Teresa Hsu Chih (许哲) (b. 1898, Swatow, China–d. 7 December 2011, Singapore) was a prominent social worker and the oldest person in Singapore at the time of her death, aged 113 years. The centenarian, who began devoting her life to helping the poor and destitute in the 1930s, remained tireless in her humanitarian work even after turning 100 years old. She is recognised not only for her contributions to society but also for her positive attitude towards life.1
Hsu was born into extreme poverty. Conditions were sometimes so dire that she had only grass to eat.2 She also lived with a physically abusive father. After he abandoned the family for another woman, Hsu, together with her grandmother, mother and three siblings, travelled to Penang, Malaysia, by boat.3
Having had to work to survive from a young age, Hsu had no formal education, so she worked with her mother as a cleaner in a convent. In 1925, at the age of 27, she convinced the convent nuns to let her sit in on the children’s classes. These encounters led to a lifelong interest in literacy and reading. Three-and-a-half years later, she passed her Senior Cambridge examination. In 1933, she left for Hong Kong, where she worked as a cleaner by day and learnt English, shorthand and typing by night. These skills landed her the job of stenographer.4
In 1939, with the Japanese poised to invade Hong Kong, Hsu left for Chongqing, China, where she worked as a secretary and bookkeeper at a German news agency. Being close to the epicentre of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) provoked her into a new consciousness. She quit her high-paying job to volunteer with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, where her experiences with helping injured soldiers led her to become a nurse.5
In 1945, Hsu went to London, England, to study nursing at the London Nursing Council. Besides working in hospitals during her eight years in England, she also joined the International Voluntary Service for Peace, travelling across Europe to help the needy and to promote peace.6 In 1953, she left for Paraguay as a member of the German charity group, Bruderhof. She stayed there for eight years, helping to start hospitals and homes for the aged. She returned to Penang in 1961 to be with her mother. During this time, she assumed the position of sister-in-charge at the Assunta Foundation in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.7
In 1963, Hsu came to Singapore and became the matron of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital. Two years later, she founded the Home for the Aged Sick, one of the first homes for the elderly sick in Singapore. It was established on a 0.6-hectare plot of land at Jalan Payoh Lai that was bought with money contributed by Hsu’s elder sister Ursula. Hsu also used some of the money to buy public flats for the homeless.8 The sisters ran the home for five years, with Ursula in charge of the finances and Hsu in charge of managing the home while also supplementing the funds by selling homegrown fruits. However, they found it increasingly difficult to cope with the rising number of patients and approached the Rotary Club for assistance. Members of the club agreed to fund the home, on the condition that the sisters involved them in the running of the home.9
After retiring as matron of the home in 1983, Hsu continued to care for the poor in her own capacity, such as by collecting old clothes for needy families. More significantly, she continued to reach out to the needy through the Heart-to-Heart Service, a non-profit, informal direct-help service that she established. Through this programme, she visited those under her charge – usually the single elderly and needy families – and provided them with cash allowances and food.10
Philosophy towards life and charity
Hsu’s philosophy towards life was simple. She said that positive thoughts and laughter were her key sources of sustenance. Her involvement in social work was a natural extension of her life philosophy. She described her drive to help others as an instinct that stemmed from her ability to empathise with the needy, having once been destitute herself. Moved by the generosity and kindness she had received from others, she saw the poor people that she met as brothers and sisters and was determined to extend her help to them.11
Besides keeping her mind active through volunteer work and visiting various countries to give talks, she also kept her body conditioned through yoga, which she learnt at the age of 69 and later taught to the public. In addition to doing yoga twice daily, she meditated at 4 am every morning before going on a walk.12
1988: Guinness Stout Effort Award
1994: Life Insurance Association Award
1997: Chinese Reader’s Digest Hero for Today Award
2000: Her World 9th Woman of the Year Award
2002: Chou Ta-Kuan Foundation 5th Love of Lives Medal
2003: Honorary doctorate degree conferred by the University of Southern Queensland, Australia
2003: Active Senior Citizen of the Year
2004: Sporting Singapore Inspiration Award
2005: National Volunteerism and Philanthropy Special Recognition Award
2009: Public Service Star
In 2005, a photography exhibition entitled OneZeroSeven Photography Exhibition was held to honour Hsu’s life and work at the Old Hill Street Police Station. Hsu turned 107 years old that year.14
Hsu and her siblings never married. Her mother, Tan Sok Chan, died in 1981 at the age of 104. Hsu eventually forgave her father; when he became ill in the early 1950s, she brought him from China to Singapore and cared for him until his death. Hsu’s sisters Ursula and Lucy both became school principals. Ursula was the principal of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Bukit Timah. Hsu’s younger brother Anthony became a Roman Catholic priest. All of Hsu’s siblings passed away before her and none ever married.15
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Strong and supple, at 97. (1997, November 7). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Supercentenarian but she’ll still be there for the needy. (2007, July 8). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Tan, T. (2003, October 17). 103-year-old to help orphans in Cambodia. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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Three women of substance. (2000, March 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Women social workers--Singapore--Biography
Hsu, Teresa, 1898-
Law and government>>Culture and community>>Social services
Women in charitable work--Singapore--Biography