Relationships, Work & Money

The nightclub owner and the hand

By Tan Huey Ying , 1 May 2020

When she was 13, Jackie Ong’s father told her that he could no longer afford her school fees.

A bookie and a gambler, he never brought back much to support the family. They depended on the meagre income that Ong’s paternal grandmother earned. Fights between her parents were common.

To earn her own keep, Ong started running errands for Ah Longs (loan sharks). She quickly fell into bad company.

By 17, she was taking drugs and needed a fix every four hours.

The hand

One day, just as she was emerging from a drug induced stupor, “that hand appeared again”.

That hand, an open palm, appeared at various points her life since she was 5 years old.

“Every time I cry, the hand would reach out and comfort me,” Ong recalls. Sometimes it appeared as a vision. Sometimes accompanied by a voice.

Growing up in a family who worshipped idols, Ong did not understand the vision. All she knew was, this hand was open, inviting and always brought her comfort.

“I scared, what if I trust the wrong god?”

It had been a while since she last saw that hand. But it helped her realise her folly.

Through sheer willpower, the teenager weaned herself off drugs. She threw all her energy into work, often holding down multiple jobs at a time.

She thought, money – lots of it – could change her life.

Jackie Ong (right) started working in the nightlife industry when was 17.

Show me the money

By 21, Ong had saved more than $80,000 which she used to start her first nightclub in Little India. A year later, she opened her second.

Within six years, Ong was a successful owner of a chain of nightclubs, with 200 staff on her payroll. She owned two private properties and a couple of BMWs – all fully paid for.

Jackie Ong (front row, third from right) with her staff at one of her nightclubs. At one point, she owned several nightclubs and had over 200 staff on her payroll.

By the age of 27, Jackie Ong was twice divorced. She was a single mother who had to rear two young sons, and support her parents and grandmother.

To escape from the daily pressures of life, Ong would often drive to Tanjong Rhu. By the river, she would sit in her car, smoking and drinking in solitude.

One night, Ong saw the hand again. This time, she also heard: “I am your God. Will you trust Me?”

Nothing to lose if God isn’t real

That weekend, with her two young sons in tow, Ong went to church. 

Despite not understanding the sermon, Ong kept going back. 

“Drinking, smoking, wrong relationships and nightlife business – I realised, not right.”

It was months before she began to understand God’s love for her. But she was haunted by childhood memories of her grandmother splurging on offerings to idols to no avail.

She found it hard to acknowledge God. “Because I scared. What if I trust the wrong god?”

A year later, at age 30, Ong accepted Jesus. By then, she figured that if God wasn’t real, she had nothing to lose.

“Amazingly, I started to feel that I didn’t want my kind of life any more: Drinking, smoking, being in the wrong relationships and doing this nightlife business.

“I realised, not right.”

Leaving the nighlife 

One night, in one of her clubs, Ong heard the voice again. This time He prompted her to leave the business. And to enrol in Bible school.

“In my heart, I knew what I was doing was wrong. But I only knew how to run nightclubs, what else can I do?”

It was a huge struggle. She had six mouths to feed. Quitting her business meant ending her family’s only source of income.

Jackie Ong with her sons. They are now 22 and 17.

“Wow, the money was so difficult to let go,” Ong exclaims. “And God didn’t tell me: ‘Let go of this, I’ll give you another mountain.’

“No leh, nothing!”

She described it “like tearing my brain and heart apart”.

She gritted her teeth. She exited her business. Sold off her properties and cars. Then moved her family into an HDB flat.

In 2010, she enrolled with Youth With A Mission’s (YWAM) Discipleship Training School (DTS).

“God was there since young. But, I didn’t know it was Him because I didn’t know who He is.”

At YWAM, Ong got the shock of her life.

The picture of the hand printed on the banner at the school matched the hand she had been seeing all her life.

It confirmed to her: “God was there since young.

“But, I didn’t know it was Him because I didn’t know who He is. I thought it was just my imagination!”

Previously, she used to think: “When difficult times come, there is no one to turn to.

“I used to think it was a mistake for me to be on earth.”

But she now realised that was not true. “God has never given up on me.”

Jackie Ong (front row, far left) with the YWAM DTS of 2010. The photo of the hand on the banner was exactly the image she had been seeing since age 5.

Discovering her design

In her third year at YWAM, a leader approached Ong about her plans to return to the workplace.

Ong was at a loss – the nightlife industry was the only place she was familiar with. Where could she go?

She started looking through the classifieds. A job posting for a sales designer at an interior design firm caught her eye. Despite not knowing anything about the industry, Ong felt God say: “Just go.”

Ong went. She aced the interview.

“Every time I cry, the hand would reach out and comfort me.”

It was a steep learning curve.

She read architecture magazines. Observed colleagues. Squatted in cramped toilets watching her contractor lay tiles. Ong soaked in as much knowledge as she could.

She discovered she had a knack for scheduling and managing projects. “In my clubs, I handled over 200 staff. So to me, this is easy.”

Jackie Ong (middle) with some of her team from OakThree Studios.

Ong excelled at work.

Then she was jolted out of her sleep and awoke to a vision.

“I saw Jesus at the well!

“There was a queue waiting to draw water from a well … Those who had already taken, kept coming back for more.

“I was upset. They can take what they need. Why be greedy and take away someone else’s portion?

“But Jesus said to me, ‘Let them come. I am the One who will provide.’

“He also told me: ‘I will provide through you.’

“If God did not poke me, I wouldn’t have moved.”

“I cried and cried.”

Ong explains, “Over the years, I always had to provide for so many – my kids, my parents, even my grandmother. Why always me? I am tired.”

Depending on her Heavenly Father to provide was difficult for Ong, who had to fend for herself since a teen. 

“My dad never provided for me. Our roles were reversed.”

“Why always me?”

Not long after, she was awakened in the night once more. This time, the Lord told her to set up her own interior design firm.

“I am using you. I will provide through you.”

“I cried a long time,” Ong admits sheepishly.

“Over the years, I always had to provide for so many – my kids, my parents, even my grandmother. Why always me? I am tired.”

She knew how hard it would be to step out of her comfort zone.

“Everyone said I was very bold, but no! If God did not poke me, I wouldn’t have moved.” She continued: “Because it is not always about you, it is about how others can draw from Him also.”

In April 2013, Ong started Oakthree Studios which offers interior design and contracting services with a team of nine office staff and just over 50 workmen.

Since then, Ong has had ample opportunity to upgrade her life again. Instead, she chooses to support the ministries that nurtured her. And to ensure that her staff are well taken care of.

Even in dealing with difficult clients, Ong endeavours to be a blessing. Because she knows that God wants her to.

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

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