This Deepavali, Nathan Ji fundraised for 150 bottles of pistachio sugee cookies to give away. Photo (left) courtesy of Amy Ji. Photo (right) from Hiding Place Kitchen's Instagram page.

To someone else, it might look like just a regular construction site for the Cross Island Line.

But to five-year-old Nathan Ji, what he sees are “uncles” –  his term of endearment for migrant workers – who are exposed to the elements as they build the upcoming Serangoon North MRT station.

Uncles in need of shelter on a rainy day. Uncles who would enjoy a cold drink in the blazing heat. Uncles whom he wants to share a delicious snack with.

Although construction work only started about a year ago, Nathan has come to befriend several of these uncles whom he meets while cycling to school on weekdays.

Every morning, the K1 student stops to wave at the uncles who are doing their warm-up exercise and getting ready to start their day.

What should be a 15-minute commute usually ends up being 30 minutes, said his mum, Amy, who cycles alongside with her two-year-old riding pillion. 

Sometimes it even lasts up to an hour. “If got time lah,” she added with a laugh.

Amy’s usual weekday routine involves cycling the kids to school, but also stopping to wait for Nathan to greet his uncles at work. All photos courtesy of Amy Ji unless otherwise stated.

Recounting how her son’s first interactions with the migrant workers began last October, she said: “He saw them working in the rain and got really upset, so I let him give his umbrella to them.

“But he cried because he only had one umbrella to give away and there were so many uncles, so I said, ‘You can do something about it.'” 

That weekend, Nathan went to Sunday School and asked his church friends if they could bring their spare umbrellas from home.

His mum also helped him to create a short video of himself explaining why the umbrellas were needed.

Over a span of a few weeks, they received some 25 umbrellas, which Nathan and a few classmates walked over to deliver at the construction site just behind his school.

This marked the beginning of a budding friendship between Nathan and his beloved uncles.

What started as some 30 people at the worksite has now grown to 150 in the past one year.

On another occasion, on one sweltering morning this June, mother and son were doing their usual routine of cycle-stop-wave when an idea popped into Nathan’s mind. 

“It was very, very hot, and I happened to bring a cold drink in a flask that day,” said Amy.

“While we were waving at the uncles, he drank his cold drink. And he was like, ‘But the uncles don’t have?'”

So the next day, the trio cycled to school with four huge bottles of 100PLUS to hand out to the uncles.

“He made sure they had to be cold, so we had to put them in cooler bags,” added Amy.

More recently, Nathan has also been asking to bring these uncles out and have meals with them.

“But I cannot host 150 people right?” she answered in amusement. “So I said, ‘We wait for an occasion.'”

Double blessing

That opportunity finally came when the Ji family were at the 50th anniversary celebration of The Hiding Place last month. 

Guests were given bottles of pistachio sugee cookies that were made by Hiding Place Kitchen, the social enterprise arm of the Christian halfway house. 

“Can I give these to the uncles? Because these are very nice. I think the uncles will like them,” said Amy, recalling what Nathan had told her.

That day, her son had also been very touched by the testimonies he had heard of former drug addicts whose lives were transformed with the help of The Hiding Place‘s ministry. 

With Deepavali coming up, Amy decided that this could be a good time to support Hiding Place Kitchen, which has recently started offering catering services, as well as fulfil her son’s desire to share these treats with uncles at the MRT worksite. 

This is not the first time the family is doing something for the festive season.

Nathan’s older sister Mya also has a heart for migrant workers. Last year, she and Nathan helped out at the Deepavali carnival in Tuas South Recreation Centre.

Last year, the Ji siblings were involved in setting up a booth at a Deepavali carnival organised by the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach, a movement of Hope Initiative Alliance. 

“Nathan took out his own money to buy 200 apples for them,” said Amy. His older sister Mya, who was seven then, meanwhile, rallied her friends to set up a plant table.

For the past three years or so, the siblings have also been distributing packs of Milo and apples to the cleaners in their neighbourhood.

Excited that they could do another round of gifting this Deepavali, Nathan sprang into action immediately once he heard that their idea had received approval from the worksite.

Within a day of sending out a 10-second video to his classmates’ parents, the Jis had already raised money for 95 out of 150 bottles of cookies. 

Hiding Place Kitchen’s pistachio sugee cookies. The bottles that Nathan is giving out are customised and smaller in size. Photo from Hiding Place Kitchen’s Instagram page.

“This Deepavali, I am going to give 150 bottles to the uncles of the construction site. Would you like to come with me? One bottle is $5.50,” invited Nathan, re-enacting his fundraising appeal for me.

As the target sum has now been exceeded by $50, this extra amount will go into buying muruku, a Deepavali staple.

Eight of Nathan’s friends have committed to come along on Friday morning (November 17) to hand out the goodies. His mum and two sisters will also be helping out.

I ask Nathan why he wanted to do this for the construction uncles.

“Because they are my friends! They always say ‘hello’ to me every morning,” exclaimed Nathan.

“The cookies are very nice. I am going to give one to the security uncle too. He is my friend.”

The five-year-old has forged a bond with the security guard of the construction site. The pair often spend time chit-chatting in the morning.

What does he hope the uncles would feel when they receive the gifts then?

“Nathan loves them. Jesus loves them. And my friends (in school) love them too,” he said, adding that he would paste a sticker on every bottle with that message. 

I pose Nathan a final question: “What would you like other people to know about these uncles at work?”

“Can just wave to them. Say’ hello’ to them. Can also ask people to buy them some cold drinks,” he suggested.

Making time to love their neighours 

Curious about how such a small boy can have such a big heart for others, I quizzed Amy on what she thinks is the reason.

“I can’t really pinpoint, but I suppose we live our lives pretty intentionally. We greet everyone. We talk to the bus drivers. We chit-chat with the yong tau foo auntie about her problems,” she shared.

“After awhile they take the lead, especially Mya who is super extroverted. Maybe Mya is an inspiration to Nathan too.”

“Every time they have a suggestion, I try and make it happen.”

The year COVID-19 hit, Amy’s then five-year-old daughter sold over 200 plants and raised $8,500 for migrant workers.

Now eight years old, Mya wants to raise awareness for refugees and orphans. She is hoping to write a children’s book on refugees, but mum and daughter are still looking for a publisher.

“Every time they have a suggestion, I try and make it happen – even if it’s inconvenient,” said Amy, half-guessing that this might be why her children are so enthusiastic about their projects.

Nathan thoughtfully designed the sticker on the cookie bottles. These were the words that he wanted printed: “Happy Diwali. Jesus loves you. Love Nathan and friends.”

In case anyone thinks the 37-year-old is a lady of leisure, the reality could not be further from the truth.

For the mother of three who is juggling part-time work in her church as well as other research, writing and training gigs, time is surely in short supply.

This month, Amy is also about to launch Bee Hoon Boy, the first in a string of stories on the unseen struggles of children who come from non-mainstream backgrounds.

Writing under the name Ames Chen, the local author already has six titles published under The Invisible People series, which aim to help children appreciate different groups of unsung heroes in our society. 

One of her books, Uncles at Work, also features the very community that Nathan has come to care for. 

While some might view migrant workers as “them”, Nathan sees the uncles he meets every day as one of “us”.

Ask Nathan about the workers in their estate, and he can identify the uncles whom he regularly interacts with. There is the uncle who cuts the flowers, the uncle who collects the garbage and more.

Relating a funny anecdote, Amy said that one time she was surprised because she saw the ice-cream seller downstairs wearing a cap that looked like hers.

“Ya, I take from home one!” Nathan pointed out. Turns out that the uncle’s hat looked very dirty, so Amy’s son had come home and taken one of their spare caps to give away.

Describing that it is very natural for Nathan to want to share a good thing with others, Amy observed that “there’s no deeper meaning”.

On being her children’s enabler

“Seeing my children love others confronts me with the Gospel every day. I have two choices: I can either encourage them to live it out or I can discourage them,” she confessed.

“I love because He (God) loved me first. And if He loved me first and my children want to love, I also enable them.

“And it’s hard lor, that’s the truth.”

“As a family, we create opportunities to serve together with the larger family of Christ.”

Revealing that not everyone understands how her family have chosen to use their time, Amy admitted that she has been asked why her children do not go for enrichment classes.

“We have no time because we’re doing a lot of projects,” she would explain. “But all these projects don’t have value” is one of the responses she has received.

“But don’t have value to who?” wondered Amy. “Because it actually brings value to the recipients, and it brings value to Mya and Nathan.”

Going back to why she agreed to help Nathan with this Deepavali initiative, Amy said: “So that he will continue to tell me for the next idea he comes up with. I don’t want him to not propose his ideas anymore.”

Sharing that Nathan’s kindergarten and the church that his school is located in had also expressed interest in supporting the cookie giveaway, Amy emphasised: “I don’t like to think that we’ve done anything big.

“I just think that, as a family, we create opportunities to serve together with the larger family of Christ.”


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About the author

Gracia Chiang

Gracia used to chase bad news — now she shares Good News. Gracia's different paths in life have led her from diverse newsrooms to Living Room by Salt&Light, but her most difficult and divine calling to date is still parenting.