Teng Kin Khok: A Love Story

Feb 12, 2018
Teng Kin Khok: A Love Story

Teng Kin Khok lived a life filled with challenges. Born in China, she began working at age 10, endured war, started two thriving small businesses, and navigated life in four countries, often on her own.

She also raised two daughters, whose love, respect and admiration for her is obvious. Upon Teng’s death at age 99, Seng and Hean, chose to remember their mother through a memorial gift to FINCA. “We were so inspired by our mother: by her independence, compassion and graciousness, especially having overcome so many adversities,” said Hean. “We wanted to do a good deed on her behalf. I received a FINCA newsletter and immediately I saw my mother’s story reflected in the women FINCA works with.”

Hardworking from an Early Age

Teng was born in 1918 in China. When she was 10, her father became addicted to opium and could no longer support the family. Teng and her sisters were sent to work. Teng went to Hong Kong to work as a house servant. Every penny she and her sisters made was sent home to help feed the family and educate their younger brother.

Teng was treated poorly by her employers in Hong Kong. So, although she was illiterate, she struck out on her own, moving to Malaya (present-day Malaysia) to work in a factory. Soon afterwards, the Japanese Army occupied the country, bringing fear, hardship, and starvation. The city was repeatedly bombed. Teng was alone amid the chaos and violence.

Still, she managed to gather enough money to start her own small business, selling fruit, snacks, iced drinks, and snow cones from a stall across the street from a movie house. Malaysia is very hot, so her snacks were in high demand. “And she came up with innovative ideas to improve her sales,” says daughter Seng. “When you cut up watermelon, there is no guarantee that it will be sweet. My mother created a sugar solution to dip the watermelon in so that hers were always the best.” Teng also made toys with yarn and bamboo sticks. Her toys were the most brightly coloured, which attracted many children to the stand, helping her business to flourish.

Market Stall Malaya

Teng’s market stall in Malaya (present-day Malaysia).

Perseverance Pays Off

But life wasn’t easy. Business was still dominated by men, and a male competitor at the next stall continually belittled her. Teng worked long hours, waking before dawn and working at the stall until 10 pm. At home, she stayed up late making toys. She worked seven days a week with no vacations.

Despite the challenges, Teng’s business grew and she was able to take over the stall of her competitor—the one who had abused her. Victory! She then employed another woman to help her handle the businesses.

When Teng married, she gave up her business and became the mother of two daughters. “She was a very dedicated mom and excellent household manager,” says Seng. “She respected her elders, and she was a great cook. She made soup and dumplings that her mother-in-law loved.”

In 1976, adversity struck again; Teng’s husband, the family breadwinner, died suddenly. Younger daughter Hean was 16 and still in school in Malaysia. Older daughter Seng was attending college in British Columbia.

In order to make ends meet, Teng started another small business: making and selling dumplings. “Every morning, she would go to the market with two trays of dumplings. People on their way to work would stop by, and the dumplings would sell out in minutes,” said Hean. “When I read about FINCA loans, I immediately thought of my mother. Imagine what she could have done with her dumpling business if she had had a small loan.”

A New Place to Call Home

In 1979 Teng and Hean crossed the Pacific Ocean to be with Seng in Canada. “Our mother was so grateful to be able to live in Canada,” said Hean “She valued her right to vote. She couldn’t vote in any of the other countries where she had lived. But in Canada, she voted in every election. ‘It is my right!’ she would say.”

Always independent, Teng lived on her own until she was 96. “We tried to persuade her to come live with us, but she would say ‘not yet, not yet,’” says Hean. “She traveled all over by herself,” said Seng. “She would just hop on a bus and go anywhere. She didn’t understand English, but she knew the numbers.”

In the winter of 2015, Teng finally agreed to move in with Hean as she realized that it was time. “The summer of 2016 was the best. The three of us would go wherever my mother wanted to go: to the Buddhist temple, to the mall, or on walks,” said Hean. “I started gardening, and my mother would watch. ‘I am your supervisor,’ she would say. I would work outside as late as 9 pm and she would stay with me because she worried I would be ‘captured’ without her there. Finally, she would announce ‘it’s time to pack up,’ and I would say ‘OK, boss lady.’”

Teng Celebrates 99th Birthday

Teng celebrates her 99th birthday.

When asked what word best describes their mother, Hean responds: “Endurance. It is a Chinese character that she had hanging on her wall as a constant reminder for herself,” she explains. “It means having the patience to face and to deal with whatever comes.”

Why did Seng and Hean choose to remember their remarkable mother by donating to FINCA?

We liked the idea of providing assistance in a sustainable way. By lending money to people, we help them become independent, giving them hope, pride, self-esteem. And self-esteem is more important than giving lots of money. My mother would be very excited that we are donating to FINCA in her memory.

A note from the author: It was an honour to speak with Hean and Seng about their amazing mother. I fell in love with Teng as they told me her incredible story. Thank you to this family for sharing their love with FINCA and with our readers. If you have a loved one you would like to honour with a gift, please contact FINCA Canada at [email protected]. I can’t say there is anything I love more about my work then hearing human stories of triumph and love.