Those living in the Yew Tee and Chua Chu Kang areas might be familiar with a certain face on the streets who has been around for the past two decades.
Ice cream uncle Song Yong Kiong, who is better known as Uncle Song to those who purchase his frozen treats, has been a familiar face in the neighbourhood.
Like any other ice cream uncle in Singapore, the 60-year-old plies his trade with a metal cart filled with the dessert, and other add-ons such as wafers and bread.
What makes Song stand out though, is his unique vehicle. Unlike other ice cream uncles whose carts are typically attached to a motorcycle, Song’s vehicle looks like a motorcycle on steroids.
That’s because it has been modified to accommodate his wheelchair — Song is a paraplegic, meaning he is paralysed from the waist down.
Considering his age — the crow’s feet and laugh lines on his face are deep, and the white in his hair stark, manning an ice cream truck isn’t the easiest of jobs, especially with its exposure to inclement weather.
But why has Song, in spite of his condition, persevered for the 21 years he’s been in this trade?
The accident in 1993
To get some answers, we met Song at his flat in Chua Chu Kang where we stumbled on him and his family having dinner.
The awkward intrusion proved to be a boon though, as Song’s wife and daughter were able to provide much insight into his life, perhaps more than the man himself could.
At the start of the interview, Song jokes about why we would want to interview a “monster” like him. There, however, seem to be a tinge of melancholy that underlies his jest.
Song’s story starts off with a troubling and unfortunate accident back in 1993 when he was working as a mechanic.
In a matter-of-fact and slightly brusque manner, Song recounts in Mandarin how he was lying beneath a car to fix it when the supports holding the car up gave way.
Over 1,000kg of steel landed on the lower half of his body.
After he was rushed to the hospital, he recalls being surrounded by numerous doctors, and with no feeling in his legs, was wheeled into the operating theatre.
It was only after the surgery did doctors deliver the heartbreaking news — that Song would no longer be able to walk.
“I was devastated… stunned. My mind was blank. I just sat there, everything was blank.”
“I didn’t pity myself,” Song said, but seeing his wife bring his three young daughters for visits at the hospital, he was overcome with a sense of abject desolation and worry over how he would provide for his family.
“I think to myself, my children how? They’re so young.”
Remained in denial for years
Although Song was discharged from the hospital after three months, for years after, he continued to fervently deny his loss of mobility.
Holding onto the hope that he would still be able to walk once again, he travelled to Malaysia, his home country, in search for an alternative cure.
His hunt was futile though — scouring various clinics, hospitals and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners across the country, he was met with the same verdict doctors first gave him after the accident.
Song subsequently met a friend who brought him to his church in Singapore.
Describing himself as someone who did not subscribe to any one religion at the time — “Any god I also pray” — Song merely tagged along for church services and cell groups, as the pastor would offer to pick Song up from his home, for the next two to three years.
Church members later helped raise enough money to get Song a vehicle so he could travel to church himself, and after some discussion, he realised that it could be a means to earn an income as well.
And in 2000, Song’s special three-wheeled ice cream cart, and his livelihood for the next few decades, made the debut.
Wife took over role of family breadwinner
During the interview, it becomes gradually apparent that Song’s powers of recollection are not what they used to be. Song halts at several points during his speech and his answers are brief.
Thankfully, Song’s wife, Lee Yong Kiaw, and his youngest daughter, Keyi, chime in at opportune moments to help fill in the gaps.
As he was previously the sole breadwinner, Song’s loss of employment after the accident hit his family like a sledgehammer.
With no time to mourn the loss of her husband’s legs and livelihood, Lee had to immediately take over as the provider of the family during this trying period, taking on part-time jobs as a hawker and subsequently, one at a factory.
All this while, Lee had to juggle work and provide care for three children and her wheelchair-bound husband.
Keyi recalls her mother being an unwavering rock during this period.
“She was very strong. She didn’t really cry also. There was no time.”
Lee’s job was made more arduous by the fact that aside from handling Song’s physical needs, she had to support him through his emotional turmoil as well.
“He’s a good husband and father. Even though we were married for only a few years before he was put in a wheelchair…
Before that, we [were] actually quite fortunate, but life is unpredictable. We can only take what life throws at us. But I’ve already accepted the reality, life must still go on.”
Their situation was exacerbated by the fact that Song and his wife are both from Malaysia, and did not have access to most grants and subsidies that locals might benefit from.
Lee is thus thankful to her two brothers who moved over from across the border to help care for Song.
Eager to provide for family again
Finding a job for wheelchair-bound Song was extremely tough, Lee said.
The option of selling ice cream was thus a welcome relief to the Song family.
In his eagerness to return to work, and spurred by his desire to provide for his family, Song would stay out for long hours till midnight to sell as many ice creams as he could.
During the interview, Song claims to work around eight to nine hours daily, but Keyi immediately interrupts with an eye-roll and a drawn-out “where goootttt??”
Lee then reveals that he would work for more than 12 hours, and she would have to call him to convince him to come home. In response, Song says in a blasé manner:
“If I [can] earn money, then I work until can earn more lor.”
It’s clear from his brief recounts and Keyi’s and Lee’s stories that being out and about and being able to support his family in any way was his main priority.
Lee added that the simple gesture and “feeling of counting money was a blessing”.
Helping out at her father’s “Bumblebee”
An enthusiastic Keyi, however, was simply happy to help out when Song returned to work.
While Song and his wife pragmatically refer to it as a “motor”, Keyi and her friends have affectionately named the vehicle “Bumblebee” due to its resemblance to a certain fictional robot character from “Transformers”.
Chuckling, she says that as a child, she was thrilled as she found selling ice cream “very interesting”, and was “very proud” that her father was working once more after being unemployed for years.
Despite the fact that Song had little to no business at the start, Keyi would takeaway lunch once she finished school and rush over to where Song was stationed with his cart, where she would assist him with fetching the wafers or bread and taking change from customers.
One of her fond memories included ringing the bell to attract customers — “Even though nobody came to buy, I will be very excited, looking at my father saying, “Daddy, look, we’re selling ice cream!””
For Lee, however, it was a more bittersweet and heart-aching experience, seeing her child sitting with Song on his “Bumblebee”, devoid of customers.
“But very fun!” Keyi cheerfully chirps in during the interview.
Hurdles to overcome
Selling ice cream isn’t actually as easy a job as some might think. Song needs to rise early to prepare the dry ice, wafers and other ingredients.
Mishaps abound as well — Song has injured himself before, suffering a deep cut to the bone while slicing through the huge slabs of ice cream, as well as burns from the dry ice.
And once his business picked up after moving his cart to a more prominent location with higher foot traffic, he would be cutting and serving up around 800 chunks of ice cream per day — which is certainly no mean feat.
Song’s lack of mobility also proved an additional hurdle to overcome.
Not only does he have to deal with stares and people shoving at him when they walk past, in the course of his work, he has tumbled off his wheelchair and off the “Bumblebee” several times.
One particularly heartbreaking incident was when Song was coming out of a coffee shop, and a reversing car crashed into him. Song suffered a fracture to his leg and had to take a year off to recuperate, but once recovered, he was raring to return to work.
Family around him
Keyi was only a year old at the time of her father’s accident, so seeing Song in a wheelchair is all she has ever known.
She doesn’t consider her father to be any different from others though, and growing up, her friends and peers have never passed judgment on Song’s condition either. Her friends would even chip in to accompany Keyi to help Song sell ice cream.
“So far they all say my Dad very impressive, which I’m also very proud of him for.”
However, she does feel the need to stick up for him, especially in light of how strangers outside have treated him.
“I don’t feel my Dad is different, but I feel like I need to stand up for him. It’s partly because of the experiences we’ve had, how people treated him. Of course there are nice people also. But I guess that’s the only difference — people’s response to him, rather than the physical difference.”
And with his family by his side, it seems now that Song has managed to reach a certain modicum of acceptance about his injury, and taken the accident in his stride.
His hard work and earnings have also managed to sustain his family over the decades. Keyi says that the family “doesn’t have a lot but we have sufficient.”
“That’s how we grew up. I don’t know how it happened, but ya we grew up very happily.”
And while Song seems to be a man of few words, he does credit his family for being the ones to pull him through the tragedy of the accident, particularly his wife, for staying by his side and “never leaving each other”.
As Lee says, Song’s ice cream business was a product of the family working together and complementing each other. Without that, the burden would have been on Song’s shoulders alone.
Time to retire
Now that Song’s three daughters are adults — Keyi already has a young son of her own — he’s decided it’s time to throw in the towel.
The “Bumblebee” was sent to be scrapped in March 2021, after numerous attempts by Song to repair it over the past few years despite the noise and smoke emitting from the vehicle.
Is Song sad to see it go though? After all, the vehicle saw him and his family through their hardest times.
“I don’t feel very sad actually, because my kids are grown up already and I’m old already. The car has been with me for over 20 years, it’s old also.”
Until Keyi quickly dismisses her father’s words: “Aiya, he was sad la. He thought about it for a year before sending it to scrap.”
Song then acquiesces:
“This ‘motor’ has given me a lot. It’s time to let it retire also.”
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top photo courtesy of Song and family