Along the tourist-flocked Chinatown Food Street in Singapore, a long-established restaurant hails potential customers to get inside with its free spiritual books in English and Chinese, old tapes and CDs with Chinese labels.
Nothing in its facade is delicious. A menu of three dishes handwritten in Chinese and English on a chalk board: BROWN RICE WITH FOUR VEGETABLES, SOUP AND PASTA.
If not with the stickers of positive ratings from popular travel companies or the book that you take for free, you wouldn’t get in.
Unless, you’re vegan.
What is veganism? According to The Vegan Society, it is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
What is common among vegans is the plant-based diet, avoiding animal meat and by-products such as dairy, eggs and honey. Vegetarians also avoid animal meat but still eat some animal by-products.
Inside the restaurant, there are more shelves of tapes, CDs, books and pamphlets about Buddhism, spirituality, meditation, the story of underworld, and the Dhamma, and symbolic instruments. And another chalk board of the menu.
At the edge of the counter, a bunch of chopsticks, spoons and some bottles of condiments. About 10 small wooden square tables each with four stools are arranged neatly. Posters of meaningful sayings, an altar of a Buddha figure the one with multiple arms adorn the walls.
Is this really a restaurant? Despite the absence of burning incense, nothing smells like food in this place. But, before a customer could imagine the menu or choose a table, a tall skinny man asks from his chair, “What’s your order?”
Adrian Seow relays the order in Chinese to his father, who will then go to the kitchen and comes out with a plate or bowl of a dish. The rest is self-service, such as getting a glass of water from a dispenser or cold drinks in the fridge, utensils, and even putting them all to a basin for washing after eating.
The chef, his mother Wong, is leisurely watching television, sitting on an elevated platform at the corner also surrounded with packed bookshelves.
“She is the owner, not me,” Adrian says and takes a spoonful of his soup while surfing the internet on his tablet.
Wong, a petite woman with shoulder length hair and humble smile in lieu of her limited English, conquered leukemia 22 years ago and at the same time opened up the Ci Yan Organic Vegetarian Health Food.
Upon learning that she had Stage 3 cancer, Wong swore to survive and dedicate the rest of her life serving other people. Nobody convinced her to be vegan, neither her friends nor religion, as she adheres with the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It was after her bone marrow transplant that Wong could only eat certain foods and she realized that vegetables are actually much better for her health.
When she decided to be vegan, it was hard to look for organic vegetables and fruits during that time, so opened up a vegan restaurant to provide healthy meals for other people.
“What you eat is important”, says Wong, advocating that being vegan or vegetarian does not mean healthy. “At the end of the day, a healthy mind is more important.”
“It’s not just about changing your diet, but having a reason to live,” Andrew says, who was vegan for three years long before his mother’s diagnosis. “I’m not a vegan anymore, but I always make sure to have a balanced diet.” In the last 11 years, Andrew has helped Wong manage the restaurant, where he had most of his meals. “The question is not about why you got cancer but how are you gonna fight it. Perfect balance is having good nutritional food with a healthy mind,” he says.
Outside Wong’s place, the Chinatown Food Street is teeming with food stalls and restaurants, cooking Singapore’s best traditional dishes. The air is redolent with barbecue smoke.