Here comes 'Uncle' with his free vegetables in Choa Chu Kang

A small crowd picking their greens from the truck of Mr Cheu, who distributes - for free - unsold vegetables from some stallholders at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre to residents of Choa Chu Kang.
A small crowd picking their greens from the truck of Mr Cheu, who distributes - for free - unsold vegetables from some stallholders at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre to residents of Choa Chu Kang.PHOTO: STOMP

Choa Chu Kang residents have semi-retired man to thank for their greens twice a week

Twice a week, residents in Choa Chu Kang gather at a certain carpark to wait for the man everyone calls Uncle.

Like clockwork, he turns up at noon on Wednesdays and 10am on Sundays. By then, dozens of residents would have gathered, sharing jokes and news about the neighbourhood.

Uncle turns out to be a publicity- shy, semi-retired vegetable seller who told The Sunday Times last Wednesday to call him Mr Cheu.

There were crates of vegetables to distribute and he did it all by himself. The residents, mostly women, then filled their plastic bags and trolleys with kangkong, chye sim, spinach and other leafy vegetables. Some days, there are also cucumbers, carrots and eggplants.

After the residents took their pick, they walked over to the 75-year-old to make payment in the form of a nod and a simple "Thank you, Uncle".

"I don't sell, I give them away. I bring them here to give to anyone who wants," said Mr Cheu, speaking in Mandarin.

 
 

WASTE IS UNACCEPTABLE

I grew up during a time when Singapore was very poor. My parents had 14 children... Seeing vegetables get thrown away is unacceptable. So I bring them here to give to people to eat.

MR CHEU, better known as 'Uncle'

He declined to give his full name or be photographed. He lives somewhere in the neighbourhood, he said, with his wife and two of his four children.

Mr Cheu has been in the business for 50 years, and said he has been giving away unsold vegetables for over 20 years. He started doing this after he moved to Choa Chu Kang from Lim Chu Kang, where he ran a vegetable farm until the lease expired in 1992.

He then started selling vegetables imported from Malaysia in Chinatown, in a corner north of the Singapore River he calls "xiao po".

He then moved to a stall at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. He gave that up and now helps his friend who has a stall there.

Mr Cheu said he collects leftover vegetables from several stalls at the the centre, packs them into crates and then distributes them.

"I grew up during a time when Singapore was very poor. My parents had 14 children; eight girls and six boys. We were very poor and we struggled," he said. "Seeing vegetables get thrown away is unacceptable. So I bring them here to give to people to eat."

Domestic helper Maricel Gatlabayan, 42, said she looks out for Uncle from the window of her employer's flat. She has so far collected cabbage, kangkong, carrots and potatoes from Mr Cheu.

She tried to pay him the first time, but he refused the money.

"I admire him... He is a very good man," said the Filipina.

Another resident of the area, Mr Lim Chong Ling, 60, described Mr Cheu as a "kind-hearted man".

"He is fair. If he has only a small quantity of a certain vegetable, he will distribute it to make sure as many people as possible get it," said the fishmonger. Mr Lim said he has seen Mr Cheu stick to his routine for at least the past five years.

He said he does not collect vegetables often as he seldom cooks.

But not everyone approves of Mr Cheu's practice.

One resident, who declined to be named, said it would be better if the vegetables were given to a charity.

And some stallholders at the wholesale centre refuse to give him their leftovers, Mr Cheu said. "They would rather throw away their leftovers," he said.

He explained that he does not want the publicity because of an encounter sometime in the 1990s, when the authorities swooped in after a resident complained that he was selling vegetables illegally at the void deck of a block.

He said two government officials turned up to observe the distribution but left after they learnt he was giving the vegetables away for free.

So that is why Mr Cheu prefers to continue his routine quietly. "I don't want to attract attention. Anyway, I am just giving away leftover vegetables, it is not a big deal," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Here comes 'Uncle' with his free vegetables'. Print Edition | Subscribe