Pimp, drug dealer, now Hokkien mee master

Pimp, drug dealer, now Hokkien mee master
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The open flames surge bright and strong, goading the seasoned wok into a state of frenzied heat.

Into the mixture of lard, garlic and egg goes a mammoth heap of egg and rice noodles. Dexterously wielding a spatula in his right hand, and a ladle in his left, Lee Eng Keat expertly fries the noodles, often tossing them up in the air.

The task requires strong arms and even sturdier wrists, which the 55-year-old obviously possesses, despite his slight and skinny frame.

If you are lucky, the wait for a portion of Kim Keat Fried Hokkien Mee in Block 92, Toa Payoh Lorong 4 is 15 minutes. More often than not, it is half an hour, if not more.

Watching him at work, one would think that Mr Lee has been at his craft at least half his life.

He has not. He sold Hokkien mee for just a few years from the late 1980s and only opened his Toa Payoh stall last year.

The bulk of his life was spent on endeavours a lot more nefarious like drug dealing and pimping. He has been in and out of prison countless times, received 34 strokes of the rotan and spent nearly 20 years behind bars.

He turned over a new leaf several years ago while in the slammer for the sake of his grandchildren.

"I failed my mother, my wife and my children but I told myself that I would not fail my grandchildren. For their sake, I had to let go of my past and be a better person," says the divorcee, who has one son, two stepdaughters and five grandchildren. His children are aged between 35 and 41; his grandchildren, between five and 21.

His life reads like a melodrama. He is a love child. "I've never seen my biological father. He and my mother split when I was a baby. I don't know who he is and I've never asked," says Mr Lee, in a mixture of English and Mandarin.

Not long after that, his mother became the mistress of a salesman and gave birth to four other children. The former student of May North Primary School grew up in Jalan Bahagia and Toa Payoh.

With a defeated shrug, he says he did not have much of a childhood.

His time after school was spent at home looking after his younger step-siblings. His mother, he adds, had psychological problems and was often not at home.

His rebellious streak surfaced in his early teens after he fell in with bad company.

Asked if he was recruited, he chortles and quips: "I joined very willingly. The gangsters were always in the neighbourhood and they seemed to lead very interesting lives."

Although an able student, he completely lost interest in his studies and quit Anderson Secondary School when he was 14.

For pocket money, he would resort to petty theft and do a bit of illegal hawking.

When he was 15, he and two friends decided mugging and extortion would be a lot more lucrative.

Armed with knives, the trio relieved one man of his wallet and watch and were hoping for a second victim when they got arrested by patrolling policemen.

"Other people got big money robbing, I got arrested on my first try," he says. He was sent for remand, and later sentenced to three years in a boys' home in Clementi.

"My family didn't bail me out. If they did, I could have been put on probation. My mother had psychological issues, my stepfather didn't want to do it," he says.

Instead of rehabilitating him, the stint made him even worse.

"There were so many bad hats in there. I was very curious and would ask them: 'Eh, you come in for what crime ah? And you, what crime ah?' I learnt all that was bad."

After his release at 17 in 1977, his stepfather found him an assistant foreman job on a construction site.

"My salary was $500 and because I was sociable, the contractor liked me and would give me allowances here and there. The pay was not too bad for a teen in the 1970s," he says.

Not long after, he met and married a waitress who was a single mother of two young daughters.

"I'd never had family love, so when I met someone who was willing to love me so much, I wanted to set up my own home," says Mr Lee.

Things hummed along for a while until a friend introduced him to heroin. "I was curious," he says, using a word which crops up often in our two-hour chat.

Although he puked his guts out the first time, he persisted and was soon addicted. "I was doing it several times a day and had to supplement my income by illegally hawking chestnuts to afford the habit."

He was nabbed when he was 20, and sent to the Sembawang Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) for 12 months. His wife had already given birth to their son when he was released in 1981.

"I went back to the construction industry. The pay was decent but I now had four mouths to feed. I didn't want my wife to work, I wanted her to stay home and look after the kids," he says.

He went back to illegal hawking but a friend convinced him that he could make more money through pimping. He soon had a stable of 17 foreign sex workers whom he installed in an apartment in Balestier.

Asked if he wrestled with his conscience, he just shook his head.

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