She was a great-looking Singapore girl who rubbed shoulders with royalty, movie stars and statesmen.
People paid to sip tea with her, and countless others liked nothing better than to be photographed next to her.
So when Ah Meng the orang utan died yesterday, aged 48, it marked the end of an era at the Singapore Zoo.
Saddened by the news, former zoo chief Bernard Harrison remembered: “She had the character to be a mega-star, the personality to pull that off and became a legend.”
Ah Meng was a household name and remained the zoo’s star attraction, even as age slowed her down. In human terms, she was nearly 95, and is believed to have died of old age.
Born in Sumatra, Indonesia, she arrived at the zoo in 1971 after being removed from a family who kept her as an illegal pet.
Stardom came in 1982 with the zoo’s “Breakfast with An Orang Utan” programme, which featured Ah Meng at centre stage.
She had the character to be a mega-star, the personality to pull that off and became a legend.
FORMER ZOO CHIEF BERNARD HARRISON, on hearing about Ah Meng’s death
Within four years, she featured in almost 30 travel films and more than 270 write-ups worldwide.
Among those who dropped in on her were Britain’s Prince Philip, pop superstar Michael Jackson and actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Such was her pulling power that the then Singapore Tourism Promotion Board made her a Special Tourism Ambassador in 1992, the first non-human recipient of the award.
The zoo’s former head of public relations, Mr Robin Goh, said part of Ah Meng’s charm was how she took to people.
“She came from a domesticated background as a pet and behaved differently from wild orang utans. She could drink tea from a teacup and looked good for an ape,” he said.
Ah Meng is survived by four children and six grandchildren.
A memorial will be held at 11am on Sunday at the zoo, and the public will be able to view Ah Meng’s body from 9am.
Reacting to the news, President SR Nathan said at yesterday’s Istana open house that Ah Meng had long been a symbol of the Singapore Zoo.
“A lot of people, both local and foreigners, have enjoyed her company,” he said. “I’m sure the patrons of the zoo will miss her. But that’s life.”
Zoo officials said a memorial service will be held for Ah Meng on Sunday at 11am at the Garden With A View at the Singapore Zoo. Her body will be displayed from 9am.