TransCab boss Teo Kiang Ang was an unlikely bidder for an ink painting by Beijing artist Liu Yanshui at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's gala dinner and fund-raising concert last October.
Never known to be an art lover, Mr Teo submitted a winning bid of $60,000 for the masterpiece.
The move came as a surprise to many at the evening's event, which raised a total of $1.16 million for the orchestra at the Ritz-Carlton.
"I did it for my friend Chan Kok Hua, a gallery owner and fellow Teochew clansman who had donated the painting," said the businessman, who, apart from his 5,000-strong taxi fleet, also runs Union Energy, which has been distributing bottled gas to homes and industry for more than 40 years now.
The 66-year-old is deeply involved in the Teochew community here.
Just a month ago, he was elected president of Chui Huay Lim, a 170-year-old social club, originally a gentleman's club for the wealthy in the Teochew community.
China-born Mr Teo, who moved to Singapore with his mother from Shantou in Guangdong province when he was 10 to join his bus-conductor and odd-job-labourer father, is emerging as an arts patron of sorts and prominent community leader.
A strong supporter of Teochew opera, he is honorary president of the two oldest troupes here, Er Woo Amateur and Dramatic Association and Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association.
He also now chairs a third troupe, Nam Wah Opera Limited, after donating more than $200,000 to form the company a year ago.
These appointments are on top of his leadership roles in many other Teochew charity groups, grassroots organisations as well as clan associations over the past two decades or so, including as vice-president of the four-year-old Teochew Federation recently.
Last year, he was also appointed to head the cultural group at Ngee Ann Kongsi, a wealthy philanthropic foundation of the Teochew community here.
"It's time I give back to society since my wife and some of my children are now able to help me run my businesses," said Mr Teo, who is married with two sons and five daughters.
For example, his eldest child Hark Piang, 39, executive director of Union Energy, has, together with other siblings, expanded his gas business into other areas recently.
They bought a health supplements company, which is bringing an additional $1 million in revenue each month.
Youngest daughter Yuqing, 17, is a first-year junior college student.
His wife, Ms Tan Lee Tiang, 55, is helping him run TransCab, Singapore's second-largest taxi fleet after ComfortDelGro.
Mr Teo said his firm's revenue was cut by as much as 20 per cent when newcomers Uber and Grab Taxi entered the market recently.
"But we have since recovered and the business has stabilised," said Mr Teo, whose business success is a rags-to-riches story.
His ventures include property and other investments.
An only child, he was forced to drop out of school in Secondary 1 to start work after his father died of tuberculosis in 1966, aged only 37.
He began doing odd jobs at a trading company in town, including cleaning toilets, while his mother worked as a washerwoman and later as a live-in maid with a wealthy family.
He was left alone, living with his maternal grandmother in a village in Hougang before he ran his own business after turning 21.
He first dealt with porcelain and plastic household items before delivering gas cylinders to all corners of Singapore in the early 1970s.
He has never looked back since, steadily building his business empire and becoming the "gas tycoon and taxi towkay" that he is known as today.
"I want to help the needy in society now because I was poor once," said Mr Teo, who is now giving as much as $1 million annually to various charitable causes.
Apart from giving back to society, promoting culture is equally important to the tycoon, who had little formal education.
This is why he has devoted much time and effort to supporting arts and culture groups recently.
"I will beef up the cultural programmes at Chui Huay Lim to stage at least five art exhibitions a year and upgrade the level 2 ballroom to sit up to 1,200 people from the present 800 so that more can gather or enjoy the Teochew opera performances we stage there," he said.
He also hopes to attract more younger members to the club by introducing interesting activities and also modern technology in management. Similarly, cultural activities at Ngee Ann Kongsi would also be stepped up, he added.
"A good knowledge and appreciation of one's culture is very important because it is where one finds his or her roots and identity," he said.
This article was first published on August 8, 2016.
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