Kids cried when they saw me

He drives a low-key Hyundai.

It is a “good-enough” vehicle that gets him from his five-room HDB flat in Choa Chu Kang to his workplace at Keppel Road, where he serves up bowls of his famous bak kut teh.

It is hard to imagine that this man is Mr Frankie Gwee, the owner of the renowned Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha and arguably one of Singapore’s best-known hawkers, one who has appeared in several reports for the food he serves and his philanthropy.

In 2006, he was one of 12 Singapore hawkers awarded the title of Singapore Street Food Masters by Makansutra.

In the same year, he was visited by Hong Kong’s former chief executive Donald Tsang, who came to try his famous bak kut teh.

While Mr Gwee may stinge on his transport and does not believe in having an ostentatious home, he thinks nothing about donating S$30,000 to anyone who he feels needs help.

Not that he is publicity-hungry. He was initially reluctant to reveal more details about his charity work and personal life when The New Paper on Sunday caught up with him.

“Often, I prefer to slip in and out (when he is doing charity work), but after (the Donald Tsang) story, it’s hard.”

He laughs, then adds: “Plus, with this face, it’s hard to pretend not to be me.”

The credit goes to the customers who patronise Ya Hua, he maintains.

“It’s their money, really. I’m only representing (them).”

He adds in a more sober tone: “When we die, we can’t take our wealth along with us.

“But most importantly, I felt that this is my calling, a mission. God gave me a second chance in life.”

The turning point in his life came in a horrific accident that nearly killed him.

That evening in 1987 was also the first day of the Hungry Ghost Month.

He was juggling two jobs – as an office boy in a Chinese trading firm in the day and, from 6pm, as a stall assistant at a bak kut teh stall in River Valley Road.

That night, he was off work and on the way to visit his girlfriend.

He recalls: “It was so surreal. I woke up that morning and was telling my girlfriend – who is now my wife – that it had been a while since I last saw a doctor.

“It was like a premonition.”

Mr Gwee adds: “The night was fine, there was no rain, the road was clear. It was like someone covered my eyes when I was riding the motorcycle.”

After waking up from a 10-day coma, Mr Gwee realised that he was blind in his right eye, his nose had collapsed and his face was horrifyingly disfigured. His spine was also broken.

He says: “I was devastated. For a while, I didn’t even know if I wanted to go on living.”

It turned out that Mr Gwee had crashed through a steel road divider on Queensway.

He says with a shudder: “Even now, when I occasionally drive past the road, it gives me the shivers.”

After operations and plastic surgery spanning over three years, he slowly found the strength to move on with the love and support of his family members.

He has five brothers and nine sisters.

“But it was my girlfriend’s unwavering support and love that truly kept me going,” he adds.

In a TV interview in June, his wife, Madam Lim Poh Choon, 47, said: “I felt that I was partly responsible because he was on the way to meet me.

“I didn’t feel it was right to abandon him.”

The couple have two children, a 22-year-old son who is doing his national service after his polytechnic studies, and a daughter, 18, who is in poly.

Not just affected by his physical injuries, Mr Gwee recounts how he had to pick up the pieces of his shattered confidence.

He says: “I was so hideous-looking that adults shunned me and kids cried in fear when they saw me.

“I felt so humiliated and I had no self-esteem.”

Another thing that bothered him then was he just could not find a job.

“No one wanted to hire me, but I could not blame anyone. On top of that, I stopped school at Primary 2.”

What he had was an insurance payout of $40,000, his family and a girlfriend whom he married two years after his accident.

One day, when he was out with his sister, they met a customer, who used to frequent the bak kut teh stall that they worked for.

Mr Gwee recollects: “The customer asked us, with our skills, why we didn’t run our own business.”

So the Gwee siblings decided to pool their resources and scouted for cheap shop space.

In 1991, on Mr Gwee’s 28th birthday, they opened Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha at Block 27.

He says: “My family members picked this date specially to mark the second phase in my life.”

After the cluster of flats in Outram Park went under the en-bloc scheme, the Gwees moved to Keppel Road in 2001, also on his birthday.

He will turn 49 this Wednesday.

“Each day I can wake up healthy and happy is a day earned.”

This mentality explains too why it is not unusual to see Mr Gwee, who works the 6pm-to-4am shift, making the rounds like any of his employees – whether it is ladling out soup, refilling customers’ empty bowls, taking orders or clearing the tables.

On the charity front, Mr Gwee says he will continue with his mission to bring hope and relief to the needy.

He has been actively involved in building a school in Chiang Rai, Thailand, “bit by bit because if you do everything all at once, it would not be as meaningful”.

This includes giving out bursaries and offering university scholarships.

He is also helping the villagers in Cambodia to rebuild an orphanage.

“The living conditions are poor and bad, and it gets worse between June and December, when there’s lots of rain,” says Mr Gwee.

Each time he visits, which is once or twice a year, he spends about US$1,000 (S$1,250) on necessities such as rice, instant noodles and bottles of water, and books and stationery for the children.

He also chips in with repairs and runs errands. He also cleans up the place.

Mr Gwee maintains: “Doing charity work is not just about giving money.”

One of the best rewards, he adds, is to be greeted by a line of young orphans waving the Singapore flag and singing our National Anthem.

Mr Gwee says: “It always touches my heart to watch and hear them, to know that they want us to feel their appreciation.”

He reckons he has come a long way from the hideous-looking man who made children cry in fear.

“I have learnt one thing – looks are not important. It’s your heart that matters most,” he says.

This article was first published in The New Paper.