Helping out time is bonding time

SINGAPORE - Regulars at this Jurong West coffee shop are used to the sight of a roly-poly boy running around.

He knows them well enough to take their orders even before they say it.

"Carrot cake, small, black, a bit of chilli" or "carrot cake, white, lots of chilli", Brendan Lim, nine, calls out merrily to his maternal grandparents.

Mr Puah Joo Heng, 66, and Madam Lim Say Lee, 61, have been running the Yan Xin Carrot Cake stall at Block 442, Jurong West Street Avenue 2 for nearly nine years.

That is after they relocated from the now-defunct Lim Chu Kang Food Centre, where they were for at more than 30 years.

Most weekends, while his peers are fast asleep, Brendan gets up at 5.30am to take a 10-minute bus ride with Madam Lim to the stall, which operates from 6am to 11am.

It is a familiar routine for the Primary 4 pupil from St Andrew's Junior School.

Despite having been "on the job" since he was in K2, Brendan still gets excited about what he does.

So much so that he feels bad about not being able to help out often now.

"Sometimes, I have rugby practice (his co-curricular activity) on Saturday mornings. That means I cannot help my grandparents until the school holidays," he says, eyebrows furrowed in mock exasperation.

Brendan lists his duties proudly: "I take orders, serve orders, clear plates and clean tables."

Other than helping at his grandparents' stall, he also helps to take orders for the drinks vendor and sometimes, the vegetarian food stall.

Brendan's mother, Madam Puah Chun Bee, 41, a customer service agent, says: "They all like him because sometimes, he ends up helping them and not his grandparents."

Her elder son, Nicholas, 16, used to help out the stall too. The Secondary 4 student now takes his turn at his paternal uncle's Western food stall at HarbourFront Centre.

Madam Puah, who also spent her early years at her parents' stall in Lim Chu Kang, says: "My husband and I feel that it's okay for them to do this. They can learn the value of money and how it's not easy to make a living.

"It can also be bonding time (with their grandparents)."

Family bonding is also how Secondary 2 student Elna Tan describes her regular after-school hours and weekends at her parents' fishball noodles stall at People's Park Cooked Food Centre.

Elna, 13, says: "I don't treat this as work, but more like spending time with my parents."

The only child, who is often seen doing homework at the food centre, adds: "My parents don't finish until around 11pm and by the time they get home, I'd probably be asleep.

"So it's better to come here and spend time with them."

Her father, who wants to be known only as Mr Tan, 53, says: "I'm lucky that my daughter does not mind coming to help. But I also don't want her to do it so often now that she is older.

"Sometimes, when customers get drunk and rowdy, they try to be funny."

All of which Elna takes in her stride.

She says: "I take out my mobile phone and ask, 'You want me to call the police?'"

Then she laughs: "It does not happen often. My dad exaggerates."

Mr Tan gives Elna $100 a month and says: "It's not much, but we put it into a bank account for her."

Brendan, on the other hand, does not get paid in cash for his hard work.

But he says: "I get to eat free!"

People: Donations pour in for Yvonne Tan, but worries remain

Well wishes have been pouring for the family of Yvonne Tan Li Xuan since her accident at the drinks stall last month

Since the news broke of her accident, readers have contacted The New Paper to offer cash donations to Yvonne's family. Others have also started fund-raising drives to send money their way.

We understand that her school, Guangyang Secondary School, has started a fund-raising effort.

In a letter to parents and students, principal Benjamin Kwok said that the donations are voluntary and the money will be handed to Yvonne's family to help defray her medical costs.

He also addressed the school regarding the incident during the first assembly of the new school year.

Says Mr Kwok: "The school is in contact with her during this period and will continue to support her when she returns to school."

Others have also started their own drives to raise funds for the family.

Says Madam Lee Buay Huay, 47, who runs the stall beside Mr Tan's: "Now that their stall is not open, it must be a very difficult time for the family.

"(The hawkers here) have pooled together some money to help them."

During his visit last Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the family to not worry about the hospital bill, The Straits Times reported.

But for Yvonne, it is not the money that she is worried about.

She does not know what her Secondary 3 class is as the accident happened before her semester started.

She is also worried about falling behind in her studies.

"I want to recover quickly. I want to get out (of the hospital). It's boring here," she says.

When told about the outpouring of concern from Singaporeans, Yvonne said she is grateful and humbled.

"I feel quite paiseh (embarrassed). I want to thank everyone for supporting me through what is probably the toughest time of my life so far," she says.

Just before we left the hospital, Mr Tan, who had been standing beside his daughter throughout the interview, put his arms around this reporter.

Quietly, he said that while the accident was unfortunate, it did remind him of one thing.

"I'm lucky to have her as a daughter," he says simply.

Inspired by a 14-year-old

Call me cynical, but I have seen too many cases of children abandoning their parents to think that filial piety still exists.

Just last year alone, the Commission for the Maintenance of Parents saw 257 cases.

This means that there were 257 cases of elderly parents who pursued legal action to obtain financial assistance from their children.

So when I met Yvonne at the hospital, her story not only touched my heart, it also forced me to do some soul-searching of my own.

A sheepish smile emerged as I introduced myself at the hospital, revealing her nervousness of having yet another stranger visit her since the accident.

It must have been how she felt when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sat by her bedside last Sunday afternoon, telling her the story about one-armed John Wesley Powell, who became the first person to navigate the Grand Canyon.

Her takeaway: "I can survive with one hand too."

For Mr Tan, the drinks stall will be shuttered until Yvonne's condition no longer worries him.

It is clear that the accident did a number on the Tan family and they are still trying to recover from the shock of it all.

Said Mr Tan: "We're grateful to everyone for their help, but we just want to move on."

Perhaps they do not see that Yvonne's strength of character, her dedication to her parents and the family's task of getting back on their feet has touched many people, including me.

Her story is an outlier; something we do not see everyday in the news.

After all, how many teenagers would willingly spend their free time to help with their parents' business nowadays?

Not me, a 26-year-old whose teenage years were not that long ago. I am ashamed.

To be fair though, my father, an insurance salesman, was never going to get help from me in selling policies and meeting clients.

But his other interests in gardening and woodcarving have never piqued my curiosity either. There were always school assignments to do, friends to meet, relationships to maintain.

So whenever my dad asked me to help out with a new project, my reaction would always be a groan or a roll of the eyes.

Too tired, too busy, no time.

Some would say these are excuses, and they are. The problem is that parents think they are valid excuses, so they let it slide.

Yet, it is not something that I imagine Yvonne would ever say to her parents.

I left the hospital with a tinge of guilt and a desire to spend time with my parents.

I am sorry it took so long for me to get here, when Yvonne is already a pro in this area at 14.

Filial to take on a tough job

My son, the older of two children, is the same age as Yvonne - and to be honest, I don't think I'd be able to get him to help out at a stall if I have one.

As a mother - and someone who eats out often at hawker centres and kopi tiams - it always warms my heart when I see young children or teenagers helping out at their parents' or grandparents' stalls.

I don't ever miss the chance to stop and ask them how old they are, or comment, "Wow, you are a good kid."

And I'd often point out to both my children - my daughter is 13 - about how they should be grateful for their lot in life.

Yes, grateful. Because it isn't easy trying to straddle schoolwork and helping out at the stalls. And even if you don't have to fry that orh luak (oyster omelette) or cook the fishball noodles, it's still not an easy job.

Besides, what is the chance of you getting paid since it is "family business" which you are helping out in?

I shared before in this newspaper how I once "worked" as a hawker's assistant for several months. And I seriously thought it was the toughest job possible.

The hawker, who sold Western food at the Circuit Road Food Centre, happened to be my father. He had just retired after years of being an executive chef for some of the top hotels.

Dad didn't want to employ any assistants and couldn't really work with mum. So in the end, my three siblings and I took turns to be his assistant.

As I was the only one not working then, my turn at being assistant came more frequently.

What is even more interesting - or strange, depending on how you look at it - is that out of the eight hawkers that I approached in the past week, six turned down my requests for an interview.

Four hawkers did not have any strong reasons, except "No, thank you. We don't want or need the publicity or attention".

Two hawkers said "yes" at first, only to apologise later because their son/daughter did not want their schoolmates to see them in the papers. Only two were willing to share their stories.

It is tempting to analyse why they fear their kids being teased - do we think that being a hawker is somehow a "lesser" job, or that having a hawker in the family is a stigma?

But suffice to say, parents, when you read this, let's reinforce how noble hawkers are, shall we?

In light of those have turned down the interview, it goes to show how more precious it is to appreciate the young ones who toil with their parents. They ask not for anything in return.

It is an act of filial piety.


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