SINGAPORE: When this karung guni (rag and bone) man makes his rounds, there is none of the usual tooting of horns or shouted messages.
All Seng Boon Hock, 26, has to do is press the doorbell. "Hello, long time never see you," says the woman who answers the door. She knows why Boon Hock is there. She starts hauling stacks of old newspapers into his black trolley.
Boon Hock doesn't fit the usual karung guni image. He holds a diploma in accounting and finance. He has a day job as an accounts assistant at an investment firm. He has a long life ahead of him.
But to understand why the young man is collecting old newspapers every Saturday and re-selling them, you first have to delve into his past.
In December 1991, Boon Hock was born three months prematurely at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. He is the only child of Seng Kiang Sing and Neo Tee.
Before Boon Hock’s birth, Mr Seng had been shuffling through a number of odd jobs, from setting up tentage to working on drains. Madam Neo, born mute and nearly deaf, worked at a laundry shop before switching to become an assistant at a nearby coffee shop, where she brings in about S$700 a month working 10-hour shifts every day.
The family of three lived in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio. Because mum and dad were working hard to put bread on the table, a nanny and family friend who lived in the next block, Wong Fong Mee, cared for Boon Hock till he was 10.
WATCH: The family that never said die (9:11)
GROWING UP DIFFERENTLY
When Boon Hock started walking unsteadily at the age of two and speaking with a slur by the age of five, doctors diagnosed him with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that primarily affects body movement and muscle coordination.
As a result, Boon Hock began weekly sessions with physio and speech therapists from the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA), a non-profit organisation helping children with special needs.
Therapy initially proved painful and uncomfortable. “It wasn't easy because it was asking me to change my habits that I had been so used to,” Boon Hock said. “After all, for the first few years of my life, I'd been walking like this.”
Boon Hock’s condition causes his legs to ache when walking or running long distances. The aches will last through the night, he said. Other than that, he insisted, cerebral palsy does not affect him at all.
Growing up, Boon Hock realised he was different. “It gave me some sort of sadness,” he said. “Why should I be born this way? Why can’t I be born like other people – able to walk well, able to function as a real person and run a lot?”
He could not run much, and this bothered him as a young Ang Mo Kio Primary School pupil who loved playing football. “I actually cannot run that fast, and it affected me a lot,” he added. “In primary school, nobody knows about your physical disabilities. They just care about winning the game.”
Academically, Boon Hock lagged behind his peers. But he made up for it by always doing his homework and working extra hard in school, asking questions in class and approaching teachers in the corridors when he needed clarification.
But while his teachers were willing to help, some of his classmates were much less supportive.
When Boon Hock was in Primary 3, the bullying started. His schoolmates poked him multiple times with a mechanical pencil because he could not sprint and was made the scapegoat for losing football matches. He did not tell anyone because he was afraid they would “make things more difficult”.
They also called him “broken legs” and made remarks like “You run so slow” and “You cannot walk properly”. It was a terrible feeling, he said. “After all, I didn’t want to be born this way. Why are you treating me this way?”
Again, he kept silent. “My mum had to work, so I didn’t want to add on to the problems,” he explained. “And I just wanted to give my dad the impression that I’m happy in school. I didn’t want him to worry.”
Boon Hock’s mother was different too. His childhood days with her were “not easy”, he acknowledged. Because she cannot speak and can barely hear, Boon Hock turned to a self-invented system of hand signs to communicate.
There were times when they never understood each other, Boon Hock admitted. “That can be very, very frustrating and depressing,” he said. He was also embarrassed when she visited him in school. “Other mothers are able to communicate with their children verbally,” he added. “Why can’t my mum be in the same situation?”
Boon Hock was still in Primary 3 when tragedy struck. His father, who was earning S$100 a month as a newspaper collector at the time, was admitted to the hospital. Mr Seng was in pain and his left leg had turned blue. Doctors did not know why, but observed that blood had stopped flowing there. He had to have his leg amputated or risk dying.
Madam Wong’s son, Leslie Chow, called this a “big blow” for the family, especially because Madam Neo was jobless at the time.
“This impacted them financially and emotionally,” Mr Chow said. “They practically lost all income overnight and they did not know how life was going to be when the father is not able to move around or even find work.”
When Mr Seng was wheeled out of the operating room missing a leg, Madam Neo could not hold back her emotions. “She couldn’t express herself, but she just cried,” Mr Chow said. “That was the first time I saw her do that.”
Because Mr Seng was unable to walk, Boon Hock had to take over newspaper collection duties – a weekly routine he has kept up to the present day. Over the years, he has built a regular network of contributors in the Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 neighbourhood.
“When I was young, I definitely asked myself why I had to do this,” he said. “I could have used the time to do my own things. But as I grew older, I knew about the financial burdens at home. The first thing I wanted to do was to try and help out.”
FAMILY TRIUMPHS OVER HARDSHIP
After visiting three units, Boon Hock’s trolley is filled to the brim with newspapers. His left foot points inwards and he walks slowly with a limp. But he speaks confidently, with no slur. It is time to go home, he said.
Home is now a two-room rental flat, still in Ang Mo Kio. Mr Seng, 77, is watching a Chinese drama on the television. He seldom goes out, except to vote and to get a haircut. Madam Neo, 66, is preparing to leave for work, at another coffee shop but led by the same kind-hearted boss who watches over her and sends her home every night.
Boon Hock pushed his trolley through the cluttered living room and into the kitchen, where he starts laying the newspapers neatly in a corner. He shares the single bedroom with his parents. They sleep on a tiny single bed. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor.
Boon Hock never complained about his meagre upbringing. Sure, there were times when he yearned for a new iPhone, he said. But the desire disappeared quickly. “Growing up, even though I didn’t have much, I was quite happy.”
He never doubted his parents’ love for him either. They are his “pillars of support”. When Madam Neo found out about the pencil marks on his arm, she dragged him to school to meet the discipline master, he said. She gestured at his arm and made her point. The poking stopped soon after.
This act really stuck with him. “I always have an impression that she is a very hardworking person,” he said. “She is also quite a loving mother as well. When my dad tries to punish me, she will be the first one to shield me.”
Mr Seng is the traditional disciplinarian. “My father instilled in me important values in life,” Boon Hock said. “He kept telling me studying is very important so that I can have a better future.” When Boon Hock was searching for a job, his parents told him to “go out there, do your best and never let your disability limit you”.
Still, Boon Hock knew the difficulties his parents faced. This goes especially for his mum, who single-handedly juggles housework with her exhausting job. “It wasn’t easy for her to come home and still have to do the dishes,” he said. “So when I have the time, I help out a bit to ease her load at home.”
Back in the Seng family home, Mr Seng said in Teochew that he never faced difficulties raising Boon Hock as a child. Madam Neo, smiling, pointed to Boon Hock and gave a thumbs up.
TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A CHILD
Outside his home, Boon Hock is not alone. Mr Chow, the family friend, has become an important figure in his life.
The 53-year-old retired naval officer helped pay for Boon Hock’s education and chipped in for the household rent and bills. He stepped in during meet-the-parent sessions at school and assisted with everyday matters at home, like taking Mr Seng to the doctor.
Madam Wong and Mr Chow treat the Seng family as part of their own. They “naturally” felt the need to help, Mr Chow said. “Knowing the family background, with both parents who are not educated, I just feel a need to at least help this boy get a good education.”
Despite their difficulties, Mr Chow said the Seng family remained upbeat and never asked for more. They never took advantage of the help they got either, he added. “They have no complaints about what they have. They treasured what they had every day, and just went on with their lives.”
Even as a young boy, Boon Hock was mature in his thinking, Mr Chow said, and he never asked for toys or presents. “He knows the family has little to offer. Whatever he received was with gratitude.”
Boon Hock said Mr Chow, whom he affectionately calls gor gor (big brother), shaped his character. “He taught me that in life, you can’t have everything,” he said. “Sometimes, something bad will happen. But you just have to face it.”
In conversations between Boon Hock and his mother, Mr Chow is even referred to with a specific hand sign: hands gripping an imaginary steering wheel. This is because Mr Chow drives a car.
While Mr Chow never regarded his contributions as special, he repeatedly called Boon Hock a blessed child. “We are quite thankful that there are companies that came forward to offer them some financial support,” he said.
After a Chinese documentary on the family aired in 2005, a local manufacturing company offered to sponsor Boon Hock’s education and daily expenses.
Support also came in other forms. To keep Boon Hock going, his teachers at Yio Chu Kang Secondary School left heartfelt notes when he faced struggles at home or a dip in results. When Madam Neo fractured her ankle in a bad fall, one of them visited her at the hospital.
In addition, Boon Hock credited his support group at AWWA for altering how he viewed his condition. “They want us to have the mindset that having a disability doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute to society,” he said.
During support group sessions, he met others with more severe cases of cerebral palsy and saw how they chose to persevere. For example, one of his friends is wheelchair-bound and unable to speak properly, but “in her life, she thinks she can still help out”.
“If some people who are worse off than me can contribute, why can’t I? I think that really helped me build a positive attitude,” he noted.
Boon Hock continued to flourish as he graduated from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central with a 3.70 Grade Point Average score, earning him a spot at Nanyang Polytechnic.
While the support Boon Hock received heartened him, it was in his polytechnic years that his worldview really started to change – from one of frustration with what he faced, to one of determination to look at the positives.
This coincided with Mr Chow taking him to church. “The messages I heard helped me realise that I wanted to make a change,” said Boon Hock, who attends the First Evangelical Reformed Church in Ang Mo Kio every Sunday.
Most of Boon Hock’s friends are from church. He shares his problems with them, he said, and their encouragement helps him through. He also goes out for meals and movies with a few close friends from ITE.
Two years ago, Mr Chow brought Madam Neo to Boon Hock’s polytechnic graduation. She probably did not know how far Boon Hock had come, Mr Chow said, but he saw nothing but pride in her eyes.
Boon Hock is now about a month into his brand new job based in Chinatown. He admitted he is taking some time adapting to life as a working adult, but “as long as I’m given time, I’ll be up for it”.
He is looking to the future, starting with helping his parents own a home for the first time. He has been eyeing Build-to-Order flats that have sprung up near his home. “I hope to move to one of those newly-built flats one day, so the three of us can stay there,” he said.
When asked if his parents featured firmly in his five-year plan, Boon Hock did not hesitate. “They are the ones who brought me up and watched me grow,” he said. “Since they have supported me since young, it’s about time I repay them.”
Boon Hock aspires to be a certified accountant too. He plans to take a part-time degree before getting his license. “I am trying to save up so that it will not be heavy on my parents,” he added.
It is Saturday again, but Boon Hock is not collecting newspapers yet. He is first going to play football with Mr Chow and a bunch of friends at Bishan Park. This has also become a weekly affair. It is a chance for him to work his legs while doing what he loves.
“As I grew older, I learnt that life has to go on,” he said. “There’s no such thing as the world (having) to stop for you just because you’re going through a hard time.”
So, what is his advice for those going through a tough time?
“Yes, you might be in a very bad situation,” he said. “But sometimes, the purpose of these situations is actually to build you up as a person. Things could be very bad, but there’s something positive in the long run.”
Back on the field, under the harsh morning sun, Boon Hock laces up his green Nike football boots. Left boot slanted inwards, no problem. He hobbles, huffs and puffs and earns cheers from his teammates. His team scores a last-gasp goal to win 5-4.
His peers might have once poked fun at his limitations. But there is no limitation here.