Moulding Heman into Ironman

Moulding Heman into Ironman
Heman Tan, 47, a ceramic artist, executive chef and ironman triathlete, pictured on 14 January, 2015.

Heman Tan opens the door to his 1,900 sq ft jumbo flat in Woodlands.

A poster of him in a chef's suit hangs on one wall, partly obscured by four racing bicycles stacked one atop the other on a rack. Many of the ceramic art pieces that dot the spacious apartment were sculpted and fired in his home studio which is equipped with a kiln, potter's wheel and work bench.

True to his artistic leanings, the 47-year-old chef, ceramic artist and Ironman triathlete is fashionably decked out in a navy blue floral shirt and a pair of powder blue slim-fit trousers.

He is polite and a little diffident, but that, he says with a laugh, has not always been the case. "You wouldn't have liked me in the past," he says. "I was a b*****d. Every word which came out from my mouth was foul."

Up until his early 20s, he was every parent's nightmare. Dyslexic and deaf in one ear, he dropped out of school in Secondary 2 and became a hell-raising gangster and drug addict.

Two people changed him: the late sculptor and Cultural Medallion winner Ng Eng Teng, and accountant Lydia Lim, who became his wife.

"And when I really matured was when I became a father," says Mr Tan, who has three children aged between eight and 13.

Driven by a hunger to make good, he conquered his learning disability and slogged tirelessly. From a humble cook, he is today the executive chef of JP Pepperdine, overseeing about 30 food outlets including 17 Jack's Place and four Hoshigaoka Japanese restaurants in everything from menu planning to quality control and training.

He says sculptor Ng, regarded by many as the Grandfather of Sculpture in Singapore, once asked him if he wanted to be an ordinary man. "I said I didn't mind. But he scolded me, saying, 'Why do you want to be an ordinary man? You only live life once. You should aspire to be someone special.'"

The third of five children of a vegetable dealer and his wife, he started life on a morbid note.

When he was five, he saw his 12-year-old sister killed in a road accident right in front of him.

"We were going to cross the road together but she stopped and told me to stay where I was and that she would come back and get me," he recalls. Then she was hit, the accident happening in front of their walk-up flat at Havelock Road.

The shock and sight of her bloodied, lifeless body traumatised him. "I couldn't touch or stand the sight of raw meat and blood or anything red for years. It took me a long time to conquer the fear," he says.

The episode probably disturbed him psychologically in other ways. It did not help that he was dyslexic and lost the hearing in his left ear after a high fever when he was 10. He became impossible at home and in school. He joined a gang, picked up drinking and smoking at 11 and moved on to drugs including heroin at 13.

"I just couldn't cope. I could not read or spell. I could not do maths, especially multiplication and percentages," he recalls, of his days at Nan Chiau Primary School. "My teachers could not understand why my English was so poor and my Mandarin so terrible. To them, I was just lazy and naughty."

He dropped out of Bukit Merah Secondary in Secondary Two. By then, he had driven his parents - who had lost a second child to illness - to their wits' end.

He ended up in a boys' home where he stayed for more than a year after he left school. "It made me even more angry. I asked myself why they didn't want me any more and why they put me in this place?"

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