Sunday, 13 November 2011

Life of ups and downs for ‘jackpot auntie’

Money has come and gone - many times - for hawker who took on casino over $416,000 in winnings

 

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Guanyu 道 said...

Life of ups and downs for ‘jackpot auntie’

Money has come and gone - many times - for hawker who took on casino over $416,000 in winnings

By Tham Yuen-C
13 November 2011

With her permed hair, tattooed eyebrows and polyester capris, Ms. Choo Hong Eng looks every bit the ‘auntie’ she cheerfully proclaims she is.

But in her younger days, the 58-year-old owner of a vegetarian hawker stall in Geylang was said to be the spitting image of beautiful Taiwanese actress Lin Ching-hsia. ‘I was known as Singapore’s Lin Ching-hsia,’ she said with a laugh.

But she did not just look like a celebrity, she also hung out with the stars. When she was in her 30s, Ms. Choo - who made headlines for winning her fight to get the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) casino to hand over her more than $400,000 worth of jackpot winnings - drove these celebrities around.

An artist manager friend persuaded her to play driver to Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars when they visited Singapore. She remembers how she had to drive the late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng all over town to hunt down a CD by Chinese folk singer Li Guyi. She also got to know other big names, like Hong Kong singer Andy Lau, whom she remembers as among the most generous, and Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai, whom she said is even better-looking in person than on screen.

But she soon grew tired of the celebrity world because she realised it was all about money. ‘When you have money, people will come to you, but once you don’t have money, they will drift away,’ she said.

In Ms. Choo’s life, money has come and gone - many times. Last Friday, it came, all $416,742.11 of it.

She had won the money on Oct 18 playing the Lotus Evolve slot machine at MBS, but was later told by a manager there that the machine had a glitch. He told her she would get $50,000 and a car worth $258,962 instead. Ms. Choo complained to the Casino Regulatory Authority. Last Wednesday, the casino decided to pay her the original amount, and she withdrew her complaint. She has pledged to give at least half the amount to charity.

She said she has always appreciated the importance of money. She was born in Singapore and abandoned at a Catholic orphanage. When she was three, she was adopted by a woman who was a vegetarian. The woman also adopted other children.

‘I saw my adoptive mum being kicked down the stairs when she went to collect money for her tontine, and decided I wanted to make a living instead of studying,’ she said.

She left school at nine and has worked in factories making wigs, clothes and machines. She sold tickets at an amusement park and stationery at a bookstore. She started her vegetarian stall when she was 32.

In her 40s, she made enough money to buy a semi-detached house in Eunos. Finding it lonely to live alone, she invited a female friend to stay. She said her friend convinced her to include her name in the title deed, even though she did not help to pay for the house.

A few years later, when Ms. Choo - who never married - adopted two girls and wanted to add their names to the deed, her friend objected. Ms. Choo said she took the matter to court. She was eventually forced to sell the house for $800,000 so that she could get $200,000 to pay off the friend whose name was on the deed.

It was not the first time she was let down by people she trusted, she said.

When she was 21, her adoptive mother died and left her a house in Ceylon Road. But while she was still grieving over the death, her three adoptive sisters asked her to sign a document, telling her it was to effect the transfer of the house to her.

‘It was in English. They told me it was from the lawyer, so I believed them,’ she said.

Ten years later, she claimed, her three older sisters decided to sell the house. Ms. Choo refused and hired a lawyer to stop them. That was when she found out she had signed the house away many years ago. She said she did not get anything from the sale. ‘That’s why I am very sensitive about not being able to read English,’ she said.

Guanyu 道 said...

Over the years, she picked up a smattering of English and even knows how to spell some words, including ‘cash’ and ‘car’.

That knowledge came in handy when she struck the $416,742.11 jackpot ‘cash bonus’ at MBS but was told by a casino manager that she had won a car instead. ‘I may not know English, but I definitely know the difference between cash and car,’ she said.

Last Friday, she deposited her MBS cheque and is now making plans to part with the $200,000 she will give to 20 charities. On Nov 25, she will host a dinner at the Singapore Buddhist Lodge in Kim Yam Road, where she will present the money. She has since got her first cheque book. ‘I never needed to write cheques, I don’t even know how to write much, so I never used cheques.’

To make sure that she gets it right, she is asking her two adopted daughters, Kah Yek, 17, and Calise, 19, to write the cheques for her. She adopted the girls - who are sisters - when they were three and five after their mother, a friend of hers, begged her to take them. ‘I was very apprehensive because I had always led a very independent life,’ she said.

But her devotion has paid off. ‘My daughters are very obedient and affectionate,’ she said. They were supportive when they found out that she planned to give away her winnings. ‘They are not materialistic. When I told them I was going to give money away, I looked at their faces and there was not a shred of disappointment.’

Four years ago, she won $280,000 playing a slot machine on a cruise ship. She donated $180,000 of it. The rest went to a Renault Laguna Coupe, but it gave her problems and she sold it and got a van instead.

‘I have all that I need, there is really nothing else I want,’ she said. ‘I took on the casino because I wanted to show that people should stick to their principles and that there are aunties in Singapore who are fearless.’