|To my sisters-in-law, Lynn Hawkins & Rosita Barlic, who were there as well, and to whom Escape from Paradise is dedicated.
Our thanks go to our friends, who have taken the time to read our book, and give us their advice. Mark Weiss, our lawyer, who checked the legal points, and turned out to be a master of punctuationespecially when it came to the placement of dashes. Mark’s wife, Shari, provided a woman’s point of view, gave suggestions on content, and helped us realize that this is largely a woman’s book, even though the intrigue and political background take place in a man’s world. Farley Weiss, our intellectual property lawyer, helped us through the maze of copyright law and permissions. Stefano Harding brought the photographs to life, and designed the book and its cover to his rigorous standards and elegant style. Stacey Wright of Eureka Cartography took great pains to produce a customized map of Southeast Asia and Australia to highlight the locations in the book. Finally, we are grateful to Francis T. Seow, the former Solicitor General of Singapore, for his invaluable advice and editorial comments.
Singaporeans are tattletales. It’s a police-state thing. The rulers of Singapore are much too bright to have a traditional old-fashioned goose-stepping police state. Instead of tanks in the streets, we have a sophisticated, modern government, who gets the job done working behind the external face of benevolenceno tanks needed.
Whenever one of us spots another one of us diverging from the accepted norm, our natural bent is to inform the proper authority of the transgression. In simple terms, we love to make police reports over anythinga grievance with a neighbor, failure to flush a public toilet (you get fined for that), or even an unclean stretch of sidewalk is enough.
May Chu at 18
Interviewing the renowned architect, I. M. Pei
Escape from Paradise
Click to see inside the book!
“It is a remarkable story and so full of
May Chu Harding, nee Lee, was born in Singapore. At the age of 18, she founded and published two professional trade magazines, Development and Construction, and Banking and Financial Review.
May Chu wrote the editorials and lead articles for both magazines, including her famous interview with I. M. Pei.
May Chu is the great-granddaughter of Aw Boon Par, one of the "Tiger Balm Kings" who, with his brother, developed Tiger Balm and founded Chung Khiaw Bank with branches throughout Singapore and Malaysia, and the Sing Tao Group, publishing newspapers in Asia, Australia, the United States, and Canada.
May Chu’s native language is English, but she is also fluent in four Chinese dialects and Malay.
Her family’s palatial estates, Hong Kong’s Tiger Balm Gardens, and Singapore’s Haw Par Villa, have become major tourist attractions.
Prior to devoting himself to publishing and writing as a published author, John, was Vice President of Computer Operations for Citibank Singapore, where he created the largest financial data center in Asia providing credit card and banking services worldwide. Before that John served as Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Singapore's Inland Revenue department, where he was in charge of computer operations.
John has held the academic positions of University Professor at Pratt Institute of Technology, Graduate School of Engineering (New York, NY), King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (Dhahran Saudi Arabia) & John Cabot University (Rome, Italy).
John worked as a consultant to the United Nations Secretariat, New York, NY. He also served as a United Nations Expert for the United Nations Development Program in Kingston Jamaica where he set up the first computer center for the Government of Jamaica.
Other companies for which John has worked include Saudi Aramco (Dhahran, Saudi Arabia), Westinghouse (Milan, Italy), and Rockwell International (El Segundo, California).
John has a BA in Mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and has done graduate work at the Universitá degli Studi di Roma (Rome, Italy).
Reviews from Amazon
USA & UK sites
Ang Kheng Yeong
Great entertaining read!, April 30, 2013
The insider scoop of one of the influential families in Singapore back in the 30s ~ 70s. I wish May Choo and John Harding many wonderful years ahead.
I should have read this earlier! June 3, 2012
This is an eye opener and a must read book. May Chu's story although it is a true story somehow it has the effects of a fictional story all because of the fascinating details, her background and all the colorful characters in her books from family members, lawyers, judges and the events that she had gone through in Singapore. Her true story is unbelievable to the extent that it could be passed off as fictional story!
The writers have reflected perfectly the plight of women who often mistreated by their husbands in Singapore and to have the injustice handed to them by the system that was supposed to protect them. The facts that these women often left helpless with children to care for while fighting uphill divorce battles with little if not at all any support from the system that they have gone to in order to seek help in the first place. All these have been courageously described and revealed through her story. Bravo!
Joven Chiew S. H.
The single best book I have read so far!, April 12, 2012
Yes, it is really that good. This book is full of real life amazing stories. If you have heard about Tiger Balm, find out more about the Aw family stories here. The book is full of humor too which make it not boring and reading it was like having May Chu sitting next to me telling her life stories after a good dinner. Another good thing is, the stories are not predictable unlike drama you watch on TV. Life itself is unpredictable. It also shows that the world do not operate the same way we think even more so from a tycoon family.
It is THE book I would suggest anyone from any walk of life to read it regardless where you live or your ethnic group. I finished reading this book in 2-3 days, I cannot put it down and if not because I need the light off so my family can sleep I am sure I can finish it in 1 day.
Loves To Read
Great Book, November 5, 2011
I know the owner, she is honest as the day is long. I loved this book and gave it to friends to read.
A. LIM "out of paradise"
A cruelly honest personal account March 29, 2010
On one of my visits to Singapore, I started reading this book just before I had to be admitted into the hospital for an emergency surgery. This book was so hard to put down that in my weakest moments after the surgery, I was so deeply engaged in the book to want to finish reading to the end. I finally finished reading it before my one-week's stay at the hospital in Singapore. A few of my visitors advised me to put this book away because it was banned in Singapore. I highly recommend every Singaporean who aspires to know the truth to read this book. Once you start reading it, be prepared that it will be so hard to put down.
Movie Please!??? June 26, 2007
I read this book. I could not put it down even for a minute.
This book is a must-read for everyone and college students, who will learn what the real world of intrigue and situations where people have the control and those who don't, but find ways of "thinking out of the box".
Read this book, because one learn so much from it.
I wish a Movie can be made out of it. It breaks away from the type-casting...
Teng Kie Zin
Amongst the best books I have read. April 27, 2006
Strangely, I understand why there aren't many reviews posted here, especially by Singaporeans. For fear of being on the wrong side with the government I presume.
A most daring truthful book that confirms long held suspicion. Most facts can be independently verified. In fact I chanced upon this book while researching about the Singapore legal system and how our chief justice is appointed by the president on the advice of the Prime Minister. Charming.
I love this book, completed it in a day!
E. Ang "ea82"
Escape from Paradise May 7, 2003
It's a well written book. When I start reading it, I couldn't put the book down.
May Chu, who lives in Singapore shares her personal life, and speaks about her experience with the legal system in Singapore. John, her now husband helped her through all this ordeal. If this review doesn't help. Check their website out ... I highly recommend it to everyone. Especially to woman who's interested to learn more about woman rights.
ÂAmazon review, WL Soul (Singapore), June 8, 2005
Brilliant Book! Just can't stop reading!
I am recent fan of your book and I must say it is probably the best non-fiction book that I have read in a long time! Ironically I came across your book a few years ago at a MPH bookstore and considered buying it. By the time I found out the significance of the contents, it was too late, the book was banned. Your book has revealed a lot to me about the human behaviour and how degenerate it can get. Not even our government can escape from the lure of unlimited power and greed.
Being Singaporean myself and brainwashed by the government for the most part of it, reading the book is a revelation for me! I was so moved by the book that I decided to write a review to Amazon on your book and here I am reproducing it for you "I have just finished reading the book spending almost 10 hours with a few breaks in between, I actually have to tear myself from the computer screen (I got the e-book version) just to get some rest. It is simply the best non-fiction book I have read in a long time! Reading this book is like watching a TV drama of epic proportions unravelling before you. The Hardings should consider making this into a TV series! The writing style is easy to read and full of vivid details, I find myself fully immersed in the whole human drama that our heroine is experiencing. You just want to read chapter after chapter to discover what happened to the cast of characters and to add to the fact that this actually happened in Singapore is nothing short of mind boggling! This book is a required read for all Singaporeans! As a Singaporean reading it, I felt outraged, entertained and most of all enlightened!"
I sincerely wish the best for the both of you and please keep on informing the rest of the Singaporeans and to the World what being a Singaporean is really like!
Words of Praise for Escape from Paradise
“It took me two and a half evenings to complete your un-put-downable book. It does speak volumes for you and John....the characters you depict became three-dimensional. A moving memoir that only a woman could have written, it is a unique contribution to the appreciation of a life in Singapore. Thank you for having written it.”
C. V. Devan Nair, former President of Singapore
“It is a remarkable story and so full of intrigue that it reads at times like fiction.”
Jonathan Burnham, Editor in Chief & President, Talk Miramax Books.
“It’s quite a story…”
The legendary Alice Mayhew, Vice-President & Editorial Director, Simon & Schuster
“It out-Dallas Dallas, save that it is grounded in historical truth and experience. No one, however, has written so well of the other side of paradise ... your book deserves to be widely read ...”
Francis T. Seow, former Solicitor General of Singapore
From our Readers
Escape From Paradise by John and May Chu Harding is an enthralling read. Written in May Chu's autobiographical voice, the reader is immediately transported into the coddled lives of incredible wealth and excess in this branch of the Haw Par family of the Tiger Balm ointment fame in Asia. It is the harrowing account of a beautiful woman's fairy tale beginnings gone awry, from her cosseted childhood in Singapore, to divorce proceedings and a timely escape from paradise. May Chu and John Harding show enormous courage amid distress in their harrowing breakaway against the electrifying intrigue of the Chung family conglomerate, with its deep reaches and bottomless pockets. This first person recount of an incredible experience is an eye-opener for readers who have neither been as privileged, nor encountered the lop-sided legal system in Singapore in which women's rights are trampled. This book is an exposé of the betrayal commited by its dramatis personae, their personal and business foibles publicly undressed and summarily skewered with candour and sometimes with humour. No one is spared from the authors' wry description: the controversial ex-husband and in-laws, duplicitous divorce lawyers and government officials, dysfunctional family members, and their dealings with the authors and in the business world spanning the globe are recounted with refreshing honesty, courage, and some outrage.
May Chu is a detailed observer of people and their personalities, posessed of a keen mind and a sharp wit. Her voice clearly articulates the events of her day. She has spent years preparing to write this book and it is an indictment of the frailties of her family, of the spurious source of wealth resulting from under-the-radar business practices, of the failure of the legal machinery to adequately protect the rights of Singaporean women in the divorce court. The narrative in Escape From Paradise flows seamlessly, events are described with clarity, proof is provided where possible in photographs and document excerpts, and the entire book is handily sewn together in John Harding's skillful prose. May Chu and John Harding tell the truth as they experienced it, and let the chips fall where they may.
Ivea Mark, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, September 22, 2013
It was a lovely book and a brave one, to chronicle the other side of life in Singapore. Looking forward to more of your writings.
A reader from Singapore, July 22, 2013
I don't understand why your book Escape from Paradise is banned in Singapore? The world knows about the death sentence and the chewing gum, for pete's sake. I love your no holds bar book!
SAP Free Ebooks Collection, May 11, 2011
I love your book and you should continue writing. I have recommended to some friends in Beijing since I left Singapore in 2003...I am a Hakka too and what you have said about the Chungs is accurately true...I told a friend, it is like watching "The Last Emperor (your life from a super rich family) and Joy Luck Club (your marriage life)" mixed into one, Singapore version. Make it into a movie, please!
I am a creative designer and if you need any illustration for your new projects, I will gladly do it for free. What we are doing is not for us, but for future generation, either for their enlightenment or research studies.
I am living a peaceful life in Beijing now, doing some projects with Beijing International Studies University. Unfortunately, I can't reply your message earlier as Facebook is banned in China.
A reader from China, January 27, 2011
Got May Chu's book (ordered from Amazon) when I arrived back in Melbourne and finished in 2 sittings. I have great respect for May after what she went through and for John for being there for her. Good on you John.
L. E. S. from Melbourne, January 10, 2011.
I've read your book now, and it's a gripping story. I'm glad you found the strength and support to run away. John comes across as a real knight in shining armour, and that's wonderful. Men who are decent and intelligent and interesting and capable are soooo hard to come by.
I find it incredible that someone of my own generation, living in a technologically advanced and presumably modern country like Singapore could have been treated in such a way as yourself... the attitudes surrounding you were medieval! To deny you a university education and to treat you as nothing but chattel and an ornament is preposterous, and the parental neglect of both you and your brother is appalling. It is a testament to your strength that you have made a different life for your sons.
Patricia B. , England October 28, 2010
I finished the whole book in one day... I'm still trying to digest what I read.
A reader from Malaysia, October 23, 2010
I just ordered three more copies of your book to distribute as Christmas presents
Thank you so much putting this absoloutely devastating piece of work. I was fighting hard between my work day, studies and project work just to find every concievable moment to escape into your world. I was driving down the streets and just could not stop imagining you fleeting from apartment to car with bags in tow...ahahah brilliant simply brilliant.
Thank you for letting me escape the SINGAPORE you contextualised so well...it comes at a tipping point in my life. A reader from Singapore, August 25, 2010
I read the beginning of your book and absolutely fell in love with it. I read it till mid night and dreamed about it so when I woke up, I felt like I haven't stopped reading it. I share some of it with my mom who said she would like to flip a few pages to see what it's all about and now, she said she couldn't let the book down ;-) so I guess I will be finishing the book after my mother.
T. T. Wisconsin, USA, April 28, 2010
Dear Mr. Harding,
Read ‘Escape from Paradise’ in a week and I simply love the story! It really inspired me to seek the illusive ‘paradise’ everyone looks for in Singapore but unable to find. My regards to you and your wife for the courage to tell the truth. Hopefully soon I too can escape from the false paradise that I was forced to believe!
Singapore, September 15, 2009
My wife finished your book (2 days) loved it.
Norman G., San Diego (July 14, 2009)
I enjoyed tremendously (reading more than 3 times) "Escape from Paradise" In our former solicitor general Francis Seow's words - an unstoppable reading and beats "Dallas."
It's the most interesting book I've ever read, because the characters were so REAL, and having grown up in good old Singapore during the 50's much of what is in the book, places and people, brings vivid memories to me. It's so nostalgic.
I'm amazed that May Chu had the courage, which sadly most people lack, to write the way she did. It's a biography. And a great lesson to all of us - that wealth is meaningless - that authority is a sham - that what they say are just an eyewash to what they actually do.
How I wish more writers would write like her! My special tribute to May Chu and John Harding.
Raymond W., April 25, 2009
I read your book 6 years ago - borrrowed it from the NLB [Singapore's National Library]. I think i was the last one to return before they froze all loans on the book and was very impressed with the quality of the writing, as well as the light that it shone on the collusion between the politically connected and the rich in Singapore.
N. G. P. from Singapore, April 3, 2009.
I bought the book, Escape from Paradise from U.S.
It is really a "can't put it down" book. Owing to my schedule, I finished it in 3 days and read through till morning 4:00am for those 3 days.
All the incidents are close to my heart. Companies like Chungco, Rodyk and Davidson, and several others which I have some interactions with.
The worst is Amanah Tan, the author's divorce lawyer.
She was touted as a activist for the rights of women but her ethics as a divorce lawyer swing the other way.
A reader from Singapore, January 21, 2009
Go buy that Book "Escape from Paradise" - I read it in 24 hours.
A reader from Singapore, January 20, 2009
Finished book in two sittings. I have finished reading your very readable and enjoyable book, Escape from Paradise, after two sittings, about ten minutes ago.
My! It was a very good read --- replete with drama, suspense and intrigues; so interesting and riveting was it I was tempted to finish reading it in one sitting. Ah! But as I am a man of moderation and discipline and as I had urgent stuff to attend to, I had to put it off until today. I read it with a great sense of personal enrichment.
Lawrence L. , Oct. 24, 2008, Kelowna, B.C., Canada
Commendation on a well-written book
After hearing about your book for some time, I finally ordered it from Amazon and read it.
I must tell you that I think you have done a terrific job with the book. It should rightly stand as a respected literary work by a true blue born and bred Singaporean author (albeit co-authored by an American, but still). I have no doubt that May Chu should have been proudly recognised, and possessively lauded, as a Singaporean talent for her refreshing, enlightening and astute insights and viewpoints. But as they say, the truth hurts, even more so for thin skinned Singaporeans!
It is sad for me (one who loves Singapore) that our regime stifles books like yours, which would have done much to help develop a truely Singaporean culture and sense of identity and with that, the all-important sense of destiny. (As it stands, the average Singaporean tends to "go with the flow" - and we wonder why ...)
Well there are lots to say, which has probably been said in so many different ways, about how things should and should not be in Singapore. But that is not the purpose of this email.
The purpose of this email to commend you, the authors for a well written book it is an excellent job done. As a Singaporean I strongly identified with your book because it was so real to me. Never have I felt that level of connection with any other book. I was rivetted from the start to the finish. Your book held my attention captive and for me it falls into the category of books which are "unputdownable". I will be telling my friends to buy your book.
I imagine that you both might have entertained doubts during the long hours of drafting and drawing up, researching and putting together each chapter of the book, but let me tell your efforts are well appreciated at least by me and I'm so glad the book was written and the slice of Singaporean life and lifestyle, recorded.
I note that your book was published in 2001. So with this fan-mail it will be noted that 7 years after its publication, and despite attempts to ban its distribution in Singapore, you are still getting commendation from Singapore for your book.
I wish you both well.
Jeannette C. , September 13, 2008, Singapore
A wonderful wonderful book
Hi May Chu and John
I received your book in the mail yesterday and I finished it in a day
It was a wonderful wonderful book.
Thank you for writing it.
Can I ask if you are writing another book about your family. I couldn't get enough of your first book. Can you please write another few books about you and your family life and I would not hesitate to buy all of them.
Your life was really fascinating and teaches younger adults like me a lot about marriage and life in Singapore.
Please let me know when you will be introducing your next book about your family.
Your loyal reader,
Li, August 19, 2008
If you could, buy their book. I had a copy, finished it within a week and I simply could not put it down.
A reader from Singapore, June 12, 2008
Dear May Chu and John:
I have perhaps read the book at least 5 times. It is a very gripping story and leaves me rooting for you and feeling really happy that you managed to score a victory and leave all the bad memories behind.
What fascinated me too were the stories about the past and I really enjoyed the pictures. Would you be putting any pictures up on the website? Old pictures of the yesteryears and so on?
Thank you once again for the fantastic book. Will there be a sequel?
Elodie, August 19, 2006
I hope you win big against her [Helen Yeo], whether in US or Singapore.
It is obvious that she has is guilty of something, for interfering in the exercise of your freedom of expression, when nothing is mentioned about her in the book.
If your story is made into a movie like Joy Luck Club, it could net millions in the opening season. Da Vinci Code has made close to 15 million already. Titanic made 45 million !
Your story definitely has entertaining and historical value ! When a great grand daughter of a famous tycoon of S-E Asia like Aw Boon Par/Haw has a story of intrigue and human passion, movie goers will want to know about it! Your movie will have audience in China, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, where the setting is not to say the millions of audience in the English speaking world !
She [Helen Yeo] must be made to realize that she is robbing someone's livelihood! The nerve of her!
A reader from Singapore, June 10, 2006
The Exposure of Human Greed & Deceit
A book worth reading. It exposes people who live in high places and will do anything to deceive, scheme, cheat and lie for their own benefit.
Barnes & Noble review, CC Mohan, a retired social worker, October 10, 2005
I am very impressed by the unique size and high quality of your book Escape from Paradise, (having of course read and enjoyed it tremendously).
ÂPenny Trump, September 22, 2005
Did not stop until I have finished reading the entire book
Less than USD 9.00 for the ebook. After converting it to Mobipocket format for my symbian phone, I literally did not stop until I have finished reading the entire book. That good ah?
Well, for some insights to the high society and how the country operates here yes, but that is about it. Most of us probably would not qualify to be in the same league as May Chu, and thank goodness would not experience the same kind of nightmares that she did. The way she describes her husband is like watching "The Terminator," relentless and just won't go away.
A good yarn. Ironically it makes you feel good to be a common plebian.
ÂStraydog Scraps blog June 14, 2005
When I wasn't sleeping I was reading it and just could not put it down! It is an absolutely incredible story!
Stella Kousemaker, The Netherlands, May 21, 2005
Just managed to finish reading "Escape from Paradise". Basically a sad story of how a young lady got herself involved with a powerful family who eventually left her stranded with 2 kids
It is a MUST read! i was engrossed straight from chapter one, even sacrificed some sleep! True or not servant dunno, but the stories are really captivating, sad. Shows the true side of Chinese peoples' preoccupation with money
The fiery lady is Ms May Chu, great grand daughter of the famous Aw Boon Par (Tiger Balm Fame)
Inadvertently in her account of how her parents' twin bugalows were disposed off, she brought bad light on the Singapore legal system, including Judges and all. Ms Helen Yeo (wife of Minister Yeo Cheow Tong) was mentioned. They threatened to sue and also stopped the sale of this book in Singapore?
...In my humble opinion, it is great stuff, suitable even for a mini-series from Hollywood as it is too long for a standard movie. It's got all the makings of a classic! Conspiracy, money laundering, family quarrels, jeolousy, hate, love, divorce, death, legal matters, CIA, Prince Jeffry of Brunei, Tax evasion, disinheritance and most of all a woman scorned!
A reader from Singapore, May 13, 2005
I have just finished reading the book; spending almost 10 hours with a few breaks in between, I actually have to tear myself from the computer screen (I got the e-book version) just to get some rest. It is simply the best non-fiction book I have read in a long time! Reading this book is like watching a TV drama of epic proportions unravelling before you. The Hardings should consider making this into a TV series!
"The writing style is easy to read and full of vivid details, I find myself fully immersed in the whole human drama that our heroine is experiencing. You just want to read chapter after chapter to discover what happened to the cast of characters and to add to the fact that this actually happened in Singapore is nothing short of mind boggling! This book is a required read for all Singaporeans! As a Singaporean reading it, I felt outraged, entertained and most of all enlightened!
A well written book - I couldn't put the book down after I started reading it.
May Chu, the great grand daughter of the Tiger Balm King described her childhood life and her marriage life. Her experience with the traditional Chinese family and the legal system in Singapore. I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially women who are interested to learn more about woman's rights.
NJK from Denmark, March 2005
I came across your book and would like to express my thanks for providing young folks like me a glimpse on my country's "untold" history.
A reader from Singapore, Feb 26, 2005
This book is a really good read, unputdownable.
A reader from Singapore, Dec 13, 2004.
I have finished your book. It was wonderful! You should have mentioned the name of the wonderful lawyer who assisted you. It would be justice done to him instead of injustice. People may want to use him and it would have been a blessing to him. Now you know why everyone wants to leave Singapore?
A reader from Singapore, Oct. 4, 2004.
Very very interesting...captivating, actually. Hoping to read another book by you and May Chu... maybe a sequel or something saucy about the Rangoon dress shop! I am sure Helen Yeo will be thrilled to read about the dress shop! Will she threaten to sue again? Wonder if the husband will survive the next elections?
A reader from Singapore, May 25, 2004.
Great, I really enjoyed your book best wishes on the updated version so much is still out there, I hope you can connect all the dots.
Scott Barnes, the CIA operative, author of Bohica, from whose Senate testimony we learned so much about the CIA's Dan Arnold for our book, May 24, 2004.
I want to know do you have any Chinese version of Escape from Paradise? Chinese version. I have friends who can only read chinese and they want a chinese version. Do you have it? If you do, please let me know and i want to purchase it. I need about 10 books for those uncle and aunties to read about Singapore.
A reader from Singapore, May 22, 2004.
The book you co-authored with your wife is interesting reading! ...Can't put it down once you start on the pages! I heard about Escape from Paradise sometime in December last year, only got the chance to read it recently....
A reader from Brunei, February 6, 2004.
Try this for some THRILLING and MIND-BOGGLING SENSATIONAL READ.
A reader from Brunei, February 1, 2004.
Have just finished your book, a great read! I couldn't put it down. I used to live opposite 69 Holland Road and often wondered what was going on with those houses. Now I know. Keep up the good work and best of luck with your future endeavours."
A reader from Singapore, Aug. 14, 2003.
I came across the promotion of your book on the site Creative Writers. I thought what the hey, I'll buy it. I must say that it was an incredibly good book. I couldn't put it down.
Shannon Brouwer, Nov. 25, 2003.
My parents were in town last week and guess what - we talked about the book. My dad's read it and my mom read it halfway, until the part with Lam San's death and she broke down and couldn't read it anymore.
A reader from San Francisco, Nov. 20, 2003.
I got the book from Amazon, and immediately got interested from the opening pages and could not start sleeping, then in a matter of few days, finished reading the book. I got fascinated with the stories, because of too many reasons. I could feel Singapore, Tiger Balm families, May Chu, Hin Chew, John, Shangrila Hotel and etc., etc. interested me too much. I feel I understand the reason you cannot find the book in Singapore.
A reader from Singapore, Nov. 17, 2003.
Interesting. I read the summary on Amazon. How much of the book is about X10 and their business practices? Is that what all the documents and tape recordings are about? Or does it focus primarily on the Tiger Balm company? I've never been able to find too much information on X10, because they are pretty secretive, so I've never known how successful they were. Do you have any idea?
T. D., Eastside business reporter, The Seattle Times , October 23, 2003
I read your book Escape from Paradise, and I enjoyed it tremendously. Hope you and May Chu are well and have a great life! This Hin Chew is a despicable bastard, isn't he?
Mensa member, Oct. 22, 2003.
Hello May Chu, Regretfully, I have finished your book. I say regretfully, because I was enjoying it so much, I didn't want it to end! It is wonderful!
It is a world most Americans know nothing about, especially in this modern age where women have equal rights. It's incredible, the attorneys you went through, and still got no justice. I've always believed that eventually justice will prevail, but I see now that's a PollyAnna viewpoint. Best of all, I LOVED your last sentence: "Welcome to the Chungs, United States Navy"! It makes me want the sequel!!
A reader from Los Angeles, September 10, 2003.
I am LOVING your book!! There's been a lot going on around here, so I haven't had a lot of time to read, but I grab it every chance I get. I'm about half-way through it. What a remarkable memory you have, and your descriptions bring everything to life. It's like I'm visiting these exotic places, I've always heard about, but I can see them through your eyes. And the Asian culture, what insight you've given me, through your book. American women just don't realize how good we have it! The book is fantastic, and I've told so many people about it.
The World's #1 breeder of Bengal Cats, Louisana, August 21, 2003.
I just received your book this morning. It is an amazing tale and well written. I started it this morning and have gotten about halfway thru the book by reading in between chores all day. It's been almost impossible to put it down as I can't wait to find out what happens next. It's truly an eye-opening story and I am glad you have managed to get yourself out of a horrible situation!
Retired Apple Computer Executive, California, August 20, 2003.
Your voices were actually heard when I was reading your book, it shows how personal the accounts were. I read it in one evening, just unable to put down a book that showed the ugly truth about human relations, the legal process, greed and injustice. Thanks for the wonderful experience and I hope you will continue with bringing out the truth.
Writer, Film Maker, Justin Santiago, Singapore, August 20, 2003.
$INGAPORE BESTSELLER ON AMAZON.COM STILL NUMBER #1
The book Escape From Paradise has been selected as Amazon.com's bestselling book among its $ingapore customers for the past few months. It is written by May Chu and John Harding and is about the life of a great granddaughter of the Haw Par family who founded Tiger Balm. The Book Reader had this to say of the book: "Americans have a saying: luck is a lady. And this lady and her subsequent husband have written a somber, very human tale of a woman's remarkable journey". Barnes and Noble called the book "$ingapore Confidential at its best".
Escape from Paradise is still Amazon's #1 best seller for Singapore and was ranked at 7,824 overall on July 24, 2003 by Amazon, which was ahead of books by Lee Kuan Yew.
Big O Magazine, July 24, 2003
I came across your book "Escape from Paradise" while I was doing a bit of research on the Boon Haw and Boon Par brothers, a very interesting book indeed. Well done. Your book makes me more intrigued in the history of yours and the Aw family.
S. S., Singapore, December 17, 2002.
Ignore the book's sensational title, tepid reviewer excerpts, photograph of the heavily made-up protagonist on the cover and (worst of all) flat prose. What emerges is a detailed, vivid portrait of a stratum of society unknown to most Singaporeans, but where much of the country's economic and social power reside. As a descendant of the Aw family (the founders of the Tiger Balm Empire) and the Lee family (once owners of Chung Khiaw Bank), then later as daughter-in-law to the "wealthy and mysterious" Bruneian-Chinese Chung family, May Chu Harding is no stranger to obscene wealth and greed. She describes both the flamboyance and the rigid, archaic rituals of her background with the same matter-of-fact, sometimes gleeful tone. In the early chapters, story after story unfolds about almost every ancestor and relative she has (the one about Aw Boon Haw wearing tiger-striped clothes and having a tiger's head with "special high-wattage red lights" for eyes on the front of his car was one of the most hilarious ones).
The opulence and hedonism of this life is counteracted by an almost farcically patriarchal attitude. Beautiful women (including Harding's mother, whose "beauty and virginity won her a hard-earned place at the dinner table") sashay through her book competing, being used by and sometimes marrying the rich and powerful men controlling its plot.
Being aware since childhood that "[a]t the bottom of the hierarchy were the women", May Chu Harding becomes a rogue element in this oppressive system in her struggle to gain her freedom through education.
Nonetheless, her intelligence and enterprise (she starts a one-woman construction magazine in order to finance her education, and earns profits for 3 issues!) does not protect her from being propelled at the age of 21 into what will be an abusive marriage to the eldest son of the Chung family, Hin Chew.
An account of the labyrinthine plot of the Chungs' business dealings and family intrigues occupies most of the book, with the remainder dealing with subsequently her divorce from her husband and fight for sole custody and financial support. The book opens in 1984 with the detention of her husband and brother-in-law in Brunei for (according to one chapter) "ripping off royalty" - Brunei's Prince Jefri, to be precise. Conciseness is not one of the book's virtues - Harding rambles through the loss of the Chung business in Brunei and its consequences until Hin Chew's public listing of the American manufacturing company X-10, her interminable divorce proceedings, the perfidy of her various lawyers (all successfully bribed by her husband, including the "leading feminist lawyer in Singapore", Ann Tan) and her husband's schemes to leave her penniless and seize custody of their children.
Though the book chronicles Harding's escape from Singapore, in no part of the book does she explicitly oppose the rules and forces that keep her helpless. For example, she acknowledges with no resentment the fact that "[t]o make it in Singapore, you need the right schools, and, of course, the right connections. When you reach voting age, you'd better have the right politics too", worrying in a very politically-incorrect way about "hav[ing] to transfer [her elder son] Marc out of his top-rated school to a lesser one, attended by the have-nots, in one of the 'less fortunate' parts of Singapore, where most of the children are dead at birth, so far as their chances in Singapore are concerned." So it is clear what she is fighting for is any threat to her own survival in those conditions.
For people as rich as Harding's in-laws, escaping the law is for most part ridiculously easy, ranging from the welter of business laws cleverly sidestepped by the Chungs to her husband committing perjury unpunished when he tried escaping family maintenance while divorcing Harding in Singapore courts. Her inability to escape her marriage without "money, luck, planning, trickery and guerilla warfare" (such as sneaking into her husband's office to get proof of his tax evasion) makes her book is also a damning indictment of Singapore's so-called modern economic and legal structures. Moreover, no victories could have been had without her American lover's financial and legal expertise, offer of a sanctuary in America and money to bail her out whenever the cost of her battle ran too high. When in the last few pages Harding describes how Chung Hin Chew got his company X-10 listed on NASDAQ without its shady purposes being checked, one forms a very ugly picture of the brittleness of the capitalist and pseudo-democratic structures ruling the lives of millions.
Harding writes that when she was a child, "I always worked with what I had." This summarises her strategy to escape the vulnerability of her position and get the advantages she knew she needed. Little sentiment is manifested; she describes herself breaking down in tears only once.
In almost every word there is an incredibly Singaporean, occasionally abrasive pragmatism towards everything (including her eventual husband John Harding) as she analyses the maneuverings of those around her and plans her own moves to get out of her marriage with the acumen of a military strategist. However, she never forgets the ordinary routines; even at the tensest stage of the divorce procedure she is able to add a half-page explanation of how she discovered the benefits of using a dryer. Her pragmatism is mingled with the petulance of a rich tai-tai as events develop and her losses begin to loom over her. Leaving her Mount Rosie Road home becomes "a tremendous loss of face. It would have been for any Singaporean"; she worries about things like how to ".explain to [her younger son] Warren, an eleven year old, that his tennis lessons had stopped, and we could no longer go to the Tanglin Club."
Hence Escape from Paradise has a very laundry-list feel; one can sense Harding furiously scribbling down every single detail of her experiences regardless of their significance to the main narrative. As a result there are several gems among the jumble. Harding juxtaposes her tons of legalese with occasional banality and hard-hitting social comments, such as: "In Asia, money means more than just money. In Asia, money is the messenger of respect, of caring, even of love. This is something that is not well understood in the West, where money is more or less one-dimensional, and far less important or interesting."
Ironically, the astuteness and mental agility Harding displays in battling her powerful opponents throughout is exactly what Singaporean society values. In the first chapter she declares that "[her] character had been formed in the presence of my own family's exuberance, flamboyance and flaunting [sic] of convention. I learned when to choose which way to go. I was Chinese, and I was Western - it all depended what I wanted." Exactly how our government wants Singaporeans to be, was my first thought.
Escape from Paradise is an account of the main desires of Singaporeans (i.e. money, power and comfort) taken to their logical conclusions by families which have long passed the immigrant's craving for security into the insanity of Mammon. The infighting, crime and insatiable greed of the Chungs and other power players (including an ex-CIA agent and a British QC) populating the book shows that there are no longer any principles of humanity or emotional bonds taking precedence over uncontrollable self-interest. Thus this book is one more sign certain assumptions in the minds of most Singaporeans about happiness, success and what makes life worth living badly need to be questioned before there is no escape for both the poor and rich.
Teng Qian Xi, Singapore, May 25, 2002.
Just finished reading your book. Excellent read and wonderfully written. I really sympathize with May Chu. Being a Singaporean myself, now living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my wife and I are glad that we too have left the restricting confines of Singapore. Initially, my wife was a true blue Singaporean, PAP supporter (read apathetic).
After living here for three years, she has come to realize that there is more to life than following LKY's imperial edicts. We really admire your courage for writing such a piece and your courage for exposing the lop-sided judicial system. I am not surprised at all at the reactions that the book has received in Singapore. Perhaps the follow-up to Escape from Paradise would be a book that exposes the government for what they really are.
Again, wonderful piece of writing. Keep it up.
T. K. from Milwaukee, WI, April 10, 2002
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