SINGAPORE – Talk about a productive pandemic. Driven by necessity, or simply by having more free time, these people embarked on ambitious projects under the shadow of Covid-19. A world record was claimed; books were written and entrepreneurs emerged. Here are some ideas on how to make good use of a pandemic.
He got a Guinness World Record
Early last year, Mr Samuel Tan wanted to recreate a seafood alfredo dish from a restaurant he visited during a trip to South Africa.
This culinary goal was soon abandoned in favour of something far more ambitious – a bid for a Guinness World Record.
As the pandemic unfolded, the 19-year-old Nanyang Polytechnic student found he had more free time, especially during the nearly two-month-long circuit breaker, which started on April 7 last year.
He started cooking more, making fresh pasta for the first time. Before long, he was experimenting with pulling the longest noodles he could.
He has a competitive streak, and is fascinated by contests of extreme speed or endurance.
As a child, he used to like running on the pavement to race cars going by. When he was in his secondary school’s bowling team, he wanted to bowl the fastest 300 – a perfect score, involving 12 strikes – among his peers. He never succeeded.
But he did not give up trying. Last year, he came across a 2017 video of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay pulling off a shot at the existing world record for the longest sheet of pasta rolled in one minute by an individual.
The Ramsay fan recalls thinking: “I could do that.”
Mr Tan used to enjoy reading the Guinness World Records, an annual publication, during his childhood.
In February last year, he decided to aim to beat Ramsay’s record of making a sheet of pasta that was 1.4478m long. He lodged his application with the Guinness World Records organisation the following month.
The task proved more difficult than expected.
First, he had to determine the combination of flour, eggs, salt and water needed to make pasta with the optimum texture and elasticity.
He experimented with cake flour and bread flour, before plumping for plain flour.
The flour shortages that ensued, as masses of people took to comfort baking during Covid-19 last year, meant Mr Tan and his parents had to look high and low to find the brand he needed.
The family ate a lot of pasta last year, Mr Tan, the youngest of three children, notes wryly.
The criteria set by Guinness World Records were challenging.
For verification purposes, he had to find professional witnesses such as a videographer, a food safety officer and a specialist “with expertise in measurement”, according to the guidelines.
The last was a head-scratcher, until Mr Tan’s father thought of asking a golfing buddy, who had been an accredited official at the prestigious British Open golf tournament in 2019.
Mr Tan later learnt that this witness also had to have a relevant degree, such as one in architecture, which serendipitously he did.
There were times when Mr Tan was tempted to give up.
“It was way too much work, but there was nothing to lose,” he says.
The day before his attempt at the world record on Oct 8 last year, he unpacked and promptly broke a new pasta maker, which he had planned to use to roll out the dough. It was the third one he had broken during eight months of practising.
On the day itself, the atmosphere was tense with anticipation in the family’s landed home in Serangoon.
A representative from Guinness World Records had not flown in.
Instead, a socially distanced group of five professional witnesses gathered as Mr Tan prepared his set-up, masked, gloved and reminding himself not to scratch his head as it would infringe the hygiene regulations.
The video footage and other documentation of the proceedings were later sent to the Guinness World Records office for verification.
Mr Tan’s first attempt yielded a sheet of pasta that was 1.94m long. But he was worried there might have been a slight tear in the dough, which would disqualify him. He hit 2.03m on his second try, smashing the Guinness World Record by more than 50cm.
His parents, directors at an investment company who are both 56 years old, are proud of his achievement.
His mother, Ms Wendy Khoo, says helping and supporting Mr Tan in his quest has brought the family closer together.
His father, Mr Tony Tan, is glad that his son learnt the value of resilience through numerous rounds of experimentation and practice.
For Mr Samuel Tan, lingering feelings of being a self-confessed “loser” with bad grades have been put to rest. He reckons he was one of the worst students in his secondary school cohort.
He says: “I was a failure last time. This was the biggest confidence booster: You’re No. 1 in the world.”
To celebrate his win, he took his family out for dinner at Bread Street Kitchen, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant.
Cancer patient publishes his 8th book
Mr Kevin Lee, 49, had beaten cancer. Or so he thought.
He was diagnosed with stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer in 2017 and was recovering well. But in April last year, as the pandemic closed in, he found out during a routine check-up that he had had a relapse and required surgery to remove malignant lymph nodes.
“It was like striking lottery twice, but in the wrong way,” recalls Mr Lee, founder of T.E.A.C.H. Enterprises, which offers motivational workshops and training.
As Covid-19 raged worldwide, demand for his training services dried up under the strain of social distancing.
His low immunity kept him sequestered in his Sengkang Housing Board flat. He soon fell into a “depressive state” and almost gave up the fight against cancer.
Struggling to make a living, he decided to launch a fund-raising drive selling his e-books, which are now his main source of income.
Mr Lee, a Catholic, recently donated about $12,000 of the $30,000 raised to various Catholic groups and charities.
He also used the down time to finish his eighth book last year.
Published in October, How I Dealt With My Cancer Relapse – A Journey Of Caregiving, Mindset And Support is an e-book sold for $10 on his website.
His books, self-published through Amazon, discuss topics like cancer, marriage and spirituality.
The former teacher is married to Ms Gladys Yeong, 43, a pre-school administrator. The couple do not have children.
He says his wife revealed that during his first bout of illness in 2017, when he spent six weeks in hospital, she used to cry at night at home, hoping the phone would not ring with bad news.
Hearing that, he resolved to keep his chin up.
Mr Lee says: “When you see your loved one hurting, the last thing you want to do is hurt them or see them suffer. I live for my wife.”
After his diagnosis in 2017, he decided to publish a book every year on his birthday on Oct 10, a promise he has kept.
Next year, he will be writing a book on caregiving, which will feature his beloved wife, among others.
Best friends sell Japanese groceries
Best friends Rebecca Kwan and Lavender Chia had just registered their new online business. The 24- year-olds were flush with excitement, brimming with plans for MoguShop, which would sell Japanese groceries.
Mere hours later, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans for a circuit breaker to stem the spread of Covid-19.
That fateful day in early April last year is one they will never forget.
Ms Chia recalls: “There was no time to feel sorry (for ourselves). It was about how we were going to build a new brand, when people were seeking comfort and security with more established brands.”
The duo became firm friends while studying and munching their way through Singapore Management University. They shared a love of Japanese food, but often lamented the high prices and wanted to bring in more affordable options.
Before pooling their savings and investing a five-figure sum with two others to start MoguShop, Ms Chia worked for 10 months as an account executive in the food and beverage industry. This is Ms Kwan’s first job after graduating in December 2019.
MoguShop sells a range of Japanese items such as rice, sauces, salt, meat, uni (sea urchin) and crisps with flavours like unagi (eel) and plum bonito. They contacted some of their suppliers through Japanese prefecture trade associations.
Before the pandemic hit, they had planned to approach the market through pop-up stores. But Covid-19 paved the way for community group buys, where they sold their products in bulk, liaising with the management at condominiums.
They also hopped onto the Facebook live-stream bandwagon, which took off last year. Ms Chia would host the sessions showcasing their products, sometimes chomping on mentaiko-flavoured rice crackers to show their appeal.
“Covid-19 gifting” – gift packages delivered to friends and family – was another big trend they benefited from.
But there were challenges too. Prices of some supplies rose by 30 per cent amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Packaging costs also rocketed.
Still, Ms Chia reports that MoguShop, which has two other employees, is “on the brink of breaking even” in 10 months.
It now stocks 700 items, up from 150 at the beginning. At the end of last year, it launched Snackbar, a line of Japanese snacks and beverages.
The pair say their friendship has been strengthened through becoming business partners in a pandemic.
Ms Chia says: “We complement each other well. We’re both responsible and we always want to do better.”
Cancer survivor opens bakery cafe
Last year, about a month after arriving in Australia, Mr Ter Guo Qian, 24, had to leave his job at a bakery in Sydney as the Covid-19 situation started worsening.
In March, when he came back to Singapore just before borders closed, he found it hard to land a job.
He decided to pursue his dream of opening a bakery-cum-cafe in Kovan.
“There’ll never be a time when I’ll say I’m ready to start a business. I was taking a leap of faith,” says Mr Ter, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the thymus, an organ in the chest that is part of the lymphatic system, when he was 18.
After a year spent undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, he opted not to finish his polytechnic IT course, but to pursue a diploma at hospitality institute Shatec instead, focusing on baking, which he picked up while he was recovering.
Since then, he has worked at a local bakery and taken baking courses in Thailand and the United States.
Despite his reservations as to whether starting a business in a recession was a good idea, his parents were supportive.
His mother, Ms Cindy Tan, 52, who runs a travel agency, says: “When Guo Qian came back and couldn’t find a job, I told him, since you are so passionate about this, now is the best time to launch your business.”
Since her business has flat-lined with leisure travel curtailed, she had more time to help her son start operations for The Bread Rack, which specialises in baked goods like sourdough bread and croissants.
It will open officially on Jan 21, and some of its profits will be donated to cancer patients.
She and her 57-year-old husband, a retired engineer and cancer survivor, forked out the capital, but she declines to disclose the sum. The couple also have a younger son and daughter.
It has been a bumpy road to opening The Bread Rack.
Logistical issues caused by the pandemic meant shipments of equipment and ingredients were delayed.
Curbs on movement of foreign labour last year meant renovation was delayed. A sub-contractor disappeared without completing work late last year.
Despite these setbacks, Mr Ter is raring to make The Bread Rack a success.
He says: “We’ve invested so much time and money. It wouldn’t be nice to disappoint my parents.”
Mum of five branches out into publishing
Mandatory home-based learning (HBL) drove mother of five Murni Abdul Hamid up the wall, but it also pushed her to branch out into publishing.
Like many other business owners, the director of a chain of childcare centres and kindergartens as well as several enrichment centres was worried about the impact of the pandemic on her bottom line.
“During the circuit breaker period, we had to stop some of our operations. That’s when I had the idea of creating a book,” she says.
In-person enrichment classes at her outfit, LMR Education, ceased for three months, although the sessions eventually shifted online.
She suffered a drop in income from the physical enrichment classes for Arabic, Malay and English phonics she offers, though demand for educational materials sold online by LMR Education rose.
With two co-authors, she wrote Daily Du’a & Dhikr For Kids, an Islamic prayer book. They started planning the book in June last year and it was published last month by LMR Education. Priced at $12.90, it is available at littlemuslimreaders.com.
She figured that working from home en masse meant parents were probably in a better position to observe and guide their children daily in moral instruction, which her book encourages.
She also saw a gap in the local market for such publications, which she plans to plug in the future.
Daily Du’a & Dhikr For Kids features Arabic text, transliteration to help readers pronounce the Arabic words, and translation into English. Similar books from Malaysian publishers often have translations in Malay, instead of English.
Ms Murni and her civil servant husband, both 37, have five children aged between two and 12.
She says: “It was something we could do to expand the business, which we had done in previous years by opening new centres. It’s important to diversify how we do business during Covid-19.”
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This article was first published in The Straits Times.