“Why would you do so much for me when I’m just a stranger?”: How these Chinese migrant brothers found a family away from home

Is the kampung spirit a casualty of First World Singapore? This National Day, Salt&Light goes in search of God's love in action in the community. Happy 58th National Day!

by Gracia Lee // August 4, 2023, 4:47 pm

Some migrant brothers at an outing to East Coast Park in 2019, which was organised by HealthServe.

Migrant brothers at an outing to East Coast Park organised by HealthServe. The friendships formed by migrant brothers in Singapore are important as they make up the support system they lean on when they are far away from home. All photos courtesy of HealthServe.

A self-described “jiak gan tang* from ACS (Anglo-Chinese School)”, Jeffrey Chua does not have the best command of the Chinese language. But his long-time friend, Chinese national Gao Jie, does not seem to mind.

“I’m thankful that he deems me intelligent enough to hold a conversation with him in Mandarin!” Jeffrey told Salt&Light with a laugh.

The pair first met in 2010 through HealthServe, a non-profit organisation which serves the migrant worker community in Singapore. Jeffrey was then a volunteer while Gao Jie, who had suffered a workplace injury, was one of HealthServe’s clients.

Lifelong friends: Gao Jie (left) and Jeffrey in 2012, two years after they met through HealthServe.

Over the past decade of their friendship, they have kept in touch and shared their lives with each other.

When Gao Jie was not able to return home due to his injuries, Jeffrey flew to China to visit his family. And when Jeffrey’s son got married this July, Gao Jie was present at the wedding to share in his friend’s joy.

When Jeffrey told Gao Jie that his son would be getting married soon, Gao Jie promised that he would be there, even if it meant flying over from China.

Said Jeffrey: “He’s very down-to-earth and good natured. And of course, he’s a very doting father as well. I know he’s always in communication with his children.”

From clients to personal friends

As HealthServe’s longest serving staff member, Jeffrey has spent the past 12 years journeying with migrant workers like Gao Jie. Many of them have become his personal friends.

Jeffrey (left) during one of his visits to the home of a former HealthServe client and his family in China.

Apart from walking with them through issues like loneliness, workplace injuries and family problems while they are in Singapore, he also makes an effort to stay in touch with them even after they have returned home.

Before the pandemic, Jeffrey would make personal trips to China about twice a year, travelling to various provinces to visit them. Meeting with their wives and children, he would catch up with them in their homes and around their dinner tables.

Jeffrey with another former client’s family in China. Many workers who have suffered permanent injuries in Singapore often struggle to make a living when they return home, he said.

His is a friendship that goes above and beyond. On two separate occasions, he even took time out of his schedule to accompany two migrant brothers back home to China after they suffered injuries that left them in a wheelchair.

“I won’t say that we have a solution for all their problems, but what we can do is journey with them and meet them at their point of need,” said Jeffrey, who is currently HealthServe’s Senior Manager for Training and Development/Special Projects.

What makes a community?

As staff members like Jeffrey come alongside these migrant brothers in their challenges, they have found that the friendship is not a one-way street. These brothers are often eager to reciprocate, and many of them do so generously.

Peterson Lee, one of HealthServe’s caseworkers, fondly remembers how a few migrant brothers once took the initiative to buy a watermelon, cut it up and share it with staff members and other workers at their drop-in centre on a particularly hot day.

Migrant brothers made dumplings from scratch last September to thank staff members at HealthServe for their love and care.

More recently, a group of migrant brothers held a dumpling party before they returned home to thank HealthServe for their help.

“They bought the ingredients, came together and made jiao ji (dumplings) to share with all the staff and the interns,” said Peterson, 66, adding that he was touched by the gesture.

Many migrant workers hold dear the friendships they have made in Singapore even after they leave the country.

Fu Huifeng, one of the workers involved, said in Mandarin: “I wanted to thank everyone for the care that they have shown me in the past year. How they have touched me is too much to be expressed in a few words.”

“That’s what builds community – people who have helped one another in small ways and big ways, and don’t take it for granted.”

Calling HealthServe his family and home, another worker, Ge Kunyin, added: “Even after this job is over, the friendship with the brothers at HealthServe will continue forever.”

Indeed, many of these migrant workers hold dear the friendships they have made in Singapore even after they leave the country.

Jeffrey recalls receiving a generous act of love from a former client who had returned to China. When the man heard that Jeffrey was coming to China to accompany another injured worker home, he took a three-hour bus ride from his village to meet Jeffrey and stayed with him during his time in the country.

“He treated me like a brother and went all out to take care of me and make sure that all was well,” said Jeffrey, adding that accepting these acts of kindness is an acknowledgement that these brothers can bless him too. 

“I think that’s what builds a community – people who have helped one another in small ways and big ways, and don’t take any of it for granted.”

A strong brotherhood

Over the years, HealthServe has brought together former and current clients to form a community of about 50 Chinese migrant brothers.

They meet up at least once a year for a Chinese New Year lunch and keep in touch mainly on messaging platform WeChat.

These friendships are important as they make up the support system they lean on when they are far away from home.

The migrant brothers have opportunities to bond in person during occasional outings organised by HealthServe.

Many of them can empathise with each other’s struggles and are often very willing to help one another, noted Peterson, who is in the group chat.

“Sometimes if one is very discouraged, they will say something nice to encourage him.”

He remembers a recent incident when one brother shared that he was looking for another job. A few members chimed in with job openings that they were aware of, though some had not even met him before.

The community of Chinese migrant brothers, along with some staff members of HealthServe, meet up at least once a year for a Chinese New Year reunion lunch organised by HealthServe.

Even after the workers have returned home, many are still willing to help each other out.

For example, Peterson recently journeyed with a worker who became crippled after a workplace accident. When the worker returned to China, he struggled to make a living and shared that his wife was leaving him.

“I got another brother (a former client) living in the same city of Henan to connect with him and encourage him. Even though he has never met the other guy, he still helped,” said Peterson, adding that this former client also suffered a workplace injury that had left him in a wheelchair when he returned to China.

Demonstrating God’s love

For both Jeffrey and Peterson, their service to these migrant brothers is an outworking of their personal relationships with God.

(From left) Peterson, Jeffrey and Gao Jie at this year’s Chinese New Year reunion lunch.

Peterson points to Galatians 6:10, which exhorts believers to use every opportunity to do good to others, especially those within the faith.

“As you meet people at their point of need, you never know how you may have touched lives.”

Jeffrey finds his motivation from a song called “Thank You” by Ray Boltz, which talks about how little actions done on earth can have an eternal impact in heaven.

“As you meet people at their point of need, journey with them and help them overcome their struggles, you never know how you may have touched lives,” he said. 

He still remembers the first conversation he had with Gao Jie some 13 years ago. They were having a meal with some other migrant brothers and staff members when Gao Jie turned to him and asked: “Why would you do so much for me when I’m just a stranger to you? Is it because of God’s love?” 

This question stuck with Jeffrey for the next decade and perfectly encapsulates what keeps him going.

Said Jeffrey to Salt&Light: “As they experience the love of God, as they see us being real towards them, let God speak to them accordingly.”


*Literally “eat potato”, meaning Westernised


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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 and Assistant Editor at Salt&Light.