Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What's so special about Christmas?

Christmas is a special day.  I guess most, if not all, knew that it is the birthday of the baby Jesus.  But why so much fuss over this very baby?  What is so special about Him?

Christmas is a special season, I guess, most, if not all, do not know that a person very close to my heart was born around this time.  Want to guess?  No, not my wife though she is very close to my heart.  No, neither is it my daughter.  It is my brother Kek Kong, also known as Steven. He was born on Christmas day too.  What is so special about him?

My eldest brother Steven was born on 26th December 1957.  He was 12 year old and 21 days older than me. My parents had 4 sons and 3 daughters at that time. When my parents wanted to sell my off so as reduce the financial burden, Steven intervened and promised that he will see to it that I be support through my education. To make ends meet, steven quitted school.  He worked in construction sites, laying cement for some of the skyscrapers we have today in Singapore. He worked hard, took part-time courses, and at the age of 30 became a computer systems operation manager.  In 1991, when Michael enrolled at the National University of Singapore, Department of Social Work and Psychology, Steven bought him his first computer and paid for  Michael’s university tuition, thus fulfilling his promise to see Michael through his education. The stress of supporting the family took a heavy toil on Steven.  At 44, Steven die of kidney failure, the effects of long term unhealthy use of alcohol.  Steven sacrificed for the family, so that I, his little brother may live.  He paid the price so that I may enjoy the better life.

In the same way, the Christmas story is similar to my brother Steven’s story.  Jesus paid the price by dying for mine sins.  He die so that I may live.  I guess that is why Christmas is so special.   

The Ong Family

Kek Kong and Chye Hong
Chye Hong, Kek Kong, Kek Eng
& Chye Kheng
Steven's & Alice's Wedding

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hands that Talk!

Submitted by: Ms. Ng Wei Chern

About a year ago, I took a photography class in Singapore. The instructor told us to create our own set of photos with a theme, as a form of practice to tell a story using our newfound photographic skills.

I took an interest in hands. 

Among my “portfolio” were my grandfather’s wrinkled hand with its characteristic brown age-spots, a man gently caressing his wife’s hand while dozing off in a long bus journey, a 55-year-old man holding his grandson’s hand guiding his movement on an ipad, a teenage girl’s hand holding a cigarette, and a Korean lady’s pair of manicured hands with red-hot nail polish.

My theme was “Hands that Talk”. Those hands said so much about the history, personality and character of the person in that unique context when their hands were put in focus and framed by the camera lens, even though those hands were usually inconspicuous in ordinary life.

Our hands are silent, but their expressions are loud.

This year, I had to literally use my hands to “talk”. I did not flex my own hands to create my own masterpiece.  I was part of a group of hands “talking” together. 

It was a unique experience to be a member of a group of 20 youth from Tea Talk to present at the event of Singapore’s 48th National Day Celebration and the 40th Anniversary of Singapore-Vietnam Bilateral Relations organized by the Singapore Embassy in Hanoi. Using the artistic approach of hand-mime, the scene of commitment and friendship to the tune of “Love Never Fails” was enacted creatively.

The smiley faces, heart shapes, and stick figures holding hands, may just be simple symbolic formations, but the meaning and significance go beyond that. The practices before the actual event were a test of cooperation and coordination. The merging  and clasping of big hands, small hands, flexible hands, stiff hands, to recreate the imagery of commitment and friendship, was in itself, a picture of how different we are, and how we have to make the effort of overlooking those differences for the sake of love, unity, cooperation- simply, just being together.

Hands that talk. Hands that do not fight, do not hit, hands that are not thrown up in despair, hands that are not helpless and limp.

This also reminds me of the objective of Tea Talk--where precisely it is the platform where hands can reach out to talk, and to heal. 

Tea Talkers and Mr. Ng Teck Hean, Singapore Ambassador to Vietnam

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Almost Lost

Poverty kills, and it almost killed an innocent baby during the 70s when Singapore was beginning to develop herself as a nation. At a time when needs were plenty and resources scares. Thankfully an invisible hand was able to reach far and deep to save. 

The story is about a couple with 6 children and the young wife is now pregnant with the 7th.  Already struggling to make ends meet, the news of another pregnancy was unwelcome.  The couple consulted an illegal physician who then prescribed some chinese herbs to abort the child.  It turn out that something went "wrong", or should I say went right.  The abortion was unsuccessful. Back in those days, abortion clinics are not easily accessible. If it has been so, there would be no story to tell.

The mother had no choice but to carry the baby to full term. Against all odd, a cute baby boy called Kek Hin was born.  Unlike most babies, Kek Hin was not delivered at a public hospital.  Instead, he was born at home with the help from his grandmother. It was a difficult labour.  He was pale and breathless when delivered into the hands of his grandmother. His parents recalled that it was a miracle that their son survived the ordeal.

That’s not all to the story. Kek Hin’s parents decided to sell him to a rich couple who desperately wanted a boy to carry on their family name.  The amount for adoption was discussed and the day came to exchange the baby for some cash.  Kek Hin’s eldest brother Kek Kong, 13 years old at that time, prevented the transaction from taking place.  He challenged his parents saying that he would kill himself on the spot (jumping down from the 12  floor rental apartment) if they so decide to go ahead with the selling of his little brother.  He told his parents that he would quit school in order to go out to work and buy milk for Kek Hin.

Years went by, and the family struggled to make ends meet. The mother had to work many jobs.  She worked as a house cleaner in the morning. In the afternoon, she cleans at a factory.  At night, she has tons of laundry to wash, children to discipline and school homework to supervise.  Her days were long and hard.  With sunken cheek and wearied body, she awakes every morning, talking along with her the youngest son, Kek Hin, to the many places she went to do cleaning.

When the boy was ten years old, Kek Hin’s second brother Kek Eng brought him to join a community group with other children.  They had games and fun every week.  There, the volunteers gave free tuition to many needy children like Kek Hin.  Most children love to go to the centre not because they could get free tuition, as many were not at all interested in studies.  They went because it was there where they felt loved.  The volunteers loved and cared for each child as though they were siblings, part of a family. 

More then 3 decades have passed since the day Kek Hin joined that group. It was there that he  experienced kindness and the power of unconditional giving. Today, his parents are in their 80s and has 18 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Kek Hin has a master degree in social work and pursues a works close to his heart; serving the underprivileged people.

Well, Kek Hin is Michael, founder of Tea Talk. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tea Talk celebrates 1st Anniversary

Tea Talk celebrated it’s 1st Anniversary on 10th April 2013.  It was a memorable moment.  Many friends from all over the world wrote to congratulate Tea Talk for its success.  This sets me thinking:  How does one measure success?  For that matter, has Tea Talk been successful?

Tea Talk is a social enterprise. It is a business enterprise that places a high value on its social mission. In other words, Tea Talk is 1) profit driven, 2) socially conscious and 3) people first. 

So how does Tea Talk measure up with these three criteria?

Profit!  The age-old equation of high price and low cost does not serve the Tea Talk model very well.  As a business, we believe in providing quality goods and services at affordable prices.  Furthermore, Tea Talk’s aim is to reach out to young persons with psychosocial-educational programs.  The majority of them are university students with low purchasing power.  Not surprisingly, Tea Talk suffered a loss of around US$24,000 during its first year of operation. So, in the profit department, did Tea Talk successfully make the mark?    

Socially conscious!  Tea Talk’s events, whether they be recreational, educational, environmental or social work have gained much interest not only among the Hanoi community but also among communities in Singapore, the Philippines, Russia and USA.  Within Vietnam, Tea Talk has been invited by some provincial authorities to start similar cafes in their respective areas.  A group of master’s and PhD students from the Philippines made a study trip to Vietnam and made Tea Talk one of their stops.  A talk show, “20 Years Old and their Crises” attracted 94 people. “Silent Night”, an event to create awareness of the challenges faced by people with hearing loss attracted 64 participants.  The list goes on.  Over the past 12 months, Tea Talk has initiated and sponsored numerous activities and events that are beneficial to the community.  So, as far as social impact is concerned, has Tea Talk experienced a respectable degree of success?  

People first! What do we mean by people first? Sharing with a group of students from the Academy of Finance, a shy but bright girl asked me the question, “Is Tea Talk successful?” This question struck at the core of my heart.  I reasoned in my mind how to answer this genuine question honestly and honorably. Is some respects, Tea Talk has not been successful.  In short, we could reasonably conclude: “No money = no Tea Talk”.  Tea Talk cannot continue to make losses.  There is a time to call it quits and cut losses.  And yet, at the same time, the events and invitations to start other Tea Talks in other places does not make sense.  Tea Talk has yet to prove the business model works.  So what if 94 people came to the Talk Show?  How do I truly measure the social impact?  How many lives must Tea Talk touch to say that Tea Talk has been successful?  A student in the class suggested 1,000.  Another suggested 10,000.  Really! How many is enough?

I remembered a story that described a girl running up and down the shoreline, bending over and stretching her hands towards the horizon.  From afar, you couldn’t really tell what she was doing.  You would most likely think she was simply having fun.

However, it turns out that the tide was low and the sand was littered with thousands of stranded starfish that the water had carried in and then left behind.  With the sun rising quickly, the starfish would die if left on the beach's dry sand.

Onto the scene came an old man who walked up to the little girl and asked, "What are you doing?" 

"I'm saving the starfish," the girl replied.

“There are so many of them. You can’t save them all. Why waste your time?” asked the old man.

Without hesitation, the girl picked up another starfish and tossed the starfish back into the water saying, "It matters to this one".

Tea Talk has not helped 10,000, not even to say a thousand. Like the little girl, even if Tea Talk has only helped ONE person, I think it is enough.