Asia

Singapore's 1940s teenage weightlifting beauty queen

Madam Ho lifts weights during an earlier training session
Image caption The snatch is said to be one of weightlifting's hardest exercises. But Ho Lye Toh accomplished it during her younger years

To be both a beauty queen and a champion weightlifter is not unheard of nowadays, but in 1940s Singapore it was a very unusual path for a young girl.

Ho Lye Toh was a teenager who could lift weights of up to 100kg (220lb). Now 92, she might be Singapore's most famous nonagenarian after her remarkable life story surfaced in an article earlier this year and enraptured the city.

Her father was Ho Peng Khoen, a school teacher and former Malayan weightlifting champion. In 1941, he made a decision that changed her life.

"I was 14 and I fell sick quite often, sometimes so bad that I would pass out. So my father decided I should begin exercising to build body strength," Madam Ho said.

"He was the reason I got started on weightlifting. He taught me how to press and pull weights and dumbbells and I did that every evening after I came back from school."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMadam Ho tells her life story

Her father doted on her, motivating her with small presents during training sessions.

"He would tell me that if I could increase the weights by five pounds, I'd be given 10 cents, which was a lot of money back then."

He kept adding to the weights and she would try her best to lift them, just to earn more money, until she was happily lifting 100kg before she turned 20.

Image caption Madam Ho credits her weightlifting skills to her doting father, a former Malayan champion
Image caption Madam Ho poses proudly with her Miss Singapore sash, which was unfortunately destroyed during the Japanese Occupation

As Madam Ho's confidence grew, her father decided to enter her and her sister into the Miss Singapore beauty pageant, which was organised at that time by a local sports club.

"I don't know why I won! But I took first place and my sister came in second," she said. She is at pains to add that in those days she curled her own hair and wore face powder costing only 20 cents.

"Singaporean girls today are all quite skinny and modern; very different compared to the contestants of my time," Madam Ho recalls.

She and her sister were among a handful of local girls in the pageant. The rest of the contestants were Europeans and the audience was made up of mainly Australian and British soldiers.

The contest rules were "simple" and only involved a body examination by a doctor, to determine if the costumes fitted properly.

There were also no interviews or prizes, "only a sash," she remembers.

Image caption Beauty contestants at the 1941 Miss Singapore beauty pageant; Madam Ho is pictured on the extreme left

Madam Ho earned the title of Miss Singapore three times during her teenage years. Her sister also went on to win other beauty pageants.

But then World War Two came and Japanese troops captured Singapore, a British colony at the time, in 1942. During the three-year occupation, most Singaporeans lived in fear of the Japanese military police and life changed dramatically.

"I was about 21 years old then and we had to stop all activities because of the war so I was made to stay at home," she said.

Her father invited Japanese soldiers to dinner in an effort to befriend them to ensure they did not make trouble for the family. There was also pressure from the family to marry her off but her father resisted, vowing that if troops took his daughters away, he would kill them.

But the family's fear was so intense that her mother burned her treasured pageant prize - her Miss Singapore sash - in case it attracted unwanted attention.

"It's gone now. But at least I still have photos to remember it by," she says with a rueful smile.

She then joined the beauty contest again for "one last time" in 1948.

"My boyfriend at the time told me not to keep entering because I would always win! So I stopped after that and my sister won."

Image caption Left: Madam Ho models a swimsuit. On the right is her sister, who went on to win other beauty pageants
Image caption Today Madam Ho, known affectionately as 'Tai Ma', enjoys spending her days being surrounded by her family

Alyssa Woo, who first uncovered Madam Ho's story in April, says she was amazed at how the story spread and gathered popularity.

"What I wanted to say was that the beauty standards during Madam Ho's time and now are very different and she is living proof of timeless beauty - even at age 92," Ms Woo told the BBC.

"I also hoped that her story would teach our generation that speaking to older people is actually very interesting and we shouldn't write them off so easily."

Image caption The energetic Wong family is already planning celebrations for Madam Ho's 100th birthday

Today, Madam Ho enjoys spending her time playing mahjong, travelling and most especially doting on her 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, who have even set up a dedicated Facebook page which she uses occasionally.

The family also recently celebrated her 92nd birthday last month, by paying tribute to her era with a 1920s-themed dinner.

"She doesn't think like a 92-year-old woman," said her grandson Adrian Wong. "She still views herself as being very much independent and healthy and we are all very proud of her for doing all that she has been doing all these years."

Her granddaughter-in-law Madelaine attributes Madame Ho's longevity to her active past.

"I truly believe it's her weight-lifting, that's something very unique to her."