Relationships

She was a university graduate who married a Primary 2 dropout and former gang leader

Salt&Light wishes you a Happy Valentine's Day!

by Gracia Lee // February 10, 2022, 11:01 pm

Koh Choon Huat and his wife, Teng Teng, may be worlds apart when it comes to their backgrounds, but it has been the foundation of Christ that has kept their marriage strong for 17 years. All photos courtesy of Koh Choon Huat and Teng Teng.

Koh Choon Huat and his wife, Teng Teng, may be worlds apart when it comes to their backgrounds, but the foundation of Christ has kept their marriage strong for 17 years. All photos courtesy of Koh Choon Huat and Teng Teng.

She is a university graduate who majored in business and sociology. He dropped out of school in Primary 2 after hurling a chair at a teacher.

Apart from attending school, she spent her growing up years dutifully helping her single mum run a coffee shop stall. He spent his youth as a gang leader, getting into fights and eventually landing himself in jail.

They are worlds apart, yet this is exactly what makes the love story of Koh Choon Huat, 43, and Teng Teng, 41, so compelling. Their marriage crossed the 17-year mark last December.

Sitting down with Salt&Light in their home in Telok Blangah, the warm and humorous couple shared candidly about their relationship and bantered cheekily with each other in a mix of English and Mandarin.

“In the past, even when we quarrelled, I would send him text messages in Chinese! Those were the tough moments,” said Teng Teng, who is English-educated. “We didn’t have the option of voice message on WhatsApp like today.”

Choon Huat added proudly in Mandarin: “It’s not easy lor, but she was willing to put herself aside and accommodate me. That’s how I knew she was The One!”

Fried beehoon on Sundays

The couple had met at a coffee shop in Bukit Purmei.

Then studying in a local polytechnic, Teng Teng would help her mother run a cha beehoon (fried beehoon) stall there on weekends.

At 15, Choon Huat became a gang leader. At 17, he was jailed for two-and-a-half years under the Internal Security Act for rioting. Upon his release, he joined halfway house Breakthrough Missions for seven years and became its youngest staff member.

It was a stall frequented by 20-year-old Choon Huat, who was in his second year at Christian halfway house Breakthrough Missions after being released from prison.

Teng Teng’s mum instructed her to charge the Breakthrough Missions boys just $2 each no matter how much they ate.

Having accepted Christ while in jail, he was determined to turn his life around and had even chosen to exchange a nine-month parole for a three-year surveillance programme at Breakthrough Missions.

Every Sunday before going to church, he and his “brothers” from the halfway house would drop by the coffee shop to grab a bite.

As a volunteer cook at Breakthrough Missions, Teng Teng’s mum knew the boys and would instruct Teng Teng to charge them just $2 each no matter how much they ate.

As Choon Huat and Teng Teng crossed paths Sunday after Sunday, she noticed him as the youngest in the group.

“He was very smartly dressed, but a bit orbit (old-fashioned) lah – long-sleeved shirt, tucked in, with jeans. At my age, guys didn’t dress like that,” she said with a laugh.

His first impression of her was more favourable. Even before they had said a word to each other, Choon Huat was struck by how responsible she was.

According to Choon Huat (second from right), staff at Breakthrough Missions were taught to dress presentably. Only their Sunday best was allowed for church attire.

“I was thinking, why would she be willing to come down to help her mum on the weekends? There are very few girls who would be willing to do that. If they can siam (avoid), they will siam,” he said.

He desired someone who would be able to support and encourage him as he walked the right path.

He also noticed that she was a simple girl.

Said Teng Teng: “I would go at about 5am in a very rushed state. I would wear like a t-shirt, shorts, hair bundled up, no make-up.”

Choon Huat interjected mirthfully: “You know you go to the market? You see the ah soh (aunty)? She looked something like that.”

But it was attractive to him.

While he used to prioritise outward appearances in women, he had matured after becoming a Christian and now desired someone who would be able to support and encourage him as he walked the right path.

“If the girl is like a Barbie doll, how can she journey with me? The amount of money I earn will not be enough for her to spend. Then it would be so easy to go back to my old ways, because money was easier to earn back then,” he said.

“So I thought if one day we ever ended up dating, this kind can marry,” he said with a smile.

The altar call

The first time they spoke was when Choon Huat visited the stall on behalf of Breakthrough Missions to invite Teng Teng’s mum to its anniversary celebration.

“I didn’t have any other intention. I didn’t purposely give the invitation to her,” he clarified. “She was just standing there in front of the stall, so I passed the message to her lor!” 

He remembers that she was gentle and polite. “But now not the same already,” he joked, drawing a hearty laugh from his wife.

The second time they spoke, Choon Huat felt compelled to invite her to an evangelistic rally by Rev Stephen Tong, an Indonesian evangelist.

“My mum-in-law had taken her to church for over 10 years, yet she didn’t believe. But after I knew her for a week, she became a Christian!”

At the time, Teng Teng did not believe in Jesus even though she had followed her mother to church for more than 10 years.

“In my younger years, whenever I met my father, he would take me to the temple. Whenever I stayed with my mum, I would go to church. So I was very confused about the teachings. I was never focused,” said Teng Teng, whose parents divorced when she was five. 

But having followed her mother to some chapel services at Breakthrough Missions, she found herself slowly experiencing God’s grace through the songs and residents’ testimonies.

She accepted Choon Huat’s invitation. 

During the altar call, she responded to invite Jesus into her heart, much to Choon Huat’s surprise and delight.

“My mum-in-law had taken her to church for over 10 years, yet she didn’t believe. But after I knew her for a week, she became a Christian!” he said.

“It wasn’t you, it was Rev Stephen,” his wife retorted.

“Of course, it’s God’s timing,” he said. “But God uses people, so it was very wonderful.”

Washing dishes

Since he was the one who had brought her to Christ, Choon Huat took on the responsibility of following up with her. 

“During that time there were no suitable sisters-in-Christ to follow up with her. I couldn’t possibly just leave her on her own.” He had no intention of wooing her then, he said. 

The first photo the young couple took together.

He committed to meeting her every Wednesday night – the only night he was allowed to be out of the halfway house – at a McDonalds outlet in Harbourfront to do Bible study, and encouraged her to attend church on Sundays.

He helped wash dishes, clear the trash and wipe the stall down so she would be able to make it for church service.

When she told him that she could not attend church services in the morning as she needed to be at her mother’s stall, he found a 5pm service at St Andrew’s Cathedral that suited her schedule.

Every Sunday without fail, after attending a 9am church service with his “brothers” from the halfway house and having lunch, Choon Huat would arrive at the stall and spend the afternoon helping Teng Teng wash buckets of crockery, clear the trash and wipe the stall down – all so she would be able to close the stall on time to make it for the service.

“When I stood at the back to wash the bowls, there was no aircon one leh. I was constantly perspiring. And your back will really ache leh! It’s no joke okay,” he said.

He maintained that he had no intention of impressing or chasing her, though he admitted that he had “good feelings” for her.

Choon Huat helping Teng Teng to wash dishes at her mum’s coffee shop stall, a faithful act of service he continued for years even after they began dating seriously.

“But I didn’t have such complicated intentions. I did this with the desire that she could go to church because I know how easy it is to backslide if you don’t attend church regularly,” he said.

Boyfriend girlfriend

Through these weekly interactions, their feelings for each other began to grow.

Though they cannot remember the details of how they became boyfriend and girlfriend, they said it was a natural progression.

“We were crossing the road at Bugis after the 5pm service when he first held my hand. And he hasn’t let go since,” said Teng Teng.

Teng Teng celebrating Choon Huat’s 22nd birthday at a small restaurant owned by her aunt. By then, the couple had started dating.

As they began dating more seriously, she fell more and more in love with how thoughtful and committed he was.

“What impressed me the most was how he was willing to share bravely about his past rather than hide it.”

Despite having a curfew of 10pm, he would make the effort to send her home by bus and walk her up to her house, before rushing back to Breakthrough Missions.

She also followed him during his days off and on weekends as he went around sharing his transformation story. She was moved by God’s grace and work in his life.

“What impressed me the most was how he was willing to share bravely about his past rather than hide it. And most importantly, he used these mistakes and experiences, as well as God’s grace in his life, to share with youths in schools, churches and prisons regularly. He hoped to help others in need or who were still caught in the bondage of drugs,” she said, adding that he was at his most confident whenever he shared.

His testimony, along with the hymns he would sing to bless others, deeply moved her too. “Even after hearing his testimony for 10 times, 20 times, I wasn’t bored. Through his life I saw God’s wonderful work,” she said.

A mother’s blessing

However, Teng Teng did have some reservations about whether the relationship could move on to marriage, given how different they were.

“Strictly speaking, I don’t even have a Primary 2 education. I only studied in Primary 2 for three months.”

As Choon Huat cannot speak much English, Teng Teng worried if she would be able to communicate in Mandarin with him continuously.

She was also afraid that she would have to shoulder more responsibilities in marriage and family life as Choon Huat only has a Primary 2 education.

“Strictly speaking, I don’t even have a Primary 2 education. I only studied in Primary 2 for three months before I threw a chair at the teacher and she told me, ‘You’ve graduated. Don’t need to come back’,” Choon Huat quipped.

Teng Teng was also worried that her friends and family would not be accepting of their relationship, given Choon Huat’s past.

“But all these things, God slowly removed,” she said.

Despite having early reservations about their relationship, God slowly assured Teng Teng that this was a man she could marry.

After sharing her feelings with Choon Huat, he suggested going for relationship counselling, which taught Teng Teng the importance of looking at each other’s strengths and dividing roles and responsibilities suitably. 

“We have to learn to complement each other. There are a lot of things that can be divided, definitely. So for me, I can do more administrative things while he does more of the logistics,” she said.

“For example, even before marriage, when we go out, I’ll take care of the bookings and he’ll take care of the logistics – when to go, how to go. So I felt this could actually work.”

“I give you my blessings and go ahead if you feel he is the right one. Commit the relationship to God.”

To her relief, none of her friends opposed their relationship as Choon Huat hit it off with them with ease.

And while some of her relatives did have some reservations about their relationship at first, they gradually began to warm up to him – something that Teng Teng attributes to God’s grace and her husband’s faithful acts of commitment and service.

But Choon Huat attributes their acceptance of him to something else.

“I’m an aunty killer!” he declared. “At my previous church, from upstairs to downstairs there will be aunties calling out to me. Really! You ask her.”

Nevertheless, what mattered most to Teng Teng was having her mother’s blessing. When she spoke to her mum about Choon Huat, Teng Teng was surprised by her response. 

The older woman told her: “I am getting old already. Choon Huat will be my son-in-law for only a short period of time, but he will be your life partner and the one walking with you for many years.

Choon Huat and Madam Lim, Teng Teng’s mum, have a great relationship. “Whenever my mother-in-law and I talk, Teng Teng has no way of coming into the conversation!” he quipped.

“I give you my blessings and go ahead if you feel he is the right one. Commit the relationship to God.”

“If his desire for God’s Word keeps burning, God will take care of the relationship.”

When asked why she did not oppose to their relationship, Madam Lim Bee Yan said she saw how committed Choon Huat was to her daughter and how determined he was in studying the Bible.

“I believed the same determination in his love for my daughter will see them through the relationship. Most importantly, if his desire for God’s Word keeps burning, God will take care of their relationship,” she said.

Today, Teng Teng’s family has gone from just accepting him to respecting him, even calling him up to ask for his opinion on family matters.

“The elderly love having him around at events and gatherings. Whenever we have questions on the Bible, verses or any day-to-day events requiring a second opinion, he is always there to lend listening ear and to share his non-biased opinions based on God’s teachings,” said Madam Lim.

“He also loves my food a lot and usually finishes up what I cook! He is very appreciative … he’s just like a son to me.”

The proposal

As for Choon Huat, the decision to marry Teng Teng was a no brainer.

“She’s very simple, not frivolous. Like an aunty at a wet market. To me, this is the kind of woman who will make a good wife, especially if I want to walk in God’s ways,” he said.

He was also moved by her willingness to serve others, for example by helping out at her mum’s stall, and her willingness to communicate with him via text message in Chinese, which was not her first language.

“It’s only with this kind of person that a relationship can last long,” he said.

Teng Teng at her graduation ceremony.

So, on Teng Teng’s 23rd birthday, when she was in her final year of university, Choon Huat popped the question. 

When asked how he proposed, Choon Huat exclaimed: “Eh, don’t ask this question leh. You can ask any question but don’t ask this question lah, don’t get me in trouble!”

“I spent all my allowance on that day leh. My $300 allowance bo liao.”

Teng Teng interjected: “The proposal was missing a ring!”

Instead of an engagement ring, Choon Huat had given her a heart-shaped necklace with a cross on it – it was all he could afford – while in a taxi on the way home from her birthday dinner.

“He gave it to me and said, ‘Are you willing to go to the next step of preparing for our wedding?'” recalled Teng Teng with a laugh. “But after that he didn’t follow up leh.”

Eager to defend himself, Choon Huat jumped in: “But I must tell you, I spent all my allowance on that day leh. I took her to eat Jack’s Place at Parkway Parade, took a cab back to her house, bought a stalk of flower which was $60. My $300 allowance bo liao (nothing left).”

Added Teng Teng: “The necklace was bought from his previous month’s salary!”

Taken by his sincerity despite his limited resources, Teng Teng accepted his proposal.

Making the marriage work

On December 17, 2004, after about five years of courtship, the couple wed in a church wedding, followed by a dinner banquet at a restaurant in SAFRA Mount Faber.

Before they got married, the couple resolved to place Christ as the centre and foundation of their marriage.

The banquet was attended by some 600 guests, including almost half of their church and his “brothers” from Breakthrough Missions.

“From the start I already told him that we don’t need to go for hotels. I don’t need the wedding to be so grand, it’s okay. As long as everyone is there, it’s good enough,” said Teng Teng.

Her husband responded: “See? I like this kind lah.”

Teng Teng was initially worried that her relationship would end up like both their parents’, who are divorced. But Choon Huat assured her: “We must really commit. The difference between our marriage and theirs is that we have Christ at the centre.”

Seventeen years and two primary-school-going children later, the couple has learnt how to make their marriage and family life work despite the difference in their academic qualifications. It is something they attribute to God’s grace and power in their lives.

“We see the impossible become possible. I was worried that with the kids, I would have to do everything, teach everything. But no, in terms of discipline, sports, fetching them here and there, teaching Chinese, he’s there. And I’ll do the admin work, the registration and school stuff,” said Teng Teng.

“We are really opposites. But because of these opposites, we are able to work together better,” she added.

After responding to God’s call to do theological studies in Taiwan, and later obtaining diplomas in counselling psychology and theological counselling in Singapore, Choon Huat also went from not being able to write his own name in Chinese to being able to type out whole sermons on the computer.

Christ, the foundation

More important than academic qualifications – or anything else for that matter – is being united in Christ, who is the bedrock of their relationship, they said.

“On their own, can two people journey together in unity? Cannot. Who will follow who? Who will listen to the other? In Philippians 2:5, it says we must be united in Christ – be it as a couple, a church or a ministry. It is only when we are united in Christ that our marriage will last,” said Choon Huat.

More important than academic qualifications is being united in Christ, who is the bedrock of their relationship, they said.

It is this solid foundation that has sustained their marriage for the past 17 years, despite differences and sometimes quarrels they still have.

“Whenever we argue or have different ways of thinking, I will tell her, ‘Let’s pray. Let’s return to what the Bible says’,” said Choon Huat.

“We must learn how to put aside our own way of thinking, then the marriage can last. If we keep insisting on our own way, it will be very difficult,” he added.

He gave an example of how different they are in terms of tidiness. While he is extremely particular about things being neat, Teng Teng is more relaxed, especially at home.

“When we meet with these differences, must I insist that she follows the way I live? No, I must adjust. If she doesn’t tidy up, I’ll do it lor,” he said.

The only way for a marriage to last is if both parties follow the example of Christ’s love for the other, said the couple.

At the heart of it, we must be willing to love the other person more and not be calculative about it, he added. 

God speaks to him about it during his daily morning prayers. “He will say, ‘You’re the husband hor. Go and hug her.'”

“Why? Because God’s love for us is not equal to our love for Him. His Son died for us. So Christian marriages must always be based on the Bible, then your marriage will be strong. You can’t wait for the other person to love you first,” he said.

Whenever they argue, God speaks to him about it during his daily morning prayers. “He will say, ‘You’re the husband hor. Go and hug her’,” said Choon Huat.

His wife added: “It’s not always about saying sorry because it may not be anyone’s fault. But I think sometimes it’s about who lets go and reaches out to the other person first.”

Sharing candidly, Choon Huat said: “Only she can affect my mood. Even my children don’t affect my mood. Only she does.

“Honestly speaking, no matter how much turbulence I face in my life outside, I know I can overcome it with God’s grace. But the moment I quarrel with her, it will affect my whole mood and all the other things will be affected. So I always tell her, don’t quarrel lah don’t quarrel.”

Kneeling in prayer

It is also the presence of God in Choon Huat’s life that gives Teng Teng the security that he will not return to his old ways, even as she has witnessed many ex-convicts do, affecting their families and children in the process.

“As long as he puts God first, I am safe.”

After they were married, when Choon Huat received a call from God to close down his swimming pool maintenance business to do his theological studies in Taiwan, Teng Teng was hesitant at first.

She was worried that he would return to his old ways in the country, which has a vibrant night life. But he assured her: “I won’t. Not because of you, but because of God.”

In those three years in Taiwan, Choon Huat would wake up early and kneel on the ground in prayer. It was a habit that he had started during his time in prison – pleading with God to keep him from vice – and continued until now. 

The Kohs during Chinese New Year, with son Jadon, 12, and daughter Janah, 8.

“Every day, I fear. It’s not that I’m able to do it. It is God who is constantly guarding me,” he said, adding that this daily habit of kneeling in prayer has been the single most important thing that has kept him on the right path for the past 23 years.

Said Teng Teng: “If Choon Huat puts me as the number one in his life, or chases after material things, then I think I don’t feel so safe. But as long as he puts God first, I am safe.”

A God who recycles

Choon Huat has been faithfully doing rehabilitative and counselling work in halfway houses and prisons.

“When God uses you, your rubbish will transform into recycled paper that can be used by others.”

Teng Teng supported her husband’s decision to set up a halfway house, House of Anatole, with a friend in 2020, though this meant closing down his logistics and courier company, which had been doing well. It also meant a drop in their family income.

“I’ve seen how God saved him, transformed him and really gave him a lot. In these 20 over years, he’s gone from not having anything at all to having a family, an education.

“God has given him so much, and I know that his wish is to give back and one day do full-time ministry,” said Teng Teng, who is a business planning manager at a technology company.

She added that she and Choon Huat have been incredibly blessed by many brothers- and sisters-in-Christ who have supported and encouraged them in their life’s mission to help those in need.

Despite the sacrifices required to answer God’s call, Choon Huat obeyed. He is convicted that it is his life’s duty to serve the One who has saved him and transformed him.

“Look at the person I am. Can God use someone like me? God can. I often tell my Breakthrough brothers: God is in the business of recycling rubbish. In society, we’re considered as trash, useless. But when God uses you, your rubbish will transform into recycled paper that can be used by others, like an A4 paper that can be used to print out a contract! Amen?”


FOR MORE VALENTINE’S DAY STORIES, READ:

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About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer at Salt&Light. When she's not working, you will probably find her admiring nature or playing Monopoly Deal with her little brother.

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