Mike Tan is living proof that the kampung spirit is alive and kicking in his neighbourhood.
Besides being the go-to guy for handyman services, he also operates an informal tingkat (Malay, for tiffin carrier) service, plans block gatherings and provides all the food, and occasionally helps his neighbours out with babysitting duties.
All this, on top of having a day job as a photographer.
It’s no surprise then that the convivial 48-year-old is a beloved figure in his estate – so much so, that he received not one, not two, but three separate nominations for this year’s Good Neighbour Award.
Jointly organised by the Housing & Development Board and People’s Association, the award celebrates residents who go the extra mile to make their neighbourhood a warm, close-knit, and caring community.
And that’s indeed what Tan, who is married with no kids, has been doing ever since he moved into his Build To Order flat in December 2016.
In just three months, he managed to gather his fellow new homeowners – a mere 34 of them, at the time – and arranged the neighbourhood’s first community BBQ session. A feat, considering their estate didn’t even have BBQ pits then.
Tan not only supplied the food, but also, courtesy of his years working on power plants, became the de-facto builder of the makeshift BBQ pits.
“We had to DIY (do-it-yourself) with scaffolding, wooden planks, bricks and aluminium foil, and some neighbours brought portable tables and chairs for food and drinks. In June that same year, we organised another BBQ session, and our MP (Minister of Parliament) Sim Ann joined us. She asked if we wanted a BBQ pit and, of course, we said yes! That’s why we have proper BBQ pits now,” said Tan, chuckling at the memory.
Over the years, he continued to organise ad-hoc gatherings to bring his neighbours together, winning fans along the way with his delicious home-cooked fare. It was during one such party that a neighbour jokingly suggested that Tan, with his flair for cooking, should start his own tingkat service.
Sharing his culinary journey, Tan said that he’d first learnt to cook from his late mother and, in his teens, had worked in several local Chinese and Italian restaurants. When he was 20, he moved to Amsterdam to work on an oil rig. There, he’d follow the chefs around to pick up their craft. When he returned home some years later, he began taking a serious interest in food and cooking, often experimenting with creating his own recipes.
After years of being a casual consultant to friends who wanted to start their own restaurants, the self-taught chef now manages a thriving home-based tingkat service.
Every night, Tan would send his menu to the estate’s WhatsApp group chat. Dinner orders for the next day would come in, and neighbours can start collecting their meals from 6.30pm. He charges a nominal fee of $5 to cover the cost of ingredients and utilities.
As Tan’s business is a one-man show, he only has time to prepare one meal a day. But occasionally, the soft-hearted Tan makes an exception and whips up lunch as well for the elderly, those who have no caregivers in the day, and neighbours who put in urgent requests.
In fact, that’s how he came to make the acquaintance of his nominator, Esther Yeo.
Last October, the new mother had returned home from the hospital after giving birth, only to learn that her confinement nanny would not be arriving until much later that day. Desperate, Yeo sent out an SOS to Tan in the morning, asking if he could help prepare a confinement lunch for her.
Yeo recalled gratefully: “(Mike) was happy to help, and boiled a super nutritious soup which had really expensive ingredients. He did it all without complaints. We had only known each other for a few months then, yet he was kind enough to do so much for me. It’s rare to see a neighbour with such a big heart!”
After Yeo’s confinement nanny left, Tan continued to provide daily meals for her until the end of her four-month maternity leave. Today, Yeo still orders meals from Tan, and the pair would exchange greetings and chat over WhatsApp.
Tan’s other lunch regulars include a senior couple, as well as another elderly granny. And for them, he goes one step further and delivers lunch to their doorstep.
“The ah ma (granny) has mobility problems, so I’ll also help her open any containers that may be difficult for her to do so on her own. She’s got a dog and occasionally, like today, I will inadvertently get nipped when I drop in!” Tan winced.
Despite that, Tan finds it deeply satisfying to see others enjoying his food, and takes pride in the fact that his crowd-pleasing dishes never fail to hit the spot.
He joked: “My neighbours love my curry vegetables. When they return my pot, they’d say: ‘Eh Mike, it’s empty; you don’t need to clean already’. Another favourite seems to be my tao jiao (Chinese for peach gum) dessert – there’s always nothing left!”
Food may be the best way to his neighbours’ hearts, but that’s not the only way in which Tan makes a difference. From broken lights to leaky taps that need replacing, Tan’s the man to call if handyman services are required.
Explaining how he became the estate’s unofficial repairman, he said: “When we first moved in, there were a number of issues that residents were highlighting in the group chat and asking for handyman recommendations. So, I told them not to waste their money and that I’ll fix the problems if I can.”
Charging only a small fee for spare parts, and omitting fees altogether for the elderly, Tan’s services are called upon almost once every month.
The self-professed “lao da” (Chinese for elder) of the neighbourhood also takes on the role of babysitter from time to time.
“Some of my neighbours are single mums, and some don’t always have caregivers for their kids when they need to work. So, they began dropping their kids off at my place. And since a lot of the kids in the estate are schoolmates, they end up bringing their friends, too. I’ll cook for them as well, so the mums insist on paying a token for the food,” Tan said.
When asked about why he feels compelled to go this far for mere neighbours, he shrugged, musing that as the “lao da”, he decided to take on the responsibility to help others where possible because “these are small issues; my shoulders can handle the load”.
On receiving his well-deserved award, Tan admitted that he was shocked to find out that more than one person had actually nominated him. “I feel really thankful that my efforts are appreciated, and it only inspires me to want to continue doing what I can to help my neighbours.”
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