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Elizabeth Choy Su-Mei nee Elizabeth Yong a.k.a. Yong Su Mei (b. 29 November 1910, Kudat, Sabah - 14 September 2006, Singapore), a Hakka from North Borneo, noted for being a war-time heroine during the Japanese occupation and the only woman member in the Legislative Council in 1951. She also posed as an artist's model for the famed sculptress, Dora Gordine, who did two works of her entitled Serene Jade and Flawless Crystal. She worked as a teacher and became the first principal of the Singapore School for the Blind. She was also known for her qipaos and bangles, for which she was nicknamed "Dayak woman of Singapore".
Elizabeth was born in Kudat in British North Borneo (today Sabah). Her great-grandparents had been assisting German missionaries in Hongkong and their work had brought them to North Borneo. There, the Yong family set up a coconut plantation. Her father had been the eldest in a family of 11 children and after completing his early education in China with some English education in North Borneo, he gained employment as a civil servant. Marrying the daughter of a priest from a well-respected family in North Borneo, he was transferred to Jesselton and later promoted to District Officer and moved on to Borneo's interiors in Kalimantan. Elizabeth was looked after by a Kadazan nanny and acquired Kadazan as her first language.
Later, Elizabeth's father was posted to Tenom where there were no educational facilities, so Elizabeth and her siblings were sent back to Kudat where her paternal grandfather ran the village school, teaching in Chinese. Her higher education was taken at St Monica's School between 1921 to 1929, an Anglican missionary boarding school in Sandakan. Because the teachers could not pronounce Chinese names, she adopted the English name Elizabeth. In 1925, she and her aunt Jessie became the first girls to sign up in North Borneo's inaugural Girl Guides Company. By 1927, she was teaching the lower standards even whilst she was studying.
In December 1929, she came to Singapore to further her studies at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus at Victoria Street. She shone academically, obtaining the Prize of Honor in her first year of school in December 1930. She resided with her fourth uncle at Selegie where he ran a music shop, the original T. M. A. at High Street. The untimely death of her mother in 1931 and the onset of the Great Depression placed upon her the burden of raising her six younger siblings. Thus she forwent a college education, even a possible scholarship, to start work so she could finance the education of her younger siblings.
During the Japanese Occupation, she worked as a canteen operator with her husband at the Mental Hospital which was renamed Miyako Hospital (the predecessor of Woodbridge Hospital) where patients from General Hospital had been moved to. They secretly brought food, medicine, money, messages and even radios to British internees. Unfortunately, they were caught by the Japanese and Elizabeth was arrested on 15 November 1943, following her husband's arrest on 29 October a few weeks earlier. Believing their activities were related to the Double Tenth incident, she was interrogated by the Kempeitai but she never admitted to being a British sympathiser. She was released only after 200 days of starvation diet and repeated torture. Her husband was released much later.
After the war, Elizabeth was invited to England as a celebrated war heroine noted as the only female local to have been incarcerated for such an extended period. She went there as part of the privileged few who were invited to Britain to recuperate from the war but her stay extended three more years, totalling four years there. In her first year, she was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth. In her second year, she took up Domestic Science at Northern Polytechnic and in her third year, she taught at a London Council School. Intent on studying art but without the finances for this venture, Elizabeth resorted to posing for art instead. The famed sculptress, Dora Gordine, made two sculptures of her - Serene Jade" and Flawless Crystal. Elizabeth gave her copy of Serene Jade to her daughters who, in turn, donated it to the Singapore Art Museum. Her copy of Flawless Crystal sits in an art gallery in Leicester, Britain.
She returned to Singapore in December 1949 and was persuaded to stand for elections in December 1950 for the West Ward or Cairnhill constituency under the banner of the Labour Party, founded in 1948 by V. J. Mendis. However, she lost in the 1951 City Council Elections, to the Progressive Party representative, Soh Ghee Soon. However, she was nominated into the Legislative Council in 1951, becoming the only woman member there. She served for a full five-year term. As a member of the Legislative Council, she represented Singapore at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. She later stood for elections in Queenstown but bowed out from politics thereafter, believing she could do more for the country as a teacher.
In the 1950s, she joined the women's auxiliary of the Singapore Volunteers Corps, and was instrumental in expanding the organisation when she recruited many of her friends and colleagues.
She hit the headlines in early 1998, when she included a nude photograph of herself at a local art exhibition.
1933 : Became a teacher at C. E. Z. M. S or Church of England Zenana Mission School (currently, St. Margaret's school)
1935 : Transferred to St. Andrew's Boy's School, probably the only untrained teacher at that time.
1949 : Began a stint as an artist's model, when she was 39 years old and was working in London. She posed for the famed sculptress, Dora Gordine, who did two works of her entitled Serene Jade and Flawless Crystal.
1950? : Returned to Singapore as Senior Assistant, or Deputy Principal at St Andrew's School.
End 1953 - beginning 1954 : Conducted a lecture tour of Malaya in the US and Canada at the request of the Foreign Office in London. Prior to the tour, she took time to visit Malaya to get a better understanding of the country. At that time, it was in the throes of Emergency.
1956 - 1960 : Became the first principal of the Singapore School for the Blind.
1960 - 1974 : Returned to St Andrew's Junior School and promoted to Deputy Principal in 1964.
Husband: Choy Khun Heng (b. Hongkong - ), whom she married on 16 August 1941, the brother of the fiancé of an old school friend. It was a double wedding held in conjunction with her brother, Kon Vui's wedding. Khun Heng worked as a book-keeper at the Borneo Company before the war.
Daughters: Bridget Wai Fong (b. 1950), Lynette Wai Ling, Irene Wai Fun, actually her niece. All were adopted in the 1950s.
1950 : Order of the British Empire
Order of the Star of Sarawak
The Girls Guide Bronze Cross
1973 : Pingkat Bakti Setia, Singapore, for her service of at least four decades in education
Elizabeth passed away on 14 September 2006 at her home in MacKenzie Road. She was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the pancreas one month before her death.
Zhou, M. (1995). Elizabeth Choy: More than a war heroine: A biography. Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 371.10092 ZHO)
Intisari, IV (1), 15-74.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5005 INT)
A woman ahead of her time. (1998, February 15). The Straits Times.
One must not be prudish. (1998, February 15). The Straits Times.
Tan, T. (2006. September 15). War heroine Elizabeth Choy dies at 96. The Straits Times, Prime News.
The information in this article is valid as at 2006 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.
Personalities>>Biographies>>War Personalities>>War Heroes
Choy, Elizabeth Su-Moi, 1910-2006
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership