Left for dead as a baby, chef from China now ministers to fellow migrant workers in Singapore
Christine Leow // September 11, 2020, 10:16 pm
Growing up, Huang Zhongzhu led a tough life where he had three near-death experiences. He was so depressed he nearly killed himself. Till God stepped in. All photos courtesy of Huang Zhongzhu.
Huang Zhongzhu, 42, has travelled the world, traversing far-flung places like Costa Rico, France and Papua New Guinea.
He has worked in the depths of mountains as a miner, across vast oceans as a fisherman, and in a swanky Western restaurant as a chef.
But the most interesting thing about him is not his varied experiences, it is the fact that he has cheated death. Thrice.
“When something like this happens to you, you have to believe God stepped in,” he told Salt&Light in Mandarin.
The first time Huang was left for dead, he was just past two years old. A native of Henan Province, China, the home of the famous Shaolin Temple, Huang’s parents, now 77 and 71 years old, were farmers.
“When something like this happens to you, you have to believe God stepped in.”
“We lived in a village. We were not rich,” he said.
At the time, his mother had just given birth to his younger brother. Caring for him, his older sister and the new baby took up all her energy and effort, said Huang. His father was always busy in the fields.
“We hardly ever saw my father. He would go to work before we woke up and come home after we were in bed,” said Huang.
When Huang fell ill with a high fever, it was his grandmother who took him to the doctor. The village doctor gave him an injection but administered the wrong medication.
“Instead of bringing the fever down, he gave me an injection that affected my brain. I became semi-conscious,” said Huang who remembers nothing of the incident and relies on his mother’s account instead.
The family panicked and summoned his father to take him to the hospital. Along with his aunt, his father carried him and walked to get medical help.
“Half way through, I stopped breathing,” said Huang. “They put a finger under my nose and there was no breath.”
In the tradition of the people in his village, his father and aunt left his body in a ditch. “Our people don’t bury children who die. It’s just how it is,” said Huang matter-of-factly.
“When I recovered, my mother told me I was not normal.”
That tradition would save his life because a rag-and-bone man chanced upon him shortly after he was left in the ditch.
“He picked up trash for a living and he went to see what my father and aunt had thrown away. Then he saw me. He picked me up and put a feather under my nose and the feather moved.”
The shocked man ran after Huang’s father and aunt, and returned Huang to them. His family hailed a taxi and took Huang to the hospital where he stayed for three months.
“When I recovered, my mother told me I was not normal. I was always in a daze,” said Huang.
“I lost part of my childhood as a result. I remember nothing of it.”
Shock of his life
The second time Huang almost died, he was eight.
“I was wandering alone in the village and there were several low-hanging wires. My head hit one of them.”
Instinctively, he reached out with both hands to grasp the wire that was exposed on one end. He got electrocuted.
“When I was holding on to the wire, the current went through my body and it felt like I was being tied up tighter and tighter. I could feel the current coil around my body. But it didn’t hurt. I just felt numb.”
When the wires broke, Huang fell to the ground. The villagers around him thought he had died.
“They run to me but no one dared to touch me in case they got electrocuted as well.”
“There was an electrician in my village. I remember asking him, ‘Since I touched the wires, will I die?’”
When he became to, he found that the only injury sustained was to his hands. Till today, the fingers on his left hand are slightly damaged. But he was also “shocked out of his daze”.
“Somehow, the electricity entered my brain and I became normal again,” he said.
The family never took him to a doctor so he doesn’t know how that electric shock could have cured his stupor. He only knows that it did.
“I remember feeling scared. There was an electrician in my village. I remember asking him, ‘Since I touched the wires, will I die?’” But he survived.
A treasure received
It wasn’t long after this that Huang and his older sister started following one of their aunts to a house church.
“My parents didn’t object. My father was usually at work and my mother was just glad that there was someone taking care of us. She was busy taking care of grandma as well at that time,” said Huang.
When he received his first Bible, he was “so very happy”.
Although he didn’t understand much, he followed his aunt faithfully to Wednesday prayer meetings, Friday Bible Study classes as well as Sunday service.
“There was an emptiness inside me then that I wanted to fill. I was looking for someone I could totally rely on,” he said.
When he received his first Bible, he was “so very happy” even though it was only a tiny copy of the Gospel of John.
“The words were so small, you had to try very, very hard before you could read them. But Bibles were so hard to come by that I was very thankful.”
Longing to fill the emptiness
Meanwhile, although he was no longer in a daze, Huang couldn’t catch up with his classmates in school.
“I was still feeling empty inside. I wanted to find God. So, I went to church whenever I could.”
At 12, he dropped out to work as a miner to help out with the family’s finances. At 16, recruiters came to his village offering to train people to be fishermen. Huang signed up.
“They were offering three times the pay I was drawing. Also, they told us that if we died at sea, our families would get $20,000 in compensation. That was a lot of money in those days.”
To help his family, Huang became a fisherman even though it was a dangerous job. “There’s no use being scared. I just accepted it as my lot in life.”
The work was tough. “We worked 20-hour days. It was very lonely. During special occasions, I would miss home so much, I would cry.”
If he worked on board a small vessel, they would be at sea for up to a year. On a larger vessel, it would be three years before they could see land. But at every port they stopped, Huang would look for a church.
“I was still feeling empty inside. I wanted to find God. So, I went to church whenever I could.
“There’s no use being scared. I just accepted it as my lot in life.”
“It didn’t matter that it was often in a language I couldn’t understand. I still felt peace and joy.”
Among the churches he would visit was one in Costa Rica that was a day’s drive from the port.
“I found out about it through the newspaper and called them up. Because it was so far away for me to travel, the pastor, who was originally from Hong Kong, and two of his staff who were Taiwanese, offered to drive down to meet me.”
From then on, whenever he landed in Costa Rica, they would meet him at the port.
Saved once more
The third time Huang nearly died, he was in his 20s.
“I remember it was one of the last catches at sea. After that, we could go home to China to rest. The sea was calm and everything was normal.”
Being fitter and of bigger build, Huang was always the one at the front of the vessel pulling up the net. As he was bringing in the day’s catch, a swordfish jumped out of the water onto the boat.
“The bill of the fish was hard like steel and had barbs running down the sides. We tried to tie it with a rope but the fish lunged at me, aiming straight at my chest,” Huang recounted.
“I felt the swordfish touch me but then it was like a hand suddenly pulled it away and threw the fish back into the sea.
“When you encounter God this way, you have to believe that He is real.”
“It had to have been God’s hand because the whole fish was on board the boat and in the next instant, it was thrown into the sea.”
Huang’s shirt was ripped in two by the swordfish but he was barely hurt.
“It was only five minutes after the incident that there was some blood.”
Huang was moved to repentance.
“I told God, ‘I only come to You when I am in need, but forget about you the rest of the time.’ When you encounter God this way, you have to believe that He is real.”
When they landed in Costa Rica again, he and four of his colleagues who had witnessed the miracle – “they thought it was the Goddess of Mercy who did it but I told them it was my God, He is real” – called his pastor friend and asked to be baptised.
“They came in a car with a large trunk to fill with water so we could be immersed for baptism.”
The years passed. Huang married his sweetheart from Henan and decided to retire from his life at sea because of the dangers.
He picked Singapore to find work in. It had been one of his ports of call in his days as a fisherman and he had liked that “it’s such a beautiful city in a garden”. He also hoped he could make more money in Singapore than if he returned to China to farm his family’s land.
Because of Huang’s experience cooking for his crew while on the ships, he managed to secure a job as a chef in a Western restaurant.
Then, an accident happened.
“I was emptying the rubbish and there was oil on the floor. I slipped and landed on my back. It hurt a lot but I thought that if I rested, I would feel better.”
“I did blame God. I asked Him, ‘Why me?’”
The next day, instead of calling in sick (“they would dock our pay if we missed work”), Huang returned to the restaurant still in severe pain.
“Two hours into the shift, we had a lunch break but I was in so much pain that I couldn’t eat. So, I lay on the sofa to rest but then I couldn’t get up. It felt like needles were piercing my back.”
He eventually sought medical help and his condition improved, but he was left with a limp in his left leg. To make matters worse, the restaurant closed down and Huang was left jobless and injured.
“I was very sad. I did blame God. I asked Him, ‘Why me?’”
A church friend helped him to report the work injury in an attempt to get some compensation but it was a long process.
“The company refused to admit that I had gotten hurt at work. For a year, I couldn’t work. I would pray and cry.
“My mother’s health wasn’t good and I had a family in China to support. I didn’t tell my wife because I didn’t want her to worry.”
“The voice said, ‘You have given me your burden, why do you still take it back? … I knew it was God.”
When all seemed hopeless, Huang decided to end his life. He went to a bridge overlooking a busy highway, planning to jump.
“I thought, “If the fall doesn’t kill me, then the cars below would run over me.’”
As Huang was about the take the leap, he heard a voice right next to his ear.
“It said, ‘You have given me your burden, why do you still take it back? Why are you so unhappy? Your body is my temple and you are My child.’ I knew it was God.
“From that moment on, I decided I would stop feeling sorry for myself.”
Using his pain for good
Huang was introduced to HealthServe, a non-profit organisation that helps migrant workers, and they gave him shelter and food. His case was also eventually settled.
“I have learnt through the many incidents in my life that you can still praise God even when you’re in difficulty.”
“I received enough compensation to have an operation on my back and send some money home.”
HealthServe also helped Huang to secure another job, this time as a chef in a well-known dim sum restaurant.
“Now, I can make you all kinds of dim sum,” said Huang with pride.
On his day off, he volunteers with SG Accident Help Centre, sharing his story with other migrant workers who have been injured, worshipping with them, playing games and whipping up some of his specialties like Chinese pancakes.
“I have learnt through the many incidents in my life that you can still praise God even when you’re in difficulty.
“I pray for them because when I do something, it’s me working but when I pray, it’s God working.”
“He will let you learn many things from it and you will be able to use your pain to help others.”
Huang’s mission these days is to share the Gospel message wherever God has placed him.
“I try to invite my colleagues to church. They come but they’re not always interested in God. So, I pray for them because when I do something, it’s me working but when I pray, it’s God working.”
His other mission is to return to his family in China. He now has four children, with his youngest about two months old.
“There is only so much money you can earn. It’s time to be with the family and worship as a family.”