For more than 20 years, Li De Yan helped to build Singapore with his bare hands.
During the growing years of Singapore's construction sector in the 1970s and 80s, he mixed cement, laid bricks and built houses across the country.
And for the past two decades, the retiree has turned his attention to building bridges among the elderly people in his neighbourhood.
At 78, his hale and hearty demeanour is surprising, given his life of hard labour.
Mr Li was five when he and his family came to Singapore in 1945 from Batu Pahat, Malaysia, to escape the war. They lived in a village in Siglap.
Growing up, Mr Li could not afford to go to school, so he went to work instead.
By the time he was 12, he was helping his father and grandfather in their fish business.
In a small wooden sampan, they would set out to sea. Mr Li would row the boat while his father or grandfather cast the net.
"We were not rich, so we could not afford motorboats," he said in Mandarin. "My job was to row the boat and pick up the fish that got tangled in the net.
"When we got to shore, I separated the good fish from the bad ones. We sold the good ones to the rich people living in the estate and ate the leftovers."
Through the years, Mr Li took on whatever odd jobs he could find. At 16, he joined the construction industry. "I did whatever my boss asked me to do," he said. For 80 cents a day, he would lay bricks and flooring from dawn to dusk.
He helped build one-storey houses in Frankel Avenue's rubber plantation district.
In 1958, he married and in 1961 he got a job as a waiter serving noodles in a Katong restaurant.
With his eldest son's birth two years later, Mr Li felt even more determined take on whatever jobs he could find to support his family.
In the mid-1970s, Mr Li went back to the construction industry despite the back-breaking labour because it paid more. At the new company, he earned $1.80 a day, up from the $1.20 he was earning as a waiter.
But the job was tough.
"Every day, we had about 5 to 10kg of cement each that we needed to use up before we could go back home," he recalled. He laid bricks for buildings, including the Lucky Heights apartments in East Coast.
"It was difficult. We had to do everything by hand back then. There were no machines."
While Mr Li was not involved in any major accidents, the bricks would sometimes fall if they were not stacked properly.
"Thankfully, I got only minor scratches from the accidents - back then we did not build the structures too high," he said, adding that the tallest building he had built was three storeys high.
"We laid the structure floor by floor. After laying the bricks for the first floor, we waited three days for it to harden before we went back to build the next floor.
"It was an exhausting job. But I had four children and my wife to support, so I needed a higher salary."
After his wife died in 1988, Mr Li continued working in the construction industry.
In 1995, he worked at Changi Airport delivering food catered by airlines before he retired in 1998.
These days, he spends his time volunteering at the Kembangan-Chai Chee Seniors Activity Centre, next to his rental flat, where he lives alone. He is one of the oldest volunteers at the centre.
Mr Li helps other people in whatever little ways he can.
For example, he delivers meals to immobile elderly residents twice a day. " I volunteer to help because we only have one another here," he said.
Rental flats in the area are equipped with a bell system at every lift lobby.
Mr Li said: "If a neighbour has any problem, he will ring the bell and anyone who can hear it will go over.
"No matter what I am doing, if I hear the bell, I will rush to help.
"Sometimes seniors fall while they are showering and they need help. You never know when a person is in danger. We look out for one another.
"I also help because I get help from the centre too."
Recently, Mr Li received household products like a 3M non-slip mat during a community event. "These programmes and free items help go a long way for me."
To cover his expenses, Mr Li has been working part-time, helping to clean a traditional Chinese medicine shop nearby.
He works 51/2 days each week and usually earns around $350 a month.
"It is not a lot, but we need to be content with what we have," he said.
"Only then can we find happiness in simple things, like helping others."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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