SINGAPORE: Grandfather Bill Teoh, a self-professed loner with little patience for the ignorant and a disdain for youngsters, could easily be typecast as a grumpy old man. The last time he spoke to a teenager was years ago, he confesses.
He grumbles about those he sees frequent a LAN gaming shop opposite the comic book store he owns.
“They pay S$10 for 24 hours, they can stay there the whole day,” he complains, arguing that they should be spending their time reading instead. “I feel sorry for the future of Singapore. These young people are out of control.”
The 83-year-old lives with his son and grandchildren, but he might as well be living alone.
He keeps largely to himself in his room, where his rice cooker, massage chair and a well-stocked refrigerator are all within reach. He usually takes breakfast in his room, and even washes his utensils in his en-suite bathroom rather than wander out to the kitchen.
“I’m quite a loner. I’m okay with it; I really don’t fancy any extra company,” he declares.
For 10 weeks, however, he's being forced out of his comfort zone - made to befriend a 14-year-old boy as part of a social experiment in intergenerational relationships, for the documentary Back to School. Five teenagers and five seniors participated in this project.
Fourteen-year-old Kieyron Maldini is, in many respects, his polar opposite.
An exuberant and sociable Secondary Two student, he spends too much time on his PlayStation 4. Mr Teoh is a go-getter who runs his own business, acts part-time and sits on various committees in a social club.
A fitness buff, Mr Teoh exercises every day and once represented Singapore in bowling. Kieyron is largely sedentary and has never passed his National Physical Fitness Award (NAPFA) test.
COLLISION OF TWO GENERATIONS
At their first meeting, Mr Teoh rambles on about himself: His acting work, bowling in Japan, being a national badminton junior champion, his former career as a police officer.
"We helped to make Singapore what it has become, and you are enjoying the fruits of it," he lectures the teenager.
An overawed Kieyron hardly gets a word in over the hour or so, and tries his best to stay interested. He tells producers later that he didn't want to say too much about himself, "because he might not like me also".
So far - chemistry, zilch. But there's one bright spot of hope for their budding friendship: A common interest in comics.
Dropping in at Mr Teoh's comic book shop one day, it's not long before the teenager - an enthusiastic Spiderman fan - is nattering on with Mr Teoh - a Batman devotee - about characters like Spawn and Deadpool.
He usually borrows rather than buys his comic fixes, but on this day he brings five books to Mr Teoh to ring up.
“When he’s around comic books, he’s happier because that's the thing he loves," the intuitive Fajar Secondary student observes later.
The teenager's knowledge and love for comics (rare in the young today, the book seller says) in turn has made a positive impression on Mr Teoh - but he's not quite ready to warm up yet.
Asked if he'd take time off to visit Kieyron, he says: "I don't think I have the time to go and visit him. He has to come and visit me here (at the shop)."
"I'm a very, very busy man,” he adds with a bark of laughter.
TURNING POINT: THE LUNCH
But never say never. Kieyron, remembering how Uncle Bill talked of visiting his Malay and Indian friends when he was younger, decides to ask him over to his home for lunch, to taste his grandmother’s chicken curry.
It's entirely his own idea - but a cynical Mr Teoh's first reaction is that the invitation must have been prompted by the documentary's producers.
He seems taken aback when told otherwise. “It’s very amazing for a kid his age,” he says. Used to years of being a reclusive widower, he shares:
It's unexpected because people don't invite others to their houses for lunches or dinners any more. I felt very honoured.
The lunch becames a turning point in their friendship. Over chicken and mutton curry, and playing video games on the PS4 - with Mr Teoh taking on his favourite character Batman in Injustice 2 - he starts to get to know Keiyron better from chatting with his family.
One of the things that concerns him is that the teenager is spending about four hours a day on the PS4, partly because of the long hours his father keeps as a taxi driver.
That's when he comes to a decision: He'll take a proactive role in guiding the boy, and get him to concentrate on his studies instead.
“I'm sure I can influence a kid like him, especially when he looks up to me,” he says.
FROM BROAD JUMPS TO THE SET OF 'TANGLIN'
Over the weeks, the unlikely duo build their friendship doing more things together.
Uncle Bill, for instance, puts in the effort to help Kieyron improve his standing broad jump - the part of the NAPFA test he has struggled with and failed several times, to the amusement of classmates who teased him about his lack of fitness.
Visiting him at his school, Mr Teoh watches and gives him tips on his technique, telling him how to swing his arms and bend his knees before the jump. It's not long before Kieyron is jumping farther.
“It’s quite amazing that he actually helped me do it. I felt quite touched to have him help me with my fitness,” says the teenager, whose parents are usually too busy with work to exercise with him.
They also visit the set of Mediacorp drama Tanglin, in which Mr Teoh is a cast member. Fanboy Kieyron is clearly excited to meet the cast and crew.
The pair attend a yoga session together, to work on Kieyron’s fitness, and even organise a comic books sale at his school.
Perhaps one of the most touching moments for Mr Teoh is when Kieyron surprises him at his shop with a chocolate cake, candles and a handmade card, to celebrate the shop’s 30th anniversary.
“I think he actually teared because nobody has done this for him before. He was happy, but he just didn’t show it,” says a pleased Kieyron.
Watch: The birth of a friendship (5:31)
MENTAL AND PHYSICAL IMPROVEMENTS
The effects of their time together have been more than just a meaningful friendship formed. It has also changed them in other measurable ways.
Before the start of the social experiment, Keiyron and the other teenage participants had undergone a psychometric assessment. He had scored below average in his well-being test, signifying that he was not as happy with life as his upbeat personality would suggest.
Tested again 10 weeks later, a huge improvement is seen in his self-esteem.
Mr Teoh and fellow seniors also were tested, by a team of medical professionals led by geriatrician Carol Tan, in areas that decline with age - such as memory, mental dexterity, mood and mobility.
Pre-experiment, the team had noted Mr Teoh's disdain for youngsters which had made him reluctant to socialise. Studies have shown that social isolation can lead to memory decline.
Ten weeks on, his mental dexterity, processing speed and fitness have improved. In the sit-and-stand test, for example, he has gone from managing just eight repetitions in 30 seconds, to 15 repetitions.
“Wow, almost double. It got better with age,” he says with a laugh.
'HE’S NOW LIKE MY GRANDSON'
Kieyron admits to having had some initial reservations about the project, because “it was weird for a young guy to have a friendship with an old man”.
“I also didn’t think this would work because I have an irritating personality, and I talk too much sometimes. But after a few weeks, it felt normal, and it was nice.
“Uncle Bill is like a grandfather to me. He encourages me to do more, just like my grandfather does,” says the teenager.
“I want to continue this friendship. I’ll message and ask him if he can meet me at the comic book shop or somewhere else. Or we can just go out for lunch or something.”
Mr Teoh, perhaps more so, has come a long way.
He says he'd like to call on his young friend at home “if his parents have no objections”.
“I treat him like a grandson. He's a good kid... He has taught me that a young fella can get along with me, an elderly person.
“If every kid is like Kieyron, my perception of young people will definitely change.”
Watch more stories of intergenerational friendships like this, on the series Back to School here.