This lady boss of Choon Ming Bao Dian is S’pore’s version of a saint

Her bao-making social enterprise has helped countless people since 2004.

Belmont Lay | May 27, 2016 @ 02:03 pm

Sarah Tan, 52, has a history of helping those in need. Her story, which has been told before in The Sunday Times on Sept. 10, 2013, is nothing short of mind-boggling.

She helps the less fortunate in society by giving them employment through the making and selling of steamed buns. This includes people with a history of mental illness, the homeless, single mothers, unwed single mothers, teenage mothers, ex-offenders and foreign workers who had been cheated by their agents.

A recent video making the rounds online by Channel News Asia provided a glimpse of what Tan has done for the underprivileged in Singapore so far:

A social enterprise like no other

Over the years, Tan has employed at least 60 of the underprivileged in her business.

Her home has doubled up as a temporary shelter.

In 2012, she moved from an Ang Mo Kio four-room HDB flat to Jalan Kuras in Sembawang Hills Estate to live above her bao shop.

The bao shop is the central kitchen for her bao stalls.

She lets out space in the shop for free for other women to operate their food business.

The bigger space also allows her to accommodate more people she is helping.

A Malaysian who gave up everything to start afresh in Singapore

Tan is originally from Seremban, Malaysia. Born in 1964, she is the second of three children.

She quit school after Primary 6 to help support the family as she did not like to study.

From a young age, she had business acumen. She became an apprentice in a bridal shop, where she learnt to do make-up. She went on to set up her own beauty salon and fashion shop.

At 20, Tan got married but her husband died in a car accident a few years later.

She has three children, two boys and a daughter, all in their 20s now.

To eke out a better living, she sold her beauty and fashion business, mortgaged her house and left Malaysia.

In 1993, she came to Singapore alone with $40,000 in cash to set up a shop in City Plaza selling clothes.

She started making money.

However, she initially enjoyed the good life: She splurged on branded clothes, shoes, watches and bags and never left the house without make-up.

Looking back, she has since said she regrets spending all that money on herself instead of helping people.

Bao-making social enterprise came about by chance

Her social enterprise involving the sale of steamed buns, or bao, only really started in 2004.

She was frequently patronising the coffee shop below her block at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 at that time and often noticed a 20-year-old Malaysian apprentice at the bao stall being scolded by his mentor.

She noted his hardworking nature and recognised his potential.

So, she rented the stall from the owner of the coffee shop and got the apprentice to run the show instead.

The business grew. She closed her clothing business and opened Choon Ming Bao Dian stalls at other coffee shops.

The apprentice has since gone on to set up his own bao business.

Extending her helping hand

When she found out that friends of her workers from China were jobless as they were cheated by agents, she offered them a job at her stalls or got a job through her church contacts and friends. She also let some of them stay temporarily at her flat.

In 2007, a counsellor at a shelter for abused women approached Tan to help a mother of four young children find a job at one of her stalls. That worked out.

Over the years, she has helped more than 20 of these women.

At one point, six of her stalls were run by single mothers or women whose husbands cannot work due to illness or other reasons.

She taught them to make their own bao and be their own boss, although their stalls carried the Choon Ming Bao Dian name.

Helped children too

In 2008, she took in two young children, then aged six and four, who were roaming the streets in Geylang and sleeping in parks.

Their parents were drug addicts. The father was always trying to score drugs and the Indonesian mother had been repatriated.

Since 2009, she has helped more than 10 teenage mums.

High expenses

Between 2011 and 2015, Tan had 13 stalls mostly in Ang Mo Kio and Yishun. However, there are apparently only three remaining:

1. Lai Yuan Coffeeshop, Blk 122 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 • Operating Hours: 7am to 2pm daily • Non-Vegetarian

2. Blk 628 Market & Food Centre #01-91, Blk 628 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 • Operating Hours: 6am to 8pm daily • Non-Vegetarian

3. Hai Feng Coffeeshop, Blk 203 Toa Payoh North #01-1121 • Operating Hours: 6am to 8pm daily • Vegetarian

It was reported her takings from here business had gone down. In 2013, she made between $60,000 to $70,000 a month, which she says is barely enough to cover all her expenses.

But she still manages to make ends meet by not having much savings.

By 2013, Madam Tan’s charity work had extended beyond Singapore. She has also donated $200,000 previously to build four orphanages, two in Johor Baru, and two in Zhuhai and Guangdong in China.


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Belmont can pronounce "tchotchke".

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