This Valentine’s Day, we bring you a series about love stories of people living in Singapore.
By Niki Bruce, Contributor
Carolyn Kan and Chiew Huan Chong’s story is one of chance encounters and lessons in love.
Artisan jeweller Kan first met Chiew in 1994 at a lunch with friends. They “got on like a house on fire”, remembers the founder of local jewellery label Carrie K. But he was engaged and out of reach, so “that was that” and they settled for friendship.
By the time Chiew’s engagement fizzled out, they had lost touch. She worked in the high-paced world of advertising, he was the general manager of the Shanghai branch of an international aluminium firm.
They were reunited at a friend’s wedding in 1997, but Kan denied her feelings, and spent a year matchmaking him with her friends. “We went on double dates with my roster of beaus,” recalls the 45-year-old with a laugh.
Still, it was him she “drunk-called” to fish her out of trouble, once getting him out of bed at 3am when she was stranded on Sentosa. But it wasn’t until one night in 1998 that the relationship took a turn.
“After we cleaned out a bottle of Clos Du Val at Michelangelo’s, we both finally plucked up the courage to tell the other how we felt,” Kan says.
Throughout that time, Chiew, now 51, thought she was “hot and had nice legs”.
“I think ‘funny’ and ‘a great conversationalist’ was later on the list,” comes his wife’s rejoinder.
He credits his “spider sense”, a “sixth sense” attributed to Spiderman, for knowing that she was one to hold on to. He proposed with a diamond ring in 1998 – in his car, and in the dark. She initially thought the ring was a soft-drink ring-pull.
Even their wedding wasn’t without hitches.
The August 1999 ceremony at the Queen of Peace Church was conducted by a visiting priest they did not know. “He delivered a 20-minute sermon that started with the fact that Chong was not Catholic, and then went into how marriage was about power and struggle,” Kan remembers. “I figured after that start, things could only get better.”
They did. Well, sort of.
Kan got her garden wedding with a jazz band and champagne after the service, at the Ritz Carlton hotel ballroom reception area. She danced all night. But shortly after their honeymoon, they were forced apart again. Chiew continued to work in Shanghai, while Kan stayed in Singapore. He came back to see her every two weeks.
In 2008, she decided to take a gap year, which included a month-long apprenticeship with an Italian silversmith. It was then that she made her first piece of jewellery – a silver ring – which sparked a new chapter in her life, and the couple’s relationship.
She launched Carrie K the following year, working from the couple’s Opera Estate home. She was consumed by the business, and for a while, their time together became even more limited. But she also needed his help.
So in 2012, Chiew left Shanghai, starting a photography business here to capture Carrie K’s creations, and eventually joining Kan in the business as co-founder.
That was when their marriage “really started”, the couple say, although – in keeping with tradition – it was a bit of a rocky revival. While Kan’s experience in marketing and brand building and Chiew’s experience in the metals industry seemed an ideal partnership, they initially clashed. Chiew would comment on designs, only to be rebuffed for “meddling” since, at the time, he had no silversmithing experience.
“We argued, and sometimes would just stop talking to each other. I had not cried so much in my life,” Kan says. “Sometimes I wanted to hire a hitman to take out the man I hadn’t realised I had married.”
In a bid to put himself on firmer ground, Chiew completed the same two-year silversmithing course his wife had done at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Meanwhile, Kan, trying to find some balance at work, had gotten her team to take a skills evaluation test. Chiew volunteered to take one, too.
It was then that she got a “whole new” understanding of her husband. The tasks he had been asked to undertake at Carrie K were exactly the things he hated at his last job, though he had numerous talents that had remained untapped.
“Instead of focusing on what he is not, I focused on what he is,” she says. And that’s when everything changed – both at work, and at home.
The creative couple went on to build an award-winning brand, now sold in eight countries, and a union where they share a “crooked” sense of humour and find joy even in the mundane details of everyday life.
“So what if he hasn’t bought me flowers for 18 years? He can debone a salmon trout to make me gravlax,” laughs Kan.
Chiew is, ultimately, the strongest pillar in both her life and business, Kan says.
“Twenty years is a long time. I’ve discovered so many more things that I love about Chong. Deep beneath his multi-talented, madcap veneer, he is a truly good soul.”
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