‘The father of Tanglin Halt’: The accidental doctor who's hanging up his stethoscope after 55 years
Having worked in Tanglin Halt since 1964, Dr Chan has seen generations of patients go by, many of whom he still remembers fondly.
SINGAPORE: Wedged in between a hair salon and an interior design office, Meng’s Clinic stands like a time capsule in the middle of the busy Tanglin Halt neighbourhood.
A faded sun-bleached white and red sign hangs above the now-yellow doors. Inside, large yellowing benches frame the sides of the clinic, and a small square hole allows the receptionist to peer out at patients.
“Everything here is from (1964),” said Dr Chan Khye Meng, pointing to the furniture, the doors and the walls.
This is Dr Chan's 55th year at Tanglin Halt. Now 86 years old, and with a dwindling number of patients, he is finally ready to hang up his white coat for good.
"A DOCTOR BY ACCIDENT"
“I always say I became a doctor by accident,” said Dr Chan.
When he finished taking his O-Levels, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. At the time, his second sister was dating a dental student, whose uncle was a general practitioner in Melaka.
“Wah, he was doing a good business. I see the family every time all going on holiday (to) fly here, fly there. I said, I want to have a good life like that, you know?” he said.
So he sat for the entrance examinations and emerged as one of two students from Melaka offered a place to study medicine at the University of Malaya, which at the time was located in Singapore.
His eyes twinkled as he recalled the moment he learned that he had been accepted.
“That was the best time of my life, to get this kind of result,” he said.
After university, he worked as a doctor in both Melaka and Johor Bahru for about five years, until he was approached by two medical sales representatives. At the time, he was also looking to leave his post.
“They said, why don’t you try working in Singapore? There’s a new estate called Queenstown.
“I said, maybe a good idea, you see?” said Dr Chan.
In 1964, Dr Chan put in a tender for a clinic in Queenstown, paying S$600 a month in rental for the small space.
A TURBULENT PERIOD
In the first month of opening his clinic, Dr Chan had no patients at all.
“When I started, I’m the fourth clinic … So in the first month, I didn’t even see one patient. Can you imagine how depressing it was?
“People are not sure about me, you see? Because I was still very young and they thought I had no experience,” he said.
Although he told his father that he wanted to give up and work in Brunei instead, his father persuaded him to stay for at least another month. Things looked up in the second month, when the Tanglin Halt market opened and the area got busier.
“The first time I got my first patient, I was so happy. Just to cover the day’s rent, forget about making money,” he said.
As a new doctor, he had to work hard to build up his practice, so he held three consultation sessions a day.
“In those days, those booming days, it (was) so different. (During) the first Asian flu, I used to see about a hundred patients a day. Non-stop, no lunch. After one hundred, I said, ‘no more, cannot give (anymore queue numbers)’. I already exhausted, lah.
“But they come in by the back, you see? That time was madness. Work like mad,” he said.
Not only did Dr Chan have to contend with a heavy workload, he also had to deal with the rampant crime in the neighbourhood, especially in the early years. He remembered how many shops in the area often received extortion letters and even live bullets.
The gangsters slipped a letter under his door demanding S$30,000 - the cost of Dr Chan’s flat at the time. The extortion only stopped when Dr Chan saved the life of one of the gangsters, who had come down with a case of acute appendicitis.
Dr Chan remembers many of his patients well. In particular, one who visited Dr Chan until she died about two years ago. She had become depressed after losing her daughter to suicide.
As he spoke about her, his voice grew soft.
“Sometimes when she gets into that kind of mood, she will scold me, you know? But I know she didn’t mean it, because (in her state), it’s like that,” he said.
He added that she used to sing bhajan, or Tamil hymns, when she visited.
“She’d come inside here, she sing and she do the Indian dance. Strange,” he said, shaking his head with a smile.
Another patient he remembered vividly was a man who had passed away in his clinic from a heart attack: “He was waiting for his turn and he collapsed. So the other patient brought him into my room, I said, he’s already dead!”
While he had never seen the man before, he later learned that the man’s wife and children were regulars at his clinic.
“(I called the wife), she sent the son here. She didn’t come. (I told) the son, hey, where’s your mum? Your father died here, dead already, what your mum doing?
“That was a very unpleasant experience,” he said.
AN HONEST AND COMPASSIONATE DOCTOR
For many patients, Dr Chan has been around for so long that he has become part of the fabric of Tanglin Halt.
On a Facebook post by heritage charity My Community, there were at least 50 comments lamenting Dr Chan’s retirement. Many remembered seeing Dr Chan as a child.
Mdm Angeline Lim’s family has been seeing Dr Chan for three generations.
It started with her mother-in-law, who visited Dr Chan often before she died, followed by Mdm Lim and her husband, and after that, her sons.
“Dr Meng is very good. And he’s very friendly … For me, (we are) like a brother and sister … He’s (like) the father of Tanglin Halt,” she said.
For her son, Mr Jeremy Villenguez, it is Dr Chan’s honesty that keeps him coming back.
“He doesn’t upsell. He just tells you as it is … And that really appeals to us, that he is taking us very seriously and he’s treating us like family,” he said.
Speaking in Mandarin, a patient who identified herself only as Mdm Ye recounted Dr Chan’s kindness to his patients. She has been a patient of Dr Chan for 51 years.
“When he was younger, he would also do home visits for old folks who have difficulty moving,” she said.
She added that he had more patience than other doctors, and would listen to patients speak for as long as they wanted.
“(Some people) will consult him for half an hour. When I wait at other places, we’ll go in for just 10 minutes then get out,” she said.
Just being able to help patients is its own reward for Dr Chan.
He remembers an old lady who came from China to work as a servant, who relied on the charity of various Chinese temples to survive.
“This old lady, about 90 years old already … Sick, very sick. How to see a doctor? Cannot travel, no money. I went to see her (and) she wanted to pay me.
“You know, that time her hand already trembling. She took out the red packet, ang pow, that she had been keeping God knows for how many years until it became tattered, you know? Then pulled the money out to give to me, pay me.
“How can I accept the money? No, no way. I said, you keep for your own use. So you see, when they come to see me and say, Doctor, I have no money, I say, don’t worry, I’ll treat you,” he said.
‘MAKE USE OF MY TWILIGHT YEARS’
Dr Chan already has grand plans for his retirement. Not only will he spend the additional time pursuing his hobbies of singing and gardening, he also plans to travel more with his wife and revive the stamp collection he has been putting off for four decades.
When asked if he has any regrets, Dr Chan said he doesn't.
“But I said (to my wife), if I have a chance again, I would be a conductor rather than a doctor … I said, if I reincarnate, I want to be the conductor and you become one of the sopranos,” he said, laughing.
Reflecting on the prospect of leaving his clinic, Dr Chan sounded tired.
“Oh, I feel very sad, really. Because I’ve spent more time here than I spent at home.
“What to do? Everything have to come to an end lah. So this is just a good time as any. At 86, I must make use of whatever time I have in my twilight years to enjoy my life, because I’ve been working all these years. It’s crazy.”