Changemaker at 74: Elim Chew’s prayer warrior mother

by Juleen Shaw // May 11, 2018, 6:18 pm

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Ooi Kooi Tin (with sunglasses) leading her Tanjung Pinang congregation in lively worship.. Photo courtesy of Ooi Kooi Tin.,

“God is good to us.”

The grandmother sits on a concrete floor under a bare lightbulb. Her face lined, her sarong neat but threadbare.

Her son, aged 23, was born blind. His two young children are deaf and mute.

Her Singapore friend, Huizhen Jie (Sister Huizhen), helps her sell her handicrafts, providing the family with a modest income. They have been believers for 10 years, she says in Hokkien.

Elim Chew and her mother visit villagers in Tanjung Pinang to pray with them and bring them cheer.

“Hallelujah, my daughter-in-law and grandchildren all go to church now and we are not as worried about life anymore.”

Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia. Another village, another home.

“My name is Ah Yan,” says the woman shyly. “My mother died when I was a baby – I grew up never calling anyone Mama.

 “When I was lonely, I used to pray for someone to call Mama. Now I am thankful that I have Huang Mu Shi (Pastor Huang). I call her Mama!”

Anhui, China. Under a bridge.

More than 100 adults, men and women, perch on toddler-sized wooden stools on a dirt floor. It is cold and they are bundled up in woollen jackets.

The din of traffic overhead does not distract them from belting out Mandarin hymns with gusto and listening with rapt attention to an animated Singapore woman who declares into a microphone: “Shen ai shi ren (God loves the people on earth)!”


Sister. Mother. Pastor. It doesn’t matter to Mdm Ooi Kooi Tin, 74, what she is called by the many to whom she ministers.

She only knows that the hungry need food, the sick need medicine, prayers and jobs, and the unsaved need Gospel hope.

To that end, she planted seven churches in China, built a children’s shelter in the isolated Salween region of Myanmar, set up an eldercare facility in Anhui, China, and built a church in Tanjung Pinang which she visits three days a week, as she has done for the past 12 years.

And all this she did at an age when others retire.

Four generations of Christians

Mdm Ooi is the mother of Elim Chew, 53, founder of 77th Street, logistics service FastFast and Korean restaurant GoroGoro Steamboat.

“As missionaries, my family didn’t have much. But when I milked the goats, my father would give the milk to other people.”

She launched ElimChewTV to tell the stories of changemakers, sits on multiple boards and committees of public service, youth and community organisations, and was recognised as Forbes Asia’s Hero of Philanthropy 2010.

If you’ve ever wondered where Chew gets her tireless energy and heart for social causes, you need look no further than her mother.

“The best thing she has done for me is walk the talk,” Chew says of her mum, who is a third-generation Christian.

Mdm Ooi has built seven churches in China.

Her mother laughs, embarrassed. “It’s not that I influence her, but my own father influenced me!”

Mdm Ooi’s father, Pastor Huang (Ooi in Hokkien), was a military officer in Anhui, China, in the 1940s when he first heard God’s call to missions.

With his wife and three young children in tow, the elder Ooi took to the seas to become a missionary in Taiwan and Penang, Malaysia, and subsequently back in China. He also taught at the Taiwan Bible Institute.

“As missionaries, my family didn’t have much and we all had to chip in with chores,” recalls Mdm Ooi. “I used to wonder why my father was not like other fathers who earned an income to provide for the family.

Her compassion for the elderly led her to start an eldercare facility in Anhui.

“Why did my father buy me goats to tend? I had to take them up to the pastures in the mountains and the grass would cut my bare feet ‘til they bled. And then when I milked the goats, he would give the milk to other people!

“My sister and I used to resent my father. We had no food to eat, we could not go to school. Eventually we understood. We saw his heart for the people and the joy he got from bringing salvation to many.”

Witnessing miracles

Her parents’ influence did not stop at their community efforts. Mdm Ooi witnessed miracles that would seal her faith and alter the course of her life.

At eight, the family lived behind a church in Taiwan. She and her siblings were playing in a field when the sky turned red. A loose explosive from a nearby ship carrying military ammunition had triggered off an explosion, setting the harbour on fire. The children saw mutilated bodies flung about and, in shock, they ran home. Despite broken glass everywhere, none of them suffered so much as a cut on their bare feet.

The family accompanied dad, Pastor Huang (Ooi), on his missionary journeys to Taiwan, China and Penang.

An even bigger shock awaited them at home. The force of the blast had shattered all the glass in the church. The smell of burning was strong in their home. A bomb had fallen through their roof onto a bed. When the bomb disposal unit removed the bomb, they expressed surprise that it had not exploded.

“God preserved the church and our lives,” Mdm Ooi says, the memory still fresh in her mind. “Even today when I face troubles, I know I can depend on Him.”

At 15, she and her family were living in Penang. They maintained a farm for subsistence and had little to live on – there was no money even for the children to go to school.

“I go to places where no-one wants to go. When we go to these places, real change happens.”

“Once, my sister and I were gathering firewood to cook – we couldn’t afford a gas stove – and my mother was clearing the land by burning the grass,” recounts Mdm Ooi in a mix of Mandarin and Hokkien.

“It was windy that day and the embers blew into a neighbouring rubber plantation. The trees caught fire and soon the fire was raging. We tried to extinguish the fire with branches but it spread quickly.

“We were in an isolated area where the fire engines couldn’t reach us. I saw my mother run towards the fire, kneel down and pray. To my surprise the fire around her died. She got up and prayed in another area and the fire died there too. The fire burnt through almost two football fields of land before it completely died down.

“The neighbours saw what happened and said, ‘Your God is powerful!’ Even the rubber plantation owner did not dare ask us for compensation. Good thing, because we had no money to pay him!

“Do you see? God is alive! His miracles have given me a lot of encouragement and faith.”

Where no-one else goes

“My friends tell me, ‘Xiamen is very big. A lot of people there’. But I go to places where no-one wants to go,” says the spritely septuagenarian. “When we go to these places, real change happens.”

Over a decade of visiting and praying for the sick, some of whom have swollen limbs and rotting wounds, bringing food to the hungry who are housebound, ferrying the disabled to church – “I tell them I will pick them at 2pm and they are waiting outside their house by 10am” – has meant that Mdm Ooi has learnt to face every circumstance with calm and trust in God’s sovereignty.

Worshippers gather at a makeshift church under a bridge in China.

Once she received a call telling her to hurry to Tanjung Pinang to pray for a young woman who was threatening suicide.

“They sent a car for me to go to her. As I prayed, I noticed she was wearing a lot of charms on her wrists. I knew in my gut that these had to do with her problem. She said her gods were asking her to jump. Eventually her father cut off the charms and the girl did not jump,” says Mdm Ooi.

A proper church, after Mdm Ooi raised funds for a building and a pastor.

“We never know the kind of situations we will face,” she says. “It’s not that I do a lot, I just do what I can. People keep connecting us to those who need our help. We help as much as we can within our means.”

Hungry for the Word

The villagers have touched her as much as she has touched them.

“In the countryside, people are very receptive to the Scripture because few go to share the Gospel with them,” says the grandmother of three.

“On Sundays, the villagers walk to church very early – if it is cold, they layer up. If it rains, they arrive soaking wet as they have no umbrella. If they are old, we tell them, ‘You don’t have to come for all three services, just one will do’, but they stay and listen to all the messages before they go home.

Believers building a church with their own hands, brick by brick.

“In China I saw two people coming to church – one of them was in a wheelchair after being paralysed below the waist in a work accident and the other was blind. The blind one was pushing the one in the wheelchair, who was giving directions. That is how determined they are to come to hear the Word of the Lord.

“You see the heavens and the earth – who created them? Who gives you breath? You make idols for protection. But only a real God can protect you.”

“In Singapore many of us are too lazy to even read Scripture. In the poor places, they memorise big chunks of the Bible! And when one person accepts Christ, he brings the whole family.”

She saw hundreds in China who were so hungry for the Gospel that they worshipped under bridges and in abandoned buildings. Moved, she raised funds among her friends to build proper churches and fund local pastors.

“I tell them, ‘You see the heavens and the earth – who created them? Who gives you breath? You make idols for protection. But only a real God can protect you. I will not force you to believe – you have to examine for yourself what is real.”

No slowing down

Relatives and friends have tried persuading her to retire.

“People tell me: ‘You’re old, let other people do this.’ But I can’t,” she laughs. “Or they tell me that I’m silly, I shouldn’t be giving away my money, I should be spending it on holidays. But holidays are a waste! You spend $5,000 or $6,000 on one trip. In Tanjung Pinang that can last half a year in missions work!”

Mdm Ooi’s deep compassion for the last, least and lost has had a profound influence on her children.

Chew is known for her mentoring and heart for social enterprises. Her logistics app, FastFast, for example, was started to give retirees, the retrenched or those between jobs a way to earn an income as delivery drivers.

Mdm Ooi and her family: (L-R standing) Daughter Elim, grandson Dwight, son Chris and his wife Joyce, daughter Sulim. (L-R seated) Grandaughters Dion and Cleo.

“My mum cares. She truly cares,” says Chew, whose father succumbed to cancer on her 21st birthday, leaving her mother to be a single parent of three.

“She always reminds the family that God is number one. We must never leave God. That is something that has stayed with me.”

“It is not easy for my mum to take a two-hour ferry ride to Tanjung Pinang every week, spend three days visiting people, praying for them, helping transform their lives. And she has done this consistently for 12 years.

“We can pray for people. But what can we do to make their lives better? How can we bring God to them so they can see God in the purpose of their lives?

“She always reminds the family that God is number one. We must never leave God. That is something that has stayed with me.”

“I don’t know God’s plans,” chips in Mdm Ooi. “I pray to seek His will, and I tell Him: ‘As long as I’m not sick or bedridden, I will go wherever you send me!’”

About the author

Juleen Shaw

Salt&Light Managing Editor Juleen hails from the newsrooms of Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp Publishing. She has had two encounters with baptismal pools. The first was at age four when her mother, who was holding her hand, tripped and fell into the church baptismal pool, taking Juleen with her. The second was when she actually chose to get baptised.