“Poverty... it’s a vicious cycle if you allow it to continue,” begins Teo Peng Chai, his kindly eyes looking thoughtful. “So you need to break away from it. How? Through education,” he adds with conviction in his voice. Despite the bustle in the cafe, I could suddenly feel the weight of his words as they sink in, heavy. Realising the sudden change in the air, Teo smiles and offers me a freshly baked bun. “My wife baked this today using homemade yeast. It’s really delicious! Try some.”
Hailing from a small village in Kepong, this cafe owner and former English teacher recounts his life journey and the trials he went through to get to where he is today. Brows furrowing, he recalls: “It was the 1970s and it wasn’t easy to get work. I remember slaving away through many odd jobs after completing Form 6. I only graduated with a TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) degree at the age of 39. And that changed my life.”
The soft-spoken Teo is the fourth of six siblings. His father was a labourer and the family made do with what little they had. It was this tight upbringing that taught him the value of taking nothing for granted. With a wistful smile, he confides: “When you come from alower income group, you realise that everyone’s struggling in some way or another. It’s never easy to earn a living, but it’s not impossible. All you need is to have faith. No matter what life throws at you, you just keep doing your best. Never give up.”
CARVING HIS OWN PATH
Had you always wanted to be a teacher? I ask Teo. He shakes his head before replying: “Actually, I wanted to be an engineer. But my family couldn’t afford it.” He was only 12 when his father moved the family down south to Johor due to better job opportunities. They had no one to rely on and thus learnt the importance of relying on themselves and working hard. Each day after school, shares Teo, he’d head over to a hawker store in town and sell cakes just to earn a few ringgit. “My father did a lot of odd jobs just to keep us afloat, but it wasn’t enough,” he adds, softly.
After graduating from high school, Teo found employment at a factory where he did manual labour. But it was not long after when he was involved in a horrid industrial accident that left him with a badly scarred and partially handicapped palm. “That was when I realised that I couldn’t make a living from doing manual labour anymore. In those days, the only way out was to go for teacher’s training if you didn’t want to fork out money for studies,” shares Teo.
It was an uphill climb for him but steadily he made his way through it and eventually earned himself a scholarship from the department of education to pursue his diploma. By the time he turned 39, he graduated with a TESL degree from University Malaya.
Sheepishly, Teo confides that he can’t help feeling amused whenever parents of his students praise him for his fluent English. “Even though I’m Teochew, I didn’t learn to speak Mandarin or English until I started schooling. I was more fluent in Malay actually because of the friends I used to hang out with in the kampung,” he recalls, adding: “I never dreamt of being a teacher, let alone an English teacher!”
For Teo, the most important quality to possess and one which will see you overcome the hard times is self-discipline. Softly, he says: “You may have all the academic qualifications in the world, but without self-discipline, whatever you have in your hands will be rendered useless.”
At 57, Teo is now enjoying the fruits of his labour. As we sip on a blue pea flower infused peppermint tea in his cosy cafe, he proudly points out that most of the furniture that we see in here have been handmade by him. “I like to refurbish whatever materials I find and turn them into something useful.”
Suffice to say, this industrious fellow isn’t fond of idling. Although Teo opted for early retirement from his teaching job at SMK Yong Peng, he keeps himself busy by cooking delicious meals for customers who visits JQK F&B cafe daily. The cafe is located on the first floor of Tanjung Square — a newly-opened row of shop lots that faces the main road leading into Bandar Penggaram, Batu Pahat, Johor. It opened its doors just five months ago but is seeing a steady stream of customers who like the cafe’s homely one-menu-a-day concept.
And that’s not the only thing that makes Teo’s cafe different from the rest. Its other unique factor is the preference for using mostly organic produce in the dishes. Blessed with a ‘green finger’, Teo converted a corner of his home into a mini organic garden filled with edible plants. This is where most of his ingredients are sourced from. “I’m a kampung boy la, so I’m used to planting stuff for food,” he shares, chuckling. That said, it’s not every day that his garden can cater to demands so whenever supply is low, he’d source for ingredients from trustworthy organic farmers around the vicinity.
In addition, Teo can also be found tending lovingly to his family of compost worms which he rears in his backyard. These worms are kept for their nutrient-filled poop known as worm castings. He started keeping them when he was sourcing for cheaper and healthier fertiliser options. “They’re easy and cheap to keep, and their poop is odourless. Worm castings have also been scientifically proven to be the best fertilisers around. One of the things it’s really good for is for reconditioning the soil, which in turn enables me to build a more sustainable garden,” he reveals.
His foray into organic farming and environmentally-friendly lifestyle inspired him to do more for the cause. His current focus is to replace rundown playgrounds in a few of Johor’s neighbourhoods and convert them into community gardens.
“Playgrounds have a short lifespan. When the kids have outgrown them, they’re usually left to rot,” he explains, adding: “Imagine converting that into a mini garden where everyone can reap the benefits. Everyone will be able to have fresh vegetables and fruits whenever they want. All they need to do is just replant whatever they’ve sown.”
The former teacher is currently contracted by the government to serve as a consultant for their edible park project at Medini, Johor Bahru. On his ultimate aim, Teo replies that he wants to expand JQK F&B cafe into an attraction of sorts, building on his concept of farm-to-kitchen, albeit on a bigger scale. “I want it to be a farm where customers will be able to harvest their own produce and then have it (their harvest) cooked for them on the spot.”
As my watch chimes the 11th hour, I hasten to take my leave, realising that I’m delaying him from closing his shop. A gentle smile on his face, Teo bids me farewell with some wise words. “In life, we should always keep trying to find ways and means to survive. Have faith in our capabilities. And if through all the struggles you manage to succeed, people will look up to you and admire the hard work you’ve put in. But the moment you try to seek help from another, just to make your climb easier, you’ll lose all credibility. And that’s the sad truth.”