On 27 August 2022, Tzu Chi Teachers' Association of Singapore (“the Association”) hosted a vegetarian dinner at the Uniquely Vegetarian stall at Lao Pa Sat food centre for about 90 of the Association’s teachers and Tzu Chi care recipients as they celebrated the Association’s 23rd anniversary. The trio who shared their story on this day was a teacher and two of her students who now share another common affinity – vegetarianism.
"Ms Soh is like our second mother!" said Lew Zhen Wei, who runs the Uniquely Vegetarian stall, and his younger brother, Lew Han Wen, as they thanked and paid tribute to their teacher, Alice Soh, who has cared for them since kindergarten days.
27 years ago, Lew Zhen Wei was still a 3-year-old preschooler who always cried and refused to eat meat during lunch. Alice Soh, who was teaching the class next door, would always look across curiously whenever she heard his cries. She found out later that little Zhen Wei was always crying because he refused to eat meat.
After finding out the reason, Alice Soh tried her best to persuade the school to allow Lew Zhen Wei to have lunch in her class. Ms Soh would then thoughtfully remove the meat piece by piece from Lew Zhen Wei’s meal so that he could take his lunch with peace of mind. Trust in the teacher started to build in the boy’s little heart from then.
Vegetarianism was not as common in Singapore more than 20 years ago. Alice Soh did not know about Tzu Chi back then but little Zhen Wei's persistence reminded her of her experience going to the market with her mother when she was a child. Whenever little Alice Soh passed by a chicken stall, she would beg the stall owner not to kill the chicken and attract stares from people around.
Alice Soh said her childhood experience enabled her to empathise with how little Zhen Wei felt about eating meat. She believed that skipping meat in a meal would not have any adverse impact on a child, so she picked out the meat in Zhen Wei’s lunch every day.
Building the Foundation of Education over the Years
Lew Han Wen is two years younger than Lew Zhen Wei. After entering kindergarten, he was also cared for by Alice Soh. The bond built over lunch between the teacher and the two students continued to the present. Alice Soh said, "From dating their first girlfriend and their rebellious adolescence to starting a vegetarian stall now, they would confide in me whenever they encounter any difficulty.”
Recalling the childhood days, warm smiles flashed on the faces of Ms Soh and the two brothers. The introverted Lew brothers who are not very good with words said Ms Soh has brought them much warmth. Looking bashful, they proclaimed, “Ms Soh is like our second mother!”
The teacher-student trio get together during every festival nowadays. Alice Soh would occasionally teach the brothers the right ways to treat people and handle matters in life. She was also comforted that the brothers joined hands to open a vegetarian food stall with solid support from their father, and she decided to name the stall ‘Uniquely Vegetarian’.
The meatless meal gathering to celebrate the anniversary of the Association this year stemmed from this teacher-student relationship. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of 2019, many Tzu Chi volunteers have been actively promoting vegetarianism through various ways to remind the public of the Great Lessons taught by the pandemic. To respond to Master Cheng Yen’s calling, the Association organised a ‘Go vegetarian on my birthday’ campaign to promote vegetarianism this year. During Alice Soh’s birthday in April, she went for a meal at the Lew brothers’ stall together with the members of the Association. That became why the Association’s anniversary celebration this year was carried out at the stall.
The Lew brothers’ father, Lew Chee Hoong, participated in the Tzu Chi Entrepreneurs retreat in Hualien, Taiwan, in the past and has also been a supporter of Tzu Chi Singapore’s Festive Charity Fair for years. When he heard of his sons’ intention to start a vegetarian food stall, he gave them his full support.
Lew Chee Hoong, who came early in the morning to prepare meals with his sons, said: “It is good to tell more people about the benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet. We must promote it actively.” To provide healthy and nutritious meals to patrons, the vegetarian stall owners insist on using healthy ingredients and no eggs.
The Association’s anniversary celebration this year was of great significance. School-going children of Tzu Chi care recipients who participated in the online mentoring sessions during the pandemic were also invited to the vegetarian dinner with the teachers. In addition to celebrating Teachers' Day, the participants also learned the importance of going meatless to protect lives. Let us look forward to more heartwarming stories like that of the teacher-student trio of Alice Soh and the Lew brothers.