Alden Boon

Swindled of Her Fortune, Ginny Low Gains Second Wind by Working for the First Time in Her Life

April 11, 2017

Singapore five decades ago is markedly different from what she is today. Rustic kampong houses dotted the streets of Bukit Merah. Gangsters with thick gold chains slung around their necks had mastery over the streets; fights were ubiquitous and common. Out of this ruggedness there was a diamond in the rough: Ginny Low. There was a hardiness in the young lady, a sort of defiance in her character. Not a typical prissy girl, Ginny spent innumerable days clambering up coconut trees, fashioning catapults out of rubber bands and stones, and making playgrounds out of drains.

Ginny’s mother ran a provision shop, and her family lived from hand to mouth. A young Ginny had always dreamt of becoming a lawyer. “Those days, women facing domestic abuse were many, and I wanted to fight for their justice and put the bad guys in jail,” said the sixty-five-year-old. Her dreams were derailed, however, as her father — who Ginny says was a chauvinist who disallowed the women around him to become superior in any way — insisted on putting her through a Chinese school. Ginny had zero proclivity for learning Mandarin, and hence her interest in studying waned. Playing hooky became a norm.

Like any teenager, the sixteen-year-old Ginny yearned to extricate herself from her circumstances and achieve a better, faraway life. Her aunt’s lavish lifestyle, where weekends were spent partying away, gained her envy. She began attending the parties with a goal of snatching a rich kid. “I was such a head-turner back then, and I had many suitors,” said Ginny, the contours of a smile forming at the returned memory. Three bachelors courted her when she was in her prime, and one of whom would be her future husband: Peter Holstad, a Norwegian who founded Viking Engineering in Singapore. “He was the gentlest soul. Peter was the kind of boss who would only have his meal after his employees had eaten. To me, he was my best friend, father and teacher.”

Peter’s work required him to be away for months on end, a sacrifice in trade for the swift success of his company. The rise of the company brought the couple much wealth, and they soon ascended to the upper echelons of society. To fit in with her peers, Ginny began crafting a persona that apes Elizabeth Taylor’s, emulating her idol’s feminine poise and style of low-cut dresses and shimmering pearls. A newly minted debutante, Ginny whiled her mornings away at the now defunct Jurong Country Club’s tennis court; weekends were chockfull with exquisite high tea sessions and riveting piano recitals at hotel lounges.

The glamour, the spoils. Ginny had everything she coveted when she was sixteen.

Ginny (second from right) mingled with Singapore's most influential elites. At the centre of the picture is Singapore's President Tony Tan's mother.
Ginny (second from right) mingled with Singapore's most influential elites. At the centre of the picture is Singapore's President Tony Tan's mother.
Down but not defeated: Swindled of her million-dollar fortune, Ginny Low gains second wind by working as a cleaner, and for the first time in her life
Having a ball of their time was a routine for Ginny and her peers.

A life of decadence  

Strip away the decorations and a Christmas tree stands tall, verdant but vacant. It becomes an unassuming object, a white elephant even. That is how Ginny, now in retrospect, describes her younger self. Every piece of jewellery she donned was like an ornament, enlivening the tree’s beauty but not enriching its life.  “There’s a certain etiquette that the rich follow, from the sitting posture to the way they hold their forks and spoons. There’s a certain decorum to adhere to, and so they play nice and mask their true feelings.”

One day, she confided in her friend about how she felt like a hollow shell. “Back then, I did not know why I felt that way, and I had no reason to: I had a husband who loved me; who provided for me. Not once in our forty years of romance did he ever raise his voice at me. I was living an enviable life, and yet I was tired of it.” Remaining reticent, Ginny’s friend would only take her by the hand, and offer to cook her favourite dish: nonya-style chicken thigh. That was the end of the conversation.  Only decades later did Ginny realise her friend was going through the same emotional crisis.

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I know now the reason for my unhappiness. All the riches I enjoyed were not mine. They were my husband’s. Despite my erstwhile social status, I really was nothing more than a dimwit.

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A Turning Point

Ginny’s husband was eleven years her senior, and when he was fifty-five, he too was jaded of the materialistic way of life in Singapore. He proposed to Ginny about uprooting their lives and moving to Nicaragua to set up a farm, propelled by a dream to create jobs for the locals. “Without any hesitation, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

When Ginny first arrived in the country, she did not quite know what to make of it. “The locals were poor, and did not have any money on them. Yet they were happy. In Nicaragua, you need not worry about food, for there is an abundance of sources. Want rice? You can grow it in the fields. Want prawns? The river teems with them. And here I was, a haughty millionaire, grumpy and with a brewing anger. ”

For the next two decades, the couple led a quiet life, driving their Harley-Davidson jeeps around. Flanking their farm were three waterfalls, and they spent many carefree days lost in the music of nature. Possessing jejune knowledge of farm operation, they left their asset in the care of the locals, an ill move that eventually rang up losses. But they felt true bliss.

All good things, sadly, must come to an end. Hitherto in the pink of health, Peter was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder, and his body began shutting down in the manner of a kaput computer. Only six months it was between his initial diagnosis and his eventual passing, and the untimely death of her husband disarrayed Ginny’s life. “Before he died, Peter said to me: ‘Ginny, I’m leaving all my possessions to you. You’ll be taken care of, and you’ll lead a good life.’”

At the sprawling farm, Ginny and her husband reared many horses and cows.
At the sprawling farm, Ginny and her husband reared many horses and cows.

Betrayals All Around

Suddenly thrust with the responsibility of making legal decisions, Ginny felt the heft of being the sole inheritor of her husband’s multi-million assets. The legal speak was mumbo jumbo to her; and the contracts were drafted in Spanish which she did not understand. She confided in a Korean lady who ran the beauty salon she frequented, her only acquaintance in Nicaragua who was well versed in Spanish. “She said she’d take care of everything for me, and I trusted her.” For three years, they remained on friendly terms, and Ginny would even cook Chinese cuisines for her.

It was only when a buyer showed interest in the farm that the truth came to light: The Korean lady had misled Ginny into transferring all the assets to her. “I was in Singapore at the time because of a health scare, and when my lawyer broke the news over the phone a numbness took hold of my body. I could not believe it.” What ensued was a legal battle, but Ginny fell prey to the rampant corruption, losing another fifty thousand dollars as her lawyer jumped ship.

With setback after setback, and still reeling from the loss of her husband, Ginny’s fighting spirit whittled. Once a devout Christian, she also lost her faith, renouncing her religion and refusing to follow a terrible God. She returned to Nicaragua, and there she stayed for some time, wallowing in self-pity, and hating herself for her asinine mistakes. “I just wanted to die,” she recalls. Her chance came, when an earthquake rocked the country in April 2014. “I did nothing. I just slept in my bed. My dogs were crying. I remember nothing of it except for the tremors.”

Down but not defeated: Swindled of her million-dollar fortune, Ginny Low gains second wind by working as a cleaner, and for the first time in her life
Down but not defeated: Swindled of her million-dollar fortune, Ginny Low gains second wind by working as a cleaner, and for the first time in her life
Ginny used to pattern herself after Elizabeth Taylor, but she now says it was a pretentious life she led.

Standing on Her Own Two Feet

When she awoke, Ginny lamented the fact that she was still alive. In the face of sheer emotional agony, she began medicating herself, smoking marijuana cigarettes that gave her moments of clarity and peace. One day, she was on her computer searching the news when she chanced upon Matt Redman’s uplifting 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).

“Though I lost my faith, the lyrics resonated with me, and I began reminiscing about the life I’ve had with my husband. And what a life it was: To have loved someone so deeply, and at one point to have it all.” Like seasoned wood to a withering fire the song was, and Ginny’s resolve reignited and burnt the hotter. She packed the remnants of her old life, flew back to Singapore along with her dogs, and now stays with her two daughters.

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I have nothing. I am free.

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No longer content with being a deadweight, Ginny began looking for a part-time job. Rejections came, as boutique owners found her too old to be a salesperson. She applied for a job at a supermarket, but never got a callback. Finally, through a friend, she found online portals such as Fuss.sg, which connect homeowners with cleaners.

“My friend was initially startled that I even considered to be a house cleaner, as I had never worked a day in my life before. But I was not afraid of getting my hands dirty.” However hardened and motivated she was, Ginny still had butterflies in her stomach on the day of her first assignment. She did not know where to start. A windowpane would eventually be her stumbling block: The harder she wiped the more smudges appeared. Panicked, she immediately called her friend, who came to her rescue. “It was then I learnt that cleaning rags were oily, and that I had to use the newspaper when cleaning windows.” Such tricks of the trade Ginny had to learn, painstakingly, at the age of sixty-five, a time when her peers would start enjoying their golden years. From an unhappy first customer who discontinued her services, Ginny now has a few regulars to call her own.

For all that back-breaking work, Ginny only earns a fraction of what she used to enjoy. Her old life of high tea and tennis sessions is no more, torn away like clouds sundered by the wind. Yet what is revealed is the blaze of the glorious sun. “For the first time in my life, I have worked for everything that I own. My clothes have holes in them, but I no longer care about what others might think of me. This is the real me, and I’m not just an Elizabeth-Taylor replica. I do not need to be rich; I only need to believe in myself.”

Enjoyed this story? Read Dr Siew Tuck Wah on Breaking the Poverty Cycle, Saving Singapore’s Street Dogs and Finding Buddhism.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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