Mixed and Match: Interracial couples say love is truly more than skin deep

Madam Alice Wong, who married Mr Robert Bonar (both above). -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Madam Alice Wong, who married Mr Robert Bonar (both above). -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Mrs Estrellita and Mr Anthony Twohill (centre) with their family at the surprise wedding ceremony to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. They are with (from far left) Mr Sanjey Chandran and wife Natalya Twohill, Mr Edmund Twohill and his wife Melissa Twohill (holding their son Nathaniel) and Mr Paul Twohill with his girlfriend Ng Foong Yee. -- PHOTO: JULIAN KWOK OF JWALKING STUDIO
Mr Anthony and Mrs Estrellita Twohill faced no objections from their families when they got married. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
The Choos met in Sydney and have been married for 40 years. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Walk around the streets of Singapore today and no one will bat an eyelid at a mixed-race couple.

In fact, interracial marriages here accounted for one in four unions in 2013 - up from one in eight in 2001.

But backtrack 30 years and having a spouse of a different race was practically unheard of.

For those bold enough to wed outside their race, they could expect a serious dose of parental disapproval and judgmental side-eye from strangers.

Yet if the recent 11-minute viral video featuring the 46-year love story of 70-somethings, Mrs Raelene Tan and Mr Tan Soo Ren, is anything to go by, there are those who dared to be rebels for love.

Produced by the Singapore Memory Project, the video of the love story between the Australian native and her Singaporean-Chinese husband hit a chord with locals and was viewed more than 377,000 times on Facebook.

SundayLife! speaks to three other interracial couples who have celebrated more than 30 years of marriage to find out why love for them is truly more than skin deep.


"Marrying an Asian man was unheard of then"

In March 1967, Australian nurse Penny Daley married Singaporean-Chinese Jerry Choo in Sydney. Ten days later, as Mrs Penny Choo, she moved to Singapore.

She recalls that the excitement of moving to a new country was overshadowed by her nerves, since she was meeting her husband's family for the first time.

"It didn't help that I got all his brothers and relatives mixed up at the airport," the 78-year-old says.

Their romance had started four years earlier, while the two were living in the same building in Sydney.

Mrs Choo, then 26, was working in a third-floor apartment as a live-in nurse for a family, while 23-year-old Mr Choo lived on the 26th floor with five other men, studying economics in Sydney University.

Mr Choo, now 75 and retired, spent his career working in the marketing industry for large multi-national corporations.

A chance encounter when Mr Choo and his flatmates visited Mrs Choo's apartment sparked a friendship between the pair.

They dated for four years before deciding to get married in a simple courthouse ceremony in Sydney, attended by Mrs Choo's family and some close friends.

And though Mr Choo's liberal English-educated family was more than accepting of the union (despite having never met Mrs Choo), his wife admits her Caucasian parents were slightly worried.

"Getting married to an Asian man and moving to Singapore was quite unheard of at the time," she says. "But they eventually gave in when they realised I was old enough to make my own decisions."

Still, despite Mr Choo's very welcoming family, she quickly learnt that life and cultures were dramatically different across the oceans.

For starters, during the wedding dinner that Mr Choo's family threw for the newlyweds in the courtyard of their Bukit Timah home, the 40 guests who attended were quick to leave after finishing their meal.

Knowing nothing of the quintessentially Singaporean style of dining-and-dashing, she recalls standing at the top of the stairs asking exiting guests to return to the party.

"I was busy telling guests not to go - the dancing hadn't even started yet!" she says.

"They must have thought it so strange, this white woman asking them to dance after dinner."

And during their day-to-day life, the young couple also had to get used to the stares they got when they went out together, given how mixed-race couples were uncommon in 1970s Singapore.

Mr Choo recalls a man he met in the market clapping him on the back and congratulating him on having a white wife.

"He must have thought I was kept in luxury given that I was married to a Caucasian woman," he says with a grin.

In contrast, Mrs Choo once had a woman tell her to "go home" after calling her a "white-faced monkey" when Mrs Choo accidentally blocked the woman's car with her own.

"It shocked me, but I guess I was asking for it since I did block her car," she says.

Still, over the years, the couple did their best to adapt to life in Singapore and respect each other's cultures.

For Mrs Choo, it meant overcoming her fear of firecrackers exploding on the streets during Chinese New Year, getting used to the constant floods in Bukit Timah, where they lived, and regularly accompanying her mother-in-law to watch Chinese movies at the cinema.

"They didn't have subtitles back then, so I would just watch the screen and imagine what the movie was about," she says.

In turn, Mr Choo encouraged his wife to join the Cosmopolitan Women's Club, a social club favoured by expatriate families.

It was there that she made many friends - some of whom were foreign wives like herself - who helped her get used to life in Singapore.

A book club that she joined with friends from the now-deregistered club is still going strong today, more than 30 years later.

For Mrs Choo, Singapore finally started feeling like home after the couple adopted their first daughter, Samantha, four years after getting married. They adopted a second daughter, Stephanie, 6-1/2 years later.

Samantha, 44, who is married to a Chinese Singaporean, is a contract manager with facility services firm ISS and Stephanie, 38, who is single, runs deejay school E-TracX.

The couple also have three granddaughters and live in an HUDC apartment in Braddell.

Earlier this year on March 10, the Choos celebrated their 48th year of marriage.

And it takes only one glance around their beautifully decorated home to see that the journey has been a happy one.

Near the doorway, a large rosewood cabinet they bought in the 1960s using money from their wedding hongbao sits proudly - having survived the many floods that the couple had to battle.

The display cabinets showcase little souvenirs from their travels together. And in the dining room, the walls are decorated with brightly painted artworks - presents from their granddaughters.

When asked what has been their secret to a happy marriage, Mrs Choo says simply: "It didn't matter to us that I was Caucasian and Jerry was Chinese because we have mutual respect for each other. That's what makes a marriage tick - whatever the colour of your skin."

Mistaken for a Chinese nanny

When 19-year-old Estrellita Soliano, who is Filipino-Chinese, first met a young Australian accountant at a dinner here, she thought he was younger than her.

It turned out that the baby-faced Mr Anthony Twohill, then aged 28, was nine years older than her - and absolutely smitten.

The two stayed fast friends for 10 years while Mr Twohill shuttled between Singapore and Australia for work before finally dating properly in 1982, when he moved to Singapore permanently.

Two years later, they got married in a simple registry wedding and had their first son, Edmund, the same year.

They later went on to have a daughter and a younger son in 1986 and 1989.

Luckily for both of them, their journey to marriage and parenthood was mostly smooth sailing.

His family in Australia had no objections and Mrs Twohill, the second youngest of nine siblings, also received the full support of her parents.

She says: "My older siblings had spouses of different races - people who hailed from everywhere from England to Taiwan - so by the time I got married, my family was already quite an interesting rojak mix."

But there was disapproval from strangers when the two went out together in public.

"It was obvious from the stares and snide under-the-breath comments that people thought I was just another sarong party girl," she says.

"The older folks were especially scandalised."

Her women friends even confided in her that they were "shy" to invite Mr Twohill to their homes for dinner parties.

"Even though they were friendly with him for the most part, there was still some race-consciousness," Mrs Twohill says.

All the pair could do was make the best of it.

For him, that meant quickly learning Chinese traditions such as not sweeping the house during Chinese New Year and asking the oldest person at the dining table to eat first out of respect.

For her, it meant shrugging off insensitive comments from strangers, such as a woman who assumed Mrs Twohill was a nanny when she saw Mrs Twohill carrying her fair-skinned son Edmund.

Still, the two cheekily admit that over the years, they have learnt to use some of their differences to their advantage.

For example, she is better at bargaining and often has to rescue her husband from unscrupulous shopkeepers who try to pull a fast one on him, thinking he is a foreigner.

In contrast, he would speak to difficult shopkeepers on her behalf, since he sometimes got better service as a Caucasian.

But for the couple, who now live in a five-room Housing Board flat in Ang Mo Kio, the bad experiences barely made a dent in their relationship.

"We learnt to compromise and did the same for our children - keeping an open mind about the choices they made," Mr Twohill says.

Their son Edmund, 31, is a civil servant married to a Chinese; daughter Natalya, 29, an associate in a private investment firm, has an Indian husband and youngest son, Paul, 26, a business development associate in a start-up, has a Chinese girlfriend.

Mrs Twohill helps out with her husband's accounting services business.

And their strong family bond shows.

For their 30th wedding anniversary last year, the children planned an elaborate surprise church wedding for the couple as they did not have one all those years ago.

It was attended by 60 relatives and friends. The couple's only grandson, 1-1/2-year-old Nathaniel, was the flower-bearer.

"Being around so many different cultures really opens your mind to diversity and tolerance," Mr Twohill says when asked about what he loves most about his 31-year mixed-race marriage.

"Seeing that reflected in my children's relationships now is all I can ask for. It could not make me happier."

People would crane their necks to look at us

They say true love transcends language barriers, but in the case of Madam Alice Wong and Mr Robert Bonar, a Malay night class in 1967 was the best matchmaker.

Madam Wong, 68, is Chinese and Chinese-educated. Mr Bonar, 78, is Indian and English-educated.

She says: "Back then, the government encouraged us to take up Malay and I joined a night school to learn the language."

And, as fate would have it, Mr Bonar - a prison officer at the time - was also enrolled there and had a colleague who was in Madam Wong's elementary Malay class.

A chance introduction set the ball rolling for the unlikely pair and, before long, the two were inseparable - spending almost every day together watching films at the cinema or going dancing at nightclubs.

"We clicked immediately despite our different backgrounds and our age gap," Madam Wong recalls. "Even though we didn't have any friends who were in mixed-race relationships, it didn't really bother us. We had fun together."

It helped that Mr Bonar came from a very large and liberal family.

His father (a nurse who died during World War II aged 42) had two wives - a Peranakan-Chinese first wife and Mr Bonar's Roman Catholic Indian mother.

Mr Bonar was only six when his father died and he ended up being raised by both mothers, so he was used to speaking English, Malay and Chinese at home and eating everything from Indian to Nonya cuisine.

His seven siblings also found partners of different races, which was considered very progressive at the time.

Madam Wong, in contrast, came from a very traditional Chinese family. Worried about what her parents would say, she did not dare to bring Mr Bonar home to meet them until he asked her to marry him a year later.

It did not help that the pair drew stares from strangers wherever they went.

"People would even turn around and crane their necks to look at us after we had walked past," Madam Wong says.

These led to some sticky situations, with Mr Bonar sometimes quarrelling with strangers who would not stop staring.

"Even though I never picked a fight with anyone, I definitely challenged some of them," he says with a laugh. "I was very fit back then."

But thankfully, Madam Wong's family ended up being very open to the union.

"My mother said that as long as he was a good man - no drinking, gambling and womanising - it was all that mattered," she says. "My mother would later joke that my love for curry as a child was a sign that I was meant to marry an Indian man."

And despite receiving snide comments from neighbours about the union, both families wholeheartedly supported the marriage and gave the couple their blessings.

The two married in church in 1968 and later hosted a dinner at the famous Sultan Cabaret, in the heart of Chinatown.

The traditional Chinese dinner was attended by more than 200 guests, including Mr Bonar's Indian relatives.

In the years that followed, both families became close. Madam Wong's family would invite Mr Bonar's family over for a traditional Chinese meal during Chinese New Year and Mr Bonar's Roman Catholic family would do the same during Christmas, which is when Mr Bonar's mother made dishes such as roast turkey and nasi briyani.

It is a tradition Madam Wong, a housewife, has kept till today - cooking traditional dishes during Chinese New Year and nasi briyani (learnt from her mother-in-law), roast turkey and cakes at Christmas.

Mr Bonar, who frequently praises Madam Wong's cooking throughout this interview, quickly adds that he helps by making pineapple tarts from scratch during Christmas.

The couple, who live in a five-room Housing Board flat in Clementi, have been married for 47 years and have three children - a son, 46, and two daughters aged 44 and 42.

Their older daughter, a teacher, is married to a Singaporean Eurasian while the younger, a housewife, is married to an English man and residing in England.

Their son, also a teacher, is not married. The couple also have four grandchildren.

When asked how she feels about the growing number of mixed-race couples in Singapore these days, Madam Wong breaks into a smile before saying: "Back in the 1960s, I barely had any friends who were in mixed-race relationships but today, my daughters are both married to people from other races.

"Now we have such an open-minded society in Singapore. It makes me so happy to see how far we've come."

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