It Changed My Life

Why Jackpot Auntie gave away windfall - twice

Madam Choo made headlines in October 2011 when she got involved in a dispute with Marina Bay Sands over her jackpot win. When she eventually received the money, she gave it all away to nearly 30 charities.
Madam Choo made headlines in October 2011 when she got involved in a dispute with Marina Bay Sands over her jackpot win. When she eventually received the money, she gave it all away to nearly 30 charities.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
For a spell in the 1980s, Madam Choo was chauffeur to Hong Kong stars such as Andy Lau (above) when they were in town. Vivacious and sporty in her younger days (left), she attracted quite a few suitors, among them a jockey.
For a spell in the 1980s, Madam Choo was chauffeur to Hong Kong stars such as Andy Lau (above) when they were in town. PHOTOS: CHOO HONG ENG
Madam Choo made headlines in October 2011 when she got involved in a dispute with Marina Bay Sands over her jackpot win. When she eventually received the money, she gave it all away to nearly 30 charities.
Vivacious and sporty in her younger days (above), she attracted quite a few suitors, among them a jockey.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

I have all that I want, says 61-year-old eatery owner, who was abandoned at birth

Nearly five years ago, Madam Choo Hong Eng became the talk of the town when she won more than $400,000 from a casino slot machine at Marina Bay Sands (MBS), and then proceeded to give it all away.

It was not the first time she had hit the jackpot only to donate the money to charity. Four years earlier, she had parted with more than half of the $280,000 she won from pulling the one-arm bandit on a cruise ship.

Her generosity is all the more impressive, given her background.

No heiress with oodles of spare cash, the 61-year-old was abandoned at birth and never had the privilege of an education.

Instead, she works hard for her money by running a vegetarian food stall which she started in Geylang 30 years ago.

So why did she give it all away?

"I have all that I want," says the woman nicknamed Jackpot Auntie.

Some people said she was stupid or crazy for doing what she did but many others described her as a remarkable woman.

Madam Choo certainly has presence as she sits in a private dining room at Kwan Inn Vegetarian Restaurant in Tanjong Katong Road. The cosy eatery, which opened a few months ago, is her new undertaking with two business partners who are in the coffee business.

That she is a woman of action is obvious from the purposeful and animated way she moves and talks. She radiates charm and has an easy likeability, made even more pleasing by her sharp wit, keen intelligence and refreshing candour.

One can easily imagine her, with her smarts, running a successful business or corporation if Fate had dealt her a better hand at birth.

Shaking her head, the straight talker says she does not waste time grappling with such a scenario.

"It's not something you can change," she says in Cantonese.

Her real parents, she was told, were Shanghainese and worked on ships. They left her in an orphanage in River Valley when she was born.

When she was three, she was adopted by a devout Buddhist who had left Shanghai for Singapore after becoming disappointed with her husband's philandering ways.

Her adoptive mother, whom she called Ah Por, or grandmother, also took in two boys from the orphanage, which was forced to close because of a lack of funding.

Ah Por was the head of a tontine, an informal micro-financing scheme where members make regular contributions to a common pool and bid for loans.

As she did not have a birth certificate and other documents, Madam Choo was not enrolled in a school.

"It didn't bug me not having an education. I knew I could still have a career and not go hungry. My Ah Por told me that only the lazy starve," she says.

Not only was she never lazy, but she was also entrepreneurial to boot. By nine, she already knew how to make money.

Each time an opera troupe performed in her kampung, she would peddle guava, rambutans and sugar cane. "In those days, opera performances sometimes lasted a week. We lived in a kampung, so there were all these fruit trees. Whatever was edible, I'd raid to sell. Or I'd reserve seats for the villagers for five or 10 cents," she says.

Her leadership qualities surfaced early. "I was known as the samseng girl," she says, using the local slang for ruffian.

"All the village boys looked up to me and did my bidding. The villagers all said I would be the first to marry because there were always boys around me," adds Madam Choo, who is single.

Her hyperactive nature so exasperated her adoptive mother that she was packed off to a school for novice Buddhist nuns in Telok Kurau when she was 12.

While the feisty girl agreed to attend classes on Buddhist scriptures, she told the principal that she was illiterate and would not do homework or take exams.

For more than two years, she would attend classes daily from 8am to 4pm.

"That is why I can recite sutras by heart," she says with a laugh.

At 14, she found work in a wig- making factory in Geylang Lorong 3. So adroit was she at her job that she could do the work of three people.

"My bosses loved me because I was fast and precise, but my colleagues resented me. I asked for overtime work every day because I wanted to make money," says Madam Choo, who could rake in $1,000 - no mean sum 40 years ago - each month.

When the wig industry fell on hard times, she took on two jobs. By day, she worked as an assistant in a shop selling vinyls and stamps; at night, she was a ticket seller at the now-defunct amusement park Gay World. "In those days, a lot of Taiwanese singers such as Teresa Teng and Yu Ya performed at Gay World," she says.

Quick to spot money-making opportunities, she persuaded her day boss to place big orders for records by visiting artists. She would then get these singers to sign the records during their rehearsals and flog the vinyls off in her ticketing booth at night, earning a commission for each one she sold.

Vivacious and sporty, she attracted quite a few suitors, among them a jockey. "Many who went after me were married. And my Ah Por told me never to get involved with a married man," she says.

Surely there were eligible ones too. "Yes, but no feel lah," she says, suddenly lapsing into English.

"Anyway, I'm not marriage material. I'm too independent and headstrong. I like to make and spend my own money."

And she did. Over the next two decades, she made a more than decent living at different jobs.

For a spell in the 1980s, she was chauffeur to Hong Kong celebrities such as Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Anita Mui whenever they were in town.

On weekends, she made a lucrative living cooking vegetarian dishes for busloads of tourists, who would eat in the spacious compound of her adoptive mother's house in Ceylon Road.

"I cooked for three seatings of 15 tables each on weekends. I could make a couple of thousands each weekend. I stopped when the Government passed a law requiring all caterers to be licensed," says Madam Choo, who also ran a photostating business in a local university.

In the 1990s, she started a vegetarian stall in Geylang East.

Although she has turned it into a thriving business, she did not have it easy at first.

She had to contend with sabotage attempts by jealous competitors and had her fair share of accidents.

Once, her hands slipped and she tipped a wok of hot oil onto her face and chest. She was in agony. Her scalded face took on a bright red hue and her clothes stuck to her chest.

She prayed to the Goddess of Mercy, imploring that she be spared disfigurement. When she emerged unscathed from the episode, she resolved to devote her life to charity and helping others.

Madam Kwan Seck Mui, 69, has known her for nearly 40 years.

"She really lives by her principles. If a person genuinely needs help, she will help," says Madam Kwan, a former entertainment journalist.

That probably explains why Madam Choo adopted her friend's two daughters about 20 years ago.

"My friend went on her knees and told me that she could not afford to raise them. Her husband was a gambler and they had just got divorced," says Madam Choo.

The two daughters are now 21 and 24. One will be completing her business studies at Singapore Management University, while the other has a certificate in hospitality.

Madam Choo has been donating to charity for most of her working life, although her altruistic streak came to public attention only after her jackpot win at MBS.

She made headlines in October 2011 when she got involved in a dispute with the casino, which initially refused to pay her the winnings of more than $400,000, claiming that there was a computer glitch.

She was given the full sum only after she complained to the Casino Regulatory Authority.

Upon receiving the money, she gave it all away to nearly 30 charities, including the Singapore Buddhist Federation and the National Kidney Foundation.

She has not been to a casino since. She says: "You will never win again. I don't gamble. But (at the time) my friend, who was visiting from China, wanted to see what the casino was like. I decided to change $50 for tokens to play the slot machines while waiting for him.

"It was the same on the cruise ship. A friend invited a few of us on the cruise. It was just meant to be."

She insists the episode has not changed her life much.

"My branding has probably become stronger," she jokes. "And I get recognised. People point at me and whisper, and taxi drivers ask me if I am the Jackpot Auntie."

The attention does not bother her much. Neither does the fact that she has lost a few friends whose requests for help - to settle credit card bills or start businesses - she did not entertain.

"My philosophy in life is simple. Don't hurt others to benefit yourself. And as long as what you do is proper, do not worry about what others say."

Friends, she says, she does not lack. One of them is Singapore artist Tan Swie Hian, 72, who has been patronising her vegetarian food stall in Geylang for years.

"She is just a pure soul. She is so kind-hearted that she devotes her life to bringing happiness to other people," says the Cultural Medallion winner, whose ink-on-rice paper work, Portrait Of Bada Shanren, sold for $4.4 million at the Poly Auction in Beijing two years ago.

"Like all kind people, she is taken advantage of by others, but she doesn't let it get to her."

When Madam Choo opened her Kwan Inn restaurant last year, Mr Tan, Singapore's most expensive living artist, personally gave her a calligraphic plaque which doubles as a signboard for the eatery.

The restaurant is a lifelong dream. "I've always wanted to find a successor and a legacy for my recipes," says Madam Choo, who has a repertoire of more than 100 dishes. "If it does well, there are plans to open branches."

She chuckles when asked what goes through her head when she looks back on her life. "There have been ups and downs, but I have to say I have a happy life."

And she does not worry about the future. "I'm not lazy. That's why I'm here," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Jackpot Auntie gave away windfall twice'. Print Edition | Subscribe