Letters from Grandpa: Dr Chiang Hai Ding – The Constants in Life

Dr Chiang Hai Ding, 69, has two grandsons, Alessandro and Nicolo’, aged five and three, who live in Hong Kong. Dr Chiang was born in Malaysia. He has had a varied career in Singapore: as an academic historian, an elected Member of Parliament and an Ambassador of Singapore, and as a Citibanker and Economic Adviser in Neptune Orient Lines. At 60 years he studied Gerontology by distance education.  He is currently a Consultant at the Centre For Seniors.


Dear Alessandro and Nicolo’,010-Chiang-Hai-Ding275

You belong to the 23rd generation of the Chiang family. In this letter I shall tell you something about MY grandfather and also about YOUR grandfather, (that’s me!)

MY GRANDFATHER was born in Hainan Island in 1878. He was the first in his family to leave China, in 1910, when he came to Southeast Asia to work. Though a school teacher in China, he worked as a labourer in the Dutch East Indies, which later became the independent Republic of Indonesia after World War II. He eventually settled in the Malay Peninsula, then under British rule. He sent his son, who was my father, to an English-language Catholic school. In turn, that son, my father, sent all his seven children to English-language schools. His children have since settled in four countries, so you have cousins in Singapore and Malaysia, Australia and Canada.

I remember my grandfather as a happy old man who gave me my first lessons in Chinese, in the Hainanese dialect! When I brought my sons to visit him in Malaysia, he gave them ten cents for every Chinese character that they could write for him on his blackboard! Remember, he had been a school-teacher in China!

YOUR GRANDFATHER (that is, me!) belongs to the 21st generation of the Chiang family, which is the first generation to be born in Southeast Asia. I left Muar in the then Malaya for Singapore in 1955 to study at the university. I continued with my studies in Australia and returned to teach History in the university in 1963. Singapore became part of the new “Malaysia” in that year but left it to become an independent republic in 1965.

I sent your uncles Peter and Steven, and your Daddy (Andrew) to a Chinese-language kindergarten and school in Singapore, so that they could speak the language better than I did. When I stood for elections and was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1970, I had to give speeches also in Chinese, which was always a challenge.  Your uncles and Daddy would listen to me practise my Chinese speeches and roll on the floor in laughter. They did not continue with Chinese-language schooling because I was sent abroad to represent Singapore and they went, like your youngest uncle Joon Arn, to English-language international schools.

I am glad that, in addition to English, you both also speak fluent Italian, thanks to your Mummy being Italian. So you can speak with your Italian “nonno” and “nonna” (grandparents).

By the time you were born in Hong Kong, it had reverted from British rule to China. Your Daddy’s work takes him to the great economic powers in Asia; China and India. The European Union has grown from the six member-countries (including Italy), when I was in Brusssels, to 27 today. ASEAN began with five member-countries, but today it includes all 10 Southeast Asian countries.

There were many changes during my grandfather and your grandfather’s time!

There were many changes in the political scene and in our lifestyles. And we expect these changes to continue.

But remember, there are also constants to life!   A good education provides a good start in life. Life-long learning is a necessity. Knowing your roots helps. Knowing that you have the unconditional love of your family gives you the confidence to face the changes and challenges ahead of you.

I send all my love,


This letter is republished with permission from the National Library Board. Letters From Grandma and Grandpa (2008) is an initiative to create opportunities for youth and seniors to strengthen ties, enhance understanding and appreciate each other. Singapore grandpas and grandmas share their stories from the past, their hopes for the future, their love from their hearts, and their values for the soul. The letters capture their thoughts and feelings on important values, such as family and heritage, respect for the elders, generosity, love, courage and responsibility.

First published on 14-02-2011.


Categories: Letters from Grandpa

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