IN years past, Tan Sok Bah was a breezy presence at the restaurant he owns in Balik Pulau.
Nestled in a clearing surrounded by fruit trees, the Yeh Lin Seafood Steamboat Restaurant that Tan operates is a big draw to seafood lovers from far and near.
But since last September, Tan’s mobility has been restricted to moving around the restaurant in a wheelchair.
The 67-year-old amputee is undaunted by the handicap.
He still takes orders by wheeling himself to the tables of diners whenever the place brims with customers.
“I’m handicapped but not useless,” said Tan a trivial defiantly.
“This is a restaurant I founded and built and until I’m totally immobilised, I intend to serve.”
To many a customer, Tan’s tenacity is exemplary.
As customers rattle off their selection of dishes, Tan takes down the orders on a notepad.
Even if they dither over their choice, Tan patiently waits for them to make up their mind or helps with a suggestion or two.
After all, Tan has been in the food business for over 40 years.
Tan then relays the orders to a retinue of workers, composed mainly of family members. Heading the detail is his son, Kheng Chai, 36, who has understudied the father for several years.
Last year, Tan underwent a harrowing ordeal which saw his right leg come under the surgeon’s knife five times. On each occasion, a part of the limb was sawn off.
Tan confessed he is a diabetic but he said his blood sugar is under control with medication.
However, calluses on parts of the leg below the knee became infected. This was the result of his skin being pierced by thorns, thistles and stone shards when clearing brush in the surroundings of his restaurant and nearby dwelling.
“I wasn’t aware that these abrasions would become infected, exposing me to the threat of amputation,” he said.
Weighing on his mind now is that his left leg is swollen due to blood circulation problems and doctors have advised him to get it amputated. He is, however, now resorting to taking Chinese medicine and treatment in the hope of saving his good leg.
Tan is a self-taught cook, learning through observation when helping a friend in the food business in 1978 at a canteen in Genting Highlands. It was located near what is now the First World Hotel.
When his friend decided to sell off the business, Tan took over and hired a few cooks. But after some years, he returned to Penang when the landowner wanted the place for further development.
He resumed his food business in Balik Pulau, operating at the Yeh Lai Xiang foodcourt in the town centre. In later years, he moved on to establish Yeh Lin Seafood Steamboat Restaurant, some distance away, for 14 years and then relocated it to its current site five years ago.
“I didn’t have a master to guide me how to cook. I just try to nail down a recipe by trial and error,” he said.
The restaurant, which is about 300 metres off Jalan Sungai Pinang, sells non-halal food and is famous for its seafood, seafood porridge, noodles and steamboat.
Other delectable dishes include belacan chicken, Guinness chicken, prawn crackers, curry fish and curry prawn.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, tour groups from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and China sought out the place.
The restaurant was also a popular haunt for Caucasians from the Batu Ferringhi tourist belt.
The restaurant opens every day from 11am to 10pm except Tuesdays.
Story by K.H. Ong
Pix by K.H. Ong and Kevin Vimal