As a hobby, Alwyn collects antiques – mostly old Chinese pottery and art but he has also, on occasion, rescued fittings from buildings being torn down.
“My very first ‘antique’ was this plate that belonged to my grandfather. I rescued it from my grand-mother when I was eight. She was using it to feed chickens.”
His grandfather had been a supporter of Sun Yat-sen and had given much money and time to the movement.
“In exchange all he got was this plate,” his grandmother had told him. She didn’t think much of the revolutionary.
The motto on the plate is “you have to persevere until the revolution is won.”
It captured the young boy’s imagination. “That became my guiding principal,” said Alwyn. “To me it meant that I must always persevere. Life is the revolution. It is never over.”
His grandfather was rich but saw a reversal of fortune when a building contract he was working on went sour. The cost plunged the family into poverty.
His mother had the mettle that kept his family together. He speaks with reverence of how she raised 7 children (six boys and finally one girl) and cared for two aged parents all the while working as a hawker.
“She sacrificed a lot.” His mother, 79, is still alive.
The family spoke Teochew at home and Alwyn didn’t take his mandarin studies too seriously until the day the teacher told him that he could stop coming to class. He was twelve.
“She told everyone I was hopeless and she was not going to waste anymore time on me.”
That lit a fire in the boy to prove her wrong. He asked his mother for tuition money for 4 months. Thirty dollars a month was a lot to a poor family in the early 70s and Alwyn took it seriously.
“My mother’s sweat and tears were in those $30 dollars. It was a big investment.”
He went to his friend’s tutor and worked hard. By the end of four months, he had surpassed his school friend in mandarin.
“By then I had to quit tuition because we could not afford it any more. But from that point on I could work on my own. Even the teacher who scolded me offered to help me with my studies.”
After Alwyn started work, he took evening classes at the Botanic gardens studying horticulture. His drive and passion for the business eventually led him to start his own company and gain a substantial reputation in the region for his work. Today he is well known and very successful in his field.
Now, still in his early 50s, he has found a new passion: food. Chen Hoo Tian was a popular Teochew high-end restaurant 50 years back but closed during hard times in the 70s. But the name shall live again under his leadership.
Alwyn has brought in the original chef, now 79, to oversee the kitchen. Together with some of the old recipes and significant research into Teochew food (visiting everyone from master chefs to academics in China) he hopes to revive the name and interest in this cuisine.
Alwyn himself is quite hands on and joins the chef in the morning to chop vegetables and help with food preparation – work he doesn’t need to do but enjoys. He talks about his food adventures with passion – his hunt for authentic ingredients, the quest for traditional recipes and their Singapore variants, studies into the history of the dishes.
There is a nice poetic turn in the story of Chen Hoo Tian for this grand old restaurant to be saved from the ashes by the son of a hawker.
So what are the chances that a landscaper can open a successful restaurant at a time when so many are closing their doors? In this case it’s probably pretty good.
The revolution is not over.
Cheng Hoo Tian Restaurant
41 Keong Saik Road