My appointment with May-Ling Chen, Singapore’s respected scholar, political figure and philanthropist, had been cancelled, rescheduled and postponed too many times. I was young, I was ambitious, I needed that interview for the magazine I was working for. I was convinced it would boost my career.
I continued calling Madam Chen’s office every day, several times a day. She was in a meeting, she was out of town, she would call me back. She never did, of course.
I became obsessed with May-Ling Chen. And if I couldn’t meet her, then I would dig up some information. I went to the National Archives during my lunchbreak. I took copies of records home. At night, I leafed through old magazines while gobbling cups of cold noddle soup. I discovered there was no trace of May-Ling before the age of 23. No public information. Nothing.
May-Ling Chen appeared in Singapore’s public records and tabloids the year she married the much older tycoon Choo Wee Kwee. She was his fifth wife. Soon, she became one of Singapore’s most famous socialite, fashion icon and world traveler. They lived a busy, happy life between London and Singapore until his death at the age of 85. They had no children, so May-Ling inherited his vast fortune.
But what about her parents, place of birth and childhood?
I decided to focus my research on Choo Wee Kwee. For days, for weeks, I went through records and newspapers. I was exhausted and about to give up, when I saw a reference to multiple trips the tycoon took to one of the poorest Chinese provinces, the year before his marriage to May-Ling. I immediately knew I had a lead.
I contacted the Chuxiong City public office and after a few days and many phone calls, got a promising contact. I took Friday off and flew to Chuxiong, where I met Li Weng Chan, one of the tycoon’s oldest associates. We drank cups after cups of Pu-erh tea while the old man told me May-Ling’s incredible story. He was blind but his memory was still sharp.
On the plane back to Singapore, I went through my notes. What a life, what an inspiration! I could see a book, a movie…I had so many questions but felt a deep sense of dread. Even if they were true, how could Madam Chen possibly confirm those allegations or agree to make them public?
The following Monday, I called her office. The secretary was about to brush me off, once again. I cut him off.
“This is Priscilla Kho. I have to meet Madam Chen. It is of the utmost importance; it’s about Chuxiong.”
A long silence followed.
“Hold on,” he finally replied. “Madam Chen will see you today at 2.” He hung up without another word. I was ecstatic.
On my way to Madam Chen’s office, near Orchard Road, I mentally rehearsed my opening line. The bald secretary, who looked like a character out of a 1940’s movie, removed his round glasses and asked me to have a seat.
At 2 pm sharp, the door creaked open and May-Ling Chen appeared. Her face was as beautiful and delicate as her name implied.
“Priscilla Kho, how may I help you?”
I stood up and extended my hand, that she didn’t take.
“I…I would like to have a word with you, in private.”
She nodded and gestured me into her office. It was like stepping back in time: a red antique wedding chest stood against the wall, dark Chinese altar tables were adorned with precious books, delicate sculptures and white orchids.
We sat facing each other. I suddenly felt intimidated. Gone was my rehearsed opening line. Madam Chen took charge.
“So, you said you had information about Chuxiong?”
I took a deep breath and blurted everything out: the interview, my obsession with her, the research, the trip, the meeting with Li Weng Chan. For the first time, she smiled.
“Li Weng Chan” she murmured “he’s still alive! So, I guess you know about the heihaizi?”
“And what are you planning to do with that information?”
“I’m not sure. Is it true?”
“Yes, it is.”
That day, May-Ling Chen told me her story. A story she had never shared since the day she left Chuxiong province. She was a heihaizi, or “black child”, a daughter born outside the one child policy. Her parents could not register her, so they sold her on the black market and she ended up in an underage brothel. May-Ling, like hundreds of thousands of unregistered boys and girls, had no access to education nor medical care. She had no documents. She was invisible. She did not exist.
Choo Wee Kwee came to Chuxiong City for business. He was a generous sponsor of the brothel and a no-fuss customer. He fell in love with May-Ling and bought her. He smuggled her out of the country thanks to his money and connections with the triads.
I never saw May-Ling again after that interview, but we stayed in touch. That interview did boost my career.
My first novel, The Black Child, has been a best seller for years. A movie will be out soon. May-Ling Chen, may she rest in peace, gave me the rights to her story, provided fifty per cent of the proceeds go to charities in China, to help the other black children who were not as fortunate as she was.