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Teresa Hsu Chih
Theresa Hsu
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Teresa Hsu Chih (7 July 1898 – 7 December 2011), or commonly known as Teresa Hsu (Chinese: 许哲; pinyin: Xǔ Zhe), was a Chinese-born Singaporean social worker, known affectionately as "Singapore's Mother Teresa", in recognition for her active lifelong devotion in helping the aged sick and destitutes locally. The retired nurse was the founder of the non-profit charities, Heart to Heart Service and the Home for the Aged Sick, one of the first homes for the aged sick in Singapore. She had been a social worker in China and Paraguayand a nurse in England, before coming to Singapore to start similar non-profit charities since 1961. As a supercentenarian, Hsu was still involved in charity work and was one of very few supercentenarians who were recognised for reasons other than their longevity. She had spent almost all her savings on feeding and housing the poor and the elderly, all of whom are younger than she was, but she herself led a simple and humble lifestyle. In 2005, she received the Special Recognition Award from the Singapore government in recognition of her contribution to the country.

Early years

Hsu was reportedly born on 7 July 1898, in Shantou prefecture of China, during the reign of the Manchu Qing dynasty, although this has never been independently verified. When Hsu was young, her father walked out on the family for another woman. Her mother, who was illiterate, had to fend for the three girls and one brother singlehandedly. At 16, her family moved to Penang in Malaya, where they worked as cleaners in a convent. As she did not want to be a cleaner all her life, Hsu asked the nuns there to allow her to study with the children, and they agreed. Combining study with work, she passed her Senior Cambridge examinations four years later. Equipped with a basic education, she ventured to Hong Kong to work and, later, to Chongqing, China, where she became a secretary and bookkeeper at a German news agency in the 1930s. She quit her job to become a volunteer, helping the injured during the Sino-Japanese War.

Recalling her inability to help the wounded people whom she saw during the Second World War, Hsu decided to become a nurse. As she was overaged at 47, she wrote a request to the chief matron of the Nursing Council in London. Touched by Hsu's sincerity and dedication, her application was accepted. She spent eight years in England doing nursing and another eight in Paraguay as a member of the German charity group Bruderhof, to start hospitals and homes for the aged there. In her mid-50s, she decided to return home to Penang to be with her mother. In Malaysia, she assisted her brother in starting the Assunta Foundation for the Poor in Ipoh. She also played a key role in the startup of three homes for the elderly and two homes for young girls and neglected children in Ipoh.

Home for the Aged Sick

In 1961, she came to Singapore to live with her older sister, Ursula, late principal of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Bukit Timah. On seeing her dedication and commitment in helping the poor and sick, Ursula bought her a 0.6-hectare piece of land at Jalan Payoh Lai in 1965, so that Hsu could open the first home for the aged sick in Singapore. The two sisters ran the Home for the Aged Sick for five years. Ursula financed its operations with her pay, while Hsu managed it and made some extra cash by selling the harvest of 10 coconut trees and a dozen banana trees in the backyard.

The sisters converted a servants' quarters and a bungalow into wards for their patients, but it became increasingly difficult to cope with the numbers. In 1970, with about 100 patients, they approached the Rotary Club for funds. The Rotary Club agreed to finance the home on condition that the club take over the running of it. The sisters handed the deeds over to the Society for the Aged Sick, an association formed by the Rotary Club members. The society built three blocks to house the increasing number of residents and Hsu remained the home's matron until 1980, when she was asked to retire at 83. Hsu moved into a three-room apartment on the rooftop of the Home, built by the society. After her sister died, she left Hsu a sum of money which she was able to buy flats with, five in Singapore and two in Malaysia for those people who had no money and who were asked to move.

Heart to Heart Service

Shortly after she retired, Hsu set up the Heart to Heart Service with Sharana Yao, her co-social worker, a non-profit, non-government aided welfare service which provides food, clothes and monthly cash contributions to those in need. With the help of volunteers who drive her around, she brought necessities to the homes of elderly women and destitutes in their 80s and 90s on public assistance, such as rice, sugar, biscuits, beverages and monthly cash allowances of between S$20 and S$180. She got her rations and funds from various sources, merchants, people in the neighbourhood, church friends, and their friends.

Lifestyle

Hsu was still actively involved in charity work after turning 110. An advocate of healthy living, Hsu often gave public talks at schools, welfare homes, and hospitals in Singapore and overseas about health and service to the needy. When asked about the secret of her good health and longevity, Hsu attributed her good health to a spartan lifestyle, vegetarian diet, and to her positive attitude towards life.

She would start her day at 4 am with calisthenics, meditation and an hour of yoga exercises. At night, she would do yoga again, then read until midnight. She picked up yoga at age 69, when she bought a book titled Forever Young, Forever Healthy. She also taught yoga to the young and old at temples, associations, hospitals and schools. She ate sparely; her breakfast was a glass of water or milk. Lunch was often milk and salad, unless "people bring me food", and it was milk or yogurt for dinner. At home, she had a 2,000-volume private library she called Prema, which in Sanskrit means "divine love". Her final days were kept busy with trips to help needy senior citizens, reading and yoga practice at her sparsely-furnished single-storey house attached to the Society for the Aged Sick.

Death

Hsu died on Wednesday, 7 December 2011, peacefully at home and was cremated on the same day without any rites, as instructed by her. She was probably the oldest living person in Singapore at the time of her death although the case of 114 years old Fadilah Noor Abbe appeared soon after the passing of Hsu.

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