Monday, April 23, 2018
News Roundup

Seng-Huat Tan: On minimum wage, he put three children through college

TAMPA — Seng-Huat Tan gave up everything so his children could achieve.

He gave up his rubber plantation. He left behind the mother he adored to move to the United States.

After getting here, he could not find work.

So Mr. Tan left his wife and three children in St. Charles, Ill.

He washed dishes 2,000 miles away, in San Francisco, ate instant noodles and sent most of his earnings to his family. He came home a year later and got a job as a hospital maintenance man. Despite working minimum wage jobs most of his life, he put all three children through college.

Mr. Tan died Saturday in St. Joseph's Hospital, the result of renal failure and other health problems. He was 74 and had lived in Tampa since 2004. He was a quiet man who charmed others.

"His smile is like a language, his smile says a thousand words," said Eng-Suan Tan, his daughter. "He smiles when he is sad because he doesn't want to show it. He smiles when he's angry because he doesn't want them to know how their actions affect him. But behind each smile is the language he meant to say."

Mr. Tan was born in Penang, Malaysia, the son of a businessman of Chinese ancestry. Besides his native Malaysian, he learned to speak fluent English in school and Chinese at home.

Then his father died while Mr. Tan was still a child. His father had willed a rubber plantation in Burma to Mr. Tan, his eldest son.

But legally, he was too young to claim it. Meanwhile, the farm's caretakers were cutting the family out of any profits, said Eng-Suan Tan, 43.

Mr. Tan repaired sewing machines to support his mother and siblings. One bright spot: a little pocket change for pork jerky and deep-fried sweet potato balls. "He said there were so many street vendors, you could walk around with $5 in your pocket and eat all day," his daughter said.

After coming of age he moved to Rangoon, Burma, to claim his share of the farm. He learned Burmese and its different alphabet by reading the newspaper.

Mr. Tan had an extended stepfamily in Burma due to his late father's multiple wives — something his daughter said was "quite common back then." These family members and his mother arranged Mr. Tan's marriage to Choon-Kooi Aw.

She didn't like him at first. "But he flashed that big smile, and of course everybody melts," his daughter said.

But Burma, with its weak economy and oppressive military control, did not present the kind of opportunity Mr. Tan wanted for his children. So in 1981, with the help of relatives already living in Illinois, he sent his family to St. Charles, near Chicago.

He joined them 18 months later, in the middle of a recession. He could not find a job. A relative living in San Francisco's Chinatown found a job for him there.

He washed dishes and worked at a nightclub. A year later, he got a hospital job in St. Charles and could rejoin his family. He worked in maintenance, in the cafeteria and as a cashier. He skipped lunch.

"Every job in his life in the U.S. was minimum wage," his daughter said, "yet I am amazed how much he saved up to help us all out when we needed money."

Even free time hardly amounted to leisure. Mr. Tan had earned black belts in judo and aikido, and read the Bible four times, cover to cover. A really good time meant preparing a "big feast" for relatives of fish soup, dim sum and his favorite dish, roast duck,

With the downturn of his health several years ago, including asthma and kidney failure, some hopes remained unfulfilled. Mr. Tan had never returned to southeast Asia. He had a brother in Thailand, and he wanted to visit his mother's grave and pay his respects.

Those things never happened. But his children have college educations and careers. Their children appear to be headed down similar paths, his daughter said.

"He wanted me to try," she said, "always try for something a little bit harder."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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