THERESA CHAN POH LIN
The Helen Keller of Southeast Asia
Theresa Chan Poh Lin was 12 when meningitis took her hearing. Two years later she lost her sight. The daughter of a hawker and a waitress, she grew up in poverty in Chinatown. Unable to see or hear, when her parents were at work she sat by herself in the tiny cubicle that was the family’s home in Sago Lane. Life offered nothing but darkness and despair.
Then a social worker chanced upon her and referred her to Elizabeth Choy, principal of the Singapore School for the Blind. Theresa joined the school and learnt Braille and fingerspelling. She read Helen Keller’s autobiography ‘The Story of my Life’. She was a fast learner and highly intelligent, and she made a strong impression on John Wilson, director of Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind, when he visited Singapore in 1958.
In his 1963 book, Travelling Blind, he wrote about meeting Theresa: “She told me she wanted to learn like Helen Keller, to speak English like the Queen of England, to meet everyone in the world.” Wilson persuaded the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts to accept Theresa and in 1960 she flew to Boston where she joined 30 other students at the school.
Theresa thrived at Perkins where she studied Mathematics, English, Biology and a foreign language and took part in many sports. She topped the school in mathematics and became president of the sports club. She learnt how to pronounce English words by feeling and touching a speaker’s lips and throat. In 1961, her dream of meeting Helen Keller came true when she visited her hero in Connecticut.
She spent 13 years in the United States. Her foster parents there, Oscar and Helen Roye, took her across the continent, and to many countries. She met Queen Beatrix in the Netherlands, and Mother Teresa in India. She did not let her disability rule her life. She enjoyed considerable media coverage while abroad, often being dubbed the Helen Keller of Southeast Asia. She was the subject of a 1964 BBC radio documentary, “Child of the Silent Night: The Story of Chan Poh Lin”.
The director of Perkins School for the Blind encouraged her to stay on in the US, but in 1973 Theresa came back to Singapore. Her parents were getting old, and she also felt that as she had been given so much, it was time for her to give something back to the people in Singapore. She became a craft teacher at the Singapore School for the Blind, but lost the job in 1990 because of cost cut-backs.
Theresa lived with and cared for her mother, a stroke patient, until the latter’s death in 1993. Her friends helped her with shopping and took her out for swimming and meals. Without a job, when her savings dried up she lived on a small welfare grant and a monthly allowance from a donor. Despite her financial difficulties, she contributed what she could to charitable causes. She kept in touch with the news and with friends using BrailleNote, a computer for the visually impaired.
In 2005 Theresa starred in Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo’s movie, Be with Me. It was based on her life story and she was credited as a writer for the film. In April 2016, she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer but refused treatment. Interviewed by The Straits Times then, she said she did not fear death, and added “I hope people will remember me, and remember that whatever their disabilities, they should have hope and not be unhappy and discouraged.” Theresa died in June 2016, a month short of her 73rd birthday.
"I hope people will remember me and remember that whatever their disabilities, they should have hope and not be unhappy and discouraged."
– Theresa Chan Poh Lin, Be with Me star Theresa Chan dies of lung cancer, The Straits Times, June 8, 2016