Although Florence Tan, Farida Omar and Ellen Keng have different surnames, they are in fact biological sisters. Separated at birth in Singapore, the three sisters went on to lead vastly different lives.
Adoption and lost families reunited may sound like something out of a soap opera, but back in the 1950s and ’60s, this was common in Singapore.
There were various reasons for this. Some of our forefathers gave away their children because they did not have the means to support them. Others put their children up for adoption simply because they were baby girls. Some parents preferred boys to girls due to the traditional thinking that the man would be the one carrying on the family name and continuing the lineage. Such was the case with Florence, Farida and Ellen.
“Back then, you know, old people—they don’t like girls,” said Florence. “But they love boys. My paternal grandmother used to say, ‘Girls have no use in the house!’ She was openly biased, and doted on my brothers more than me or my sisters.”
Florence is one of 13 children in the Tan household, which was helmed by a stern, unyielding Peranakan lady, her paternal grandmother. As the oldest granddaughter of the family, she was spared but recalled her mother’s ordeal at being forced to give away her sisters.
“My mum cried for months when she had to give my sisters away,” said Florence. “But no choice lor, it was what my grandmother wanted.”
Ellen was one of those sisters.
“I actually lived in the same house as my biological parents,” said Ellen. “They were on the second floor, while I was on the third with my foster parents. But my foster parents never told me that I was adopted.”
“In fact, my foster mother didn’t like it when I interacted with my biological mother,” recalled Ellen. “There were no adoption papers.” Ellen shared that her birth certificate lists her foster parents as her biological parents.
Ellen’s foster father was a Malaysian businessman who owned a rubber plantation and her foster life was initially one of luxury. However, tragedy soon struck as her foster father was murdered. Her foster mother subsequently returned to her hometown of Penang to sort out some family matters, leaving her to live with her aunt in Singapore. This was when she was still in secondary school. It was during this trying period that her biological parents reached out to her and offered to look after her. They brought Ellen to live in their house in Prince Charles Crescent, but trouble came when the authorities came to check on the residents due to overcrowding issues.
“I had to play ‘hide and seek’ with [the authorities] because my name was not registered to the house,” said Ellen. “Furthermore, my surname was Keng, while theirs was Tan. [The authorities] were very strict about the checks.”
Faced with this issue, Ellen’s biological parents brought her to stay at a relative’s house in Tiong Bahru, where she lived until she got married.
Farida, on the other hand, experienced a completely different journey from adoption to reunion with her birth family.
She was first given away to a Chinese nurse, but the latter left Farida in the care of a Malay family for a number of years because she had to work. Her foster father in the Malay family later brought the case to court, and successfully fought to adopt Farida as his own.
Farida’s adoption papers in which her Chinese name ‘Tan Kim Choon’ is stated. Courtesy of Farida Omar
When Farida was a toddler, her biological mother would visit often, but her foster family simply told her that they were her foster father’s friends. It was only when Farida was in Primary 6 that her biological mother looked her up at school, and passed her an address for her to visit. Accompanied by one of her foster sisters, Farida headed to the address, and was then told about her history. That was how Farida reconnected with her biological family.
While Florence and her siblings were happy to be reunited with their long-lost sisters, Ellen had mixed feelings when she first returned to her biological home.
“I was the only child in my foster family, so I was used to being alone,” explained Ellen. “When I returned, I felt even more alone. I didn’t feel at home because it was weird having so many people around.” Florence also acknowledged the slight discomfort they felt at being reunited after years apart, but the familiar bond of sisterhood soon overcame any barriers they had.
For Farida, the acknowledgement of her biological family was not met with complete approval from her foster family. Although Farida’s foster father wanted her to have the freedom to choose the life she wanted, her foster sisters, who were displeased at the situation, threw away a picture that Farida and her biological siblings had taken on a secret trip to Johor Bahru.
From left to right: Florence, Ellen and Farida. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
Looking back on these events, the lives of these three sisters have played out a lot like a Korean soap opera. The trio have now become what Ellen calls ‘women of leisure’—they would meet for lunches and or simply get together to make up for lost time, and, after all, that’s what sisters do.
Written by: FJ Sai
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign