Raelene Tan surprised by popularity of her 'simple story of a happy marriage'

SINGAPORE - When Mrs Raelene Tan and her husband Tan Soo Ren went to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital for a medical appointment on Wednesday, strangers nodded and smiled at them.

Some approached them to say they had watched the viral video about their marriage.

In the lift, people greeted them and one exclaimed: "It's so romantic!"

Mrs Tan, 75, said she is surprised that her "simple story of a happy marriage" has become so popular.

On Monday, a touching video of the couple was shared on Facebook by the Singapore Memory Project. The project by the National Library Board aims to collect the personal memories of Singaporeans.

 

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It was in a house off Orchard Road, 1970s: “Eating at the table was a bit of a drama for me… because everybody would ask everyone else to eat. Father, mother, grandfather, sister… have your meal. By the time I asked everyone to eat, they’d finished and left the table. I’m still sitting there.” These 30 or so family members who ate meals with Raelene, who is originally from Australia, welcomed her and her Singaporean spouse Soo Ren when they arrived from London five years after Singapore became independent in 1965 – a time when interracial relationships were rare. Is there a pioneer you are most thankful to? Honour their contributions by sharing your fondest memories in the comment section or tag #GreatestGift #sgmemory

Posted by irememberSG on Sunday, 12 April 2015

In the 11-minute clip, the Australian-born Mrs Tan talks about about how she met Mr Tan, who is Singaporean, in London and how they sustained a cross-cultural marriage for 46 years.

It has been shared more than 3,900 times on Facebook, and garnered more than 230,000 views.

Mrs Tan, a etiquette consultant, uses e-mail, but does not have a Facebook account, and seldom uses the mobile phone her children insisted she get.

She is still amazed at the buzz the video has generated.

"My daughter Lauren telephoned gasping that everything was such an attraction," she told The Straits Times. "I'm humbly surprised at how people want a good story, not a story of bravado or wonderful escapades but just the simple story of a happy marriage."

Being from different cultures, the Tans' marriage had its challenges.

On Aug 10, 1970, when they arrived in Singapore by ship, Raelene met Mr Tan's large family for the first time.

About 20 people - aunties, uncles, siblings and cousins - turned up at the dock to welcome them.

Mr Tan's parents could not speak English, and she remembered using sign language to communicate with them. She attempted to learn Mandarin in London and in Sydney, but had no aptitude for it, she said.

"It worked because I respected his parents, and they tried their best to make me feel welcome," she said.

In the video, Mrs Tan shared how that family put together a surprise Christmas celebration for her the first year she arrived.

"If one has a good heart, a positive heart, it's easy to understand miming," she said.

In the 1970s, there were not as many Caucasians in Singapore, and she "stood out". It was almost impossible to make friends with the same cultural background, she said.

With an Australian friend who also married a Singaporean Chinese, she started the Cosmopolitan Women's Club so women in cross-cultural marriages could socialise and support each other.

"It was a life saver," she said.

She and Mr Tan also joined the Tanglin Club so she could meet other expatriates, and have Western food. On Thursday, right after she spoke to The Straits Times, they had lunch there to celebrate Mr Tan's 77th birthday.

More than 40 years on, what was a originally "short visit" to meet Mr Tan's family has become a life in Singapore.

Their son and daughter both married Singaporeans and live with their families here, she said. They have four grandchildren aged two to nine.

The couple now help each other through their illnesses. Mrs Tan underwent radiotherapy for skin cancer which damaged her eyes, while Mr Tan, a retired architect, suffered a stroke which left lasting cognitive impairment.

When asked for her advice on marriage, she claimed not to be an expert, but said: "If we marry the people we love and we respect and we are friends, anything can be overcome. It truly is compromise, genuinely loving that person and wanting the best for that person."

chuimin@sph.com.sg