It was love at first sight at the tuition centre. Helen Mok was a part-timer and Leong Sze Kwok a student, and they didn’t know what their future held. But they knew they were meant for each other.
“In those days, as soon as we like each other, we’d tell our parents. I told my folks but insisted that even if they didn’t approve of Leong, he was the man I was going to marry. Seeing how determined I was, my father couldn’t really do anything but he warned me that if I regretted my decision later, it would be my own fault, ” recalls Mok, 63, the oldest of eight siblings from Batu Pahat. “I have absolutely no regrets.”
Mok and Leong have been married for 40 years now and have four children, Mervyn, 38, Joanna, 36, Evelyn, 25 and Christine, 22.
On the surface, the two seem like polar opposites – she is chatty and bubbly while he is quiet and reserved. But as they share the story of their love and life together, it is clear they complement each other perfectly and share the same priority in life: to lead a happy life without stepping on others’ toes.
They are affectionate towards each other and even finish each other’s sentences as they share stories from their past. “We got married in 1981, ” says Leong.
“No, we got married in 1980. We had our first child, our son, in 1981, ” she corrects her husband, laughing at his poor recollection of their wedding date.
“It was around that time lah, ” he says, sheepishly shrugging his shoulders and laughing along with her.
Learning to laugh about things and “not sweating the small stuff” has been the secret ingredient in their happy marriage, shares Mok.
“Marriage is all about compromise and tolerance. And communication. Don’t focus on the little things and don’t always pick on your husband or wife’s bad habits. Learn to look at the good, ” she advises.
Although life hasn’t exactly been a struggle for the couple, they did have to work hard to support their growing family. They both held two jobs in order to save for their first home.
“When we first got married, he was a store manager at a plastics factory. At night, he would sell plastic products at the pasar malam. I would be the busybody talking to all his customers because he was so shy and quiet. He would not be able to sell much if he just stood at one place, so I helped him out in the beginning, ” shares Mok who taught at a tuition centre and sold cookies and knick knacks in the evenings.
“We both come from poor families so we are used to working hard for a comfortable life for our family. It’s who we are, ” she shares.
When Leong decided to quit his job and start his own business, Mok was behind him all the way. It wasn’t easy and, at times, they had to borrow money from friends to build their business. But they had each other to lean on, which made all the difference.
“We were always very fortunate and blessed to have people willing to help us. We worked hard. I quit teaching and helped with the shop. For many years, he’d be at the shop all day and night, coming home only after 11pm.
“He kept the shop open from 10am to 10pm and although I’d ask him to close a little earlier, he was very stubborn. Thankfully, our children were very responsible and they’d help one another with the schoolwork.
“It was only after many years of nagging that he agreed to close at 9pm. Now, we close at 8.30pm. He’s still very stubborn, ” she shares.
The couple now own three shops selling plasticware and furniture in Sri Kembangan, Selangor.
They live above their shops in a comfortable, modest home decorated with family photos and Leong’s trophies – he is an accomplished karaoke singer and has won many competitions with his low, smooth, crooning voice.
Without much persuasion, Leong sets up his home karaoke set and sings his wife a Cantonese love song.
They live alone now, with their beloved dog, Silver, as their children have all moved out to live on their own: Mervyn lives in Poland with his wife and toddler; Joanne lives in Penang; Evelyn is a physiotherapist in Petaling Jaya while Christine is a student at the Multimedia University in Melaka.
“Actually, we used to bicker all the time. But it never turned into a big argument, ” shares Mok.
Adds Leong: “Arguing is healthy in a relationship, I think. You learn more about your spouse when you argue.”
Mok clarifies that while arguing isn’t always a bad thing, it is important for couples to be able to compromise and settle differences harmoniously for a marriage to be sustainable.
“If your spouse doesn’t like something you do, try not to do it. It’s all about compromise and tolerance. And communication, ” she advises.
Six months ago, Mok suffered a stroke which affected the left side of her brain, rendering her unable to speak or move her right hand and leg much.
With regular physiotherapy and acupuncture treatments, she regained the use of her limbs after just a couple of months. She still speaks with a slight slur but she has regained strength in her limbs and is up and about, travelling with Leong a couple of times a year.
“Everything is in the mind. If you are determined to get better, you will, ” she says.
“And it’s the same with marriage. If you want to make it work, you will work at it. You must give and take. Fight but make up. But most of all, you have to love yourself first. If you don’t no one else can make you happy, ” says Mok.