She was a fresh-faced 20-year-old, with a forthright gaze and a generous smile.
He was a seasoned actor, already a recognised face on TV.
The epitome of the girl-next-door, she was a full-time student and part-time model, here at MediaCorp studios to earn some pocket money from a bit part in a local variety show.
He was the compere of the variety show, charming and comfortable in the spotlight.
Sounds like the beginnings of an 8 Days drama serial synopsis?
Deon Tan and Chew Chor Meng’s love story couldn’t have sprouted in a more appropriate place – at MediaCorp TV studios, launcher of a thousand stories.
“I found him to be caring, humble and genuine, someone who was easy to talk to.”
“I was in poly then and having my exams. So while the other models were talking and chit-chatting with the actors, I was this funny girl, sitting in a corner studying,” says Deon.
“Out of curiosity, he came over and asked, ‘Eh what are you doing?’ And that’s how our friendship started!
“Over the next three days together, I found him to be caring, humble and genuine, someone who was easy to talk to.”
Neither Deon, 44, nor Chor Meng, 51, had had an easy childhood.
Chor Meng’s father was an abusive alcoholic. When Chor Meng was in primary school, his father committed suicide.
The family was struggling so much that a loan shark who came knocking at their door took pity on them and gave them money instead.
Deon’s father was a drug abuser, in and out of prison. He was constantly in debt to support his addictions. Her parents divorced early.
As a result her single mother had three young daughters to raise. The family was struggling so much that a loan shark who came knocking at their door took pity on them and gave them money instead.
“My mother had to put food on the table and had no time to nurture us, or teach us right from wrong,” Deon says.
Things might have gone badly.
But at the age of 10, her 17-year-old sister took her to Hinghwa Methodist Church.
“I grew up in the church,” she says. “There was free food, games, friends, I loved to sing and I joined the choir. After school every day, the children would hang out in the church, playing hide-and-seek. We had a youth mentor who kept an eye on us.
“Many of the youth in the church came from single-parent families. The senior pastor, Reverend Ding Bing Hoe ( 陈平和牧师), was like a father figure to us, making sure we had food and applying for bursaries for us so that we could stay in school.”
Chor Meng, who was raised in another religion, was deadset against Christianity for many years.
And then the unexpected happened.
“I was working in a bank then and had to go to UK for a business trip,” says Deon. “Chor Meng was left with our two young daughters. The first night I was away, my older daughter started getting a pain in her jaw. Then my younger daughter started throwing up continuously. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with them.
“Chor Meng was helpless and desperate. He threw open the window in our house and shook a finger at the sky, saying, ‘If you are really God, heal my daughters.’”
And as an afterthought, he added: “If you do, maybe I will go to church.”
His daughters were healed.
“Rayson said to Chor Meng, ‘Brother, I’m going to tell you something. Don’t flip out, okay? … I am now a Christian.’
The next day, Chor Meng’s close friend and fellow actor, Rayson Tan, dropped by for a visit.
“Rayson said to Chor Meng, ‘Brother, I’m going to tell you something. Don’t flip out, okay? … I am now a Christian.’ He knew that Chor Meng was against Christianity, so he was a little apprehensive,” says Deon. “But, after what happened to our daughters, Chor Meng was calm.”
In fact, Chor Meng called Deon with a surprise. He wanted to go to church with her.
“I couldn’t believe it!” Deon says. She had been praying for him for 13 years.
“Thirteen years of unceasing prayer is no joke! But there is power when a wife prays for her husband and children. And God was equipping me to handle what was to come.”
The day Chor Meng stepped into church was the day that he received Christ.
But it was also the day that he found out about his illness.
He had been suffering from back pain and had trouble standing for long periods. But test after test revealed nothing.
“No MRI, no ECG, could tell us what was happening,” recalls Deon. “We prayed about it and a pain care specialist in our church approached us and said, ‘Why don’t you let me take a look at Chor Meng?’”
After the examination, he was grave.
“He wept in front of us,” says Deon. “He told us it could be some muscular degeneration and, to be safe, he recommended us to another neurologist.
“This second doctor also wept – he gave Chor Meng 18 months to live.”
Chor Meng was diagnosed with a motor neuron condition called Kennedy’s Disease, a rare form of spinal muscular atrophy which affects one in about 40,000.
The news hit the couple hard. It was 2008. Their daughters, Chloe and Cheyenne, were only six and four at the time.
“We asked God, ‘Why, after 40 years, the day that Chor Meng knows you, is the day that you want to call him back?’”
The couple decided to see a third neurologist.
“Before this final-final consultation, Chor Meng excused himself and went to the bathroom. It was very tough on him.
“He said, ‘God, I want to trust in You. If it is your will that You want to take me home, just let it be. Just take care of my family.”
Later that day, while the doctor was conducting tests on Chor Meng, Deon was on the other side of the curtain, praying.
“I tell you, God is the best director-producer because things happened so dramatically – like a movie. While praying, I heard a voice that said three times, ‘Trust in me. Trust in me. Trust in me.’ At the final ‘trust in me’, the curtain opened. And the doctor said, ‘I have good news and bad news.’
“The bad news was that it was indeed muscular atrophy. The good news was that degeneration would be progressive. He had more than 18 months to live. We thank God there was good news in the bad news!”
It has since been 12 years.
“The public has been so warm. When Chor Meng queued up for chicken rice, the chicken rice uncle chop-chop-chopped the chicken and did not dare look at Chor Meng – I think he felt unable to express his sympathy – but when he handed over the food, he refused to take money, and said, ‘God bless you.’
“An Indian lady came up to us at Sheng Siong, patted Chor Meng’s hand and said, ‘Stay strong. God bless you.’
“At Ikea, when we went to buy a table, a man appeared out of nowhere, helped us to load the table into the car and said, ‘God bless you.’
“We feel so encouraged. And I tell my girls to do the same – be kind and have courage. When you’re faced with difficulties, don’t look too far. Be bold enough to face your challenges. But don’t draw upon your own limitations, your own resources, your own knowledge. Come to God. He will show you the path to walk.” (Genesis 28:15)
Despite her positivity, she admits that it’s not been easy.
Her daughters have never played sports with their father, or asked him to carry them, even when they were young.
“But it’s okay,” she says stoutly. “When we travel, we carry our own bags lah. When we do things like whitewater rafting, he stays at the spa while we go on our adventures! The girls have learnt from young to walk ahead to recce the road so that they can tell their daddy the shortest route or where the ground is uneven.
“I don’t believe in ‘protecting’ them; I believe in exposing them to reality. They cannot expect people to help them. They have to learn to take care of others. And we’re thankful they are sensible and kind by nature.
“We tell them, it’s no use coming home with straight A’s if your conduct is not right. As a mother, my most important role is to pray for my children.”
“I do ask God, ‘I know you’re a God who can heal. Why don’t you expedite his healing? Why is he deteriorating and not improving?’” says Deon. “But even though I don’t have an answer, I trust in God’s perfect timing. He doesn’t come early, but He is never late.
“Honestly, I am inspired by Chor Meng’s life. Even in his condition, he is ministering to a lot of people. We see people who have cancer, who are on dialysis, who have kidney failure. You and I can’t understand the struggles they go through, but Chor Meng can.
“Hope is a choice and our hope is in the Lord. Studying the Word of God gives us a lot of assurance, that whatever we go through, big or small, matters to God.
“We cannot rely on our might, our ability, our willpower – we will get tired. But we cling to Jeremiah 29:11, holding onto this promise in every circumstance or adversity.
“In His time, we believe all things will turn out beautiful.”
This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in Salt&Light.