Friday, September 19, 2014

The Redemption Broth - Jabez Tan of Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh

Somewhere in this world, they say that you can never really know a person until you get to walk in his or her shoes. No matter how much you can read up on a person, the only way to know a man like Jabez Tan is to really see how he works and interacts with his staff, his friends and his family.

And that is what is so uniquely special about Jabez. He is not just your regular bak kut teh owner in Singapore.

He was brought up by his grandparents as his parents were too busy working to spend time with him when he was young.

His granddad was an old school disciplinarian who would not spare the rod, and perhaps because of this, Jabez would often stay out late and eventually got into a number of youth gangs that would lead him astray.

Feeling neglected and ignored, he found acceptance and protection in the gangs that would foster his ego as a young boy. Soon, he would be led into a life of crime. Drug trafficking, robbery, gang fights. He basically ran the gamut of a gangster's resume.

When he was imprisoned for 13 years and sentenced to 12 strokes of the cane, he was still unrepentant. His life got even darker as his drug addiction got deeper and when his parents abandoned him, he almost did the unthinkable by thinking of ending his life.

It was at his lowest moment, that a prison director came to him one day and sat down with him to have a good talk. Among the things that would touch him that day were topics of faith and renewal. A chance to redeem himself.

What happened afterwards was a transformation of Jabez Tan. He started to work as a washer in the prison kitchens and would work his way up to the upper echelons of the kitchen hierarchy. He ended up being the head cook for the inmates awaiting the gallows.

At that point, he came to a stark realization. He wondered what it was like to be living your last few days and hours before the end. He realized that he could have been one of those condemned men himself had he been unlucky.

He realized how fortunate he was to have escaped such a fate and felt grateful for not having his life cut short by one stupid mistake. As he cooked the meals for those men, he felt sorry for them at the same time. That they no longer have a second chance for redemption.

Jabez come to the conclusion that he could still come out of prison alive and kicking. And he was still young enough to make a go at a second chance in life. All these thoughts galvanized him to wanting to make a big difference when he came out. And he did.

His passion for cooking would lead him to start Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh as a business for himself. But beyond just making money, he wanted to help others like him to provide them with another opportunity in life.

That is why today, Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh employs mostly ex-convicts and he entrusts them with important roles within his eatery as well. Furthermore, he also employs those who have trouble finding jobs, including those who are homeless and with little education.

As I have said earlier, I could have read about all this and still not understand the essence of what Jabez is doing these past few years. I first met him in 2011, and he already came across as a very humble and dedicated man.

Little did I realize that I would reconnect with him in late 2013 and discover for myself the genuine soul of a person that is not only kind, giving and generous, but a man that has the true meaning of humanity encased within him.

Whenever I visit his shop, he would always encourage me to talk to his guys and place them above himself. He wants his staff to get the recognition for their work and contribution to his shop. More than that, he wants their stories told so that the world can know that these are good people simply trying to find their place again in society.

Often I will see his facebook posts and realize that he is not just your average boss, but he takes the effort to bring them out to bond with his guys. To give them a sense of purpose, the same purpose that he discovered when he was still in prison.

Jabez and PinkgyPiggu

Throughout the past year, I have gotten to known who and what a true humanitarian really is. That it is not just about making headlines with his social enterprise venture, but to give everyone in life a decent shot at success and happiness.

Life is not all roses, that much we know. But how often do you find yourself able to do something good for someone else? To place others above your own selfish needs?

We often say we want to do charity and want to help the needy, but rarely do we take the effort to really do so. In Jabez's eyes, I see him doing just that every single moment of his life today.

When one of his staff was unfairly reported in the press for a story long past its expiry date, he stood up staunchly for him and made every effort to acquit his man. That sense of support, and the strength which he mustered up surprised and impressed me.

Then I got to know his lovely wife and son. And I see the great joy he has with his own family and I realize that nothing matters more to Jabez now then the love and support he has from his own family.

That he is trying to build a family support group for his motley crew is no surprise. Those that have come out for prison have very little family after they have been incarcerated. That is the reality of Singapore life.

Jabez even went to the extent of renting a flat to house his staff so that they can feel they have a new, second family to depend on. Human beings all need solace in a family, be it true blood or otherwise.

The road ahead is still tough, but success has come to Jabez and for all his great work, his business will begin to expand across our shores later this year. Yet, despite all the good things that are about to come his way, he remains very level headed.

He still continues to improve his recipes and listens to feedback with a sense of fervor and earnest that is lacking in many other F&B owners. He still has this great camaraderie with his guys and even his customers.

And every time I get to meet Jabez, he is still that same eager-eyed man that is so willing to listen to new ideas and feedback that I first saw in 2011.

To walk in another man's shoes can be quite enlightening. As we press on trying to make a decent living in this expensive city of ours, we should not forget what our purpose in life should be.

It should not be about making money. And it's not trying to be the best in everything. And certainly, it's not trying to put down the man next to you.

The purpose during our short time on earth is to make a difference. To make a positive difference. Small or otherwise, when you reach the end of your journey and you look back, you will find that you have something to smile about.

For Jabez, I think he will have to plenty to be proud of at the end of his own life's journey. The exciting thing is, we are just seeing the beginning of his amazing and wondrous adventure today.

Jabez Tan
Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh
320 Bedok Road 548 MacPherson Road

Here is the video of the story of Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh, featuring PinkyPiggu.

Shot and directed by Ian Low, and edited entirely on an iPhone 5S.
All music by Ian Low.
No pork ribs were harmed during the making of this video.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up! Am an avid supporter too. Wrote this review - Happy to support esp since my church pastor shares his history!