LIVING (ALMOST) HANDS FREE
By: Rachel Yeo
December shone the spotlight on the disabled in Singapore, it being the month our country hosted the 8th ASEAN Para Games and saw the opening of the $25 million Enabling Village. Although positive strides are being made in society, anyone born disabled still faces incredible challenges. And even bigger hurdles await those, like inspiring paralympian Jason Chee, who become disabled in adulthood. UrbanWire profiles 2 other such men.
On Dec 3, this year's International Day of Disability, Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore is building a “just society which respects every person, especially persons of disability”. Some initiatives include the Enabling Village, a government-established agency with facilities and services specially designed for the disabled, that was opened in Dec 2015.
According to the Singapore Disability Sports Council, locally there are 186 organizations that help the disabled support themselves, including special schools and welfare organizations.
Aaron Yeo’s a beneficiary of one such organization. He decided to become a mouth painter under Singapore Mouth & Foot Painting Artists (MFPA) a local branch of an international body originating from Liechtenstein in 1956. Since MFPA's begun operations in 1982, there have been about 15 mouth artists here, including Aaron.
Aaron was an able-bodied hairdresser, a career he was passionionate about. Sadly, he was on his way home from work when he became a victim of a major motorbike accident in 2006.
"My job as a hair stylist allowed me create something beautiful with my handsand people appreciate that. But after the accident I lost about 70 to 80 percent function in my body," Aaron says. The once cheery man learnt he’d lost use of his hands and legs, and was wheelchair-bound for life.
“It was a total life changer, I was really devastated."
It took Aaron 4 years to recover emotionally from this ordeal. In the meantime, he desperately sought healing wherever he could. Aaron went to India for a stem cell operation, and then to Vietnam for traditional medicinal treatment. In Vietnam he realized that his situation wasn’t as bleak as he thought.
"The people in Vietnam led really simple lives. That made me realize that I could just lead a simple life and still be happy," he recounts.
Enter Aaron's home and it is obvious to spot his extraordinary works of art proudly displayed on his walls, together with the most ordinary of housing supplies. He has a penchant of painting people with expressions.
For the first 2 years, Aaron taught himself painting skills by borrowing art books in libraries, getting ample practice with his mouth. He usually gets inspiration online, before emulating them on his canvas.
"Before the accident, I've never actually painted in my life," the artist admits, having only done rough sketching, up to then. But his creative mind gives him an edge in mastering paint.
Aaron even enrolled in part-time art courses in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts after feeling that he had reached a point of stagnation on his own.
Aaron typically uses oil-based paint on his works now. In the past, he used to have trouble with acrylic paint because it dries up more quickly than oil paint.
"Through art, I realised that I can still create something beautiful, even without my own hands anymore," says the fresh-faced 36-year-old who sells his artworks through MFPA and to his friends.
Aaron has since discovered new talents in himself. A year ago, a friend introduced him to table tennis, which requires a pair of very deftl hands to play. However, by bandaging the bat to his arm, Aaron was able to try out the sport with relative ease.
“It was so much fun,” Aaron reminisces. “It became my form of exercise and therapy.”
Aaron became so adept, he recently represented Singapore as a table tennis Paralympian in the 8th ASEAN Para Games, earning a silver medal in the men’s singles Class 1 event. He may have found his second wind in sports and arts, some others, like Roger Chong, seeks financial independence through food charity organization, Dignity Kitchen in Serangoon.
Founded in 2010, Dignity Kitchen is Singapore’s pioneer hawker training school to give practical training to people with disabilities, so they can secure stable jobs as chefs or hawkers. Dignity Kitchen has a fully functional food court in Serangoon that’s open to the public.
Roger Chong and his rojak stall.
Roger also was handicapped overnight. Barely able to speak without a slur these days, he must write to communicate.
“99 - 07/8, Financial Director —> Philippines, KL” he writes gingerly on a notepad when UrbanWire asked him what his previous occupation was.
Roger regularly travelled to the Philippines and Kuala Lumpur from 1999 to 2008 for business purposes. Earning a salary of about $10,000 a month, the bachelor was the sole breadwinner of his family of 4. They lived comfortably and Roger often showered his family with gifts.
“25 May 2010, stroke. CGH, 1 wk,” he writes.
All that changed when Roger suffered a sudden stroke and fell, landing on his head on 25 May, 2010. Nobody came to his rescue until 2 hours later and he was rushed to Changi General Hospital (CGH). For a week, he was in a state of coma.
Unfortunately, a blood clot in his brain caused some of his brain cells to die. The incident shattered Roger, who at 46, should have been enjoying his prime years. Instead, he lost use of his right hand and walks with a limp. Even the most basic of skills like walking and writing were daunting, and he had to re-learn them from scratch.
Roger’s friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains, “Thankfully he had his family members like his parents and sister who gave him the support and encouragement he needs." This support also enabled him to start his life afresh at Dignity Kitchen.
Serves up, one packet of Roger's Rojak to go.
"Roger didn’t know how to make rojak [a vegetable and fruit salad tossed in a thick prawn paste sauce] prior to his accident, but he slowly learnt the relevant skills from various master chefs," explains Mr Wang Jue Lee. Mr Wang, 45, is one of the head chefs that oversees every stall in Dignity Kitchen's food court.
He adds, "We need to have lots of patience and care when guiding trainees [like Roger]. For people with strokes, it might take longer for them to learn cooking skills, safety and hygiene matters."
With determination, Roger soon became skilled enough to become a chef with his own rojak stall, albeit relying on only 1 working hand to mix and cut ingredients.
Roger’s story even touched the media. A month ago, Channel 8 reality television series Joy Truck 3 featured him. Prominent hosts like Pornsak and Pierre Png helped drive traffic to the struggling rojak stall. Before the show, Roger only sold about 1 to 4 plates of his dish a day, not even enough to cover the cost of his ingredients, much less rental, which can range from $1200 to $1500 a month, and generating an income for him.
"The TV show has brought some improvements to his business because it seems like it has touched a lot of hearts," explains Roger's friend.
"There were people coming down as far as Clementi because they saw the programme. In fact on the week itself [of Roger's Joy Truck episode], the crowd was already there," a regular patron of Dignity Kitchen chimes in, also requesting anonymity.
Now, Roger's Joy Truck episode are proudly broadcasted in Dignity Kitchen’s premises.
But how long can a single 45-minute episode bring in a steady flow of customers in the long run?
"It's really just about curiosity you know," the regular patron says. "After the TV programme, people want to see who is Roger, and after seeing him they may never come back."
Roger's stall is also not spared from competition, and the complaining nature of typical Singaporeans. He has received negative feedback that the portions of his rojak are too little for the price of $3.50. He has since increased the portion size to meet demands of fussier customers. It doesn’t help that a competitor with 20 years of rojak-making expertise operates another stall a few blocks from his, and she sells a plate for $3.
A face of optimism and new hopes.
Nonetheless, Roger remains undeterred by all these challenges and hopes to gain complete independence one day by venturing out of Dignity Kitchen to set up his own rojak stall.