I Finally “Found” My Grandfather.

by Patrick Liew on September 19, 2016

On 12 September 2016, I had a good chat with my older cousins.

Through the conversations, I was able to piece together the life story of Mr Liew Fei Ru (刘辉如, 广东省, 梅州人), my grandfather who passed away years before I was born.

My grandfather was born in Gongzhou (公州) village in Dapu (大埔), Meizhou (梅州), Guangdong (广東) in 1883.

He grew up towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. There were political and civil unrests throughout the country.

The southern parts of China were hit by crisis after crisis and famine fell upon the land. Lives and livelihoods were at stake.

My grandfather was a learned and cultured man. He was tutored to study the Chinese classics.

He pursued studies on his own to be a physician, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.

As a result of hard times, my grandfather set sail for “Nanyang” in 1903. He needed to make enough money to survive and feed his family.

“Nanyang” or “南洋” is loosely
translated as South of the ocean and refers to Southeast Asia.

He travelled with many others in a Chinese junk. There were barely enough food and space for all of them.

Day after day, night after night, they battled threatening waves and torturing weather.

They lived with despair and struggled with no inkling about what was going to happen to their future.

Many of my grandfather’s friends, including new ones suffered bouts of seasickness and bad health.

Sadly, some of them never made it to the promised land.

Like most people from his village, he paid a tidy sum of his hard-earned money to “headhunters.” These human traffickers made all the arrangements so that he could embark on a new life.

Without realizing it, he became a commodity for the “piglet” (賣豬仔) trade.

They were promised good wages and living conditions but it was not to be so.

They soon realized they were hired as cheap Chinese labourers.

They were traded as coolies and were made to carry out hard labour. Many of them had to undergo harsh treatments.

The foreign workers during my grandfather’s times were known as “new guests” (新客). It was understood that they had no plan to stay permanently.

Their desire was to eventually return back to their villages in China. However, by the time they realized how tough it was to make a living, it was too late to turn back.

They did not want to lose face and
go home empty handed. Many of them borrowed a lot of money to pay for their trip.

It was not an easy life for my grandfather. As a physician, he was not used to doing manual labour.

While trying to eke out a living, he found out that his wife was sick.

There was no way at that point to make a trip back to see his lover. You could imagine the sorrow that he carried in his heart.

All he could do was wait for updates from his family. He suffered in anguish as he waited in hope for good news.

At that time and age, communication was not well established. It might take weeks for any correspondence to reach the other party.

One cruel day, a letter arrived from his village. That was the day my grandfather’s world collapsed.

He received news that his wife had passed away. She was alone and had no one to comfort her or stand by her.

The tragic news must have spun him into depths of sorrow. How he must have wished he could spent the last few moments with his wife.

She had not only loved him, she had also promised to go through pits of life to wait for him.

As a doctor, he would live with the regrets that he could have done something for her. He could have possibly healed her.

The feelings of regret and remorse must have compounded his pain and tore his heart apart.

That was not the end of the story.

After some time, my grandfather finally overcame his grief. By then, he had saved enough money to start a small Chinese medical practice.

Through wisdom and hard work, my grandfather became a well respected physician and entrepreneur.

Besides his thriving practice and traditional Chinese medical shop, he also owned tracks of agricultural land.

My grandfather was one of the founders of the local trade association. It was said that he would show up for major projects despite any odds to play his part for the business community.

My grandfather had a heart of gold. He was known to go out of the way to help others, especially to the Chinese who came after him.

He would help them find an accommodation, provide them food and help them find a job. His philanthropic and charitable spirit won widespread admiration and respect.

My grandfather deeply believed in education. He knew that education is a key to breaking the poverty cycle and achieving the next level of growth.

Together with friends, he established SJK (C) Chien Chi School and the school still stands until today.

While doing my research, I was so happy that my grandfather’s name was listed on the school’s website as one of the founders.

Meanwhile, my grandfather had fallen in love with another lady, Ms He Dao Niang (何桃娘), my grandmother.

He was much older than my grandmother, a feisty lady who was endowed with good looks and relational skills.

My grandfather and grandmother had all the plans in place to settle down to live a happy and fulfilled life together.

Life dealt them a bad hand.

Shortly after my father was born, my grandfather passed away in March, 1929.


As a physician, he has to heal the sick and comfort those who are suffering.

At one point, he was called into the jungle to treat resistance fighters. These soldiers were battling the Japanese during their occupation of Malaysia.

My grandfather was betrayed by one of his men. He was ambushed by Japanese soldiers and never got back home.

It was a shock to many people around him. He was only 46 years of age.

After his demise, my grandmother struggled to keep the businesses afloat. My father was too young to be of any help.

Eventually, they lost everything.

They took whatever they had and moved to Singapore to rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, fortune did not smile on them.

They had to live through great poverty for the rest of their lives.

I was born in that family and raised in poverty. I have experienced how hard life can be, not only to my family but also to many others in my generation.

When life got better, my wife and I started to run two drop-in centres for migrant workers at Little India.

We provide befriending services, and free food and wifi, legal assistance, health and medical check-ups, and personal development classes.

When I looked at every foreign worker, I could feel for them.

As I searched deep in my heart, I could feel that I’ve “met” the person before.

That person was very much like my grandfather. He could also very well be me.

If I were overseas and in a difficult situation, I would hope for help from somebody.

In the same way, I wanted to do my part for our migrant workers.

Like my grandfather, I’ve always felt that our position, power, and possession are but gifts. They were given to us so that we can share them with others.

When we use them to bless others, we can live a happier and better life.

There should be no difference whether we are helping somebody from our country or overseas.

The foreign workers in our midst are generally hardworking, law-abiding, and peaceful people.

Like our forefathers, they are in Singapore to make a living and to earn enough money to help feed their families in their home countries.

They helped to build our homes and infrastructure, the benefits of which are being enjoyed by Singaporeans on a daily basis.

They have done their part to contribute to the economy and society.

We should be grateful and thankful to them for their efforts and contributions.

The greatness of our people is a reflection of the way we look after the people who are not from our land, including those who are working here and contributing to our economy and society.

In doing so, we are also demonstrating our first world spirit. We are open to working with both locals and foreigners to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.

As we look after migrant workers, we pay it back to our forefathers and pay it forward for our children and children’s children.

We also fulfill the dream and hope that our forefathers had when they struggled to our shores to eke out a living in the hope of building a brighter future for us.

The baton has been passed to our generation.

“Thank you grandfather for your sacrifices and your struggles for me and for so many of your descendants.

“Your life and spirit has inspired us to look towards the future with hope and optimism.”


I hope this message will find a place in your heart.

By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

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Please read my reflections and continue to teach me.

Life is FUNtastic!


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