Ouyang Huanyan looked after Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s household from the 1940s
While news of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s passing was spreading like wildfire on the Internet in Singapore, all was peaceful at Shun De Foshan, China. A 98-year-old lady, Mdm Ouyang Huan Yan, who was Mr. Lee’s former nanny, was oblivious to his demise until she was contacted by a reporter for an interview.
Upon hearing the news, she said her heart felt heavy and that she hoped PM Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang would take care of their health and not be too grieved.
The journey: from China to Singapore
Ouyang was an 18-year-old when she left her home in Xixi village, Guangdong province in 1934 with her sisters and aunts. They were known as ma jie, amah or zi shu nu – women who took celibacy vows to better serve their masters.
She first worked for Tan Kah Kee, a Chinese businessman and philanthropist, for nine years, before working for the Lees as Mr. Lee’s mother, Chua Jim Neo, took a fancy to her. The two families were neighbours then, with Ouyang frequenting the Lee’s since her friend was a domestic helper in the Lee’s.
Working for the Lees
Mr. Lee was still studying at Cambridge then, returning only a year after she started working for the family. Soon after, she witnessed the wedding of Mr. Lee and Mdm. Kwa Geok Choo, a simple affair with only relatives and close friends invited for the dinner.
In the beginning, she mainly took care of household chores like doing the laundry and grocery shopping, until Mr. and Mrs. Lee had three children. She was then responsible for taking care of their three children’s daily diet and sending them to and from school. She looked after PM Lee from the time he was a toddler until he left to further his studies in England. However, out of the three Lee children, she was particularly close to their daughter, Lee Wei Ling.
Ouyang also said the Lee children were courteous, respectful and obedient, a result of the Lee family’s strict discipline. Unlike other children born with a silver spoon, they had to ask their parents for permission to purchase anything, therefore inculcating the virtue of thriftiness in them.
Despite being 7 years older than Mr. Lee, she addressed him as “Master” as a form of respect. Mr. Lee had no airs around him – he was friendly and humble to the servants. As Mr. Lee was often busy with political meetings and had to delay having his dinner until 9pm, he instructed the domestic helpers to have their dinner at 6pm. They were also allowed to buy and eat whatever they wanted. Thus, the practice in the Lee household was for the domestic helpers to have dinner before their employers.
Mrs. Lee addressed the domestic workers as ‘jie’ (sister), which led Ouyang to feel a sense of pride. The Lees also welcomed other amahs when Ouyang invited them over for visits and chats. Ouyang felt like she was home while working for the Lees – she only had to inform them if she wanted to go out.
Even after Mr. Lee took office as prime minister, he remained a modest and simple man. Ouyang revealed that Mr. Lee usually drinks a glass of Ovaltine, 2 pieces of bread and 2 eggs for breakfast.
The servants used to call Wei Ling by her name. However, after Mr. Lee became PM, Ouyang addressed her as ‘Da Xiao Jie‘ (term for employer’s eldest daughter). The young Lee Wei Ling said sternly, “It’s my father who’s the prime minister, not me. So please address me by my name.”
Ouyang often went on outings with the Lees as they did not want her to be cooped up at home. She remembered watching Mr. Lee hold his children’s hands, and felt that he was more like a friendly friend, a patient father, and “someone you can trust and be at ease with”.
Ouyang felt that she led a comfortable life with a good income of $5 to $6 a month. Back then, with 2 cents one could get a big bowl of wanton and 3 cents could fetch a kilogram of pork. One would merely need $3 a month for a living. She would send her savings back to China during the festive season.
The return home
She served the Lee family for 40 years, saw Mr. Lee grow from a lawyer to the nation’s founding Prime Minister and looked after Mr. and Mrs. Lee’s three children.
In 1986, Ouyang decided to stop working for the Lees and return to her hometown to take care of her sick older sister. Mr and Mrs Lee tried to get her to stay but their efforts were futile. Lee Wei Ling wrote several letters asking for her return, but they gradually drifted as Ouyang was not as literate.
In 2005, Lee Wei Ling, then-director of Singapore General Hospital, found Ouyang’s address and sent her some clothes and a photograph of the Lee family with the back written “This is our family portrait for memory’s sake. You were a wonderful memory in the stages of us growing up and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you. I also wish you good health, and may things go your way.”
In July 2014, PM Lee sent a China-based Singaporean ambassador to deliver a box of bird’s nest to her. The ambassador also conveyed PM Lee’s longing for her and that he had to take a photograph of her for PM Lee.
Always a part of her fond memories
Till date, she has still been keeping a large collection of photographs related to the Lee family. Some were of her and the Lee children, some were of Mr. and Mrs. Lee. Although most of them have turned yellow, Ouyang still values them and have been kept in good condition.
Here are some pictures from her collection: