Passersby of 136B, Lorong J Telok Kurau might cast curious stares at this pastel green and blue house, overcrowded with all manners of plants and foliage in the front yard, tendrils snaking up and down rickety poles and planters. If the exterior of One Kind House looks curious, it’s only a small taste of what’s inside. The gates are never locked at this self-billed 21st century kampung, where anyone is welcome for a chat. It has been quietly making news of late for offering home-cooking classes with traditional and forgotten recipes—think duck egg kaya, hand-squeezed coconut milk, and blue pea flower tea—helmed by Mrs Helen Soh, better known as Mummy Soh, the genial matriarch of the house. Also well-told is the story of Calvin, son of Mummy Soh, advertising veteran and guru who gave up his career to spend time with his kids—Dylan, an inventor and two-time TEDx speaker, and Ava, a figure-skating enthusiast and budding fashion designer. Artworks line the inner rooms of the house, painted by Mr Ng Yak Whee, Calvin’s uncle and a lifelong artist who has been awarded UOB’s painter of the year, while Calvin’s wife Arlette plays a behind-the-scenes role, organising the buzz of activities that take place under this colourful roof. Lesser known, however, are the tales and ideas that bind this family together and move them forward.
With such a mix of fascinating individuals, the house takes on some characteristics of its inhabitants. Recycled water bottles, fitted with Dylan’s Grow-It-Yourself (GIY) watering stick, serve to upkeep the variety of herbs and vegetables that the Sohs grow in both their front and backyard gardens. A host of familiar local artefacts—including a full set of vintage, HDB-style metal mailboxes—appear in the most unexpected of places. Upstairs, a brick-walled studio is the scene of the start of many of the kids’ projects. The airy, high-ceilinged kitchen in the back, a showcase of mismatched chairs and a long, weathered communal dining table, is perfumed with the smell of spices being pounded, blended, and stir-fried. It is here, enveloped by all the clamour and warmth of a welcoming family home, that we sit down with the Sohs and find out what it means to truly be “one kind”.
You guys have such radical ideas about how you want your kids to grow up, as compared to other parents. Was there a specific moment where you thought about what kind of parent you wanted to be to your kids?
Arlette: No, not really. When I got married I didn’t really want kids. We met in advertising. I would say that we’re poles apart—I studied overseas and Calvin’s really a born-and-bred Singaporean. He comes from such a big family where there’re always kids around. I come from a broken family. So the thought of having kids didn’t occur to me till he psyched me into it. We didn’t really plan anything, but we realised that we had hurdles in our own lives, and saw what our kids needed. We also surrounded ourselves with more like-minded people, which helped us to become more mature.
We were sitting here talking to Calvin just now, and you said, “Oh no, are you preaching again?” Do you share the same sentiments as him?
Arlette: I’m just worried that he tells those things to people who don’t have kids and aren’t married, and that it’ll scare them!
Calvin: (overhears and chimes in, in Singlish) You better don’t contradict what I said ah!
Arlette: Calvin’s more of an advocate of thinking ahead into the future, while I’m more about how the kids will be pliable, valuable, and adaptable to what’s to come. You need to be very sure of yourself so that whatever it is, your centre does not get rattled. It’s more of a survival skill.
Where do your ideas about education come from?
Arlette: I can compare what I went through with what my kids have to go through. For example, the government was talking about reducing the number of schools, because there are fewer students. I studied in the United Kingdom since I was 11, and I remember being fortunate enough to be in a Physics class with three students to one teacher. We could choose to study any subject that we wanted. I just think that it’s hard to move education forward in Singapore because there seem to be so many things in the way. Even fundamental things, like having time to play.
Calvin: I work in advertising, and you see changes. Nokia was my client in 2006, and they were number one, with 40% of the market share. By 2011, their market value, from 100 billion, had become 10 billion. Human beings think linearly, but technology advances exponentially. How should we prepare ourselves for that?
Mummy Soh, you used to be a teacher—are you the same kind of parent that Calvin is to his kids now, when it comes to education?
Mummy Soh: I’m more academically-driven. I knew that Calvin had the brain, but he didn’t want to use it.
Calvin: It was boring. But (to Mummy Soh) were you ever worried that I never got my degree?
Mummy Soh: I wasn’t, because all along I told you that you could do anything you wanted. But Calvin’s father was a bit more traditional.
Calvin: My dad used to think I was a horse-racing bookie. When I started working in advertising, I would go to work in shorts. The company would page me, and I had to go to the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) at 1AM to check on the printing. My dad would question all this. It was only when I won some awards and brought my parents to the award show that they realised that I was doing a proper job.
What do you think about Calvin’s ideas though?
Mummy Soh: I think it’s okay because we’re of different generations, and it’s important to move forward. We had to work very hard, so we put all our hopes and money onto our children, and had expectations of them. But now it’s different. Children nowadays have more opportunities to explore, and even go on holidays.
Calvin: The first holiday that I took was on my own, in my mid-twenties, and with my own money. At 14, Dylan’s been to New York and London twice—it’s so different.
Mummy Soh: Our first holiday was to Kuala Lumpur. I took him to Malacca on a bus; that was what we could afford. It was a different lifestyle.
Uncle Whee: Our parents taught us one thing: be flexible and creative in life. Calvin is doing the right thing, the same that my father did for us.
Calvin, what was your background and why did you venture into advertising?
Calvin: I was a school dropout, and after the army I did a variety of odd jobs like telemarketing and being a camera salesman. My father wanted to mortgage our HDB flat to send me abroad to get a degree, but I was old enough to know that if he did, I’d come back as a father rather than a degree-holder. (laughs) So I decided to strike out on my own. English was the only thing I was good at, and I thought that I could write in advertising without a degree. But they said I had to have one, so I just took whatever job was available and I worked my way up.
You left a high-flying position in a world-renowned company to spend more time with your kids. Why?
Calvin: A lot of people say that I can do this because I’m well-off. They’re partly right, because I did well in my career. But I can also arguably ask, how many successful people do this? It was clear I would not get my job back. How many Singaporeans, when they see how much money they’d lose, would take five years off work? My cost-benefit analysis is different, because my end goal is to plan my kids for a different future, which I see as an investment. It’s always about will; you can still do this while you’re working, you just have to find a way.
What is your biggest takeaway from the industry?
Calvin: You don’t need a degree to succeed. It’s down to the qualities and values—people with passion, inane curiosity, integrity, resilience, and the willingness to learn. It’s about how good you are and how well you perform. Of course, I can’t say that because it worked for me, it’ll work for my kids.
Why do you encourage your kids to do what they do, then?
Calvin: We have to think about what the future is going to be. If it’s going to be the same, like what my dad told me, you’ll have two to three jobs in your life, and your kids will have six to seven jobs in their lifetimes. But the reality is that we are living in an age of exponential change, so they will have six to seven different careers.
What are you trying to teach your kids?
Calvin: The typical Singaporean still thinks that your degree determines your career path. The 5Cs—that’s the dream right? But what if in 15 years’ time medical technology has advanced to the level where life expectancy goes up to 150, and you outlive your HDB flat? I want to teach my kids to do and learn the things that machines cannot. Machines can’t be compassionate or empathetic; they can’t love or guess. Being an entrepreneur or inventor—these are the things that you don’t learn in school. There are certain things that they can’t change, but what they can do is to change themselves and prepare for it.
Is that why both Ava & Dylan are always working on at least one project each time?
Arlette: The original idea was for them to have their own projects and interests, outside of anything they can do in school. It’s a healthier way of letting off steam, and they also get to pursue their interests. We try to facilitate and help them.
Calvin: They get to learn the whole cycle. Ava makes pants, because she’s passionate about fashion, and we helped her to price it, keeping in mind things like the cost of the material and workmanship. She decided that it shouldn’t cost more than $50 and decided to price it at $49, so that people would think that it’s in the $40 range. This was a 10-year-old girl, just last year, figuring out pricing strategy. The same with Dylan: I wanted to write a book and asked if he was interested to illustrate. I said it’d cost us $3,000 to create the book, which could otherwise be spent on math tuition, and asked which he’d rather do. He chose to do the book—this became The Big Red Dot—and learnt how to illustrate, pick paper stock, liaise with the printers, and then think about how to sell the books. We put a video online, and he was invited to give a TEDx talk. He had to go through two rounds of auditions, and we wrote the script together, which he presented as the opening speaker to 2,800 people. After that he got invited to do a lot of other talks, even speaking for a Finnish tech show in exchange for an internship in Finland. All that from one book, instead of maths tuition.
What are your hopes for Dylan and Ava?
Arlette: If I don’t think too deeply into it, it’d be that they find happiness—that they find something they’re good at and love doing. We try to think of it along the lines of: if our kids become accountants, what kind of creative accountants would they be? Or creative lawyers?
Calvin: I told them that they could do anything they wanted, even if it’s having five to six careers. Dylan said that he wanted to write songs, so I encouraged him to. He learnt to play the guitar on his own by watching YouTube. Ava has been doing fashion design since she was six, and learnt discipline from figure skating as well—she wakes up at 3:45AM to get to class at 5AM. We shouldn’t deny them the power of following their dreams.
Ava & Dylan, how did you begin working on your current projects?
Ava: It always starts with something that I love to do. I designed and made dresses for my dolls and arranged them like in a magazine shoot, only I was using my parent’s phone to take the pictures. I was five years old then. Since then, I’ve learnt how to sew properly from a fashion teacher, so I decided to design comfortable pants.
Dylan: It started with the book that I wrote with my dad—that was the first project I did. From there we had this idea of a self-watering stick. We thought that people hadn’t done it before, so we decided to do it. When we were coming up with the first idea, we were already thinking about the second. And then once we complete the first one, all the proceeds will go into the second.
What’s one thing that your parents have taught/said to you that you always keep in your mind?
Ava: Focus on or do what is in your control. This works especially during my ice skating competitions.
Dylan: Don’t argue for the sake of being right; argue for the sake of what’s actually right. I have to be more open-minded as well to take into consideration what others have to say because they might have a point too.
How do you find your childhood/school life to be different/similar to your friends?
Ava: I find that I have a very different life. I have more extra curricular activities and have a different outlook on things. My parents are always trying to find ways for me to get by without having to go for extra tuition classes, so I have time to enjoy my other interests.
Dylan: It’s different in a lot of ways. For one, I don’t have much tuition besides math, because I really don’t do well in it. Other than that, just a ‘pass’ is okay for the rest of the subjects. No stress. If I get first in class that’s good, if not it’s still okay. It’s very relaxed—a bit too relaxed. I think I must study a bit more!
Do you think your whole family is unconventional, and how has that affected who you are today?
Calvin: I think I grew up in a very conventional household, with six uncles and aunts. We were poor, and ate leftovers that were reinvented by my mother. Maybe that’s an element of where the creativity comes from—making do with what we have. There was a lot of love, affection, and kampung spirit. Independence, too, and maybe that’s reflective of how Singapore was then, because we had that start-up mentality.
Uncle Whee: My father loved art. My mother loved cooking. They were not well-educated but both were open-minded. I remember my father using a rag dipped in white chalk to write calligraphy on a piece of wooden board because brushes were expensive. He taught me to appreciate arts and encouraged me to pursue my interests. My mother’s recipes were her own creations; she had green fingers and like gardening. She cooked our daily meals with herbs and edible plants from our garden. My sisters learned from her.
On that note, Mummy Soh, how do you discover new ways to cook certain foods?
Mummy Soh: Sometimes you Google and you can find out new things, and I exchange knowledge with my friends as well. I change the dishes to suit our tastes. (Your mom must have been a really good cook as well.) Yes, of course! She had so many children to cook for, and she invented new recipes with the leftovers.
What is One Kind House to you?
Mummy Soh: I was thinking of selling the house but Calvin told me to do something that I was interested in, such as cooking and planting. At that time, I was alone with my youngest son, and there were electric bills and property tax to be paid, so we thought, might as well make something out of it to maintain the house. I didn’t know if it would turn out well, but we just tried. People came and they liked the taste of the food because it was different.
Arlette: For me, it’s just something I should champion, being an artist. I did an Art degree in the UK, and when I came back to Singapore I found it strange that there was no support for the arts. I began to think more about this house, where we could actually afford to give up some wall space just to help artists out. We could provide them with a place where they could have a voice.
Calvin: Could this be a prototype for HDB living or a community centre? There’s urban farming here, which gives the elderly purpose and dignity—they’re able to share their knowledge and mix around with younger people, which increases mental well-being. At the same time, their health costs go down because they eat healthier. Environmentally, because you make the effort to grow your food you tend to eat everything, rather than throw a part of it away. The kids can hang around, learn farming and tradition; stories get passed on, and they make new things. Right now, the concept of community centres are old people doing line dancing.
What are your hopes for One Kind House?
Calvin: From a family perspective, I hope One Kind House will be a part of the kids as they grow up. Wherever they go, there’ll be this part of them that’s their anchor, and lives with them. For people who come and visit, hopefully One Kind House is something that sparks a different perspective on how we should live. At One Kind House we celebrate the idea of being kind at heart, and being, in Singlish, “one kind” or unique.
Uncle Whee: It’s an open and unique house, and I hope it can continue to serve and share its experiences in urban farming and other creative activities in our community. It’s the place where I first lived and started to paint as an artist, and it brings back memories. I hope to paint here as long as I can.
What are you working on right now?
Uncle Whee: I’m currently planning my 11th solo exhibition in May next year.
Arlette: Ava’s working on an accessories line for dogs. We wanted to incorporate the existing collar so that you can put the leash and the tag on. Pai Kia, our Jack Russell terrier, is our model; if it can stay on him, it will stay on other dogs.
Dylan: I did the GIY Stick already, so now I’m doing the GIY Stack—a stackable hydroponics system where you use recycled water bottles to grow your plants, utilising height instead of space. We’re also coming up with more books: The Big Red Dot Meets The Magic Genie or something, and she comes up with three wishes. We’re still thinking about it.
Although One Kind House is rekindling an old-school, kampung spirit, its members make it a 22nd-century home. Rooted in tradition, heritage, and self-sustainability, the core of this family is actually all about innovation, change, and creativity. It’s a mindset that has been passed from generation to generation; moulded, adapted, and refined by each person who touches it along the way. For the guests who come in through their doors, the people they encounter, conversations they engage in, and activities they join might make for eye-opening experiences—at times fascinating, and others, strangely discomforting, for the Sohs present hard truths and questions that we’d rather not ask ourselves. For the family, however, all this is simply a way of life; part of the present that they’ve painstakingly built for themselves, and of a future of exciting possibilities.
One Kind House
136B Lor J Telok Kurau
Tuesdays to Sundays, 10:30AM–5PM
Book a visit to the house here.