“Why do I buy the cookies? It’s because they’re very delectable!”
“The cookies make good gifts, and at the same time we’re doing a good deed in helping others!”
“These cookies are made with the love of many.”
Whenever Chinese New Year approaches, many people will think of Tzu Chi’s charity New Year cookies. Be it the golden pineapple pillows or the almond cookies put nicely in the eco-friendly containers, they are the product of many volunteers’ hard work.
It all started in 1996, when Tzu Chi volunteers in Singapore baked biscuits in volunteer Lin Ya Zhi’s home to raise funds for Typhoon Herb victims in Taiwan. The production was later shifted to Tzu Chi Singapore’s then new premises at Chinatown in 1999 and the tradition has since continued until now with the demand rising each year.
A member of the coordination team, Sister Foo Kok Hwa, mentioned that due to popular demand, the production of the cookies has increased by one-third from last year to reach 8000 boxes. The production team foresaw manpower challenges as there were many big scale events coming up and it would be taxing for the volunteers to juggle their time. (To meet the target in five weeks, at least 50 volunteers were needed each day.)
When doing coordination work last year, Sister Foo’s employer suggested that she report to work earlier so that she could go to Tzu Chi to make cookies in the afternoon. This time round, she reports to Tzu Chi every day to accompany all the volunteers and lend her support to them, capitalizing on the free time she could spare as she is currently in between jobs.
Domestic helper becomes volunteer
Shortly after 8am, there were already volunteers in the kitchen making preparation to start their work for the day. Not too long after, more and more volunteers arrived at the kitchen and started working after putting on their aprons and masks.
Occasionally, one could hear elderly volunteers calling out names of their young grandchildren who were also helping out in the kitchen, or the volunteers conversing among themselves softly, otherwise it is all the sound of the mixers and the Tzu Chi songs playing on the computer. When the cookies were coming out fresh from the oven, a loud reminder could be heard: “Hot cookies coming! Careful, don’t get burnt!”
In the afternoon, while there were volunteers who would go home to prepare lunch for their families, there would also be those who would take over after knocking off from work. For seven days a week, close to 12 hours a day, the baking team members divide the work and continuously mix and knead the flour, weigh and roll the ingredients, and then bake them until they become the charity New Year cookies – the product of a relay of Great Love.
Some of the volunteers live nearby; the others come from far corners of the island. Among them, Sister See Ming Foong and her domestic helper, Saripah, are a familiar sight. In these two years, be it making New Year cookies or mooncakes, they have always been working together.
Sister See said that Saripah, who has worked for her for many years, is a kindhearted person. As such, she has been encouraging Saripah to be a volunteer. Sister See’s efforts paid off after Saripah watched a video of how Tzu Chi volunteers helped to clean up the Kali Angke River, dubbed the Black Heart of Jakarta, in Indonesia.
“In the video, I saw many people suffering. I wanted to help them but I had no idea what I could do. I come to the conclusion that the best way is to participate in Tzu Chi activities, such as making the charity New Year cookies.” Nowadays, not only does Saripah help to make New Year cookies and participate in community recycling work, she also helps to solicit donations from her friends and sell Tzu Chi’s charity fair tickets.
However, as a Muslim, it is inevitable that some of her friends harbour negative opinions about her being a volunteer of a Buddhist organization. Saripah says that she used to get irritated and annoyed easily in the past, but now she is able to stay calm all the time, especially when she is at Tzu Chi doing voluntary work. And because of this positive change, she tries to explain to her friends that it doesn’t matter whether one is a Muslim or a Buddhist, so long as one has a kind heart and willing to help others.
Sister See’s efforts in getting Saripah to be a volunteer is because she wishes that Saripah will continue to associate herself with Tzu Chi when she returns to Indonesia. Although her hometown is eight hours by car from the Tzu Chi Indonesian branch, Sister See has already created a plan for Saripah: she encouraged Saripah to own a small business in her hometown and travel to the Tzu Chi Indonesian branch to work as a volunteer and stay there overnight during weekends. Sister See clearly treats Saripah as a family member to the extent of giving her such advice.
Here, the two could be seen putting the cookies into the eco-friendly containers one by one, before covering and sealing it with adhesive tape then wrapping it with festive wrapper and passing it to the packing team.
The super sales representative
Sister Xie Rui Ming is always seen buried in a pile of purchase orders for the cookies, punching the calculator over and over, and occasionally, holding up a purchase order frowning at it. Sometimes, she’d be holding an order and is seen all smiles.
She said she is not good at mathematics and always has a hard time calculating the sales figure. If there were four seasons in Singapore, the “summer” and “winter” seasons could be considered Sister Xie’s busy period as she is usually occupied with the sales of mooncakes in “summer” and the New Year cookies in “winter”.
Sister Xie answers the phone every morning to take orders. In the evening, after the other volunteers have left, she would stay on to calculate the sales figure and to wait for customers to drop by to collect the cookies they have ordered. If there were promotional activities in the evening in Jing Si Hall, she often had to catch the last bus home. Day in day out, she has been our super sales representative for 10 years.
There was once during the Chinese New Year eve when a volunteer approached Sister Xie hastily to seek help as there were still over 10 unsold boxes of New Year cookies. Sister Xie took the cookies from the volunteer immediately, put them on the table she quickly set up and started to promote the cookies to people in bustling Chinatown in front of the old Tzu Chi premises. All 10 boxes of cookies were sold out within an hour, and many had to be turned away disappointed.
In the past, Sister Xie lost her temper easily, with unhappiness written all over her face. Her mother used to tease her that she wouldn’t smile even if she found money on the streets. Upon joining Tzu Chi, she was roped into the sales group and has to promote cookies to customers and collect money from them, she was fondly nicknamed “the face of money” as her name coincidentally sounded like it in Hokkien dialect.
To that, Sister Xie said laughingly, “It doesn’t matter, the money we collect for every box of cookies sold is a confirmation that we will be able to help the suffering.”
She recalled that previously there weren’t enough volunteers to make the New Year cookies. Hence, apart from being responsible for sales, she needed to help in packaging and quality control. Once, a customer came back to show her two boxes of peanut cookies, one nicely filled while the other was not. She held herself responsible for it as she was in charge of quality control. Since then, she has been very strict and ensured that every box was packed perfectly. Though it is quite stressful for some volunteers, Sister Xie insists on it as she feels that every box of cookies reflects the image of Tzu Chi, and she wants the public to have a good impression of the Foundation.
Sister Xie is grateful that she has had 10 years to make contributions, but she also feels that age has caught up with her, having fallen ill while participating in a training camp in Taiwan last year. She uses the incident to spur herself to work even harder, for “after all one doesn’t always have another 10 years to contribute to society”.
Cookie fragrance travels afar
Due to the increase in orders, the delivery volunteers have to make a few trips every day to send the cookies to customers. On 10 Jan 2011, they had to send 120 boxes to the shipping company where Sister Tan Suzan works.
In 2008, due to good business, the company was exploring how to reward their customers better; Sister Suzan’s suggestion of giving away Tzu Chi New Year cookies as gifts was readily supported. Apart from presenting the cookies as gifts for their customers, the company is also making a contribution to society as the money collected from the sales are used to help the underprivileged.
Sister Suzan’s colleague, Li Li Zhen, who was responsible for sending the cookies to the customers, shared with us that the New Year cookies were very unique compared to the common New Year hampers, which had similar contents every year. The Tzu Chi New Year cookies were very well received by their vendors and customers alike, as all gets the opportunity to reach out to the less fortunate during festive seasons.
Four years on, through the cookies, Sister Suzan has created awareness about Tzu Chi to many more local companies. . She has also brought the cookies to her customers in Taiwan. Many hearts were warmed when receiving the cookies, and many were also surprised that there was a Tzu Chi branch in Singapore. Some even urged her to stay for lunch to know more about Tzu Chi.
Although it weighs only half a kilogram, it is the work of many pairs of dexterous hands, willingly and repetitively clocking long hours without complaint for 40 days that makes every box of the New Year cookies exude a heartwarming fragrance wherever it goes.