This article was first published on Jan 12, 2014
Annie Siow Lee Khoon deftly swipes her right index finger over her smartphone until she finds the photograph she is looking for.
It shows her right foot, with parts mapped out in blue marker ink by her plastic surgeon. "He said that's where he will get the skin to graft onto my nose," says the 48-year-old, who hopes to get the procedure done soon.
It is not a vanity job but one she needs. Her nose is a mess. It is misshapen and the nostrils are tiny, making breathing extremely difficult. In fact, her whole nose is in danger of collapsing.
This is not the nose she was born with. That was hacked off 25 years ago by a man wielding a cleaver. Her attacker - a spurned suitor - also chopped off her ears, hewed her cheeks and blinded her in the right eye by pouring boiling water onto her face.
It took 27 operations - and many years - for her to regain the semblance of a face, one marked by mangled features and masses of scar tissue. But she is not self-conscious about her appearance. In fact, she radiates a sanguine, jocund vibe.
"Who knows, if this had not happened to me, I would probably be lan lai fu ngm siong bek," Ms Siow says, using the tart Cantonese saying which means "mud cannot be helped to the wall", to suggest that she would not have amounted to much.
At the time of the attack, she was a chain-smoking, high-living nightclub hostess with a gambling addiction. She was also a single mother with a four-year-old son.
Her ordeal changed everything overnight. There were long hard battles with suicidal thoughts, depression and self-esteem until she found religion, which helped pull her out of her abyss.
Today she works with voluntary welfare organisation Concern and Care in Bukit Batok Central. Besides working with senior citizens, she also gives inspirational talks - in Singapore and overseas - about her life.
"I love what I do. My life is not worthless; I can use it to help others," she says.
Ms Siow was born in the Malaysian village of Kepong, just outside Kuala Lumpur. Her parents grew up in the same household, raised by her paternal grandmother.
"My grandmother adopted my father after his family was killed during the Japanese Occupation. She later took in my mother; she wanted her to be his bride when they grew up."
When Ms Siow was just a few months old, her mother walked out on the family because she could not take the loutish and irresponsible ways of her husband, a former tin mine worker.
The baby girl was raised by her grandmother, who had a gruelling job washing tin ore.
Ms Siow dropped out of secondary school after her grandmother developed cataracts and could not work any more. Her father had remarried the year before and told her he could not afford to let her continue her studies.
The mild-mannered teenager found work as a petrol pump attendant. Soon, she started hanging out with members of a motorcycle gang. "My rebelliousness was my way of escaping from my reality. Why did I have to be born into such a family; why did life give me such a raw deal?"
She spent Saturday nights partying or waiting at the roadside for drag races. She dreamt of a strapping, tattooed Prince Charming who would ride up on his 250cc speed machine and sweep her off to a more exciting life.
He did appear, but there was no happily ever after. "He was a sweet talker and treated my grandmother well. But everyone advised me against going out with him, because they said he was bad news," she recalls.
When she became pregnant, he told her to get an abortion. But his family found out and objected. His siblings cobbled together the money for the young couple to have a traditional Chinese wedding.
But it was not long before cracks surfaced. "I got to know him at 17, became pregnant at 18, and was a mother at 19," says Ms Siow. "I had to look after my baby and could not work so we soon started quarrelling over money. We were also both young, I was more interested in discos and midnight shows than looking after my baby."
She returned to work and became a supervisor in a glove factory. Then she discovered that her husband had a girlfriend.
She decided to confront the pair at their love nest. Her husband was so incensed that he beat her up at their home later. "That beating woke me up. He also asked me to leave and to take my son with me." The boy was three years old.
On the advice of a friend, she left Kepong for Ipoh and became a hostess at a nightclub called Millionaire. "I reckoned that was the best way to earn fast money."
She learnt to doll herself up and within a couple of months became one of the club's most popular hostesses. She also worked at a KTV lounge.
"I worked from 3pm till 9pm at the KTV lounge and was known as Annie. From 9pm till 1am, I was at the nightclub and there, my name was Joanne," she says, adding that she left her son with a babysitter.
What she earned in half a month as a factory supervisor, she could make in just one night as a hostess. She had many admirers, including a US-based architect and a Malaysian restaurateur in Holland.
"But I had a phobia of marriage. I did not give myself or others a chance," she says.
Among the men attracted to her were two brothers who competed for her affection. "They would come to blows in the nightclub over me. It was too much. I decided not to sit with either of them and would just send other girls when they requested my company."
It was the younger brother who attacked her on Oct 11, 1989, and she says that to this day she does not understand why he was so vicious. The assault was so savage that doctors did not expect her to survive.
"There was no sign that he would do this. I'd never done anything with him; we never ever dated," she says.
She was asleep at home that night when the man kept shouting out her name at the gate of her rented double-storey terraced house.
From her bedroom window, she told him to go home.
But he suddenly doubled over as though in great pain.
"I thought he had a gastric attack and so went down to let him in. I put the kettle on the boil to make him a hot drink but noticed him looking around as if to see if there was anybody at home."
He had closed the front door behind him, but she went to open it, saying that keeping it shut was not appropriate since they were alone in the house. "As soon as I said that, I realised it was a big mistake," she says.
As she made her way back to the kitchen, he bashed her head with his motorcycle helmet.
"I started yelling, which really agitated him. He started choking me with his hands, I fought and just threw whatever I could at him."
He grabbed a cleaver in the kitchen, grabbed her by her hair and started hacking repeatedly at her face and head. "I shouted for help in all the languages I knew but he just kept attacking me. The neighbours were probably either too scared or thought it was a lovers' quarrel."
He emptied the kettle of boiling water on her face.
He then fled, but a neighbour took down his motorcycle number and reported him to the police. He turned himself in after the Malaysian media went to town with reports of the horrendous crime.
He was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison and six strokes of the cane.
The attack was only the beginning of Ms Siow's ordeal. The injuries left her in a coma for two weeks. Over the following months, she tottered on the brink of unspeakable grief and insanity.
"The nurses had to cover all mirrors and reflective glass in my ward. I was hysterical. When my son saw me for the first time after the attack, he screamed and ran away and said I was a ghost," she recalls.
She shows a picture of her bludgeoned face. Although she had by then gone through several operations, the picture is too horrifying to be published.
She was in and out of hospital for three years.
It was a nurse who introduced her to Christianity and that, she says, saved her.
"At one stage, I had to pop 48 pills a day to deal with insomnia, depression and a host of other issues, including a fear of men. I was taking a sleeping pill almost every hour to help me cope."
With the help of church members, she took courses in flower arranging and for a couple of years made a living teaching at a florists' training centre in Kuala Lumpur.
In the mid-1990s, she met Mr David Lee, the founder of a Taiwanese Christian volunteer group Passing On Mission.
Inspired by her story, he decided to make a video, Life Can Be Good, based on her life. This was followed by a book, Uncommon Beauty, which is now required reading at several schools in Taiwan.
Under his mentorship, she blossomed into an inspirational speaker, sharing her life story at schools, prisons and religious organisations in Singapore, Taiwan, the United States and Canada.
She manned Hopeline, which counsels people in distress in Johor Baru, before coming to Singapore 10 years ago and joining Concern and Care Society.
She has also reached out to attack victims, including a woman disfigured by a taxi driver who doused her with kerosene and set her alight after raping her.
Ms Siow, whose son is now 29 and working in a goldsmith's shop, has long forgiven her assailant.
"Yuan yuan xiang bao he shi liao," she says, spouting a Chinese aphorism which means "revenge is a vicious circle".
"How many lives do I have? I survived this, and I want to live the rest of my life meaningfully."
She laughs chirpily when asked if she still harbours hopes of finding a life companion.
"Well, if someone is willing to accept me, who am I to reject him? But I don't think it's a possible scenario so I don't waste time thinking about it.
"In the past, I was confused. I didn't know what I lived for, I didn't know the road ahead. But now I do."