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Cold Places, Warm Hearts

"Yunnan has a sub-tropical climate….Keeping warm is a big thing here.”

(Dr Tan Lai Yong)


In my May 29 editorial, I have shared briefly in the introduction as to the unconventional path blazed by Dr Tan Lai Yong in forgoing a bright medical career in Singapore to serve impoverished communities in Yunnan, China. I further shared how he was humbled to learn that unplanned interruptions in his busy healthcare and community works might well be the bedrock of learning and serving, as he learnt how God could use an unpleasant and awkward situation to bring about a positive outcome to benefit those around him. I am pleased to share another insightful episode of his experiences taken from his book, “Biting the Bamboo”.

Keeping Warm

In one chapter of his book entitled “Keeping Warm”, Dr Tan wrote that Yunnan has a sub-tropical climate and winter months from late October to early March could often dip to below freezing point; not surprisingly, as 90% of Yunnan Province are mountainous areas. As such, keeping warm is a big thing there. Back then, most kids were bundled up in many warm layers of clothes, as homes and schools up in the mountains did not have heating or hot running waters, although the situation has improved over the years.

Dr Tan related that most homes were nothing more than mud-walls and floors or just constructed crudely of bamboo structures, leaving unprotected openings for the cold mountain winds to blow right through day and night. Many villagers in these homes spent many wintry nights huddling under blankets around a fire. They wandered out only to the toilets (one or two in each village) and for other essential errands.

Oven and Hair Dryer

Dr Tan recalled one winter when it was so cold that they had to leave the oven on, with its door open to provide them some much-needed heat. They even had to leave the hair dryer blowing in their daughter’s room throughout the night. Those were the only two heating devices they had in their home. Their local friends and students who lived in the villages had no such heating appliances. Where there was electricity, the current load only allowed for general lighting and perhaps a TV, but not for heating appliances.

Dr Tan shared that life was tough for many villagers. This was even more so in winter. When he started the village doctor training classes, it was pretty much a hands-on operation. Together with his assistant, a local doctor, they had to arrange for chalk board, curriculum and food. They even had to buy mops and pails for the classrooms, as they had to clear the toilets whenever they were clogged. This happened often, as the local lay doctors were not used to city toilets.

Thick Blankets

Sometimes, on certain wintry nights, Dr Tan would doze off to sleep thinking about a conversation he had with his dad when he was a little boy. At a funeral back in Singapore, Dr Tan asked his dad as to why the traditional Chinese relatives gave huge and thick blankets to the families of the bereaved. He himself had seen these huge blankets strung up on ropes at funeral wakes and often wondered why. His dad then told him that families in ancient China had to mourn for days and nights. Relatives would buy them blankets to keep them warm as they went through the funeral rites. As a Singaporean boy growing up in our hot and humid climate, Dr Tan shared that he never appreciated the thick blankets as much as he did in the cold mountainous homes of Yunnan.

Crossing Rivers

He further related that the villagers would always give them their best beddings, beds and bedrooms on their visit, despite their humble background. He once sent an American physiotherapist to a distant village to help a village doctor. After an eight-hour bus ride, she had to hike four hours and cross two rivers on foot to get there, accompanied and guided by two local lady village doctors. When Dr Tan asked her about the highlights of her trip, she said it amazed her how the local ladies could climb any slopes and cross any river in their high heels while she slipped and slithered in her hiking boots.

Slaughtered Pig and Warm Hearts

The lady physiotherapist was also touched by the sincere and warm hospitality shown to her by the villagers. She was housed in their best room in the village home she visited. It was a plain old wooden bed but it was the best the villagers could offer. And because she was the first foreigner to stay in the village and was considered an honoured guest, they slaughtered a pig and cooked a good meal in honour of her visit. To ensure a good standard of hygiene, they slaughtered the pig in the cleanest part of the house – in the bedroom reserved for her! (no doubt, they would clean her bedroom again for her to sleep well).

Hot Water

The cold weather helped to keep the meat fresh generally. So, she enjoyed good hot soup and warm beddings for the nights she was out there. The village hosts would always bring a basin of hot water for the guests at night. Initially, Dr Tan used that basin to wash his face and that was it. His students who sat around to observe him, laughed and urged him to wash his feet as well. Washing their feet was the last thing they do before retiring to sleep. After heeding his students’ advice, Dr Tan discovered that it was indeed very comfortable to let his sore feet soaked in hot water for a while before retiring to bed. When the homes, classrooms and hospitals were not all heated, the only warm place was the bed, tucked under thick layers of blanket.

Personal Reflection

It is truly encouraging to know that people in such cold places can exhibit warm hearts and hospitality to guests and strangers, notwithstanding their poor and humble background. As we celebrate our 57th National Day in two days time, we have much to be thankful for the peace, security and material comfort that we can enjoy as a developed nation. Iam encouraged that Singapore has been a blessing to our Asean neighbours and beyond for the past few decades, in the areas of oversea missions outreach, church planting and training of their indigenous church pastors and leaders. Many churches here have resumed their community outreach to migrant workers in their respective neighbourhood after a pause of more than two years due to the pandemic. My prayer is that the churches in Singapore may follow the example of the ordinary folks in Yunnan in exhibiting warm hearts and hospitality to the guests and strangers in our shore. May the following wise words encourage us to do so in our own little corner:

“The secret weapon for gospel advancement is hospitality, and you can practice it whether you live in a house, an apartment, a dorm, or a high-rise.”

“The world could use more ordinary Christians opening their ordinary lives so others can see what life in light of the gospel looks like.”

“If ever there has been a stranger in need, someone completely excluded and hopeless, fully dependent on the grace of another—that is us. We were out in the cold, victims of our own folly, freezing to death from the coldness in our own hearts. And all throughout history, God opens the door, rescues us, and welcomes us back into relationship through sheer, inexplicable grace.”

“Hospitality is not about entertaining, it’s about engaging.”

“Jesus said in His kingdom, the ‘smallest of all seeds’ will leave a lasting impact much larger than expected (see Matt. 13:31–32). In the same way, the ‘smallest’ things in our lives—ordinary days and meals and homes—can have a much larger impact than you’d ever imagine when harnessed with gospel intentionality.”

- Eld Elgin Chan

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