The chef with visual impairment and his assistant with cerebral palsy who share a faith and special friendship

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains mention of suicide ideation that some may find distressing.

by Janice Tai // April 28, 2023, 6:11 pm

WhatsApp Image 2023-04-21 at 13.40.54

Head chef of Kunyah Café Alex Seow, 55, relies on his assistant chef, Oh Siew May, 50, to be his "eyes". All photos by Janice Tai unless otherwise stated.

He shuffles around the compact kitchen and bends over to retrieve frozen food from the freezer.

With a turn of some knobs, he fires up the deep fryer and slides some chicken katsu into the sizzling oil.

Alex braving the hot oil to deep fry chicken katsu (Japanese chicken cutlet).

Hearing some movement on his left, he makes his way to the cashier counter. Indeed, a customer is busy keying in her order.

“One katsu sando!” his voice booms, alerting his colleagues to the new order.

“Before I cut the omelette, I pray against hand tremors and it works, you know! It’s so amazing.”

Few people who walk past the Kunyah Café kiosk situated at the Singapore Management University along Stamford Road would realise that its head chef, Alex Seow, 55, is largely blind. He lost 70% of his vision due to complications from an eye surgery when he was 50.

But there are some clues to his disability.

He sometimes scalds himself. The kitchen utensils may be on the table in front of him but he needs to feel his way around to locate them. He brings the order receipt close to his nose in order to read it. 

How then does a visually impaired chef navigate a commercial kitchen – a potentially dangerous place, even for the sighted, with heat and knives?

The answer comes in the unexpected form of Oh Siew May, 50, who has cerebral palsy.

An unlikely pairing 

“I am Alex’s eyes!” Siew May told Salt&Light enthusiastically.

Though Alex uses a timer that beeps to notify him that it is time to take out the fried chicken from the deep dryer, he also relies on Siew May to check that it is completely cooked.

Alex uses different coloured timers to time the cooking of different foods. He knows the food is cooked when the timer beeps.

He uses a weighing machine that “talks”, reading out the measurements audibly. Yet there are times when he needs just a few scoops of milk or spices – too light for the machine’s scale to register. In these moments,  Siew May becomes his eyes to ensure that he measures out the right amount of liquid or spices.

Alex and Siew May teaming up to prepare the chicken before the cafe opens.

Assistant Chef Siew May usually arrives the earliest, she is the one in charge of opening the shutters of the food kiosk.

Cerebral palsy is a condition which affects muscular control, speech and motor abilities.

“I cannot insert and turn the key well, and my arms do not have much strength to lift up the shutters,” said Siew May.

When she prepares the trays of egg omelette, her hand tremors make it challenging to slice the omelette in neat lines.

Siew May slicing the egg omelette.

To overcome these difficulties, she prays before attempting her daily tasks.

“Before I cut the omelette, I pray and it works, you know! It’s so amazing,” said Siew May.

Kunyah Café is a social enterprise that serves sandos (sandwiches) and rice bentos with local flavours, such as chicken rendang (spicy coconut stew) and otah (grilled fish cake). 

Serving up a grilled chicken rendang rice bento.

Wasabi ebi sando (prawn sandwich).

Both Siew May and Alex acknowledge that the fact that they are able to helm a café in a bustling university campus in town is entirely due to the grace of God in their lives.

Losing his sight  

Unlike Siew May who grew up with disability, Alex only lost his sight a few years ago.

He had severe myopia in his left eye and had gone for an eye surgery in 2017 to alleviate the condition so that he could see better.

Unfortunately, the surgery did not go as planned. After having multiple corrective surgeries, he emerged with only 20 to 30% of his sight remaining. It did not help that his right eye also had poor vision due to a “lazy eye” condition.

Alex shares a special trust with Siew May. Unlike Siew May who grew up with disability, Alex only lost his sight a few years ago.

Being sighted for most of his life, Alex was not used to life without sight.

“I couldn’t accept why I went into hospital being able to see, and came out not being able to see.” 

“Whenever I walked, I bumped into walls or chairs along the way. It was very painful,” said Alex.

He became suicidal and even harboured violent thoughts towards the surgeon who had operated on him.

“I couldn’t accept why I went into hospital being able to see, and came out not being able to see,” said Alex, whose daughter was just three years old then.

The thought of his young daughter restrained him from violence.

During this lowest moment in his life, believers from a church in the Alexandra area visited him at home and prayed for him. Each time they prayed for him, he felt peace.

Alex with his wife and daughter. Photo courtesy of Alex Seow.

Whenever a church member was able to drive him to their weekly cell group on Sundays, he would join them.

He tried using a magnifying glass to read the Bible, but found the process too tiring and slow.

He now listens to an audio Bible.

A rekindled relationship

Losing most of his sight rekindled his relationship with God, Alex told Salt&Light.

Years ago, the self-described nominal Christian began to take his faith more seriously after God preserved his life in two accidents while he was living in New Zealand.

“Even when I was far from God, He found me again.”

In the first, he was alone and driving a company lorry when the vehicle, which had an unstable steering wheel, tipped over.

The second accident happened when he was trying to avoid an animal on the road. The car ended up flipping a few times. The back of the car was crushed but, miraculously, the front of the car – where he and his wife were seated – was untouched.

Yet when he returned to Singapore in 2012 and got busy with work as a chef in a commercial kitchen, his faith once again took a backseat.

Said Alex: “I realise now how God has been protecting me and been with me all these years. Even when I was far from him, He found me again. 

“Later on, God helped me to let things go and forgive the eye surgeon. When I saw him for follow-ups, I realised I no longer have all the negative feelings towards him.”

An unconventional path 

Siew May also saw God’s mercy at the lowest point of her life.

“Each time I thought about committing suicide, God would remind me of the people whom I loved and cared about.”

As a youth, she despaired because she could not cope with her disability and the demands of working and looking after her family at the same time.

Her family was poor and her ageing parents ill, which meant she had to help look after her mentally impaired sister while trying to make ends meet.

Her condition saw her facing prejudice, rejection and discrimination when she sought out jobs.

She did not have many friends growing up; the animals in her kampung (neighbourhood) were her friends.

When she was 18, she took a knife, intending to end her life.

Having God in her life has transformed Siew May from a depressed youth to a positive adult. Her cheerful personality shines through in the sunny notes she writes for customers on their takeaway boxes.

“Each time I thought about committing suicide, God would remind me of the people whom I loved and cared about,” said Siew May.

In 2005, she climbed Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia after training for the expedition by scaling 25-storey blocks in Toa Payoh.

“People look at me and think I am ‘off’ (crazy). They don’t think I can understand them when they talk to me. They judge me based on my appearance,” she said.

A turning point in her life came when a friend invited her to church during her primary school days.

God touched her during the service and she wanted to know Him more.

God gave her friends in church, including a pastor and his wife who journeyed with her through all the difficult times in her life.

Leaning on God’s strength, Siew May grew in resilience and began responding differently to the various challenges life threw at her.

Siew May serving a customer with one of her trademark wide smiles.

She refused to be limited to stereotypes about what people with cerebral palsy can or cannot do.

Though she used to fall frequently, she chose to take up track-and-field as a co-curricular activity during her days at St Hilda’s Secondary School.

Siew May trying her hand at rock climbing. Photo courtesy of Oh Siew May.

She is undeterred by high elements. Photo courtesy of Oh Siew May.

On the summit of Mt Kinabalu. Photo courtesy of Oh Siew May.

An article from The Straits Times reporting the launch of Siew May’s book. Photo courtesy of Oh Siew May.

In 2005, she climbed Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia after training for the expedition by scaling 25-storey apartment blocks in Toa Payoh three times a week.

She also authored and published a book, Scaling Walls, in 2009. It details her life story in a bid to raise awareness and understanding for persons with disabilities.

Finding community at Kunyah Café

Apart from Alex and Siew May, there are two able-bodied elderly workers at Kunyah Café.

She did not have many friends growing up; the animals in her kampung were her friends.

Together, they have found a supportive community in each other.

“I am thankful that I have colleagues who take care of one another,” said Alex.

Ever since he lost most of his vision, he found himself increasingly isolated.

He does not venture out to socialise after work as he is unable to make his way around when it gets dark. 

“I have very few friends now, so I don’t know who to find when I have problems. Usually, I just pray to God,” he said.

Siew May goes to schools and organisations to share about her experiences and raise awareness of the various challenges that the disabled community faces. Photo courtesy of Oh Siew May.

As for Siew May, she said: “I find the work fulfilling since I get to interact with the public and raise a bit of awareness for persons with disabilities.

“The job is also meaningful because I get to be Alex’s eyes,” she said with a smile.

Neither of them wallows in self pity. 

Siew May was awarded the Singapore Silent Heroes award in 2017. Photo courtesy of Oh Siew May.

Instead, they have set their sights on contributing to society.

Siew May has been volunteering to bring a group of blind friends out on outings once a month. Alex also hopes to volunteer to teach cooking to the visually-impaired.   

Still in the red

Soon, the students on campus will be heading off for their three-month term break. This does not bode well for a food kiosk heavily reliant on walk-ins, especially student traffic.

Aaron Yeoh, 44, founder of Kunyah Café, said the café has yet to break even. It has been operating since January.

Founder of Kunyah Café, Aaron (centre), with his team. Photo courtesy of Kunyah Café.

Formerly a corporate empathy trainer, he decided to start the café to empower persons with disabilities.

“I am still praying for a miracle for this café as we really need the support to get sales and funding.”

“I realised that for the blind, food can be a means to rehabilitate the other four senses that they rely on. So, I thought food can be a way to provide both employment and rehabilitation for those with disabilities,” said the first-time café owner.

His dream is to train them to run the café independently, so that they can eventually own the café themselves.

“If they own the franchise, they can be their own boss and earn more. Then I can open more cafés and hire even more persons with disabilities,” he said.

As the university term break begins, they are thinking of pivoting to take corporate and food delivery orders.

They also have a small edible garden on campus. Food waste from the café is composted and then used as fertiliser for the herbs and plants grown in the garden.

They are now offering a garden-to-table takeaway menu of dishes made with the herbs grown from the garden.

“I am still praying for a miracle for this café as we really need the support to get sales and funding,” said Siew May.

“I believe He will make a way.”

If you wish to support Kunyah cafe, you can make a donation here.


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About the author

Janice Tai

Salt&Light senior writer Janice is a former correspondent who enjoys immersing herself in: 1) stories of the unseen, unheard and marginalised, 2) the River of Life, and 3) a refreshing pool in the midday heat of Singapore.