‘Thank you for everything’: NZ couple pay last respects to former amah in S’pore after 40-year search , Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

‘Thank you for everything’: NZ couple pay last respects to former amah in S’pore after 40-year search

Standing in front of Madam Lily Wong’s urn in a quiet columbarium, New Zealander Laurie Rands was finally able to say what she had been longing to tell her former amah for the last 50 years.

“Goodbye, Lily, and thank you for everything,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

The visit to the columbarium on Dec 22 by Mrs Rands, 70, and her 73-year-old husband, Frank, marked a bittersweet end to their four-decade search for their amah.

The couple came to Singapore in 1971 when Mr Rands was posted here by the New Zealand Navy, and worked at the then Sembawang Naval Base.

Madam Wong worked for them as an amah, or housekeeper, in their Kasai Road home in Seletar until the couple returned to New Zealand in 1973.

The three of them had a close relationship, often sharing meals and bringing their families together on festive occasions.

The Rands, who became first-time parents when their baby girl was born in Singapore, said Madam Wong’s guiding hand was invaluable in helping them learn the ropes of parenthood.

On the day of their departure in 1973, Mrs Rands was so upset she holed herself up in a room and wept.

Speaking to The Straits Times, she said: “I could not say goodbye to Lily because it was just too hard. For years, it weighed on me that she might have thought it was because I didn’t care.”

After the Rands left Singapore, Madam Wong continued working as an amah for British and Australian families. She died of a stroke in 2007 at the age of 86.

After paying her respects, Mrs Rands said she was finally able to let go of the guilt she carried with her, and find closure.

“Lily was so special to us. It was lovely to go to where she rests and put a full stop to all the things that had been going through my mind,” she added.

It was also a day of joy for the Rands as they reunited with Madam Wong’s two daughters – Jessie and Hannah Tan.

New Zealanders Frank (left) and Laurie Rands reuniting with Singaporean sisters Jessie and Hannah Tan on Dec 22, 2023. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

The sisters, who are in their 60s, used to frequent the Rands’ two-storey terraced house in Seletar Hills as teenagers.

After the couple returned to New Zealand, Ms Hannah Tan, 68, used to help her mother write letters to them.

But in 1980, Madam Wong moved out of her flat in Eunos Crescent to live with her children due to poor health and did not inform the Rands.

All contact was lost for more than 40 years.

During that time, the Rands made inquiries with Singapore government agencies, searched online and even flew to Singapore in 2015, when they also visited their old house in Kasai Road.

Their searches came up empty until July, when Ms Jessie Tan’s son Randy stumbled upon an ST article about the couple’s long search that featured a photograph of his grandmother, Lily.

The Rands and the sisters spoke to one another for the first time in 50 years over a Zoom call in October.

When they finally saw one another in the flesh in Singapore on Dec 22, they embraced with big smiles on their faces.

Mr Rands joked that the sisters looked just as youthful as the last time he saw them, and Ms Jessie Tan, 64, a retired pre-school teacher, said he still had the same sense of humour.

After visiting the columbarium, the sisters took the Rands to the Peranakan Museum to give them a glimpse of their mother’s culture and heritage.

The couple learnt about the traditional Peranakan game – “si se pai” or four-colour cards in Mandarin – that Madam Wong used to play at the weekend, and what her Nyonya kebaya looked like.

New Zealanders Frank and Laurie Rands having a Peranakan meal with Singaporean sisters Jessie and Hannah Tan and their families. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

They also got a taste of Peranakan cuisine, trying dishes like chap chye, or mixed vegetables, and ayam buah keluak – a dish made with chicken, tamarind gravy and buah keluak nuts.

Ms Hannah Tan, a housewife, said she was touched by the couple’s unrelenting efforts to look for her mother.

“They didn’t give up and tried so many ways to find us. If my mum was still alive, she would be very surprised and happy to know that they kept her in their hearts all these years,” she added.

For Ms Jessie Tan, meeting the Rands brought back fond memories of her childhood.

She remembers the excitement of exploring the Kasai Road terraced house – when she used to live in a kampung – and playing with the Rands’ daughter, named Laurie, like her mother.

Mrs Laurie Rands (centre) with Ms Lily Wong’s family in the 1970s. PHOTO: LAURIE RANDS

Christmas, Ms Tan said, was her favourite time of the year, when her mother and Mrs Rands would whip up Western delights like roast chicken, and fish and chips, which she grew to love.

For the Rands, the reunion has brought their four-decade search to a close, but it is also a new beginning in their relationship with Madam Wong’s family.

Said Mr Rands: “It is a miracle that we found them, and we treasure this connection deeply.

“We hope to host them in New Zealand soon and introduce them to our family, as they’ve so kindly done for us in Singapore.”