Wong Kim Hoh Meets...

The Ah Beng hawkers who became Covid-19 heroes and now have their own fine-dining restaurant

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Jason Chua and Hung Zhen Long are teen rebels turned Covid heroes.
The hawkers' efforts to feed those in need during the circuit breaker grabbed hearts and headlines. Now they are venturing on a new journey.

The term Ah Beng is pejorative, used to describe loud and uncouth young Chinese men with questionable sartorial and cultural tastes.

Many would bristle if the label were applied to them. Not Jason Chua and Hung Zhen Long who proclaim themselves card-carrying members of this fraternity.

You can laugh - it doesn't bother them. The duo are secure about who they are.

Anyway, if your mocking taunts get out of line, they are more than capable of beating you to a pulp.

Zhen Long, 27, is a muay thai exponent, and Jason - 27 and heavily tattooed - is a former boxer with the Singapore national team who has taken part in nearly 50 fights.

But they'd probably prefer to expend their energy on more satisfying pursuits, like their new restaurant, Beng Who Cooks, in Tanjong Pagar.

Opened two weeks ago, it serves dishes with intriguing names like Crab's Well (blue swimmer crab, soya sauce ikura, parmesan chips and tomato soup), Bak Chor Rice (flavoured rice with ingredients like white vinegar and onsen egg) and Happy Ending, which on the menu comes with this description: "Surprise! Depends on the pastry chef's mood lor."

It's a new chapter in the storied lives of these two pals. The former hawkers, who ran a stall - also named Beng Who Cooks, in Hong Lim Complex - became Covid-19 heroes when they offered free meals, no questions asked, to anyone who needed them during the circuit breaker.

What they did earned them a nomination, and then a special commendation, for the President's Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards 2020 Special Edition - Our Finest Hour in the City of Good.

Recognised in the "People of Good" category, they were invited to the Istana last month to meet President Halimah Yaacob.

They make quite a pair. Blunt and direct to a fault, Jason obviously doesn't suffer any fools. Zhen Long is more chill and affable.

Their vocabulary may be salty, but both of them are reminders that appearances deceive. These two self-proclaimed Ah Bengs possess more self-awareness, drive and integrity than many of their better-educated and more polished peers.

This, in part, may have been shaped by their experiences, which were not always warm and fuzzy.

Jason is the younger of two children of a couple who run a food business.

"Since the age of 12, I told myself: 'I want to be self-employed, I don't want to work for anybody.'"

When he was 15, the former student of Punggol Secondary School had an experience which, he says, left a "mark" in his heart and hardened him.

His mother had kicked him out of the house after discovering that he had gone to get himself tattooed.

"When I think back, I guess 15 is actually very young," says the lanky man, whose entire back is the canvas for a giant skull.

He hightailed it to his maternal grandmother's house, thinking that he had a cool story to tell his friends. "At that age, your friends are your world," he says.

Sadly, despite several calls and one week of waiting, not even one of them came to visit him.

"That's when I realised my friends were not my world. I told myself: 'If I get my life back together, if I can survive this, I will make sure that I will depend on myself'," he says.

The experience, he says, broke but also built him.

"My friends and partners will tell you I never complain about hard work because I know in life, you have to do things yourself," he says.

It also explains why he loves his grandmother so much, because she sheltered him and fed him for a month before he went home.

Zhen Long, too, went through a formative episode during his teens.

Candidly, he lets on that he mixed with the wrong company and was involved in some unsavoury activities.

"There were quite a few things like fights. Then one day, my friends broke into a shop. I was there. I didn't do anything, but I got arrested because they were breaking the law and I didn't report. So quite suay... I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says, using the Hokkien word for unlucky.

The former Yio Chu Kang Secondary School student ended up in a boys' home, and like Jason, he realised that friends could leave you when you needed them most.

"It was a wake-up call. Your friends are not the ones who visit you or bail you out when you're in trouble. My parents and my sister were the ones who visited me, and they would cry. That's when I told myself: 'Eh, wake up lah!'" says Zhen Long, who has an elder sister.

His father is a painter, and his mother is a part-time helper in a Japanese restaurant.

Hung Zhen Long (left) and Jason Chua's vocabulary may be salty, but both of them are reminders that appearances deceive. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

To get rid of his teen angst and aggression, he took up muay thai. Through friends who were also into combat sports, he met the tattooed boxer who is now his business partner.

Trading fists with an opponent in a squared ring suits Jason's lone wolf personality.

Unlike team sports, a boxer is ultimately responsible for his own triumph or defeat, he says.

The happiness that comes with a victory or the sadness with a defeat is something he doesn't have to share or explain.

"When you lose and you're sad, no one can understand that sadness."

Turning introspective, he says that boxing was also a coping mechanism, an escape from the painful thoughts he harboured.

"Perhaps I'm stuck in that time of my life when my friends were my world and my world gave up on me," he says.

Before the duo joined hands and became business partners two years ago, they tried their hands at a number of things.

Zhen Long studied electronic engineering at the Institute Of Technical Education and, later, psychology in a private school.

He worked at nightspots and several food and beverage (F&B) outlets, did a stint in retail and also sold cars.

"I hated the job because I had no interest in cars. But the money attracted me. But after a while, life felt stagnant. I asked myself if I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, and actually felt depressed."

In fact, he had a bout with depression. Because he was studying psychology, he recognised the symptoms and went to see a counsellor.

"I was diagnosed with dysthymia or something like that," he says, referring to the mood disorder that results in - among other symptoms - disturbed sleep, low energy and a sense of hopelessness. "Sometimes I couldn't breathe and I'd break out in a cold sweat and break down."

Counselling helped.

Jason, meanwhile, studied sports science at Republic Polytechnic.

The former competitive boxer harboured dreams of becoming a personal trainer, but decided against it after an internship at a gym where he found the culture "toxic and poisonous".

He had a brief stint as a cargo handler, worked at several F&B outlets and eventually took up a culinary course at OSAC International College.

Egged on by the praise of friends who had tasted his cooking, he poured his savings into starting Beng Who Cooks at Hong Lim Market and Food Centre two years ago with a couple of partners.

By then, he already had nearly 90 tried-and-tested recipes.

Zhen Long came on board about eight months after Beng Who Cooks started, initially to help out. Two months later, after Jason's original partners left, Zhen Long took a stake in the business.

They have learnt to work with each other. Having been friends for more than a decade helps; there's nothing they cannot tell each other.

Zhen Long, says Jason, has also calmed him down and made him realise he doesn't have to be so hard on himself.

Because they are cheeky and friendly, the two quickly became a presence at the food centre, where they could, each day, sell up to 70 protein bowls - their speciality - pre-Covid-19.

It helped that Jason also has a strong social media game, with zany, unfiltered posts on Facebook and Instagram.

The duo were even approached by Club Rainbow - a children's charity with a branch in Hong Lim - to conduct a confidence-building workshop for children with special needs.

Jason Chua (left) and Hung Zhen Long in a workshop to help special needs kids from club rainbow develop confidence. PHOTO: BENG WHO COOKS

Jason and Zhen Long spent seven Saturdays interacting with the children. Among other activities, they taught their charges how to cook.

"If you ask me, that is a personal high for me. I have a soft spot for kids because I don't want them to become depressed and sad and lonely," says Jason, who is married to a kindergarten teacher.

The two already had plans to open their own restaurant before the pandemic hit.

"Working in Hong Lim, we saw a lot of old uncles and aunties who have been hawkers for more than 40 years. Because they work so hard, many have a lot of (illnesses). We decided we didn't want to end up like that. We are young, we want to explore other ways to make money and build a better future for ourselves."

Zhen Long says: "We felt we couldn't grow any more, because everything was stagnant. In life, the scariest thing is to be stagnant."

Their plan, however, had to be put on hold when Covid-19 struck.

During the circuit breaker, the two set up a Beng Who Cares Foundation, giving free meals to those who needed them.

The initiative came about after a friend told them about an old man who had approached him for money to buy food.

"I wouldn't call ourselves heroes. During the circuit breaker, we had planned to close because we couldn't have dine-in, and there were also problems with delivery. But this really motivated us to come down and work," says Jason, adding that they gave away $15,000 worth of free meals.

They learnt a few things about humanity from the episode.

Zhen Long recalls people calling up, demanding to know why the meals couldn't be delivered or why there were not more options. But there were also scores who volunteered to fund what they were doing. One jobless man was so inspired by what they did, he went all out to get himself back on his feet.

It took them a long time to find the premises for their restaurant at 39 Neil Road.

The concept?

"Innovative cuisine. We want to educate people about food and tell them that fine food need not be expensive," they say.

Asked if they are stressed as they've poured their life savings into the venture, both say simultaneously: "We're more excited than stressed."

Zhen Long says: "I feel like, okay, we are ready to soar, we are ready to fly."

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