Generation Grit

When life gave him lemons, he made ramen

Melvin Ang, 29, came from a troubled family. His father was a gambler who plunged the family into dire straits. The polytechnic dropout taught himself to cook and now runs a ramen chain called Kanshoku Ramen.
Mr Melvin Ang at Kanshoku Ramen at Orchard Gateway, the ramen chain that he runs. The 29-year-old has found success in the food and beverage business in spite of his difficult growing-up years - his father was a gambler who owed loan sharks hundreds
Mr Melvin Ang at Kanshoku Ramen at Orchard Gateway, the ramen chain that he runs. The 29-year-old has found success in the food and beverage business in spite of his difficult growing-up years - his father was a gambler who owed loan sharks hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the family problems affected his studies, leading him to drop out of polytechnic.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Melvin Ang, 29, is no stranger to hardship, thanks to his father's gambling debts, which exposed their family to years of harassment and struggle. In our series on millennials who inspire us, he tells Senior Social Affairs Correspondent Theresa Tan his story of how he found his way out of shame and poverty.

"The worst thing about my father was that he gambled too much.

He had a renovation and construction business which did well, until the gambling habit started and he went bankrupt. He owed six or seven loan sharks up to $500,000 in total.

The loan sharks would knock on our doors at night and attach locks to them so we could not get out. At times, we had to climb out of the window onto the common corridor to find ways to get our front door unlocked.

They painted the walls outside our four-room flat with our address and the characters, O$P$ (which stand for 'owe money pay money'), to shame us into paying our debt.

They even sent letters to our neighbours threatening to hurt them if we didn't pay up. They even beat up my father because he did not have the money. He would come back with bruises.

It was terrifying. And there was also the shame.

My mother, a housewife, felt ashamed that our neighbours all knew we owed money to loan sharks. We would get hostile looks or stares from them if they saw us out and about.

PLAGUED BY LOAN SHARKS

The loan sharks would knock on our doors at night and attach locks to them so we could not get out. At times, we had to climb out of the window onto the common corridor to find ways to get our front door unlocked.

BUSINESSMAN MELVIN ANG

The harassment went on for years.

Sometimes our electricity got cut off because my dad had not paid the electricity bill. My parents fought a lot and when their fights got violent, I would curl up and cry. No one knows how many nights I spent crying.

I'm the second of three boys and I'm very close to my brothers. We helped one another through all the difficult times.

I felt constantly insecure, afraid that my friends would find out how poor we were. But perhaps it was also my fear of losing face that pushed me to make a mark for myself.

To make money, I started selling canned drinks to people playing basketball in my neighbourhood. I bought a can for 30 cents from a supermarket and sold it for $1, and that was how I earned my allowance in secondary school.

I didn't do well in primary school but I managed to make it to the Express stream at Northbrooks Secondary School and the electronic and computer engineering course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

But things were still bad at home. My dad was still in debt and my mother was getting more and more affected by it.

EARNING OWN ALLOWANCE

To make money, I started selling canned drinks to people playing basketball in my neighbourhood. I bought a can for 30 cents from a supermarket and sold it for $1, and that was how I earned my allowance in secondary school.

MR ANG 

I was worried about her and I would stay up all night to keep her company when she couldn't sleep. I would go to bed only at five or six in the morning, so in the end it was quite predictable that I couldn't manage as I wasn't able even to wake up for class. When I dropped out of polytechnic in my second year, it was the lowest point in my life. What was I supposed to do if I couldn't get an education?

As I was interested in guitars, I started buying them and taught myself how to refurbish them for sale.

I earned enough money to fund a diploma in business from a private school. Later, I also obtained a private degree from University College Dublin in business management.

It had always been my dream to go into the food and beverage business as I love to eat. I also wanted to create a product of my own. So I went to work as an operations manager in a restaurant chain for 10 months to learn the ropes.

At the age of 26, I partnered my friend, Brendon Leung, to start a ramen eatery, Kanshoku Ramen. "Kanshoku" means to finish every last bit of your food in Japanese.

People are crazy about ramen and I figured I didn't need to be a super chef to cook it. Before starting my shop, I had never even cooked a bowl of rice in my life. I had to start from scratch, learning how to cook ramen from my chef friends. I also Googled recipes and cooking techniques.



A gambler who owed loan sharks hundreds of thousands, Melvin’s father plunged his family into dire straits. This affected Melvin's studies and he dropped out of polytechnic before dabbling in various ventures before trying his luck in F&B. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

LONG HOURS AT WORK

In our first restaurant at The Metropolis in Buona Vista, I did everything, from cooking to washing to serving. I worked 14 to 15 hours a day and I even slept in the store. It was crazy.

MR ANG GENERATION GRIT

Before we started the business, we were looking for investors and we had one investor who pledged to invest almost $2 million. But we did not sign an agreement with him and he ended up not giving us a single cent, citing cash flow problems. We cut ties with him.

Thankfully, Brendon invested over $200,000 to help us get started with the business. In our first restaurant at The Metropolis in Buona Vista, I did everything, from cooking to washing to serving. I worked 14 to 15 hours a day and I even slept in the store. It was crazy.

Thankfully, the business was profitable from day one. The crowds came and we are making good money. Now, we have three stores at Orchard Gateway, Ion Orchard and Northpoint City, and our revenue will be about $6 million this year.

On weekends, our stores sell over 1,000 bowls of ramen and we have plans to expand.

My family's burden has been lifted by financial security.

Recently, our whole family went on a holiday to Taiwan for almost two weeks. It was my parents' first trip abroad.

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Their relationship has improved as my dad doesn't gamble so much any more, so there are fewer things for them to fight about. My older brother and I support them financially, while my younger brother is still an undergraduate.

Getting to this point in my life wasn't easy but, even when things were at their darkest, I did not feel alone because of my Christian faith. I believed there were people who cared, and there was always someone I trusted who was there for me. And that's how we support each other in life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2018, with the headline 'When life gave him lemons, he made ramen'. Print Edition | Subscribe