Tang Pui Wah
Hurdler and Singapore’s first female Olympian
Tang Pui Wah was a sporting legend in Singapore and Malaya in the 1950s, dominating sprints and hurdles. The athlete who could leap over hurdles with effortless grace made history when she became Singapore’s first female Olympian.
The then 19-year-old competed in the 100m sprint and 80m hurdles at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. Though she did not progress past her heats, the “Helsinki Girl” became a torchbearer for women athletes in Singapore. Janet Jesudason and Mary Klass qualified for the Olympics four years later.
Pui Wah went on to take bronze in the 80m hurdles at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila, finally winning a much-coveted international medal. She had earlier won three golds at the 1951 Malayan Amateur Athletic Association meet and placed fourth in the 80m hurdles at the 1st Asian Games in New Delhi that same year.
Pui Wah was born in Tanjong Pagar to a soy sauce factory owner and his homemaker wife, and lived through the Japanese occupation in Chinatown. Academically bright, she was admitted after the war to Nanyang Girls’ High and later Raffles Girls’ School.
Nanyang Girls’ had built a strong sports tradition by importing teachers from China. It was there that her coach Tay Kai Teck spotted that she could take three steps instead of the usual five between hurdles and directed her energy to the sport. She was older than other students because the war had delayed her schooling but soon her natural ability outshone any size or age advantage she had started with.
Pui Wah excelled in the high and long jumps, and as a sprinter and hurdler. In 1947, she won her first major trophy in an age-group high jump competition organised by Singapore Chinese Amateur Athletics Federation. She broke the China Olympic record for the 100m hurdles in 1949 at the age of 15. A year later, she set an All China record of 13.3 seconds in the hurdles. In 1953, she dominated the Singapore Chinese Inter Schools championships.
In 1955, when she was 22 years old, Pui Wah decided to retire from athletics. In 2007, the book 100 Inspiring Rafflesians, 1823-2003 paid tribute to her: “Tang Pui Wah’s achievements were formidable and inspiring, at a time when most girls fought shy of sports. She is a pioneer and role model for all aspiring sportswomen.”
“Teng Pei Wah’s achievements were formidable and inspiring, at a time when most girls fought shy of sports.
She is a pioneer and role model for all aspiring sportswomen.”
Excerpt from ‘100 Inspiring Rafflesians, 1823 - 2003’.