Once a wayward teen, this bike shop uncle turned his life around. Now he’s paying it forward
Melvin Lee was once in a gang and was almost expelled from school. But a police mentor believed in him and gave him a chance to succeed in life. Today, he is paying it forward through the sport of cycling.
SINGAPORE: For 18-year-old Chen Jun Wei, what made him fall in love with cycling was the wind in his hair, and the exhilaration of riding fast along empty roads at night.
But it is also an escape. He does not see much of his parents — a lorry driver and a minimart assistant. “I try my best to spend time with them, but I think they’re quite busy,” he said.
Almost every night, he would get on his bicycle — a gift from his parents to keep him out of trouble — and explore the roads of Singapore. He remembers one “epic” round-island ride, when he cycled from 5pm to 6am.
He had friends who enjoyed cycling, but he usually rode alone. Besides, he said, his friends rode mostly road bikes — faster and easier to pedal on roads and pavements — and his mountain bike could not keep up with them.
In July, one of them, Shaun, told him about Team Garcia, youth cyclists who took part in local competitions. It piqued his interest: Perhaps he would find new buddies to ride with — after all, it eventually got lonely riding alone.
He asked Shaun if he could join the team.
That was how he walked into a neighbourhood bicycle shop in Bishan and met the man who changed not only his life, but also the lives of others like himself through a combination of tender loving care and an opportunity.
FROM GANG MEMBER TO ENGINEER
The owner of RNE Bike Shop and founder of Team Garcia is 54-year-old Melvin Lee. He, too, was once a teenager lacking the care he now offers so willingly.
He saw his sailor father once a year, while his mother, who did odd jobs — from sewing army clothes to selling laksa on the streets — struggled to make ends meet for Lee and his two sisters.
Left alone at home, he roamed his Circuit Road neighbourhood, a place he describes as having been infamous for gang activity. It wasn’t long before he himself joined a gang of youths.
“We could bully a guy for a whole year,” he recalled. “We see you … we pull you behind, we whack you.
“For what? For fun.”
His results dropped, and he was on the verge of being expelled from school.
Around this time, when he was 14, a policeman approached him to join the MacPherson Boys’ Club. The police-run Boys’ Club was a network of clubhouses that gave at-risk teens a safe place to hang out in housing estates.
Lee agreed, drawn to the free activities and games it offered, like snooker, which he would never have got the chance to play otherwise. What made him stay on, however, were the mentors — the police officers.
It was tough love, he said, and they demanded respect.
“They always said, ‘I can handcuff you — don’t play the fool,’” he recalled. “But they cared for us. They saw that we were hungry; they’d (say), ‘Go and buy food. I’ll pay.’”
They sometimes insisted that he should join in events and excursions such as a trip to Haw Par Villa. “They’d say, ‘I’ve put your name down already. This is an order — you’d better come,’” he said. He never regretted going.
He especially clicked with one of the mentors, whom he knew as Uncle Tang. “He’s a Cantonese, I’m a Cantonese,” said Lee. “He’s very close to me.”
WATCH: Lessons from my mentor, who was a teenage gangster (6:52)
Uncle Tang “basically” brought him up, gave him “a lot of support” and even talked to his mother at times to tell her that “actually, Lee’s not so bad”.
That was why, when he failed his O levels and decided to sign up for an apprenticeship course in machining that had a three-year bond, he asked Uncle Tang to be his guarantor.
“When he read the contract, he got a shock,” Lee said. Only during the signing did Uncle Tang find out that he would have to pay S$32,000 — a huge sum at the time — if Lee were to break the bond.
But to Lee’s relief, Uncle Tang signed the contract. “He said, ‘Ho ho zho lang (Be a good person), okay?’” Lee recounted. “Don’t let me down.”
With the opportunity to make a success of his life, Lee graduated with distinction and began his career as a machinist.
Over the years, he rose through the ranks in different companies, earned a diploma in engineering and travelled the world, helping to oversee various projects. Eventually, he started his own business in plastic injection moulding.
TWO TEENS AND THEIR POTENTIAL
But in 2013, Lee decided that it was time for a change. After selling his business, he was whiling away the time fishing when a friend approached him about the idea of starting a bicycle shop.
“Actually, I just wanted to pass the time,” he said. “Every day, I was just at the fishing pond … until one day, my wife told me I’d lose contact with the world if I kept on like that.”
At that time, he had no experience with bicycles beyond leisure cycling. But he learnt to service them as he went along, and began to enjoy the process. Two years later, he started his own house brand of bicycles, Garcia.
Then one day in 2018, two teenage boys walked into his shop in Bishan Street 12.
Miguel Mitch Pacheco was cruising past with his friend Yanda on their bicycles when they saw an Italian racing bike outside the shop. Curious to find out why such a bike — which they had been eyeing on Carousell — was parked in the heartlands, they went inside.
Lee immediately caught their attention, and not in a good way. “He was smoking in a corner and looked very fierce,” said Pacheco, now 21. But they were soon surprised, as he was “the friendliest uncle you could ever meet”.
Even though they were “noobs” who did not know their way around a bicycle shop, Lee sensed their interest as he chatted to them, so he invited them to join a leisure cycling group he and his friends had formed.
Over time, the relationship grew. Lee thought the boys had “potential”, and they began to spend more time with him, helping to fix customers’ bikes and learning the ropes.
In 2019, he thought it would be a good challenge for them to compete in the OCBC Cycle National Championships’ individual time trials.
He covered their competition fees and roped in a customer’s son — Ting Chun, 38, who had racing experience — to train them for free. The boys were scared but agreed.
They had six weeks to train, compared to the three to four months serious riders usually take. But they trained hard, and Lee told them to just do their best and “have fun”, no matter where they are placed.
On race day, they were a bundle of nerves.
But the results stunned them. Pacheco came 13th out of 18 riders, while Yanda came fourth out of 16 in a category where he was up against some national cyclists.
Yanda, now 20, was selected for the national development squad, which was the first step towards the goal of joining the national team.
He eventually dropped out, but that was when Lee realised there was potential to take the team further, and Team Garcia was officially formed.
A CLEAR TEAM MISSION
As word spread, the team grew. Today, there are officially 18 riders, aged 15 to 23, including one female rider.
To Lee, who hopes to keep them from wayward habits, the team mission is clear: “To learn what care and love is.”
He also wants to help those who may not otherwise have the means to join the sport, as cycling can be an expensive hobby. A road bike with components of “reasonable” quality can cost S$3,000 to S$4,000, he noted.
He has poured his own money — about S$70,000 — into team assets, like bicycles and other components, to make sure that all the riders have the gear they need to participate in races.
Bicycles are given to those without their own, on the understanding that they will return the bikes if they leave the team.
For those who want to own a bicycle but cannot afford it, he would offer them one at cost price or even lower.
Sometimes, he said, they ask him what would happen if they do not achieve a podium finish. Would they have let him down?
“I always tell them, ‘If you win, take it as a bonus. If you lose, try again,’” he said. “That’s it. What we want is for you to be a good person.”
Sometimes his friends introduce him to riders who they think might need a sense of purpose, he said. Whenever he or his cycling buddies see youngsters riding “fixies” — referring to single-gear bicycles — late at night, they also invite them to join their team.
Some of these young riders are not close to their families, he realises after talking to them, or they come from troubled backgrounds. And his heart goes out to them.
Support for the team has also grown. Ting, for example, now volunteers as the team’s head coach and has never considered asking for payment.
“When I see the growth in the youths, that’s what pushes me to do this,” he said.
The same goes for the sponsors. The team’s mission has moved customers and companies alike to dip into their pockets to help fund the team.
One of them is customer Joann Koh. Today, she not only contributes a four-figure annual sum together with her husband, but also is a familiar face at the team’s competitions and twice-weekly training sessions, arriving at 6am with home-cooked breakfast bentos for the riders.
“We were touched by the efforts that (Lee) put in for the kids. He's not calculative and has never asked them for anything in return - he only gives," she said.
‘70 PER CENT ABOUT LIFE, 30 PER CENT ABOUT BIKING’
Indeed, the character at the core of the team is Lee, or Uncle as the riders refer to him. “Without him, you can’t really call Garcia, Garcia any more,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco remembers being very shy when he first met Lee. But it is hard to tell he was an introvert from the way he carries himself now: With confidence as he dishes out advice to younger boys in the shop.
“(Uncle) told me to talk more, even at work or at school, to just go up to (people) and talk to them if you want to talk to them,” said the young man. “He’s basically like a consultant.”
Over the years, Pacheco has noticed how Lee has an intuitive way of getting the riders, especially newbies, to open up to him. And the advice he gives them is “70 per cent about life, 30 per cent about biking”.
“That’s what has made this team a bit more family oriented,” Pacheco added. “We have that sense of belonging here.”
He himself asks Lee for advice on anything from relationships to finances. “I was wishy-washy in secondary school and had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. “But Uncle gave me the spark to be in business.”
He is now studying accounting at the Institute of Technical Education. In his free time, he helps to build bicycle wheels for a business Lee started with him and two others.
He also mentors other boys like Chen, who is now the proud owner of a Garcia road bike in black and purple.
Chen’s parents chipped in about S$500 of the S$3,000 cost, and the teen worked as a warehouse assistant almost every day for two months to pay the rest. Lee sold him the bike at almost cost price, he recalled.
At that time, he had known Lee for only a month. Chen still remembers what Uncle told him when he was presented with the bike: “Just (take a) whack.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
Chen has since taken a firm whack at it. The team trains Thursdays and Saturdays, and he never misses a session.
In his free time, he still rides alone, enjoying the speed of his new bike and practising the skills he has learnt from the team.
Like in making uphill climbs. On one training ride, the team took him to Mount Faber, and he remembers laughing on the way up when most of his teammates dropped behind.
“I felt like it was easy for me, but I looked back and saw that most of them were struggling. It was quite funny,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of power."
He is always happy to lend his teammates a hand, and he knows how to repair bicycles now.
He also loves his bike — that is clear from the careful way he wipes it down and his detailed explanation of how he services it. “It’s like my girlfriend,” he said with a grin.
Today, he dreams of representing the country, or riding in Europe. And on the career front, he wants “to be the best engineer (he) can be”.
His newfound confidence comes not only from the team but from Lee, who has nudged him out of his shell.
“I always tell him, talk more. The more you hide, the more you suffer. Maybe when you talk, somebody can help you,” said Lee.
In a few short months, Chen even began mentoring new boys, teaching them how to ride as a team.
“I’m so proud of him,” said Lee. “He used to tell me he was very weak and couldn’t keep up with the team, but now he has that ambition to represent Singapore."
Seeing that youths like Chen have blossomed in his care — as he did at the Boys’ Club — he knows he is leaving a legacy.
And just as he keeps in touch with his old mentor, Uncle Tang, he hopes the boys will stay in touch with him, even if they become rich and famous.
“I always tell my boys, (when) you’re famous and successful, you must remember Uncle,” he said with a chuckle. “Whoever can be a minister, please take a picture with me.”
To him, there is no limit to what they can achieve.