SINGAPORE - On a typical day at Choon Ming Bao Dian in Jalan Kuras, off Upper Thomson Road, you can spot as many as eight workers manning the relatively quiet bao shop.
Four of them have a history of mental illness or are mentally-challenged, and three are in their 60s and 70s. A worker in her 20s oversees them.
Shopowner Sarah Tan, 49, says she needs only two workers to run the shop throughout the day.
"But I wanted to give a job to the rest of them so that they, too, can make a living," she says. They each earn about $1,000 to $1,200 a month.
Over the years, she has employed at least 50 less fortunate people in her business, which includes 13 other bun stalls, mostly in Ang Mo Kio and Yishun.
Besides employing those with a history of mental illness, she has also helped single mothers, ex-offenders and foreign workers who had been cheated by their agents.
Her home has also doubled up as a temporary shelter for the homeless, including foreign workers and unwed teenage mothers.
She moved from an Ang Mo Kio four-room HDB flat to Jalan Kuras last year to live above her bao shop, which is the central kitchen for her bao stalls.
While most of the people she helped have eventually found a place of their own, a few continue to live with her.
One of them is Agnes, an 18-month-old daughter of a young unwed mum, who has been living with Madam Tan since she was born.
Two other children - Samuel, 11, and Sabrinah, nine - have been sharing her home since 2008. Their father, a drug addict, is in jail.
Madam Tan's charity work extends beyond Singapore. She has also donated $200,000 to build four orphanages, two in Johor Baru, and two in Zhuhai and Guangdong in China.
She has not always been concerned with the less fortunate.
Born in Seremban, Malaysia, in 1964, she was the second of three children. Her late father was a gambler and her mother, now 72, was a seamstress.
As Madam Tan did not like to study, she quit school after Primary 6 to help her mother support the family.
She became an apprentice in a bridal shop, where she learnt to do make-up for brides-to-be. The female boss, whom she called "gan ma" (godmother), taught her to run a business. Later, she set up her own beauty salon and fashion shop.
Her two brothers went on to university. The elder one, now 51, is a lawyer while the younger one, 33, heads a department in a company in Seremban which sells oral care products.
Madam Tan married when she was 20 but her husband died in a car accident a few years later. She has three children, two boys now aged 25 and 22 and a 17-year-old daughter.
To make a better living for their sake, she sold her beauty and fashion business, mortgaged her house and, with about $40,000 cash, came to Singapore alone in 1993 to set up a shop in City Plaza selling clothes.
Thanks to her shrewd business sense, money started to roll in.
However, she spent it on branded goods such as clothes, shoes, watches and bags. She never left the house without make-up and often went for facials and massages.
"When I think about it now, I am filled with regret," says Madam Tan, who usually buys her clothes from Giordano these days and finds applying make-up "troublesome".
She adds: "I could have helped so many people with all that money."
The turning point came in 2004. She was then living in a three-room flat in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 with her daughter, Rachel, who had come here to study.
She patronised the coffee shop below her block and often noticed a 20-year-old Malaysian apprentice at the bao stall being scolded by his "shifu" (mentor).
She recalls: "I thought he was hardworking and had the potential to set up his own stall."
So she rented the stall from the owner of the coffee shop, dismissed the shifu and got the apprentice to run the show.
As the business grew, she closed her clothing business and opened Choon Ming Bao Dian stalls at other coffee shops.
The apprentice later went on to set up his own bao business.
Madam Tan began helping other people along the way.
When she found out that friends of her workers from China were jobless after being cheated by agents, for instance, she offered them a job at her stalls. Or she would help them get a job through her church contacts and friends. She also let some of them stay temporarily at her flat.
Her involvement with single mothers came by chance, too.
In 2007, a counsellor at a shelter for abused women approached her to help Madam Chen Mei Yue, a mother of four young children, find a job at one of her stalls.
Madam Chen, 45, who supplements her income by baking cakes at home, says: "I will always be grateful to her for giving me that headstart."
Word got around and soon, Madam Tan found herself being approached by other single or jobless mothers.
"As a single mother myself, I can empathise with their situation," she says.
Over the years, she has helped more than 20 of these women.
Today, six of her stalls are run by single mothers or women whose husbands cannot work due to illness or other reasons.
She taught them to make their own bao and be their own boss, although their stalls still carry the Choon Ming Bao Dian name.
Madam Tan contines to watch over the stalls. "If their business is not doing well, I would try to introduce more business to them. I want to make sure they earn at least $1,200 and save at least $800 a month," she says.
In 2008, a church member told her about two children, Samuel and Sabrinah Teo, then aged six and four, who were roaming the streets in Geylang and sleeping in nearby parks. Their parents were drug addicts - their father was busy looking for ways to get his hands on drugs while their Indonesian mother had been repatriated.
"They were dirtier than beggars," Madam Tan recalls. "I took them home, cut their hair and gave them a good wash."
She contacted their father and signed him up for drug rehabilitation programmes, but he always quit halfway. Last year, she reported him to the police, who put him behind bars.
"I felt that I had to do so, for the sake of the children. Otherwise, he would never kick the habit," she says.
Soon after that, she had the chance to set up orphanages overseas. While on mission trips to China, she learnt that two villages, one in Zhuhai and the other in Guangdong, each needed an orphanage.
Later, she found out from a pastor friend in Johor Baru that the city had the same need too.
She donated $200,000 and helped raise funds to build these orphanages in 2008 and 2009. The two in China can house up to 400 children each, while the two in Johor Baru can accommodate about 20 to 30 children each.
During those two years, she would spend a month or two at a stretch overseas to supervise the construction of the orphanages.
"My daughter, who was then about 12, really hated me because I wasn't spending enough time with her," she says with a trace of regret. "I still feel bad about it now."
Her daughter Rachel, who is now 17 and studying information technology at a ITE, recalls: "I often quarrelled with my mum when she was home. I just couldn't understand why she was not spending time with me."
But she began to better appreciate what her mother was doing when she was in her late teens.
"She was doing something good and meaningful by helping others. I told myself I cannot be so selfish," says Rachel.
Over the last few years, she has been visiting the orphanges her mother set up in Johor Baru during her school holidays. She helps to clean up the place and teach the children to bake.
Nowadays, Madam Tan can afford to spend more time in Singapore. The orphanages are run by trained staff and they approach her only when they need money.
She has been busy helping another group too - young unwed mothers.
Having heard that Madam Tan helps the less fortunate, her daughter's tuition teacher referred a friend's pregnant daughter to her in 2009.
The 17-year-old had nowhere to go after being turned away by her family. After the teen gave birth, she spent her confinement days at the home of Madam Tan, who hired a confinement woman to take care of her.
Since then, Madam Tan has helped more than 10 of such teenage mums. Most of them return to their families after a month or two.
But one child, 18-month-old Agnes, still lives with her as her mother has yet to return for her.
When SundayLife! visited Madam Tan's shop in Jalan Kuras on Thursday evening, she was helping her staff, who call her "mummy", serve customers.
Dressed in a plain black shirt and pants, she wore no make-up and had her hair scraped back into a bun.
She admits that the shop in the sleepy neighbourhood makes less than $20,000 a month, a third of what she used to earn at her previous shop in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. She moved to the current location last year and pays $9,500 a month in rental.
But she has no regrets. She wanted the bigger space so she could help more people, says Madam Tan, who speaks little English and is more comfortable in Mandarin.
Her shop does not just sell bao though.
She has offered her friend, Madam Esther Tham, 53, a rent-free space to run a zichar stall at her shop.
Madam Tham, who has two daughters aged 17 and 21, needed extra income after her husband suffered a second stroke last year and became bedridden.
Canisters of mooncakes made by a churchmate dot the shop counter. Their baker is a grateful Madam Jackie Pook, 44, a widow with two teenage daughters whose husband died of cancer in 2008.
She says: "The mooncakes are an extra income for me. I used to just take orders from people but I can sell more here."
A bakery shares part of the shop space.
Madam Tan's home upstairs, which has five bedrooms, is spacious.
Taking pride of place in the hallway is a photograph of her with her mother, the toddler and her three children in graduation gowns that was taken last year.
She shares her bedroom with her daughter and the toddler, Agnes, who sleeps in a cot.
At the other end of the hallway is her younger son Bryan's room. The 22-year-old came to Singapore in 2008 to study music at Lasalle College of the Arts. He now works as a music teacher. Her elder son, Kah Leong, 25, works as an account executive in Seremban.
The two other rooms are for the foreign workers from China and Malaysia who work at her shop.
There is also a room with a double- decker bed for Samuel and Sabrinah.
Madam Tan says her bao business makes about $60,000 to $70,000 a month, which she says is barely enough to cover all her expenses.
She uses her savings and money made from property investments in Malaysia to fund her charity work.
She receives a salary of about $5,000 a month and has hardly any savings. But she is not worried. "I believe God will give me enough money," she says.
She is already thinking of who she can help next.
"While visiting the orphanage in Johor Baru, the boys there told me they don't like school. It might be more useful for them to learn a skill, such as learning to bake bao at my shop. Or maybe I can set up a school in Johor Baru to teach them useful skills so that they can earn a living."
Pastor Lee Hak Ming, 48, from Faith Community Baptist Church, which Madam Tan attends, has known her for eight years. What impresses him most about her, he says, is that she gives without expecting anything in return.
"About two years ago, I asked if she could help this man who wanted to start a food stall but did not have enough money," he recalls.
"She lent him a few thousand dollars to set up a stall in a school canteen. But till today, he has not managed to make enough to pay her back. In the end, she decided to just write it off."
Madam Tan, who is a Singapore PR, is matter-of-fact about the good work she has done.
"If people come to me for help, I will try my best to help."
But she will not help blindly.
Paraphrasing a verse from the Bible, she says: "I don't want to just give him fish, I want to show him how to fish."
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