Teresa Hsu Chih
One of Asia’s most inspiring social workers
Dubbed Singapore’s Mother Teresa, Teresa Hsu Chih (Xu Zhe) was one of the oldest persons in Singapore when she died aged 113 in 2011. Teresa was born into extreme poverty in China, but grew to be one of the most loved and inspiring social workers who devoted her life to helping the destitute.
She was still looking after them via her Heart-to-Heart service when she was a centenarian. “If I eat food by myself, I alone ‘haha chiou’ (laugh). If I share with 20 people, 21 people ‘haha chiou’. You see, my joy is multiplied 21 times,” she said in 2010.
Teresa was born in Shantou, the second of four children. When she was 17, her abusive father abandoned his family and she moved with her mother and siblings to Penang, Malaysia. There she and her mother worked as cleaners in a Catholic church.
Eight years later, she left to work in Hong Kong and then China, where the horrors of World War II moved her to join a volunteer ambulance service. She was 47 when she went to London after the war to study nursing. In eight years there, she also traveled in Europe as a volunteer nurse. She spent another eight years as the only trained nurse in a small hospital, and as a midwife, in Paraguay. She volunteered her service there too.
Teresa arrived in Singapore in 1964 to live with her mother and elder sister Ursula. Ever compassionate, she became a non-salaried matron of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital. In 1965, she and Ursula, a school principal, used their own money to start the Home for the Aged Sick, a free nursing home for the old and destitute. It was one of the first such homes in Singapore. Teresa also helped some needy families to purchase HDB flats with money from her late sister’s estate.
She left her position as matron of the Home of the Aged Sick in 1985 but continued to care through her Heart-to-Heart Service that gave cash and food to single elderly and needy families. Teresa gave the cash and food items she received from donors and friends to the poor and old, while she herself led a simple life. “My life is to share what I have with those who are hungrier than I,” she said.
Among the awards Teresa received were the Public Service Star, given by the Government of Singapore in 2009 ,and the Honorary Doctorate Degree given by the University of Southern Queensland in 2003.
Teresa, who never married, outlived all her siblings. Her memoir “Love and Share: Memoirs of a Centenarian” was published posthumously in 2012 and is now in its third edition.
Teresa was awarded Her World magazine’s Special Award in 1999.
"All my life, I think of people who have less than me. That has been my guiding light all my life."