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'Dou Dou' doesn't let growths get him down

Despite the unwanted attention his tumours attract, Jimmy Wee is a man of good cheer

Mr Jimmy Wee exudes confidence as he struts along Rangoon Road to the restaurant where he works, greeting people on the streets and in coffee shops.

At first glance, it might not catch your eye. But take a closer look and you will see he is covered from head to toe with tiny growths.

Mr Wee has a genetic condition known as neurofibromatosis, which causes the growth of thousands of benign tumours on his skin. In some cases, the condition can affect the soft tissue, bone and nervous system.

According to Dr Madeline Ho, a consultant dermatologist with the National Skin Centre, neurofibromatosis is non-contagious and affects an estimated one in 3,000 people worldwide.

The growths began to appear when Mr Wee was about seven years old and slowly spread throughout his body, coming to a halt when he was about 15 years old. His amiable and jovial disposition belies a painful past of enduring jokes and ridicule.

Mr Wee, born into a working- class family, is the youngest of six siblings and the only one affected by the condition. He said he is close to his family and they treat him "like normal". He sees his siblings about once a month.

TIME TO SETTLE DOWN

Now I should think of having a relationship. I'm already 54 years old, I would like someone to look after me when I grow old.

MR JIMMY WEE, who said he had three short-lived relationships but still hopes to buy a home and settle down.

From others, though, he has been called names like leprosy man, bubble man and chickenpox man. He has also been chased away at hawker centres by people ignorant of his predicament.

Despite this, Mr Wee has always maintained a positive mindset.

At the age of 18, he immersed himself in community activities such as the residents' committee youth group in his neighbourhood in the Pek Kio area. He became a member of the youth executive committee, which required him to organise events for residents.

"That experience of meeting people and organising events gave me self-confidence," said Mr Wee.

Of late, he has been given a more endearing nickname, Dou Dou, or Mr Bean, by his close friends. Dou is the Mandarin word for beans, which his tiny tumours resemble. It is a name that Mr Wee rather likes.

Yet, finding acceptance everywhere is still a struggle. In November 2014, Mr Wee started his job washing dishes at Whampoa Keng Fish Head Steamboat Eating House located along Rangoon Road.

He was in the news late last year when a female patron saw him working in the back of the restaurant and made an anonymous call to his boss, Ms Sharon Kwan, 55, asking that he be sacked because of his skin condition.

Ms Kwan refused. "Jimmy is a good worker so I did not see why he should be sacked," she said.

Despite his experience with unpleasantness, the incident shook Mr Wee, who did not want business to be affected because of him. He began to keep a low profile, returning directly to his living quarters down the street, provided by the restaurant, to avoid being seen.

But with the support of Ms Kwan and the many strangers who approached him with him words of encouragement after reading his story in The New Paper and Shin Min Daily News, his self-confidence returned. He hopes to work another four or five years before settling for a less strenuous job.

On his romantic life, he is slightly morose, and said he had three short-lived relationships. He said he called them off as he felt bad for his girlfriends, who would get hostile stares when they went out.

But he is still hoping to buy a home and settle down .

"Now I should think of having a relationship. I'm already 54 years old, I would like someone to look after me when I grow old," he said, hope brimming in his clear eyes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2016, with the headline ''Dou Dou' doesn't let growths get him down'. Print Edition | Subscribe