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Meet Mr Cheu, or the ‘Veggie Uncle’, as he is better known in this Choa Chu Kang neighbourhood.
Almost every week, I would see a crowd lining up, reusable bags in hand, near a lorry in a carpark around Choa Chu Kang Ave 4, waiting for something. Curiosity got the better of me and so one day, I asked my boyfriend Jon, who lives in the neighbourhood, what the gathering was about.
He explained that they were waiting for the “Veggie Uncle”, his downstairs neighbour who sells vegetables for a living and distributes leftover produce to residents in the neighbourhood.
Jon’s mother, Auntie Annie, is one of the lucky neighbours who doesn’t need to queue — she gets them personally delivered to their door. When Mr Cheu does not have enough to distribute to a whole neighbourhood, he gives them away to his neighbours in the same block.
I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about this kind uncle who, according to Jon, always brushes off his charitable act as “just a small deed”.
Distributes unsold vegetables to his neighbourhood
One day, we (Jon, myself and a friend who helped us translate) paid Mr Cheu a visit at his home to have a chat. It took us a while to finally get him to talk to us as the humble and shy hawker did not see the need to be recognised for his actions.
He was reluctant even to give us his full name as he felt that we were making a fuss over a small gesture.
I learnt that he has been living in the same neighbourhood for the past 29 years — he and his family were among the first residents to move in since his HDB flat was built in the 90s.
Now in his late 70s, he stays with his wife, their son and daughter, a son-in-law and one grandson.
Talking to us in Mandarin, Mr Cheu said that he has been a vegetable seller for over 50 years.
He first started his business of selling vegetables somewhere along the Singapore River, plying his wares there for over 10 years before he moved his business to Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, and has been there for the past 30 years.
According to the Singapore Food Agency, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre handles and distributes 30 per cent of fruits and half of the vegetables in Singapore.
On the weekends, Mr Cheu would park his lorry at his usual spot at the open car park to distribute leftover and unsold vegetables. He sometimes even does this twice over the weekend, depending on the amount of leftover vegetables he had accumulated by the end of the week.
Helping his neighbours during Covid
When asked what inspired him to distribute free vegetables to the neighbourhood, the reticent Mr Cheu just said: “Aiya, it’s just a small thing. I help whenever I can. Big or small.”
He further explained that his main reason was to prevent food wastage. Every night, the market where he sells his vegetables would discard unsold leftovers. Mr Cheu said that he felt this was extremely wasteful so he decided to collect and distribute it to his neighbours instead.
The vegetables that Mr Cheu gives away don’t look as fresh, but they are still edible, especially when you remove the less attractive parts. Definitely good to eat, especially if you’re cooking it that day.
His secondary reason was, of course, to help his neighbours in need. Mr Cheu has been distributing unsold leftover vegetables in his neighbourhood for over 20 years — almost as long as I have been alive!
Now, there’s another reason why he gives away the vegetables — and why he reminds residents to queue up at a safe distance from his lorry.
He highlighted his concerns about the safety of his neighbours, especially during Covid. “It’s safer for some elderly neighbours to stay home as much as they can,” he told us.
Giving them his spare vegetables would help ease their anxieties and put them at lesser risk of being exposed to Covid.
Auntie Annie, Mr Cheu’s upstairs neighbour, shared her thoughts: “Mr and Mrs Cheu are lovely and cheerful neighbours. I see Mrs Cheu quite often as she comes over to drop vegetables off to me and some other neighbours living in our same block.
“We often chat for a bit when she comes by. I feel blessed and thankful for them.”
Mr Cheu may not realise it but his impromptu vegetable distribution centre has created a mini community in the neighbourhood.
Over the years, residents have started to look forward to these short gatherings at the car park. It’s not only a convenient way to get free vegetables, the regulars often chat while waiting for Mr Cheu.
Even now, during Covid, with masks on and standing further apart, we could still sense the kampung spirit as residents nod and wave at each other.
Covid impacting his sales
That’s not the only thing that has changed due to the pandemic.
Said Mr Cheu: “Of course Covid has affected my business. Where got don’t have? Fewer people visit the wet market now because they’re afraid to go to crowded places. So there have been fewer sales.”
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He added that the Covid safety measures and restrictions have made it less convenient for shoppers to buy their daily groceries and necessities at the market.
“People sometimes touch their nose then touch the vegetables,” he explained a little humorously about the disadvantages of selling at a wet market during Covid.
In September, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre was shut down for three days for disinfecting after the wholesale centre was identified as a cluster by the Ministry of Health. This impeded his sales even further, sighed Mr Cheu.
He’s not too worried about his health, even though as a wholesaler, he is at a higher risk of exposure to Covid. He explained that he and his workers adhere to safe management practices and keep themselves healthy.
“It is part and parcel of work. We still have to provide food.”