Firsthand: US woman, 55, searching for long-lost S'porean pen pal, 56, reconnects with him after 30 years

A happy ending to this.

Ashley Tan | July 18, 2023, 07:11 PM

Firsthand is a new content pillar by Mothership, featuring in-depth articles and videos about people in Singapore and their stories.

We'll explore issues that matter by experiencing them for ourselves, gather expert opinions, and hear the perspectives of young Singaporeans, to present the points of view that matter, firsthand.

In some serendipitous instances, friendships can somehow transcend distance and time.

This was the case for Julie Kelly, a U.S. citizen, and a man surnamed Cheng from Singapore.

The pair started exchanging letters way back in 1983 when they were still in their teens, but lost contact after 10 years of correspondence.

Now 55 years old, Kelly is eager to reconnect with Cheng, and has been actively searching for him via appeals on social media.

Started writing to each other as teenagers

Kelly's appeals made their way to Mothership's inbox after a tip-off from the admin of a Facebook group.

Intrigued by this seemingly desperate search, I reached out to Kelly.

She shared that she was 15 when she first started writing to Cheng.

She had paid US$1 to join a pen pal programme her English teacher had talked to her class about, and she was later given the then-16-year-old Cheng's name and address.

As she loved writing letters, this was an "opportunity to learn more about the world through another person".

She mailed out her first letter halfway around the world in May 1983.

Kelly said that air mail took a long while back then, and this was the most frequent they could communicate.

In his first letter to Kelly, dated May 19, 1983, Cheng introduced himself and described in detail what a typical day was for him, from attending lessons at school, to returning home and doing his schoolwork, as well as reading the newspaper.

Here's his self-introduction:

"I'm sixteen years old. I'm 1.7m tall and wear specs. I like to play football, basketball and table tennis. In my leisure time, I usually read storybooks or listen to pop music. But I have little time to do these things I like, because I'm studying in a full-day school which I have to attend lessons from 7:30am to 3:20pm. Moreover, I have to spent more time on my study to prepare for the GCE O-Level examination at the end of this year. I used to collect stamps, but I'm not as keen now although I still keep the stamps. my interest have now changed to first day cover. [sic]"

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

The two teens would send each other photos and small tokens from where they lived, giving each other a glimpse into their lives.

Kelly still keeps these mementos, which include two pins from Cheng, showing that he used to study at the former Singapore Chinese High School, which is now known as Hwa Chong Institution after merging with Hwa Chong Junior College.

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

Their letters continued for much of their schooling journey until Kelly started college and Cheng enlisted for National Service.

That was when their communication became more "sporadic".

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

Last letters

Over the years, Cheng would continue sending photos to Kelly and provide life updates. He revealed that he was dating a girl, and had intentions of becoming a banker.

However, Kelly said that they eventually lost contact after she got married and moved houses.

"To be completely honest, my first marriage was a very volatile one and we moved frequently over the next 15 years. I was doing [my] best to put all my energy into just surviving so to speak"

In the midst of this upheaval, the letters and tokens from Cheng were tucked away into a box of childhood items and remained forgotten for the next few decades.

"I never opened [the box] or I might have tried to contact him much sooner," Kelly said.

Kelly sent her very last letter to Cheng in 1994 to invite him to her wedding.

However, he was unable to attend as he had just started his first job. "Financially, I was not in a position to visit him," Kelly added.

His final response, still written in the neat, cursive script he displayed since he was a teen, stated openly his appreciation of Kelly on the last page:

"You're someone special. Someone whom I've grown up with, and yet never meet in person [sic].

Best wishes to you and Jeff!

I love you."

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

He also mentioned that he had changed addresses to Toa Payoh North.

Rereading old letters inspired the search for her pen pal

"I always wondered if he tried to find me or even sent letters to my parent's address," Kelly told me.

As she had "no relationship" with her parents, she stated that if Cheng had sent her letters to her parent's address, they would have likely been thrown away.

In February 2023, Kelly's mother passed away and as she was searching for something for her niece, she unearthed the box containing Cheng's letters.

She reread the 34 letters Cheng had sent in total, and arranged them in chronological order.

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

"I began to wonder how his life turned out since mine has been so different than what he thought it would be," Kelly said.

Cheng has no online presence at all

She started by searching social media for Cheng, but "have literally found nothing".

This is despite the "wealth of information" she has accumulated about him through the years.

At this point, Kelly had exhausted almost all avenues of tracking down Cheng from the US and her search had turned up nothing but dead ends.

She had tried reaching out to Facebook users with the same name, as well as the schools he attended via email, but did not receive any responses or useful information.

After re-discovering his letters this year, Kelly also sent letters to his first and latest addresses, both of which are located in Toa Payoh.

She even considered hiring a private investigator, but found that the price quoted was much too high.

Thus far, her last-ditch attempt saw her posting in a Facebook group for Toa Payoh residents.

"I didn't think it would be so hard to find him."

She conceded that there could be several reasons for his lack of presence online.

"I am a realist, and I know he may not want to be found as I cannot find very much of an online presence when I search. I also realise he may no longer be living or have no interest in finding me.


But at my age I'm reflecting and wondering if he has had a happy life."

Kelly also acknowledged that he may have moved out of Singapore.

Should she truly manage to find Cheng, Kelly shares that she has a "gazillion" questions for him.

"...Does he have children, does he still run (he loved running and ran competitively during our communications), is he still in banking, where does he live, has he ever made it to the USA, does he still have the letters I sent..."

Kelly confessed that she was just about to give up prior to this. Should her search regrettably end up as a wild goose chase, at the very least she has the letters and memories of Cheng to cherish.

"I truly wish my life had taken a different turn and that we had stayed in touch or that I'd searched for him much sooner.

If anything has come from all this, it's that I treasure my memories, letters, and mementos from Cheng even more today."

These include a set of panda bookmarks Kelly recently framed up, so she can "see them everyday".

Photo courtesy of Julie Kelly

Finding Cheng

Kelly's desperation to find Cheng prompted me to start a search of my own.

She was right that a Google search of his name turned up almost no results, save for a 1993 National University of Singapore thesis paper on treasury management by someone of the same name. Definitely not enough to go off of.

Neither did any searches on Facebook.

It was time to head down to Cheng's last known address at Toa Payoh and ask around. I wasn't expecting much, to be honest, and internally prepped myself that this would likely be futile — Cheng had most likely migrated overseas, I thought.

Standing on the doorstep of the HDB unit, the door was opened by an elderly woman.

She appeared wary of me at first, but upon mentioning Cheng's possible Chinese name, she opened the door wider and said in Mandarin: "That's my son."


I showed her the portrait Kelly had sent me of a young Cheng for confirmation and her lined and weathered face lit up in a tentative smile.

I was invited in for a chat and hanging on the wall of her home was a family photo, an exact copy of one that Kelly showed me Cheng had sent her in the past — it was a graduation photo and Cheng was clad in regalia and mortarboard alongside his family members.

Next to it was an updated family photo which, as I was later told, was taken in 2010. It was a striking moment — as I squinted at the small face on the photo, this was my first glimpse of the man Cheng had grown to be, and he still retained the square jaw and spectacles I'd seen from past photos.

Apparently, Cheng had moved to Sengkang with his family years back, and now has a son.


Cheng's mother passed me his contact.

Filled with nervous anticipation (Because what if he didn't want to be contacted? This entire endeavour would prove fruitless), I messaged Cheng on WhatsApp and explained the situation.

Unexpectedly, he was open to talking, and proceeded to tell me over a call that he was caught off guard by this painstaking search for him.

"I'm really very surprised... So long, almost 30 years to date."

"[After graduating from university] life was different already, it was very busy," Cheng explained about the decline in his and Kelly's communication, adding that there were some "ups and downs" in his career at the time.

"I will acknowledge that she tried with so much enthusiasm to reach out to me, I'm very touched," he chuckled.

He also shared his reasons for wanting a pen pal as a teen:

"The initial intent was to improve my English, which [was] rather weak, and we were the second batch of SAP school program with both English and Chinese as first languages."

He also confessed that he does not have Facebook. Makes sense now.

However, he appears to be a man of sentimentality — he still keeps the letters and photos Kelly sent him, as these "capture the youthful years of life", and "document the growing up journey".

"Books I have discarded a lot. But there is no substitute to letters."

A photo of herself Kelly sent to Cheng when she was young. Photo courtesy of Cheng

Now aware of Kelly's efforts to contact him, Cheng shared that he would definitely reconnect with her, and "do what [he] can to reestablish this friendship".

He also told me that should he happen to be in the U.S., he might pay Kelly a visit, or should Kelly happen to be visit Singapore, he would be happy to show her around.

Kelly on the other hand, was overjoyed with this turn of events.

Here's her response when I shared with her this piece of good news:

She added that she is "beyond excited" to reconnect with Cheng and "learn how his life has been".

Although she doesn't have the financial means to visit Singapore anytime soon, it is still something she is keen to do, she told me.

Cheng has since moved on from the banking industry to work in trading.

As of the time of writing, he has also sent out an email to Kelly.

Top photo courtesy of Julie Kelly