adopted son Sharana Rao.

The first time I met Singapore’s supercentenarian, Teresa Hsu, was on Oct 20, 2008, a day after attending the MIM- RAMLEAN life enrichment programme. I had just spent four days with 32 senior citizens ranging from 50 to 70 years of age. We were all looking to discover meaning and purpose in our sunset years, and here was a 110-year old woman who had already found her calling early in life.

Teresa had been invited by YPO (Malaysia Chapter) for a dialogue session on “Healthy at 110”. 110 and still actively involved in community work and traveling around to give motivational talks. How does she do it? I most certainly wanted to find out from her.

My daughter, Belle, with Teresa.

I was half expecting to see a frail, wrinkly old lady with fading eyesight and hearing loss. When I finally met her, I was completely bowled over by her clarity of vision, her infectious laughter, her natural wit and her mental agility. She could have easily passed for 40 years younger.

Teresa’s life story makes for fascinating reading. Born in 1898 in Guangdong, China, she has lived in three different centuries and seen more than she wanted of the horrors of war, hunger, poverty and disease.

From the age of four, Teresa learned to make herself useful with a broom. Her world was one of constant sweeping, cleaning and doing housework. She was deprived of an education in China where only males were allowed to attend school. But when her family moved to Penang in 1927, she managed to persuade the nuns at the convent where she was working as a cleaner to let her study with the children. Four years later, she passed her Senior Cambridge. With that under her belt, she left for Hongkong, and later Chongqing to work as a stenographer and bookkeeper with a German news agency.

In 1937, she quit her job and volunteered to help the injured soldiers during the Sino-Japanese War. When World War Two broke out, Teresa was once again witness to the suffering of the sick and wounded. Determined to learn nursing so that she could better help those in need of medical attention, she left for London in 1947. Despite being overaged at 47, her sincerity and dedication helped her gain acceptance into the Royal Free Hospital where she developed her nursing skills over the next eight years.

While in London, she joined the International Voluntary Service for Peace and travelled around Europe to help the needy and promote peace. Hearing about her willingness to serve in return for food and lodging, Bruderhof, a German charity group, invited Teresa to work with German Jewish refugees in hospitals and homes in Paraguay. She was to remain there for the next eight years.

Teresa and her volunteers dishing out food for the poor and hungry.

In her mid-50s, Teresa returned to Malaysia to see her ailing mother. While there she also helped her brother start the Assunta Foundation in Ipoh. She later went on to establish three homes for the elderly and two homes for young girls and the neglected, all in Ipoh.

In 1961, Teresa went to live with her older sister, Ursula, in Singapore. Seeing how devoted Teresa was to helping the less fortunate, Ursula bought a piece of land with her savings from her work as principal of the Convent for the Holy Infant Jesus in Bukit Timah. There Teresa started Singapore’s first Home for the Aged Sick in 1965 at the age of 67.

In 1970, with the increase in the number of inmates and the lack of funds to keep the Home running, the sisters signed over the deeds of the Home to the Rotary Club which then took over the management of the Home. It was renamed Society for the Aged Sick. Teresa stayed on as matron till 1980 when she was asked to retire at age 83.

Not one to settle for passive retirement, Teresa started the Heart-to-Heart Service with her co-worker Sharana Yao from her sparsely-furnished house next to the Society for the Aged Sick. Today she remains actively involved in the weekly distribution of food and provisions to the elderly in need.

A keen practitioner of life-long learning, Teresa continues to expand her knowledge by reading and learning new skills. She has a collection of more than 2000 books all donated, and is currently reading the Bhagavad-Gita for the eighth time. It’s incredible that at her age she reads without the aid of glasses. At 69, she learned yoga and has incorporated it into her daily rituals. At 90, she embraced Buddhism. At 100, she picked up Mandarin and now speaks it fluently. She also speaks Malay, French, German, Spanish and four Chinese dialects. At present, Teresa is busy learning Sanskrit.

When asked about her longevity, Teresa attributes it to a spartan lifestyle, a vegetarian diet, healthy habits, and a positive outlook on life.

Some quotable quotes from Teresa:

"I never harbor negative thoughts as this will distract my focus in getting on with life and work."

“There are no naughty children – only naughty parents.”

“When you greet people with a smile, people will feel happy and smile back. If you pull a long face, people will not feel happy and pull a long face back at you.”

“Crying wastes tissue paper, and cuts down trees. It’s better to laugh.”

“If you see someone fall, you do not ask him why he did not see the stone. You help him up and ask him to be more careful next time.”

“If I’m married, I make only one man happy. If I’m not married, I make many people happy.”

“The answers are not from me. They are just out there.”

“The world is my home, all living beings are my brothers and sisters, selfless service is my religion.”

“I prefer to laugh than to weep. Those people who cry to me, I say is your body full of water? I always tell them it is better to laugh than to use tissue paper, as laughing is free but tissue paper costs five cents. 'Ha ha ha' costs no cents.”

“If I stay at home, I just ha-ha to myself. If I go out and ha-ha with 20 people, I make 20 people happy.”

“I don’t give. Giving means I have and you don’t have. I share – I share all I have, except ice cream and durians!”

“The whole world is one big family. All human beings are related to me. We may not have the same surname, but we share the same universal surname – human beings. And that’s good enough for me.”

“What do I think about death? I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet. Have you?”

"No one has ever explained religion or spirituality satisfactorily to me. My religion is my conscience, and my conscience guides me."

“If you think old, you are old. If you think young, you are young. Even when you are 100+, you can still do a lot.”

“Why am I a vegetarian? Do you want to cause pain for your pleasure? Ask yourself that, and you won’t dare to put a knife to their (animals and fish) throat.”

“It’s good to have a black man in the White House who rules with grey matter.”

Over the years, Teresa has received numerous accolades in recognition of her humanitarian work. But she remains humble, preferring to shift focus from herself to her work at Heart-to-Heart Service.

My daughter, Belle, and I recently spent one whole morning with Teresa and Sharana in Singapore. Teresa graciously welcomed us into her home and even sang a jolly German song and a traditional Cantonese nursery rhyme to entertain us! Teresa enjoys laughing and we had plenty of it that morning.

She was delighted when Belle gave her a pen from an Anthony Robbins seminar she had attended. Teresa amazed us when she proudly read aloud the small inscription "Living is Giving". No need for eye glasses. "I like that," she said simply of both the pen and the inscription.

Later, we joined Teresa and Sharana on their weekly visit to distribute provisions to some elderly ladies in Chinatown. It was a truly enriching and inspiring experience for us to be in Teresa's company and listen to her words of humour and wisdom.

Teresa distributing provisions to the elderly in Chinatown.

Teresa is proof that it really doesn’t take much to live a long, happy, healthy and fulfilling life. As for Teresa herself, she says, “I hope to live till 250! In this world, there are still many poor people who need help from others. I can't leave too soon!"

May you enjoy double happiness and double longevity, Sister Teresa!

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