Ho Yuen Hoe
Abbess and charity-worker extraordinaire
Born to a poor family in China, Venerable Ho Yuen Hoe was sold off as a child by her parents and resold several times. She was married at 15 and when she was 19 she moved to Hong Kong with her husband. When she discovered that her husband’s family was involved in the opium trade, she decided to leave him for a new life in Singapore. She did odd jobs to finance the trip and arrived in Singapore sometime in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Yuen Hoe found her niche as a hairdresser in Chinatown, weaving and plaiting the hair buns of the maids and Samsui women. Working hard and living frugally, she managed to accumulate enough money to buy property and set up the Man Fut Tong Mutual Aid Association in 1960. It was an informal bank for Chinese immigrants. She also adopted six girls from poor families.
She left Singapore when she was in her 50s to go to Hong Kong to study Buddhism for three years, after which she was ordained as a nun. Returning to Singapore, she founded the Lin Chee Cheng Sia Temple and became its abbess. She also set up the Man Fut Tong Nursing Home for 40 elderly and destitute samsui women. It was Singapore’s first Buddhist nursing home. The home grew steadily until, approaching the new millennium, it became clear new premises were needed.
Yuen Hoe's story had, by then, got into the media. The publicity helped to bring in donations for her building fund, and after discussions with the government about the need for an expanded facility she managed to obtain a piece of land. National leaders such as then President S R Nathan and then Minister for Health Khaw Boon Wan supported her charity work by attending her fundraising events.
The new Man Fut Tong Nursing Home was opened in 2001 at Woodlands with 232 beds and medical and social facilities for elderly men and women of all races. Yuen Hoe left the running of the home to healthcare professionals, but she continued to help residents as much as possible.
Yuen Hoe received the Public Service Medal in 2002 for her humanitarian work. She died in her sleep in January 2006 a month shy of her 98th birthday. Her funeral was attended by more than 1,000 mourners and included her godchildren, wheelchair-bound residents from the home, and representatives from other Buddhist temples.
"Everything in life is transient. Only charity is real and enduring. When you give, you receive. Charity is the best antidote to bad karma."