Family, Work & Money

Lost her father at 21, widowed at 37 – yet still she clung on to hope

By Geraldine Tan , 1 May 2020

When Jocelyn Chng mooted the idea of vending machines that dispense hot food, the naysayers were many.

But the founder and CEO of JR Group stuck at it and now, the orange vending machines – the first in Singapore and Asia – are a familiar sight in hospitals, tertiary institutions, factories and even hotels. 

Jocelyn, 53, is also the managing director of family business Sin Hwa Dee, which is behind the Chng Kee brand of sauces and premixes.

In 1990, it was under her leadership that Sin Hwa Dee became the first in Singapore to manufacture do-it-yourself yusheng sets for sale to retail consumers.

Jocelyn Chng was named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2001 and continues to lead the pack in the F&B industry.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you so creative? How did you think of so many innovative ideas?’” said Jocelyn, who is known in the cutthroat F&B industry for her uncanny ability to sniff out opportunities before others do.

“Actually, I ask God for ideas. I ask Him for wisdom and to give us breakthroughs.”

But life was not always easy. 

Love and loss

At 21, Jocelyn lost her father to colon cancer. She was only in her second year at the National University of Singapore, but made the bold decision to take over the reins of Sin Hwa Dee, the sauce factory her parents had founded in the late 1960s.

Well-meaning relatives advised her to give up the debt-riddled business to find better prospects in the corporate world. They were worried that she would struggle in the male-dominated industry.

“I decided that I should help my mother earn income to raise the other five siblings.”

But Jocelyn, the eldest of six, soldiered on, pulling 20-hour days juggling work and school.

“I wanted to take care of my family. My mum doesn’t really run the business so I decided that I should help her earn income to raise the other five siblings,” she recounted.

With the help of her mother and second sister, Kathleen, they managed to steer Sin Hwa Dee around. The company’s product range successfully expanded to include pre-made sauces for laksa, Hainanese chicken rice and char siew, opening the door to export them overseas.

Business thrived, her siblings grew up, and Jocelyn married and had three sons.

Life was good. Until late 2003 when Jocelyn was dealt another severe blow.

Too much to bear

Jocelyn’s husband, Richard Wong noticed that his foot had started to swell. The couple wasn’t worried initially as Richard appeared healthy. 

But to put their minds at ease, he got it checked out. In February 2004, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Despite starting treatment, he passed away just 15 days later.

Richard was Jocelyn’s pillar of support. He helped her with her studies in university before they got married. After he sensed an opportunity in the market for ready-to-serve food, they launched JR Group together.

Jocelyn was 37. Her sons were eight, five and one.

The shock was intense, especially because her maternal grandmother and also her role model had passed away suddenly at 85 years old just eight months earlier.

“She was always giving thanks in all areas. Everything. That’s how I learned to do the same,” she said of her grandmother, who looked after her when she was growing up.

The double bereavement was almost too much to bear.

Jocelyn’s grandmother (seated) was her role model who looked after Jocelyn (front left) during her childhood.

“It was really a big hit for me … I couldn’t take it,” Jocelyn said. She didn’t know how she would carry on with life.

For two months, she stayed home, trying to cope with her grief.

She told her sister, Kathleen, that God had taken away the two pillars in her life. To which Kathleen replied: “God has made you the pillar for your three boys. You must press on as you are now the pillar for them.”

Angels on earth

As Jocelyn grieved, she found comfort in the Bible, especially two verses: Ecclesiastes 3:11 and Deuteronomy 31:6.

“It was really these Bible verses which encouraged me. Because, at that time, I did not know what to do. Imagine, Richard passed away within two weeks. I didn’t even know whether it was real or I was having a nightmare.

“It was the faith that He would wipe away all my tears that kept me moving.”

Despite losing their father at a young age, God has watched over (from left to right) Joel, Noel and Emmanuel, says Jocelyn (second from left).

Her close-knit family rallied around: Her in-laws moved in to help care for the boys. Her mother and two sisters camped at her home for a time so that she was never alone.

Her friends visited her, encouraged her, sang hymns and prayed with her. They watched out for her sons, Noel, Joel and Emmanuel, and helped them with schoolwork and other necessities. 

Her youngest brother, Tony, left his career in finance to help run JR Food. This, together with the efficient team she had put in place at Sin Hwa Dee, helped the businesses carry on.

Feeding thousands

Shortly after her husband’s death when she was struggling with whether to give up JR Food, Jocelyn dreamt that she was feeding thousands. 

She never really understood what that dream was about until 14 years had passed.

In June 2018, less than 24 hours before the Trump-Kim Summit, the Singapore Government invited the company to set up a VendCafe in the media centre to cater to the media covering the event.

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann (right) and Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran (second from right) inspecting the vending machines at the media centre at the Trump-Kim summit.

“Thank God we had vending machines and didn’t have to set up a kitchen there. We moved the machines in the middle of the night and got them set up just before the event started,” said Jocelyn.

“I am just one person, how am I going to feed thousands?”

That was followed by an invitation from a renowned international foundation to discuss how vending machines that dispense ready meals can feed the needy in Africa and India.

“What God has shown me in my dream – that we can feed many people and feed them well – is coming to pass. Initially, I didn’t understand it; I am just one person, how am I going to feed thousands? But now I am beginning to understand,” she said.

Nothing too big

Despite the series of sorrows and setbacks, Jocelyn is thankful for how God protected and provided for her through the difficult times.

“In university, I was working and studying full-time but I managed to graduate. It was not to my credit but God’s. He gave me good lecturers, helpful friends and good health,” she said. Her good friends guided her academically and then-boyfriend Richard recorded the lectures for her.

Jocelyn (holding a phone) celebrating Chinese New Year with her staff.

In her work, God brought her partners who shared the same values and closed the doors on unsuitable ones, she said.

Jocelyn now oversees about 300 employees.

“In business, don’t always think that it is within our power to make things happen. 

“God will look after everything that matters to us.”

“Leave it in God’s hands. He is an attentive and personal God, He will look after everything that matters to us,” she said.

She also prays together with her management team whenever they face problems, adding that they have seen “impossible things become possible”.

Instances like how her company managed to beat bigger competitors to clinch a huge project have strengthened her faith.

“If you think that God wants you to take on a project, then go and get it,” she said. “There’s nothing too big for Him. God can move mountains.”

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in Salt&Light.

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