Retired carpenter's Paris dream fulfilled

Mr Sum Kin Nar, 78, used to build sprawling bungalows with gardens and swimming pools. The retired carpenter now makes miniature structures in his one-room HDB rental flat where he lives alone.
Right: Mr Sum at the Louvre Museum during his five-day trip to Paris two weeks ago, sponsored by an ST reader.
Mr Sum Kin Nar in his Geylang Bahru rental flat. He builds miniature models of houses as a hobby, and also created a model of the Eiffel Tower from the bamboo sticks of a sushi mat. ST FILE PHOTO

78-year-old visits French capital, with all expenses paid by reader after ST report

When Mr Sum Kin Nar built a 30cm-tall model of the Eiffel Tower about five years ago, he relied on photos and his imagination.

The 78-year-old lives alone and depends on public assistance to get by. He had never been to Paris and could not afford to travel there.

Two weeks ago, the retired carpenter fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit the French capital when a reader paid for his trip there after reading his story in The Straits Times.

Mr Sum was featured in the newspaper on Nov 2 in The Lives They Live, a series of stories on ordinary Singaporeans who helped build society here.

He quit studying after primary school and did mainly carpentry work for construction companies and renovation contractors.

He stopped working as a carpenter 17 years ago, at age 61, when companies found him too old for the manual work.

Without a steady income or Central Provident Fund savings, he started receiving $500 a month in ComCare Long Term Assistance and lived in a public rental flat.

The bachelor does not have any family.

To pass time, he started building miniature models of houses about 10 years ago.

He built his model of the Eiffel Tower from the bamboo sticks of a sushi mat. "When I built the model, it was my way of keeping the dream of visiting Paris alive," he said.

After visiting the real Eiffel Tower, he realised he had got some parts of his model wrong. "The real tower has a square tier near the bottom, my model has a round tier," he added with a laugh.

Mr Sum Kin Nar visited the real Eiffel Tower thanks to a Straits Times reader who asked not to be named. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MR SUM KIN NAR

He was struck by how tall the Eiffel Tower is. "I had to take two lifts to the top," he said. "When I looked down from the top, the people at the bottom were about the size of red beans. The cars were slightly bigger, like soya beans."

"It must have been about 100 storeys high; I didn't know that the tower is so tall," he mused.

The Eiffel Tower is 324m tall, or about the height of an 80-storey building.

 Mr Sum at the Louvre Museum during his five-day trip to Paris two weeks ago, sponsored by an ST reader.
Mr Sum at the Louvre Museum during his five-day trip to Paris two weeks ago, sponsored by an ST reader. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MR SUM KIN NAR

Besides the Eiffel Tower, Mr Sum also visited the Louvre Museum and Versailles Palace and Gardens, and took an evening cruise on the River Seine.

He tried French food for the first time. The dish that he enjoyed most was beef stew cooked with red wine. But he found the escargot "too dry".

The 14-hour flight from Singapore to Paris on Air France was the longest he had been in a plane.

Before the Paris trip, the farthest he had been out of Singapore was a trip to north Thailand in the 1970s.

He was accompanied on his trip by an officer from Touch Community Services. All their expenses during the five-day trip were paid by a reader who asked not to be named.

The reader also bought Mr Sum warm clothing and a new suitcase.

The 44-year-old senior executive in the hospitality sector said: "I'd be embarrassed if a big deal is made out of this."

She noted that Mr Sum did not spend his twilight years idling or wallowing in self-pity.

"I have so much respect for him. He must still have a sense of wonder about life to make such beautiful things out of it," she added.

Mr Sum said he was shocked that a newspaper reader would pay for his visit to Paris. "I didn't believe it at first," he said. "It became real to me only when I boarded the plane and was on my way there."

"I never thought that I'd get to visit Paris in my lifetime. I am so happy that I cannot describe how I feel now," he added, his voice cracking.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline 'Retired carpenter's Paris dream fulfilled'. Print Edition | Subscribe