TL;DR – Not your everyday ah beng story.
Singapore isn’t well known for Chinese tea craft and culture. We don’t have many people who will make tea pots for Chinese tea. Kim Whye Kee is one of those who strongly believes that Singapore should have its own tea pot culture and wants to get Singaporeans addicted to tea.
Whye Kee makes his own Chinese teaware by hand in his own flat, and sells them through his own website.
Whye Kee took a while to become a potter. He was in the last batch of Primary 8 students. He was in the first batch of Normal Technical stream students. When he went into the NITEC course, he felt that he had no more future. That’s when he started getting involved in gangs. He said:
“When we are young, everyone has dreams. But once you get into NITEC, you give up your dreams, give up on yourself, you won’t be able to make it in the world. But if at that time, someone can come and tell you that you still have opportunities, maybe we won’t join gangs, take drugs. Being in a gang is a perfect solution. You can be a fighter. Immediately, you have thousands of friends. But you are trapped. A lot of my the people in my batch of Normal stream students still can’t leave that path. They don’t know that there are other options in life”
As a result of his involvement in gangs, Whye Kee was in and out of prison three times between 1998 and 2008. In that period, he was out of prison for less than two years. He wasn’t able to find a job, and had to go back to the gang.
When he was still serving his last prison sentence, he was allowed to leave the prison twice. Once to visit his father, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, in the hospital, and another time to attend his father’s funeral.
That was when he resolved to change his life.
Before he finished his last prison sentence, he enrolled in a pottery class. That’s how he came to meet renowned Singaporean artist Chen KeZhan. Chen taught Whye Kee many things about art, helped pay for Whye Kee’s fees for pottery lessons, helped him enrol into LaSalle College of the Arts, and even paid for the school fees for his first term in LaSalle.
Knowing that he had been given a second chance, Whye Kee wanted to give back to society. He started to volunteer with the grassroots organisations in Taman Jurong which is held by DPM Tharman. As a volunteer, he used to write some reports. These would get to DPM Tharman, who would take the time to go through Whye Kee’s reports, correcting his English and teach him how to write better.
DPM Tharman also bought Whye Kee a new laptop, and helped Whye Kee with his living expenses when he was in LaSalle.
Lump of clay can be turned into useful art
Being a potter, he realised that a lump of clay can be turned into a beautiful work of art and a functional piece of craft. He felt that life is like that too. Everyone can be valuable.
That’s why he started Beacon of Life Association (BOLA) when he was volunteering in Taman Jurong. BOLA worked with 30 youths-at-risk, each of whom have had his/her own run in with the law. Through art and sports, BOLA tries to steer the youths away from crime and gangs.
These days, Whye Kee often invites some youths-at-risk to his house to learn pottery. He also provides them with simple meals, helping them improve their craft. He also helps them sell their work when he has his Pottery Open House. He said:
“A lot of people have money. But what these youths need is a friend. They need to see another side of Singapore, not just its underbelly. When we help them sell their wares during our Open Houses, when people bought their work because they really like the work, and not out of pity, then that is better, more sustainable way of helping these youths.”
Appreciating tea is about cultivating oneself
To Whye Kee, making tea pots and appreciating tea is a way to cultivate oneself. That’s why he wants to introduce tea appreciation to drug addicts. He said:
“I want to come up with a process of appreciating tea and introduce it to rehabilitating drug addicts. I want them to be addicted to tea instead. I want them to be able to differentiate the bitter from the sweet. I hope that when they are released, they will use the money they earn to buy tea, not drugs. I would like them to remember that every time they make tea, they need to be at peace, not say stupid things. I want to ‘trick’ them into drinking tea!”
Whye Kee is a good example of someone who was lucky to have been given a second chance. He is making the most of the second chance that has been given to him and giving back to the community in his own ways. We hope that Singaporeans will give more people like Whye Kee the second chances they need so that they become like Whye Kee, contributing and giving back to society.
(Editor’s Note: This story was based on a Zaobao article published on 11th March. Written by Huang Xiangjing and with photography by Chen Yuanzhuang, it was Whye Kee’s inspiring story beautifully told.)