In celebration of Racial Harmony Day today (21 July), we bring you three love stories of interracial couples from City Harvest Church.
Racial Harmony Day began as a school celebration in 1998 to teach each generation the importance of Singapore’s diversity as a source of strength. It is celebrated on 21 July each year in remembrance of the first of two racial riots that occurred in 1964 which caused 36 deaths and 500 injuries.
Today, while it is still largely a school event, Racial Harmony Day is significant in Singapore as our population swells and grows more diverse in race and culture. For Christians, even if we look different on the outside, we are the one in the Body of Christ, we are all made in the image of God and and we are all covered by the same blood of Jesus.
What greater example of racial harmony than two people of different races and cultures that become one? Three City Harvest couples share their stories.
SHANE & SERINA: “I NEVER SAW HER AS SOMEONE OF ANOTHER RACE”
The relationship of Shane Chiang and Serina Perera reads like a romance novel that spans decades, starting with the movie-worthy moment they first laid eyes on each other.
“When I first saw Shane,” Serina remembers, “it was at a time when CHC was using the premises of Hephzibah Christian Fellowship to meet. Many of us were students in upper secondary or tertiary levels. There was a room we called the Powerhouse where we’d go to do our quiet time, because many of us faced parental objection and we couldn’t pray at home. So, I had just come out of the Powerhouse when I saw this guy walk in, holding a motorbike helmet. Now, that’s something you didn’t see every day. He was cute, too.”
Shane adds, “As I walked into church doorway, I was holding on to my helmet with a devil-may-care look on my face, and the afternoon sun was shining brightly behind me. That was probably her love-at-first-sight moment.” Cue background love theme.
Senior editor and church liaison officer Serina Perera, 49, is of Sinhalese and Chinese parentage, while businessman Shane Chiang, 50, is Chinese. They were both 18 at the time, and began serving in church together and hanging out as friends, before it progressed to phone calls to one another.
Shane’s charms were considerable. “One early Sunday morning, I was waiting at the bus stop outside my house, wanting to take the bus to World Trade Centre for service. Lo and behold, Shane showed up and said, ‘Are you going to church? Want a ride?’ I thought to myself, this fella stays in Pasir Ris, why would he happen to be along Marine Parade Road if he was enroute to World Trade Centre? Did he pass by on purpose in hopes of bumping into me? That morning, as we rode the bike over Sheares Bridge, I swear you could almost hear the riff of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” (from Top Gun).”
They started dating in 1990 and Shane introduced his girlfriend to his parents. “I recall my dad asking if Serina’s parents minded that I was of a different race. That was very thoughtful of him,” he says. “I was very proud to introduce Serina to my parents and she was warmly received. Till today my mother loves her very much.”
Serina adds, “His folks are very open-minded as they lived in Dubai for a period and his dad travelled often. Shane even took me to his extended family dinners where I met all his uncles and aunts. A few of them had had interracial relationships before, so our relationship was no issue to them. Only his grandmother was a little concerned for our relationship. She took me into her room and asked me if my father objected to the relationship.”
But Shane did not receive such a warm welcome from Serina’s parents. “Her mother was cool with us, though she had some minor concerns,” he remembers. “But her father was not so, especially in the earlier days of our courtship.”
Serina elaborates, “My father was aware of our relationship and did not approve, firstly, because I was young, and secondly, because my father objected to me going to church, what more have a boyfriend from church.”
As is common in many young romances, Shane and Serina broke up after dating for two years, but remained friends. “There was always this tension and harmless flirting between us,” admits Serina. They attended Bible school the same year, and the next year, in 1996, Shane went to China to help his father in the family business.
“I always wrote him letters to encourage him,” Serina says. “Later on, he told me that I was the only one who kept in touch with him when he was away.”
When Shane returned in 1998, the couple resumed their relationship, this time with greater intent, even though Shane was still travelling in and out of the country and Serina was busy with ministry. “It was not always smooth. Having a long distance relationship created a lot of challenges,” Shane admits. But through it all they stayed in touch constantly: “We spoke, wrote and faxed all the time,” Serina reveals.
Finally, Shane proposed to Serina in 1999, on Valentine’s Day. “He took me to Sentosa, and we had dinner. He wanted to take out the ring and propose to me over dinner, but some musicians came to our table and he chickened out. Then we went to watch the light show, but when he reached for the ring, the lights came on and the crowd got up to leave. Finally, he proposed under a pavilion somewhere in Sentosa. As he was preparing to do it, I frisked him for the ring box. But he was smart—he’d put it in his sock. So he went down on one knee and I said yes.”
Marrying into a Chinese family was not an issue for Serina. “We didn’t deal with much racial or cultural differences because my mother herself was Chinese,” says Serina. “Because Shane is Chinese, we did everything predominantly ‘the Chinese way’. My father was a stickler for all things traditional so he was happy for us to follow Shane’s family’s traditions.”
It was her father who had the greatest concern for their marriage, “because my parents also had an interracial marriage,” she explains. “Sadly, being from an earlier generation, they faced a lot of obstacles and challenges. My mother had to give up a lot of her traditional customs, like drinking herbal soups and playing mahjong. Even when it came to pregnancy and confinement, she had to follow the Sinhalese way, which wasn’t all that comfortable for her. Her family initially ‘disowned’ her, but over the years, she reconciled with them. So when it came to Shane and I, my father was concerned that I might face some challenges too.”
Winning over Serina’s father was a challenge for Shane—the older man had been hostile towards him since they first dated as teens. “Before I proposed to Serina, I had to overcome an ‘obstacle’—my future father-in-law. So I did what any guy would do: I asked for his permission to marry his daughter. Once he said okay, it was smooth sailing all the way. He was the best father-in-law any son-in-law could have. He was very thoughtful and caring, he was my friend.”
Serina adds, “My father was taken aback by the visit and the audacity of this young man who professed his love for his daughter and promised to look after her and give her a good life. My dad, a hopeless romantic himself, was very touched by the gesture. He was pleased with all that Shane had to say and promised to keep the proposal a secret.
“After we got married, Shane became like a son to him. Shane always insisted that we try our best to go back to my father’s house for dinner every week. He was the only one who would sit down with my dad to hear his stories from the police force (my father was a police inspector). Till today, Shane repeats my dad’s stories to our children.”
Serina’s parents have both passed on, as has Shane’s father. “My lovely parents-in-law were gone too soon,” says Shane. “They were the best best in-laws ever—I miss them so much.”
“My in-laws have always been wonderful to me. I must say I’m very blessed,” adds Serina.
Race has never been an issue between Shane and Serina, who both rank it low among the factors that make a marriage work. “Yes, there were the odd stares in the earlier days, and sometimes when we are out now, some people still look, but very much less,” Shane says.
“When we started having kids and going out as a family, I noticed people looking at my children in a very sweet way,” Serina adds, “because they were quite cute lah.”
Their son and daughter, both in their teens, have the benefit of a double heritage. “We do speak to them about being mixed race, but they are predominantly raised in a Chinese household because I am half Chinese. As parents, we have made efforts to introduce them to their Sinhalese heritage by visiting my relatives,” says Serina. “My biggest regret is that my dad passed on when the children were very young and they missed the chance to learn a whole lot more from him than I could ever teach them. Sinhalese is a minority race here in Singapore. Perhaps when I’m older, I will delve into my roots a little more. I have been to Sri Lanka, and I feel the kids must also visit someday.”
Shane explains, “We have spoken to them since they were young to always be confident of who they are, which is the best of both worlds. They are both confident in their race and don’t think much about it, though sometimes they get asked what race they are since they do not look totally Chinese or Sinhalese.”
If there was a time when race did come into play, it was when the couple lived in China during their early marriage. “After we got married, we moved to China for Shane to continue working for his father. We were in Guangdong Province in the city of Zhanjiang. Never heard of it? Precisely why I had no issue there,” laughs Serina. “It’s not a metropolitan city—it’s actually like Singapore in the ‘60s. And the people there were more village folk. Oddly enough, when I opened my mouth and spoke my impeccable Mandarin, they didn’t think twice about it. I think they simply assumed everyone speaks Mandarin.”
Shane gives a clearer picture of the impression his wife made in Zhanjiang. “She was like a rockstar,” he states. “She looked different, so she attracted many stares. But when Serina spoke mandarin, it usually surprised people. Once a lady riding on a bicycle stared at my wife so much that she fell off her bike. That was quite comical to see, but we helped her up.”
Being bilingual in Mandarin and English made Serina a superstar. “She named some of the streets in English for the local government when they asked for her for help to translate. Those streets in Donghai Island were named by Serina,” he says proudly.
This year, the Chiangs celebrate 22 years of marriage, and 32 years of relationship. “Maybe I am colour-blind, but we are the same whatever race we might be,” says Shane. “I love her because of her heart and her attitude, her laughter, her warmth and her smile. I like that she fights for the family and for what is right. I never saw her as someone of another race but as an individual whose personality clicks with mine.”
RACHMANIA & KNUT: “THERE’S ALWAYS SOMETHING WE CAN LEARN FROM EACH OTHER”
Rachmania Kadi, 36, and Knut Thorsland, 48, met in the air. Not in an airplane, outside of it. They were literally in the air, skydiving.
“We’re both skydivers and we met in Thailand,” Rachmania shares. “The first time I met him, I didn’t really like him because I wasn’t interested in dating another skydiver.”
Knut, on the other hand, had set his eyes on Rachmania. He added her on Facebook and started chatting with her via Messenger. Within a week of meeting her, he asked her out. “He had returned Singapore then, but he asked if I was free the next weekend.” He offered to fly to Jakarta where Rachmania lived, just to meet her for dinner.
On that first date, the couple laid down their plans for the future. “I was not looking for a guy to play around with so if I started dating him, I wanted to know if we were getting married or not,” Rachmania says, explaining that she had just received Christ at that time and was getting back on her feet.
Apart from her clearly good looks, what attracted Knut to Rachmania was also the fact that she was active in her faith. “I was on Facebook, and I saw that she was quite an active Christian. That was the trigger for me, because you don’t normally meet many Christians in the skydiving environment,” he says.
Born and raised in Norway, Knut travelled around the globe for work and happened to be living in Singapore at that time. Coincidentally, Rachmania, who hails from Jakarta, Indonesia, had just signed up to study in CHC’s School Of Theology which would start in February the following year. Knut felt that it would be weird for her to live in a hostel while he had a home in Singapore.
“But I said ‘I cannot live with you because that’s morally questionable’. So, we decided, ‘Let’s get married!’” Rachmania says.
They had only known each other for six months when they got married. Eight years later, today, Rachmania and Knut are still happily married and now, they live in Norway.
However, knowing that they made the right decision to get married did not mean that life was going to be a bed of roses. Many issues surfaced at the start of the marriage because of cultural differences, and also simply because they did not know each other very well yet at that point.
“We were not in the same country while we were dating so there was a lot of adjustment for both of us,” says Knut.
One challenge was the different ways they raised their children now that they were a blended family: Rachmania has a 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and Knut has two children aged 18 and 15 from his first marriage.
But the biggest challenge for Rachmania was the vastly different way they spent their money. “From where I come from, it’s really a taboo to talk about money, but to Knut, it was a very normal thing. It took me some time to get used to the idea that we needed to talk about things like budgeting,” she shares.
“He would prioritise our spending,” Rachmania describes. “So, if he hasn’t achieved his first priority, which is, say, to buy a house, then he won’t spend on the second or third item on his list.”
It was just as challenging for Knut. “In the beginning, I thought, ‘Okay, this person is just going to buy a bag with all our money. What are we going to spend on next month? That’s a bit of shock,” he recalls. “We were at both ends of the scale and we were pulling away, trying to balance the scale. I became extra tense, and she became extra sensitive. That was quite hard.”
The many cultural differences between them were a shock to Rachmania and she remembers constantly going to her pastor, Aries Zulkarnain, CHC’s executive pastor. In the first three years of their marriage, she would cry and tell Pastor Aries that she wanted a divorce. “He would always tell me to calm down,” she laughs.
Thankfully, with God in their relationship, things worked out well in the end.
“The turning point came when we started to move towards each other, that’s when things became easier,” Knut shares. He learned to relax his standards a little and saw that he could make allowance for failures.
Rachmania also started to appreciate Knut’s efforts to build their future. “I realised I needed someone like him in my life. I feel very blessed to have a husband like Knut because if he’s not who he is, we would not have a house now—we might have spent all our money on small things like travelling and bags.”
Another hurdle they had to cross was when they made the major decision that Rachmania was to move to Norway with her daughter, while Knut remained in Singapore. Back then, the couple was still facing many struggles in the marriage, but Rachmania felt the assurance from God that the move would bring them closer as a family.
Living in Norway posed another set of challenges. One of the things Rachmania recalled was that in Norway, everything had to be done according to standard, unlike in Indonesia, where some rules could be bent.
“It drove me nuts in the beginning,” she recalls building their house in 2015. “Knut kept telling me, according to Norwegian law, I cannot do this and that. I hated that.”
Slowly, Rachmania started to learn that there is an objective to every rule. Knut, on the other side, was also learning to allow her to make her own mistakes so that she could learn in her own way.
“In Norway, I had to do everything myself, unlike in Singapore, where I could hire a domestic helper. So, when he told me not to do certain things in the house, I would be unhappy and tell him that this is my house, and this is how I live my life. Until I found out for myself what the consequence of living my way was! Then I’ll start to think that he’s actually right,” Rachmania laughs. “It happened a lot in those three years I was alone in Norway.”
To both Knut and Rachmania, the best part about marrying someone from another race and culture is that life is never boring. “There’s always something we can learn from each other,” Rachmania mused.
Knut adds, “Sometimes I wish we could be a normal couple. But when we surrender and realised that we don’t have to live exactly like everyone else, it becomes more interesting.”
VALERIE AND SAP: “OUR VALUES ARE THE SAME”
At a youth camp in 2008, when they were just teenagers, Saptarshi Nag noticed Valerie Ang for the first time. They were standing next to each other in a session and when the pastor onstage told them to hold their neighbour’s hand and pray, Valerie took one look at him and laughed. He never knew why but that left a deep impression on him.
They would see each other around in church and other zone activities, but their paths didn’t cross again. Until years later, when Valerie’s friend brought her to watch a band play, and Saptarshi was the guitarist. Since then, they would often chat on MSN and soon, became friends.
“After talking to her for a while, I started to develop feelings for her,” Saptarshi admits. “I found her very fun to be with.” Sadly, his feelings were not reciprocated by Valerie. Even though he tried to keep the friendship going, Saptarshi eventually found it hard to be just her friend.
“So, I told her outright that this was getting quite hard for me, and that I needed space,” he recalls. So Saptarshi stopped speaking to Valerie—even when he saw her in church, he would not say hi.
That bold move caused Valerie to realise how much Saptarshi meant to her. “I missed our friendship and started wondering if I could continue my life without him as my friend. I really wanted to keep being friends and I realised that the only way to do it was to move it to the next level. The friends around me also encouraged me to give it a try, so I did.”
After a couple of months, Valerie texted Saptarshi with the news that she was willing to give their relationship a go. The rest, as they say, is history. Saptarshi and Valerie, now 33 and 30, have been married for more than three years and have a four-month-old baby, Oliver.
All this while, as their relationship grew, Saptarshi and Valerie barely noticed that they were of different races. Sap is an Bengali from Bangladesh and Valerie is a Singaporean Chinese girl. Saptarshi was anxious the first time he met Valerie’s parents as her boyfriend, but they received him with open arms. His own parents were very open to him making his own choices in life were happy to receive Valerie into their family.
Their only hurdle was language. “My mom doesn’t speak very good English although Val’s mom speaks English. But when my mom met Valerie’s mom, they hugged each other,” he shares.
Saptarshi understands a little Mandarin but Valerie understands no Bengali, though “I do want to learn some when Oli starts to learn Bengali,” she says.
At their wedding, Saptarshi and Valerie chose to forgo all tradition: they invited their guests to their matrimonial service followed by a casual Western-style dinner. But Valerie did get to experience Bangladeshi culture when Sap’s relatives gave them a small wedding ceremony a few months after their wedding in Singapore.
That was her first visit to Bangladesh. “After we touched down, the moment we arrived at my aunt’s, they made us change into traditional wedding costumes and we had a small wedding ceremony,” Saptarshi says.
Valerie adds, “According to tradition, I had to dye my feet red before stepping into the house. Then during the ceremony, we walked around the fire seven times. I also covered my face with a veil, as a shy, blushing bride.”
The two weeks they spent spent driving around Bangladesh, experiencing the culture and language opened Valerie’s eyes to a world beyond what she knew.
Things were not so different after the wedding. Every day, they worked through problems like any other couple. “The only disagreement is that she loves her Chinese food which I’m not so into,” says Saptarshi. “I prefer spicy food with a lot of gravy and flavours.”
Thankfully, that is not a big issue because they live in Singapore where there is an abundance of different cuisines. “We simply order delivery from different places,” Valerie says. “There is food that we enjoy together as well, like Thai and pizza. Sometimes, he lets me order dim sum and he’ll share them with me.”
When Valerie lived with Saptarshi’s family during the early days of their marriage, she was happy to eat her mother-in-law’s cooking. “Her dishes are delicious,” she enthuses. “I wish all our friends can get to try Bangladeshi food!”
To Valerie, the best part about marrying their spouse of a different race is that life is never boring. “I get to experience so much culture,” she says. “Because of our differences, we are always exploring to find common ground.”
For Saptarshi, marrying Valerie is his dream come true, and race has nothing to do with it. “I had a crush on her for the longest time, so the best part of it was to finally get to marry her!”
Whatever differences they have in race and culture, they share the same faith in God. “Our values are the same—because we come from the same church, same zone—our beliefs are aligned, and that’s the most important thing,” Saptarshi concludes.