updated 15 Aug 2013, 04:04
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Tue, Aug 13, 2013
The Straits Times
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Won over by his diligence
by Lea Wee

When Mr Chen Ben Zhong came to Singapore from Quanzhou in Fujian province in 1994, marriage was the last thing on his mind. The 39-year-old recalls: "I was only 20. I wanted to see the world while I was still young."

Three years later, he met his future wife: Singaporean Isabelle Lim was working in the same electronics company here.

His mechanical engineering degree from Huaqiao University in Quanzhou was not recognised here, so he worked as a technician in the production department. Ms Lim, now 38, was an assistant in the engineering department.

Whenever there were problems with the production line, she had to make a trip to his department. This happened about three times a week.

Asked about her first impression of Mr Chen, she says he was "pretty ordinary, not much different from the other technicians".

But unlike his peers, who would do only what they were told, she noticed that Mr Chen would often take the initiative to find out more. "If there was something wrong with a piece of machinery, he would try to solve the problem. He was also very hardworking," she says.

The couple got to know each other better when they went out with other colleagues about once a week to eat, shop, bowl or watch movies.

She continued to join these outings after she left the company about five months later for a higher-paying job.

One day, in December 1997, Mr Chen took her out alone for a movie and asked if she would be his girlfriend.

It took him a while to pluck up his courage, he says. "I felt that Singaporean girls wouldn't be interested in men from China. I often read in the newspapers that they would go for men with the five Cs." The five Cs stand for cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership.

Ms Lim, who holds a diploma in electronics and, later, a degree in information systems from the Singapore Institute of Management, was earning "a bit more" than him at that time.

But after getting to know her better, he realised that she was not a materialistic person. "She doesn't need to have her meals at expensive restaurants or her clothes to be from expensive brands. I find her to be a simple and sincere person."

He also likes that he can communicate with her in Hokkien, as she grew up speaking Hokkien and Mandarin.

Her grandparents were from Fujian province.

Ms Lim recalls being pleasantly surprised when Mr Chen asked her to be his girlfriend. It was the first relationship for both parties.

She agreed as the attraction was mutual. "I did not mind that he was earning less than me or that his university degree was not recognised here," she says. "What was more important to me was that he was hardworking and willing to do something to improve his lot in life."

He went on to study English and earned a diploma in information technology by studying part-time. Now an associate engineer at an electronics company, he earns "slightly more" than Ms Lim, who is a technical specialist at another electronics company.

She also admires his devotion to his family in China.

"He would give a large part of his salary to them. He built a four-storey house for his parents so that they could stay on the top floor and earn a regular income by renting out the rest of the house," she says. "He also helped his younger brother rebuild his family house in China."

But while Mr Chen's parents had no objections to their relationship, Ms Lim's parents had some reservations initially. Mr Chen was then a non-resident and they were concerned that he would not stay long.

In 2004, after three failed attempts, Mr Chen's application for permanent resident status was finally approved.

Ms Lim, the second of three children, says: "I was so happy. If he did not get his PR by then, I was thinking I might have to go to China to get married and live there."

She was worried about leaving her parents behind and also wondered if she would be able to find work and adapt to life there.

The couple registered their marriage in 2005 and bought a five-room HDB flat in Jurong West. They threw two wedding banquets in 2008, in Quanzhou and Singapore.

They have a son aged 41/2 and a daughter who is turning two in October.

To ensure that his children stay rooted in the Chinese language and culture, he speaks Mandarin to them.

He also takes them to visit his parents in China at least once a year.

His two children are Singaporeans and Mr Chen, who is president of the Singapore Chin Kang Huay Kuan's youth group, hopes he can one day become one too.

"My wife and children are here. This is where home is," he says.

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