The blind masseur of Tanglin Halt
When he lost his sight at 33, Tan Chiew Song thought his life was over. Now he trains the visually impaired so they too can have a chance at independence.
A simple sneeze.
That’s all it took to change forever the life of blind masseur, Tan Chiew Song. With just a sneeze, his view of the world, literally changed in an instant.
To this day, the best ophthalmologists in Singapore aren’t exactly sure what happened to cause Song – who had perfect vision till he was 33 years old – to start losing his sight, other than that it was a bacterial infection of both sets of optic nerves.
Recently, on a late cool afternoon, sitting on the massage bed in his small studio at the back of a hairdressing salon in Commonwealth’s Tanglin Halt Road, he remembered that wet August afternoon in 1994. He was driving through a light rain from the Yishun HQ of the aluminium and glass factory where he was the supervisor to a job site in Woodlands. “For a few days, I’d been having headaches and fever.”
His nose itched and he sneezed. And just like that, his vision blurred over.
Pulling over to the side of the road, he stepped out of the car to wash his eyes in the rain, but the blurriness continued. Despite consulting a battery of doctors and eye-specialists, within the month, his eyesight had deteriorated to the point where he saw only opaque shapes and shadows. He never saw clearly again.
What followed was a storyline with a cinematic arc. You know the one.
Endless medical appointments accompanied by the faithful handmaidens of Fear and Stress.
Prayers demanding: “Why me?”
Dashed hopes with each scan and test results.
Financial worries for his then three- and seven-year-old sons and seamstress wife.
He flew to Chengdu to consult acupuncturists and came back helplessly disappointed.
A LIFE-CHANGING JOURNEY TO THAILAND
Eventually, Song was certified as blind by the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH). Its head of department suggested he go to Bangkok to learn massage – one of the few viable careers available to the visually handicapped.
And so, almost a year to the day of that fateful sneeze, he arrived at the Thailand Caulfield Foundation for the Blind, a charitable institution supported by the Thai queen, for its six-month course in traditional Thai acupressure massage.
Even then, in his heart of hearts, Song never really believed that this was his lot in life. It just couldn’t be. The doctors said his optic cones and rods were still intact – surely, his vision would return? But after he gave his first professional massage back at the SAVH in Singapore, he cried.
“It took me three years to adjust to my situation, and to accept my blindness,” he said.
As it turned out, the man had an innate gift for the art of massage. A friend, bedridden for days with bodily pain, stood up after a rub-down by Song. Other friends were astonished at his progress. Encouraged, he convinced a senior massage therapist in the community to give him special training in tui-na.
One ache-free customer at a time, his confidence grew. By the end of 1998, he’d gathered his courage and rented his current Tanglin Halt studio.
The phone has not stopped ringing since.
“Blind masseurs have a more sensitive touch,” Song told CNA Lifestyle. “We have a better sense for where the problem areas are.”
NEVER SAY DIE
The demographics of his clients – ranging in age from six to 90 – are spectacularly varied. Every day, CEOs, advertising and media mavens, tai-tais, architects and, memorably, an English peer, stream through the door or book house-calls.
As a one-man show, he takes his own appointments, sometimes in the middle of a massage – the handphone in the crook of his neck as he chats in English, Hokkien, Cantonese or Mandarin – while his extraordinarily sensitive fingers continue to zero in on errant knots.
Nobody minds, they’re all so blissed out. He writes nothing down, neither phone number nor date; everything is committed to a memory he has developed to a formidable degree.
Sharing the studio in the adjoining partition, separated by a sliding glass door, is another visually impaired masseur, Grace Ng – a former life insurance agent who developed retinisis pigmentosa, a condition that destroys the optic cones and rods, and whom Song trained. Though Song’s clientele is democratically unisex, those who prefer a female masseur will book Grace.
For the small, tightly-knit Tanglin Halt community, she and Song are both beloved and familiar sights as they wander the five-foot ways to shops and cafes on various errands between appointments. Shopkeepers call out fondly and, in kind, they’re acknowledged by name and gentle smiles.
Which is not to say that their lives are easy. But after all these years, they’ve achieved a peace with themselves and their condition. Not for the sad script in which they are helpless victims.
“You just have to accept things and move on,” said Song, as he got up to prepare for his next customer.
In the end, life has turned out just fine. Business is good. He still trains other blind students. He is, at 57, in excellent physical condition. His eldest son is in the air force, whilst the younger one is in the army. “You need to think about how you want to live your life independently, and plan for the future. As long as I can make a living, I do my best for society.”
At his side, Grace nodded. “He’s indomitable, with this never-say-die attitude,” she said with a beatific smile. “I’ve learned a lot from Song.”
So could we.
Song & Grace – The Visually Impaired Massage, Block 48, #01-331 Tanglin Halt Road. Tel: 6476 7350, 9798 9363 (Song), 9180 0056 (Grace).