Regina woman keeping handwritten letters alive with 25 penpals around the world

Lisa Tam-Eng uses social media to find new pen pals to write letters the old-fashioned way.

Lisa Tam-Eng has visited some penpals and her writing has even led to matchmaking

Lisa Tam-Eng shows off one of the many gifts she's received from her many penpals across the globe. (Florence Hwang/CBC)

On any given evening, Lisa Tam-Eng is likely to be crafting a handwritten letter to one of her 25 penpals from around the world. Her cat, Billy, keeps her company while she sits at her dining room table, reflecting on her week and contemplating what to write.

She has amassed three boxes full of letters from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Scotland, Ireland, Hawaii, Iceland, Germany, Finland, Singapore, Barbados and Luxemburg. She has scribbled across 500 pages of stationery. Her fountain pen has required many refills.

I miss having that feeling of opening the mailbox seeing, like, an actual letter that people write by pen.- Lisa Tam-Eng

Tam-Eng's oldest letter dates to 1990, the year she moved from Hong Kong to Canada. She wrote letters to her classmates and relatives. Three years later, Tam-Eng started looking for more international penpals because she wanted to learn more about different cultures. She kept up with them until her third year of university.

Lisa Tam-Eng meets her penpal Josephine Tang for the first time in the mid-1990s. (Submitted by Lisa Tam-Eng)

It wasn't until 2017 that she decided to look for new penpals. While downsizing her house, she discovered her old letter pads and wanted to make use of them. She was tired of only receiving flyers and bills in the mail.

"I miss having that feeling of opening the mailbox seeing, like, an actual letter that people write by pen," she said. "It's really good to see and to look forward to opening the letter."

She found new penpals via letter-writing's greatest modern competitor: social media.

Some of the many letters Lisa Tam-Eng has collected over two years of writing to 25 penpals. (Florence Hwang/CBC)

Meeting in person

After corresponding for a couple of years, Tam-Eng and Josephine Tang decided to meet in person in Hong Kong. At that time, neither email nor the Internet were widely used. They had exchanged only one photo with each other, so they described what they looked like, what they would be wearing and how their hair would be done.

"The first thing that we talked about was the things that we mentioned about what we like to eat, referring back to the letters we wrote," said Tam-Eng.

The longest penpal relationship she has is 26 years and counting. Two of these penpals attended her wedding banquet in Hong Kong.

The first thing that we talked about was the things that we mentioned about what we like to eat.- Lisa Tam-Eng

Tam-Eng is very organized. She has a logbook to track who she has written to, when, and what items she has sent them so she doesn't accidentally send them something twice. She likes to send small souvenirs, like pins, postcards and photographs from her travels. She chooses things that are unique to Canada, like a Tim Horton's commemorative sleeve for the country's 150th anniversary.

Lisa Tam-Eng writes a letter to one of her 25 penpals at her dining room table. (Florence Hwang/CBC)

Romance blossoms

Romance has blossomed through Tam-Eng's penpal experience. A penpal from Hong Kong, Brenda, was introduced to a friend of one of her penpals, who lived in the United States. They started to write to each other. He visited her a few times in Hong Kong. She visited him in the States. He proposed. She said yes.

"It's very cute, I thought. I was worried because I thought, 'Oh my goodness, how are they going to [get along] because they are from two different cultures?' " said Tam-Eng. "But in the end, it worked out because they've got three beautiful girls."

Although she hasn't been able to visit yet, Tam-Eng has sent their daughters gifts, like a few pages from a colouring book that has Canada imagery.

She plans on eventually travelling to some of the other countries where her penpals reside. It was one of the reasons she started communicating with so many people around the world in the first place.

Lisa Tam-Eng writes notes in her log book to keep track of who's she written to and what she's sent them. (Florence Hwang/CBC)


Florence Hwang is a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan.


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