Published: Wednesday February 22, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday May 25, 2013 MYT 12:35:46 AM

No stopping these octogenarians

In an article for The Straits Times entitled ‘In praise of older workers’, Singapore’s roving ambassador Tommy Koh wrote that his optician, tailor and dentist are still working despite being in their 80s. What keeps them going?

Eye on good service: Leow Hock Chin, 83, optician

EVEN heads of state need to have their eyes checked every so often. And they usually do so once every one to two years, says Leow, who has prescribed glasses for three Singapore presidents – the late CV Devan Nair, former president S.R. Nathan and Tony Tan Keng Yam.

“They behave like normal people. The bodyguard stays outside, they do not come into the shop,” he says.

Leow owns Star Optical at Delfi Orchard, which he opened in 1961 at Clifford House in Collyer Quay. The business relies mostly on customers who have been going to the shop for decades as well as some high-profile ones. These include Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, 74, and former Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye, 90.

Walk-in clients are few and far between these days and business is slowing down, says Leow, who has one shop assistant. Still, he has no intention of retiring just yet.

“I will continue working since I’m still agile. It is not a very tedious or heavy workload and it helps people. After all, eyesight is so important.”

The father of three works 5.5 days a week. His wife is 82-year-old housewife Beh Gaik Keow, his childhood sweetheart. They live in a semi-detached house near Holland Village. Their three children have moved out.

His eldest daughter is in her 50s and lives in Singapore while the youngest is in her 40s and lives in New York. Both of them work in the fashion retail industry. His lawyer son works in Hong Kong.

Leow obtained a diploma in optometry at Northampton Polytechnic in the United Kingdom in the late 1950s. During the 1960s, he was an optician for the British Army in Singapore.

He also played a part in the early days of contact lenses, which were introduced in Singapore between the 1960s and 1970s.

He and eight other opticians formed the Singapore Contact Lens Society to educate the public on the proper use of the lenses. They helped dispel myths such as the story of a woman whose contact lenses melted when she went near a barbecue pit.

Leow is still a member of the organisation. He keeps up to date with new trends in his field through the weekly journal, Optician. from Britain.

Even after 54 years, he still takes it upon himself to ensure that every customer walks out of his shop with a well-fitted pair of contact lens or spectacles. This means checking on little details, down to making the glasses rest with the right amount of pressure on the bridge of the nose.

“Running a successful optical shop requires a friendly approach, good service and accuracy. Satisfied customers make me happy,” he says.

Not ready to retire: Dr Choo Teck Chuan, 80, dentist

Dr Choo’s dental practice, Robertson Choo Oehlers Lee & Lye, was named after its five founding partners, between the 1960s and 1970s. Only two of them remain - he and Dr Lye Thim Loke, who is in his 70s. The others have either retired or died.

But Dr Choo says: “I enjoy the challenge of handling bothersome teeth and toothaches. No two cases are the same. I feel that one of my partners retired too early, at 59, but to each his own desires.”

Three new partners have joined the practice at Paragon mall.

Dr Choo works 5.5 days a week. He sees patients from 8.30am to 1.30pm and spends the rest of the day at home organising the International Dental Exhibition and Meeting, a biennial international trade exhibition and scientific conference. As its scientific programme director since 2000, he has to look for speakers and experts in the field of dentistry.

He describes working on conferences as a hobby: “When you organise them, you are using your brains and you will not get old if you continue doing that.”

In 2009, he helped organise the FDI World Dental Congress, which drew more than 6,000 professionals.

Dr Choo’s parents died soon after the Japanese Occupation, when he was a teenager. He put himself through school by working for a doctor in Rochor Road.

He received the Queen’s Scholarship to pursue post-graduate studies in Sweden and the United Kingdom in the late 1950s. He met his wife, Margaret Choo, 78, at Singapore General Hospital, where he was an assistant lecturer after his undergraduate studies.

They have three daughters who are now between 45 and 55 years old. The youngest is a senior consultant at the National Dental Centre Singapore.

Dr Choo’s practice was first located in Orchard Road at MacDonald House, now gazetted as a national monument. The clinic has moved three times over the past five decades.

He was working on a tooth filling for a seven-year-old child when the bomb blast orchestrated by Indonesian terrorists went off in MacDonald House in 1965.

The floor-to-ceiling glass window of the room shattered, leaving him with a deep gash on his leg, which had to be stitched. His patient was unscathed.

Turning 80 last month has not fazed him.

“We cannot assume a person cannot work because of a certain age. The retirement age used to be 50 and now it is 62. Hopefully, there will be no such thing as a retirement age some day,” he says.

He still cuts it: Edward Kwan, 80, tailor

He has been running Wai Cheong Tailors for more than six decades, but to this day, he cannot even sew a straight line. This is because Kwan is usually in charge of measuring customers and then cutting the fabric into patterns for a seamstress to piece together.

“When a garment does not come out right, most customers blame the tailor for not sewing it properly. But really, sometimes they should blame the person who cut it. A good suit is 60% cutting and 40% good sewing,” Kwan says.

His store sells mainly business suits which cost from S$850 (RM2,054). It has been at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore since 1977.

Clients are mostly hotel guests, including former United States president Bill Clinton in the 1990s, whom he describes as a nice but quiet man.

Kwan’s wife, 76-year-old Grace Leong, takes care of the accounts at their workshop and office at Peninsula Plaza, while he works at their shop in the hotel.

“I always tell her to retire but she wants to help me. After all, we can still work and it is better than staying at home with nothing to do,” he says. They have one shop assistant and three seamstresses.

He took over the business after completing secondary school. His father, who started it in the 1930s, was killed during the Japanese Occupation. At the time, the store, which is named after his father, was located in a shophouse in North Bridge Road.

After the war, Kwan learnt the trade through trial and error with the help of his mother and professional tailors she hired. “If you cut the cloth wrongly, you just had to start again,” he recalls.

While things were tough, the business became lucrative enough for him to get married and start a family. He met Grace in church in the 1950s and they moved into a bungalow in East Sussex Lane, where they still live.

They have five children, none of whom have shown any interest in taking over the family business. Their eldest daughter is in her 50s, while the youngest is in her 40s.

Kwan says: “I am very blessed. I did not have to struggle and scrape very much because I have a little business.”

Lately, he has been telling himself to take things easier. Enough is enough, he adds. The important thing is to earn sufficient money to pay his workers and the rent.

Still, he will not be letting go of the business just yet. “I am the boss, who is going to tell me to retire?” – By Cheryl Faith Wee/The Straits Times Singapore/Asia News Network

Old is gold, and bold. So, let us hear what you have to say, about whatever excites you, makes you happy, sad or concerned. E-mail your views to Published contributions will be paid, so please include your full name, IC number, address and telephone number.

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