Pioneer community worker and tireless fund-raiser
May Wong, also known as Mrs S K Wong, was a pioneer community worker and a tireless fund-raiser. She was the longest-serving president of the Chinese Women’s Association (CWA), leading the organisation for 28 terms from 1949/50 till her death in 1989 at age 90.
In 1978, when May was nearly 80 years old, the CWA took over the running of the Henderson Senior Citizens’ Home, then known as the Henderson Community Old People’s Home, a pioneer sheltered housing project of the Council of Social Service initiated in 1974 by council chairman Dr Ee Peng Liang. Together with CWA treasurer Violet Wong, also in her 70s, May supervised the running of the home for the next 11 years. She visited the home at least once a week to chat with the residents.
For a total of 32 years, CWA funded and managed the operations of the home, which also had a day care centre established as a Senior Citizens’ Corner in 1984. This grew into Singapore’s first Social Centre, which this year celebrates 30 years of existence and has been named the May Wong Social Centre.
In 1985, at the United Nations Association of Singapore’s 40th anniversary celebrations, the CWA was given a special award for being the most outstanding civic organisation with the Henderson Senior Citizens’ Home being recognised as “one of the best homes of its kind in Singapore”. In 1992, the Henderson Senior Citizens’ Home was commended by the then Ministry of Community Development for being a model home for seniors.
Born in 1899 in Sacramento, California, May Bernice Hing was the eldest of 16 children. In 1920 she married Wong Shui Kei, a China-born Stanford University graduate. His work took the young couple first to Hongkong and then to China, then in 1930 they moved to Singapore.
May soon got involved in community work, serving on the committee running Po Leung Kuk, a home for girls and women rescued from the vice trade. She helped to train the women in domestic work, sewing, embroidery and childcare. Tapping her banker husband’s connections, she organised charity balls and fairs to raise funds for war orphans of China and Great Britain.
May’s daughter Betty Chen, who took over as CWA president after her mother’s death, recalls following her mother to the Po Leung Kuk, and singing at age 11 to help raise money for a China relief fund.
As World War II began to loom over Asia, May took a St John Ambulance nursing course and signed up for active duty in December 1941. At the largest medical centre in the Chinese Protectorate Building in Havelock Road she briefly assisted the sister-in-charge and then took over the running of the centre when the sister was repatriated.
In February 1942, just days before the Japanese invaded Singapore, May and her four children left for Australia. On her return to Singapore after the war, she resumed her charitable work and organised the Keppel Harbour Feeding Centre in 1948 to provide food for hungry children. She was awarded the Jubilee Medal for Active War Service by King George VI for manning the first aid post at Havelock Road.
May joined the revived CWA (it started as the Chinese Ladies’ Association in 1915 and changed its name to CWA in 1960) and became its president in 1949. She remained at its helm except for a short break in 1967 when her husband died. She was awarded the Member of the British Empire Medal in 1937 and the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (PBM) in 1977.