A Mistri gift to A Singapore Hospital

Mr Noshir Mistri, seen here with his wife Roshan.
Mr Noshir Mistri, seen here with his wife Roshan.

In the third instalment of a five-part series on Singapore’s oldest communities, The Straits Times looks at the warm, laughter-loving Parsis. Here, Noshir Mistri explains why his philanthropist uncle Navroji Mistri, who died in 1953 , left most of his fortune to the needy

In 1953, teenager Noshir Mistri and his mother uprooted themselves from Mumbai to join his trader father in Singapore.

His father’s brother, Mr Navroji Mistri, had made his fortune as owner of Singapore’s most modern soft drinks factory producing lemonade and other fruity mixes of syrups and sodas, all of which he formulated.

Mother and son arrived just in time to bury the tycoon, who was diabetic and died a bachelor at 68. “He loved children but never had any because he was too busy with his business,” says Mr Noshir Mistri, now 75.

Mr Hormusji Mistri, younger brother of philantropist Navroji Mistri
Mr Hormusji Mistri, younger brother of philantropist Navroji Mistri

Among those who paid their last respects at the Mistris’ sprawling abode in Grange Road – their mansion alone was 11,000 sq ft – was the then governor-general of Malaya, Sir Malcolm MacDonald, and the Sultan of Johor, who had given the philanthropic Navroji Mistri a signet ring. The ring and other mementos of his illustrious uncle are now with Mr Noshir Mistri in his apartment in Nathan Road.

At that time, the Mistris here were probably Singapore’s best-known Parsis, thanks largely to the tycoon’s generous contributions to local charities and those in India.

There were only six Parsis here in 1901, and the tiny community has never exceeded 300 people since. Job opportunities over the past 20 years have swelled the community to about 300 today, compared with about 60,000 in India. But the figure here fluctuates as younger Parsis, especially, tend to leave for the West.

Navroji the soft drinks maker with a soft heart

Worldwide, there were 110,000 Parsis in 2006 but their consistently low birth rate, mixed marriages and no stigma attached to singlehood means they might shrink to 20,000 by 2020 by some estimates.

Mr Noshir Mistri, an only son, trained in London to be a mechanical engineer and in 1966 set up his own business inspecting the welding of ships and tanks.

Mr Hormusji Mistri, younger brother of philantropist Navroji Mistri
Mr Hormusji Mistri, younger brother of philantropist Navroji Mistri

He recalls his mother telling him that when their family was still in Gujarat, the legendary Parsi industrialist Jamshedji Tata, founder of the sprawling Tata empire, was in town. Spotting the young Navroji, Mr Tata took the boy by the hand and told him: “When you grow up and if you work hard, you will be a success.”

Navroji became an engineer and in 1909, his employer United Engineers sent him to Singapore to help build Keppel Wharves.

He arrived with 10 rupees in his pocket and learnt there were only six Parsis in Singapore, including soft drinks maker Phirozshaw Framroz.

Nicknamed “Naval” by his fellow Parsis, Navroji was soon hanging out with them at Mr Framroz’s factory and helping to repair the machines. In 1913, he finished building the wharves and Mr Framroz made him his business partner.

Mr Noshir Mistri’s parents (above), Mr Hormusji Mistri and his wife Khorshed
Mr Noshir Mistri’s parents (above), Mr Hormusji Mistri and his wife Khorshed
In 1925, Navroji set up his own soft drinks factory in Anson Road. “He called it Phoenix Aerated Water,” says Mr Noshir Mistri, “because the phoenix is a big bird rising from the dead and he liked the sound of that.”

Business boomed quickly because the young businessman sweet-talked the British armed forces into letting him supply them soft drinks here as well as in India, where his brother Hormusji was living and could keep an eye on that branch of his business.

He also opened GH Cafe in Battery Road, serving his soft drinks with popular curry tiffin meals. He did so well that before war broke out in 1942, he had to move into a bigger factory in nearby Palmer Road. Along the way, he hired Parsis from India for his factory and cafe.

But luck ran out when the Japanese jailed him for not sending them trucks from his factory on time. “He heard people being dragged out screaming, tortured and shot,” Mr Noshir Mistri says. The Japanese released Navroji after the trucks arrived, but only after beating him up badly.

The tiny Parsi community has made its impact on life in Singapore in different ways. Here’s a sampling:

1845: Merchant Cursetjee Fromurzee partners Englishman John Little to set up Little Cursetjee and Company. It is now known as John Little, Singapore’s oldest department store.
1953: Soft drinks tycoon Navroji Mistri donates $1 million to the Singapore General Hospital to set up a children’s ward, named the Mistri Wing after him. He also leaves his fortune in a trust for various charities here and elsewhere. The government names Mistri Road, near his old factory, after him.
1978: Mr Pesi Davar dies, leaving his entire estate, worth about $2 million, in a trust with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and Mr Nariman Bhaghat for educational and charitable causes here. Today, the trust continues to benefit people from all walks of life.1981: Mrs Nargis Medora raises money to build the Silra Home for former lepers.
1980s-1990s: Sisters Natascha and Kharmayne Ghadiali represent Singapore in gymnastics at four South-east Asian Games.
1991: Orthopaedic surgeon Jimmy Daruwalla is the founding president of the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. He is still its president.
2001: Mr Rustom Ghadiali is elected president of the Inter-Religious Organisation. In 2015, he is elected its assistant secretary.
Such trauma did not deter Navroji from sheltering the homeless in his factory basement throughout the war, for which the British King gave him the Order of the British Empire in 1946.

“He used to take in people who were homeless because their houses had been bombed, and let them stay with him as long as they liked,” Mr Noshir Mistri adds.

He also “took a gamble that the British would return to Singapore” and so he and his workers painted cigarette tins with lead oxide to make them rust-proof, stuffed the tins with Straits dollars he got from exchanging Japanese currency, and buried them within his factory’s cargo lift shaft.

Navroji and his loyal workers, however, had aged by the end of World War II and so he closed down Phoenix after giving each worker “at least $10,000”, according to his nephew.

By 1951, the scars of war rendered the tycoon gravely ill. His doctor and good friend was Professor Gordon Ransome of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and, one day, when Navroji asked why sick children were sleeping along the hospital corridors, the professor said: “You are rich, why don’t you give me money for a children’s ward?”

Shortly after that, Navroji shocked the professor with a cheque for $1 million. When Prof Ransome said he had only been joking when he asked for money, Navroji replied: “I cannot see children sleeping in corridors.”

Navroji died before the paperwork could be completed, and so it was his brother Hormusji – Mr Noshir Mistri’s father – who opened SGH’s Mistri Wing in 1955.

The government also named Mistri Road off Shenton Way after him. Even if it had not, the philanthropist’s name would have lived on because, in his will, he left most of his fortune to charities here and in India.

Over the years, Mistri Wing has morphed from a paediatric ward to a heart centre and will soon be converted into a centre for diabetic care – which is ironic given that its benefactor was diabetic.

The Mistri surname will live on in Mr Noshir Mistri’s family as his Greek son-in-law Stavros Yiannouka, husband of his only child Sherena, has inserted it into the names of their two teenage children.

Published on Parsi Khabar