Reflection by Jeanette Gan
My story begins with that of my mother. Born in China, she came to Malacca with a woman whose son she would marry. He was a man she would meet for the first time.
My mother was a dutiful woman; she strove to be a good daughter, wife and mother. She would always perform good deeds so that she could reincarnate into a better next life. Illiterate and with bound feet, she found it hard to embrace changes happening around her; she preferred that things remain exactly as they were. For example, in her mind, education was not meant for girls.
If my mother thus had her way, I would have been married after my secondary education and remained in Malacca where I was born.
Thankfully, that never happened.
Life in Sleepy Hollow
Malacca, at that time, was a Sleepy Hollow. Life was slow and simple. It was the same, day in and day out, the repetitive cycle of going to school and returning home. It was difficult for me to remain within the confines of our conservative Chinese household. So I was relieved that, with the help and support of my fifth brother and his girlfriend, I could convince my mother to allow me to have my university education and to do it in Australia.
Then came a great challenge. Until then, I knew mainly Chinese and Hokkien and spoke little English. Going to an English-speaking country for study was daunting. However, with no care nor concern for what might lay ahead, I was just happy to be free, to learn new things and to meet new people.
Moving away to learn
I chose to study Architecture; this is another interesting story. Being numerically adept, business studies such as Accountancy or Economics would have been my natural choice. However, I was eager to try new things. Architecture instantly caught my eye.
The architecture programme that I enrolled in offered an initial three years of liberal arts education, which included logic, philosophy, sociology, history, art, design and structure. These all appealed to me.
That was in the year 1969, when the “Flower Child” movement in America was still going strong. On campus, we had a lecturer from Berkeley University who advocated for the civil rights movement, and his students were going round organising protests and getting people to sign petitions for various causes.
Such environment, where people were a lot more open, and the whole “do what you like” mentality, captivated me.
Designing for people
Upon my graduation, an opportunity to work in Singapore arose. I came to Singapore and worked in the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The well respected Liu Thai Ker was my supervisor; he later became the Chief Planner of Singapore.
Caring for my career progression, Thai Ker recommended that I return to school to advance my Architectural studies. I took his advice and eventually continued practising architecture for 13 years.
I believe in the intrinsic value of people interaction. Knowing people as end-users of the buildings that I was designing interested me a great deal; architecture is about how man interacts with his environment. I always paid close attention to the emotional and social profile of my clients.
This people-centric approach followed me even after I left my practice and became a lecturer at the University of Singapore. The move to academia was a natural progression for me. Education encourages students to open up their minds and to think freely; I enjoyed watching their creativity flow.
Moving on to help people
After 9 years in teaching, I made another major career change. I went into the field of Executive Search and there I continued to work with people. I enjoyed my years helping both clients and candidates looking for complementary personalities and job fit.
I took up yoga. Yoga was first meant to be just physical relaxation after work. Gradually, it became an integral part of my life. Yoga brought about an understanding of the intrinsic relationship between body, mind and breath. From Yoga, I went on to take up Taiji and to work with qi (the vital life force that flows through the body).
Through a friend, Wee Sin Tho, I also joined NaMAS, a group that takes walks in parks. With this varied social circle, it helps to keep me active and curious in people and nature and provided me with new perspectives and points of view.
I grew up in a conservative Chinese household with eight brothers. I was never expected to do anything remarkable nor to be independent. I might have thus become a housewife back in Malacca. Life would have gone on. But my curiosity and varied interests led me carve a very different path for my life.
Anyone can work, or do a job given to them. Curiosity is what makes you want to do something different, something unique, and even become passionate with an endeavour. However, passion sometimes comes with disappointment. But this should not stop us; it should instead help us to persevere.
When I was teaching, I would advise my students that it doesn’t matter whether you did well or did not. You must persevere in the choices you have made and become passionate.
Looking back, I think my life has been a good reflection of that.
An architect by training, Jeanette Gan, the Malaccan lady with wanderlust, has many interests including yoga, taiji and dancing. Always in ebullient mood, she has contagious exuberance and encourages her friends with verve in forest walks.
(This post is an except from the book “Profiles in Resilience” edited by Kua Ee Heok and Abdullah Tarmugi, published by Write Edition 2021.)