The last time I gave money to charity was about a month ago—to one of those Saturday afternoon collect cans. I don’t remember what it was in aid of, but I do remember thinking, “Aah, good, a chance to get rid of all my one-cent coins.”

I don’t think I’m mean but when it comes to forking out hard-earned cash to someone as nebulous and distant as “the poor”, let’s just say I’m no Mother Theresa.

One-hundred-year-old Teresa Hsu, on the other hand, has actually been called Mother Teresa by the press. For most of her long life, she has devoted herself to caring and providing for the sick and destitute. Now, even at 100, Teresa runs the Heart to Heart service, whose volunteers regularly distribute food and money to the elderly.

Teresa greets me at the gate of her ground floor flat, an annexe to the Home for the Aged Sick, where she was matron for 20 years until her retirement in 1985. I am 10 minutes late.

Social worker and founder of many welfare services, Teresa Hsu, has died at the age of 113

“Did you get lost?” she enquires, hands behind her back. Teresa or Sister Prema to her “brothers and sisters” (which to her means everybody) looks 70 at the most, judging by her barely lined face, twinkly eyes and ramrod-straight back.

I tell her how young she looks. She responds feistily, “Naturally, I’m only 100-years-young.”

There is a bedraggled orange plant in the centre of her garden patch. Apparently someone had thrown it out some weeks before and Teresa had lugged it home and given it a handwritten tag complete with its “date of rebirth”. “A live thing should never be left alone to die,” she says gently, as if explaining to a child the most basic of rules.

We step into her flat. It looks like the 70s retro set in Growing Up. The walls are lined with shelves filled with books—the private library she calls “Prema”, Sanskrit for “divine love”, after her adopted name.

“Everything I am, I learnt from these books,” she explains. “The Bhagavad Gita,” she waves to a mighty tome with grubby pages, “is my favourite. It has all the rules for how you should live. I’m reading it for the seventh time.”

She sits at the head of the formica table, its peeling sides held in place by cellotape which she periodically smooths back.

I have to write my name in her visitor book stating “company and purpose of calling”. A quick look at the day shows that I’m her umpteenth visitor—and it is only 3pm. It occurs to me that each visitor donates a little food or money while I came empty-handed.

There are other hardback record books on the table, one containing full chapters of the Bhagavad Gita transcribed in neat, Sanskrit characters, another filled with passages from the books she reads, or her philosophical and personal reflections.

“So what is it you want to ask me?” she asks quietly. For a moment, I feel I am at Virgil’s Mouth of Truth, about to have a finger bitten off for not being true.

“Why did you choose a lifetime of charity?” I venture.

“There’s nothing more wonderful than a mother looking after her children; that’s her duty,” she says simply. “I have no family, so my duty is to look after people.”

Teresa has given up everything, including the inheritance left by her sister, “to look after people”.

“But most people don’t have to give up everything to help others. Haven’t you chosen a difficult path?” I ask, struggling to comprehend this selflessness.

“On the contrary,” she laughs. “My possessions were a burden because I felt I was depriving the poor.”

She recounts meeting a beggar outside a posh restaurant in Shanghai just after World War II. He looked unwashed and too weak even to prop himself up. He asked Teresa for a few cents.

“I thought, this is my brother. How can I have a huge meal inside this restaurant when my brother here is suffering! I went home, threw everything out—lipstick, rouge, everything, and when I looked in the mirror there was a big smile on my face. I was free.

“I’m not interested in decorating myself. My clothes are from ragbags. My hair is cut by a friend, a retired hairdresser.” 

The second child of a “loving, beautiful mother” who inspired her through acts of selfless kindness, Teresa talks of hunger as an old enemy.

Growing up in China, the Hsus were dirt poor. Abandoned by their abusive father, Teresa and her siblings – a brother, Anthony, and two sisters, Lucy and Ursula – scrounged the Swatow hills in China for food and fuel. “We rose at 4am to fill our bamboo baskets with pine needles as fuel. There were other chores to do when we returned, then it was back with the same baskets filled with dirty laundry to wash in the streams.”

When the last of the few uncles who supported them left, the Hsus sold their lace for a boat ticket to Penang. There, too poor to afford schooling, the illiterate 20something and her sister Ursula offered themselves as cleaners at a convent in exchange for lessons. “The nuns got us free books from rich former pupils.”

As Teresa talks about Ananda Marga, or the Path of Bliss, a Hindu philosophy based on yoga and good deeds, words like “meditation”, “brotherhood”, “suffering humanity” and “forgiveness” spill from her repeatedly. I begin to understand her affinity for all religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.

All this talk about religion disarms me. I attribute my uneasiness with this saint-like creature to my self-absorbed world of bills, backstabbing friends and postnatal cellulite. Suddenly, the cashmere cardigan on my shoulders feels heavy, and the YSL gloss sticks uncomfortably to my lips.

Teresa left Penang for Hong Kong in the late 30s, where she acquired secretarial qualifications. Later when World War II broke out, Teresa escaped to Chongqing, where she volunteered with an ambulance service run by a group of English pacifists.

At the frontline Teresa faced the dying and became convinced that her lifelong vocation would be to tend to the sick and destitute. “The poor can at least beg, but the others, you either go to them, or they die.”

When the war ended, she applied to the chief nursing council in London. “I know I am grossly overaged,” she wrote. “But having seen so much misery, nursing would not be a livelihood, but a dedication to suffering humanity.” The head matron was so touched, she immediately placed Teresa at the Royal Free Hospital in London for free training.

Besides working in London, Teresa was also a volunteer nurse in Paraguay. She would have stayed there longer if not for her ailing mother in Malaysia. Said Teresa, “My mother told me, ‘Poor people you get everywhere, but you have only one mother’, so I scooted home.”

Back in Malaysia, she was reunited with her brother, Anthony, and sisters, Lucy and Ursula. She helped Anthony set up the Assunta Hospital for the poor, where she was its matron. Later, Teresa came to Singapore and worked as the unsalaried matron of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital.

In 1965, Teresa and Ursula set up the Home for the Aged Sick. When Ursula died in 1973, she left a small fortune to Teresa who bought flats for the homeless. Then Lucy and Anthony died within weeks of each other, leaving Teresa without a family.

The only time Teresa came close to having her own family was during the war, she adds. Her boyfriend, Brian Sorenson, was a 24-year-old blonde, blue-eyed volunteer in the same ambulance service.

“He was so cheerful—and so good at dancing the foxtrot,” she says. Brian was killed in a plane crash three years later when flying to join her in London. Teresa smiles calmly, “I wasn’t overwhelmed with grief. I missed him but I remembered the good times and how bright he was.”

I ask if she has a photograph of him or even of herself. “I never keep pictures,” she says. In her room, though, she has yellowing photos of her mother and her sister, Ursula. “I thank them every morning and night for inspiring me to be good,” she says. She pauses, letting the silence of the afternoon put the ghosts of her past to rest.

We talk about her good health—her diet of raw vegetables, juice and milk, yoga and good genes (her mother lived to 104). I wonder aloud, if, given the self-deprivation, hardship and exposure to despair and suffering, long life is a blessing or a curse. “It’s not hard to live this sort of life,” says Teresa. “I’ve done my best and it’s given me great joy.”

Teresa unsettles me. Here is a 100-year-old woman who sits patiently for hours while I probe into her past. She has been doing all she can to help a journalist get her story. Here at this table sit a giver and a user. The disparity in our motives troubles me.

“Just one more detail, Sister Prema…”

Something very central in me shifts. I think about my three-month old son at home and look at this silver-haired woman.

My husband and I have worried about our son’s spiritual destiny. I tell myself I would like him to meet Teresa one day, if not to learn something about humanitarian love, then at least to catch, by proximity, a germ of her unworldliness. Philanthropy may be too altruistic for us, his parents; perhaps he will be worthier.

LIGHTING THE WAY
1900-1930: Born dirt poor in Guangdong, China. Moves to Penang with her mother, sisters and brother to join relatives

1930-1940: Leaves Penang for Hong Kong, where work as a cleaner allows her to take up secretarial studies. Starts Friends of the Poor service there in 1933

1940-1950: Spends the war years in Chongqing, China. Enrols as volunteer with the ambulance service set up by English pacifists. Decides on a vocation to tend to the sick and destitute when she comes face to face with the dying at the frontline

1945-1960: Studies nursing in London. Secures a place as a volunteer nurse with the Society of Brothers, a charity group. She goes with them to Paraguay where they set up homes for the aged sick and a hospital for the poor

1960-1970: Goes to Malaysia and helps her brother, Anthony, a Catholic priest, set up the Assunta Hospital. Returns to Singapore and works at the Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital. In 1965, sets up the Home for the Aged Sick in Jalan Payoh Lai with Ursula

1970-1980: Buys five flats in Singapore and two in Malaysia for the homeless with the money she inherits from Ursula

1980-1990: Retires as matron of the Home for the Aged Sick. Changes the name of charity group, Friends of the Poor, to Heart to Heart around 1983. In 1988, she is awarded the Guinness Stout Effort Award

1990-2000: Receives the Life Insurance Association Award for her charity work. Moves to a new home at Hougang Avenue 1 with the Home of the Aged Sick. Plans to start a service centre to help the old and destitute