Chai Chee's good Samaritan, find out why he inherited flat from neighbour

Mr Tan Cheng Tey serving food prepared by his wife and himself, as well as his church, to needy residents from the Chai Chee area yesterday. Since late last year, Mr Tan has been serving meals at the void deck of his block so as to interact more with
Mr Tan Cheng Tey serving food prepared by his wife and himself, as well as his church, to needy residents from the Chai Chee area yesterday. Since late last year, Mr Tan has been serving meals at the void deck of his block so as to interact more with residents and to gather feedback on food he cooks.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Ex-businessman, wife have been providing free meals to needy Chai Chee residents for 5 years

Step out of the lift on the ninth floor of Block 23, Chai Chee Road at lunchtime and you will notice the smell of food being cooked.

The aroma comes from a two-room rental flat in which retiree Tan Cheng Tey, 65, and his Filipino wife, Ms Maria Malana, 46, keep busy in a tiny kitchen.

When The Sunday Times visited them yesterday at noon, they were cooking fried egg and curry chicken for about 40 residents in the area.

The flat is very small. The kitchen is so cramped, the fridge has to be placed outside it. Next to the fridge is the TV set, with the main door just a few metres away.

The couple have been providing free lunches to the needy in their neighbourhood, almost every day, for five years.

A SIMPLE LIFE

I don't need to live in a bigger house, and I don't need the money for myself. I've lived in a bigger house before.

MR TAN CHENG TEY

Mr Tan's charity work was featured in the news last week, when it was revealed that his 66-year-old neighbour, Mr Teo, left his three-room flat to him.

Mr Teo, who lived alone and died of cancer last October, received free lunches from Mr Tan for three years. Mr Teo also left Mr Tan all his savings of about $20,000.

"Mr Teo was a quiet man, but he'd talk to me, because he saw that I was helpful and doing good work. That's also why he decided to give me his flat," said Mr Tan.

Mr Tan said $2,000 of the $20,000 went to Mr Teo's funeral, while the remainder was donated to Blessed Grace Church, which both men attended.

As for the flat, legal procedures to transfer ownership are still ongoing, but Mr Tan said he is likely to sell it and use the proceeds - estimated to be about $270,000 - to benefit more people in the area.

"I don't need to live in a bigger house, and I don't need the money for myself. I've lived in a bigger house before," said Mr Tan, who once owned a two-storey terraced house in Tanjong Katong.

He lived there for a decade, owning businesses in electronics, then in fashion retail - until the 1998 Asian financial crisis hit.

He then downgraded to a five-room HDB flat in Bedok and became a security guard. As money got tight, he downgraded again, finally settling for his current place in Chai Chee about six years ago.

Along the way, he divorced his first wife - they quarrelled often when he was stressed with work, he said - and he married again, this time to Ms Malana, about 10 years ago. He has a 45-year-old son, who works in a shipping company, with his first wife.

When asked why he does not want to live in the three-room flat which Mr Teo left to him, the soft-spoken Mr Tan said: "I don't need to stay in a big house. It's more important that you can sleep well. Last time, running the businesses was stressful. I may have stayed in a castle, but I could not sleep well."

His food project started shortly after he almost lost his life in a cycling accident five years ago. He was riding down a slope when he pulled the brakes and his bicycle tipped over. He hit his head and suffered nerve damage.

According to him, doctors had told his family that he could be left brain dead if he remained unconscious for more than three days. But near the end of the last day, close to midnight, he said: "I saw a very bright light, like sunlight, and I woke up the next day."

He believes God saved him.

After his recovery, his church asked him to help cook for a resident who lived alone and hardly left home. He agreed.

Soon, he decided to cook for more residents, partly because it was more economical to do so.

His wife cooked or bought food and delivered it to residents on weekdays, while he helped out on weekends.

Ms Malana said she did not mind being the only one cooking then.

"If I'm sick, I won't cook, or sometimes I dabao (take-away) from the market. And there are neighbours who help with delivering the food."

She was shy and did not say much to The Sunday Times, but she has learnt a bit of Hokkien after years of talking to residents.

After Mr Teo's death, Mr Tan decided to devote more time to the food project.

He retired three months ago and now helps his wife to cook on weekdays, too.

"If I sell Mr Teo's flat and the money is used to buy food for more residents, or even help with their medical bills, then I think I should do this full-time," he said.

Mr Tan and his wife head to the market early each day to get groceries, and spend about $30 to $50, out of their own pockets.

Occasionally, such as during the recent Chinese New Year holiday, the couple takes a break from cooking and gives a treat to residents at a nearby foodcourt instead.

Since late last year, Mr Tan has been serving the food to residents at the void deck, to interact more with them and have a better idea of whether they like the food.

But while there were about 70 residents served last year, this number has fallen to 40 now.

"Some of them gossip or can't get along, so they go elsewhere for food," he said.

He tries to keep the food healthy while at the same time appealing to residents' tastes.

His lunch menu is nothing fancy and is no buffet spread, but the help he provides goes beyond free food, he said.

"It's not so much the food, but through the conversations over food, that we build relationships with them, learn about their families, their needs. Sometimes, I liaise with the church if more help is needed, like if someone has to be accompanied for a health check-up."

Residents are thankful for Mr Tan's generosity and some, such as Madam Phang Ean Lan, 57, have even helped in their own simple ways. She provides coffee for the residents every Saturday.

"He and his wife are very helpful, even though their kitchen is so narrow. And the food, especially his char kway teow, is delicious."

The elderly people at the void deck of Block 23 yesterday were a mixed crowd - some were chatty, some kept to their cliques, while others sat alone.

Saturdays tend to be livelier with about a dozen volunteers from Blessed Grace Church befriending the elderly.

Mr Tan said he has gained more satisfaction helping the poor, compared with his younger days as a businessman. He added: "You don't need a big amount of capital to help people. You just need a willing heart. If you do it from your heart, you'll find a way to help others."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Doing charity work out of a rental flat'. Print Edition | Subscribe