Be With Me star Theresa Chan dies of lung cancer

Ms Chan in an undated photo. Her indomitable spirit inspired film-maker Eric Khoo's movie Be With Me, which she starred in.
Ms Chan in an undated photo. Her indomitable spirit inspired film-maker Eric Khoo's movie Be With Me, which she starred in.

She was known as the Helen Keller of the East, and her amazing life and indomitable spirit inspired film-maker Eric Khoo's movie Be With Me, which she starred in.

Ms Theresa Chan Poh Lin, who lost her sight and hearing after a bout of meningitis in her teens, died at Assisi Hospice on Monday morning. She was 72.

Ms Chan lived alone before she was diagnosed with lung cancer and admitted to Singapore General Hospital in April. But in her last days, friends kept vigil at her bedside round the clock.

"She spent over 50 years of her life in total darkness and silence," said potter Delphine Sng, 56, who knew Ms Chan for 36 years. "But despite all these challenges, she led a purposeful life, and was an inspiration to all of us who have known her."

The only daughter of a hawker and a waitress, Ms Chan grew up in Chinatown's Sago Lane. She became deaf at 12, and lost her sight at 14. Her life changed when she was found by a social worker.

After learning Braille at the Singapore School for the Blind, then led by war heroine Elizabeth Choy, Ms Chan, then 17, attended the Perkins School for the Blind in the United States in 1960 - the same school Helen Keller went to.

Ms Chan learnt to pronounce English words by feeling and touching a speaker's lips and throat. She topped her school in mathematics and was president of the sports club. She spent 13 years in the US and travelled widely. She met the late Mother Teresa while attending Sunday mass in a New Delhi church. It was her aspiration to "learn like Helen Keller, to speak English like the Queen of England, to meet everyone in the world".

After returning to Singapore in 1973, she taught at the Singapore School for the Blind until 1990. She took care of daily tasks on her own. Friends helped her by buying groceries, taking her swimming and to eat her favourite Cantonese dishes. She kept herself updated on current affairs, subscribing to Braille magazines.

In an interview with The Straits Times in April, the devout Catholic said she was unafraid of cancer. "If I have to go home, I will be happy to see Jesus. I hope people will remember me and remember that whatever their disabilities, they should have hope and not be unhappy and discouraged."

Treatment options were presented to her, but she wanted only palliative care, said Ms Sng. By the end of last month, she was leaving instructions for her funeral, laboriously using hand signals to get her will written. She died about a month short of her 73rd birthday on July 9. A Catholic mass was held on Monday afternoon and she was cremated in the evening.

Ms Chan went through one of her darkest periods when her mother, who she said taught her all that she knew, died of a stroke about 15 years ago. Her urn will be placed next to her mother's at the columbarium of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

Said Mr Khoo: "I have very happy memories working with Theresa on Be With Me. She is truly one of a kind - brave, smart, charitable, funny and inspirational."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2016, with the headline 'Be With Me star Theresa Chan dies of lung cancer'. Print Edition | Subscribe