Return to Sabah — Kota Kinabalu, Part 4: Making Friends and Talking Trash

In an earlier post, we wrote about how we didn’t enjoy visiting the touristy or famous parts of Kota Kinabalu. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a good experience here.

On our first day, after collecting our borrowed car, we went to a place called Lorong Rainfield, to an eatery called Mom Mom Grill, a Western food stall started by 3 brothers. We were here to meet Gregory Tan, co-founder of a charity called Trash For Love.

Baby Tilapia was introduced to Gregory through Ruth Yap, the admin of the Facebook group ‘Zero Waste Sabah’. We wanted to meet him and find out more about what he does. As it was our first day in Sabah (we had arrived in the afternoon), we were unsure about traffic conditions in the evening, so we opted to go earlier to Mom Mom Grill and wait for Gregory, instead of rushing there when it was time to meet him and then getting caught in heavy traffic.

We arrived, found a parking lot, and went to browse Mom Mom Grill’s menu. We ordered a nasi biru ayam rendang and a beef rojak. Next door was a shop called Pekan Sup Ikan. It’s actually two-in-one food stall, where the morning stall has a different operator from the evening stall. The owners of both two food stalls are friendly with each other, so we get to sit in the Pekan Sup Ikan stall and have food that we ordered from Mom Mom Grill sent to us there. When the food comes, we dig in.

Nasi biru ayam goreng @ Mom Mom Grill

Beef rojak @ Mom Mom Grill

The nasi biru ayam rendang releases a delightful mix of flavours in our mouths, while the beef rojak is something new to us. Rojak is a salad dish of Javanese origin. While there are many variants, the most popular variant in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore is a salad mixture of sliced fruits and vegetables served with a spicy palm sugar dressing that we call ‘rojak sauce’. But the one we ate here has beef!

A SERENDIPITOUS MEETING

While waiting for our food, Baby Crab spoke to the staff at Pekan Sup Ikan, who introduced us to the owner who happened to be sitting at the table beside us. He shared with his part of his life story. Born Taiwanese, he came to Sabah about 30 years ago when he was in his 40s. He entered the timber industry, working in Sandakan, which used to be the capital of Sabah until it was reduced to rubble during World War II, after which the British shifted the capital to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). After he retired, he moved to Kota Kinabalu, and opened this food stall.

With him tonight are two friends from Sandakan. The man introduced himself to us as Ah Keat, and we would later get to know the woman by her nickname 玻璃瓶子, which means ‘glass bottle’. In the course of the night, Ah Keat would share with us some fruits he had, and would pour glasses of whiskey for us to drink, and that’s how we got to know them better.

Delicious pomelo from Ah Keat

While this takes place, our friend Gregory showed up with his wife Vicky. He joined us at the table, and began to share about what he does.

TRASH FOR LOVE

Gregory’s charity started during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has hit the people of Sabah very badly. As a state that relies heavily on tourism, the closure of international borders meant that the supply of tourists and visitors from other countries was suddenly cut off. In addition, during the 3-month MCO (Movement Control Order), the Malaysia lockdown, many businesses could not be open, and many workers did not get paid.

There was support from the government, however. Businesses and citizens got some help from the government. Documented migrants or non-Malaysians who were here legally and could not return to their home countries received help from charities and welfare organisations. But the stateless, by virtue of them not being documented, received no help. Being aware of their plight, Gregory took the initiative to provide essentials.

Initially, he gave the necessities to everyone who approached him for help. But as things went along, he came to see that it was not just those who were in need who came to collect from him. There were some who came that were in better situation than even his own family was. That was when he decided to be more targeted in who he helped.

Naturally, Gregory was far from the only one who helped the stateless. In our previous article, we wrote about Serrene who used her multiple businesses to make food available to those who needed it during the pandemic.

Eventually, Gregory came to focus on stateless single mothers with infants younger than 2 years old. Some of these mothers could not breastfeed their babies, and they had no milk to feed their children. They would use condensed milk, dilute it with water, and use that to feed their babies. Seeing that this was unhealthy for the babies, and given that his wife Vicky had just given birth and was also nursing their daughter, Gregory decided to buy formula milk powder to give to these single mothers.

At first, when word got around as to what he was doing, friends, relatives, and members of the public came forward to donate money to help his cause. But when he had raised about RM30,000 or so, the income tax department came knocking on his door. According to Gregory, they said that they noticed irregularities with his bank account, that these funds raised was considered part of his personal income, and he had to pay tax on it. So Gregory stopped collecting funds.

Even so, he needed to find a way to raise funds to buy milk powder for those who needed it. So he asked around, and got the idea to collect and recyclable items to recycling centres in exchange for money. This allowed him to kill two birds with one stone — reducing waste and helping the stateless mothers. That is how the charity ‘Trash for Love’ was born.

Recycling in Sabah is not so easy. Unlike Singapore, where you could deposit all your recyclables into a common recycle bin near your home, in Sabah, recyclable waste collectors don’t go collect from you unless you have a substantial amount to make it worth their while.

Gregory saw a gap and started to fill it. When he started to share his initiative, his inbox became flooded with requests from people asking him to come and collect their recyclable items from them. For larger amounts, he would drive his pick-up truck to collect it from them. For smaller quantities, he would ask them to drop it off at Mom Mom Grill, where he keeps his pile of recyclable items.

Several times a week, he would segregate the collected items, and send them to the recycling centres in exchange for money that he would use to buy formula milk and give to stateless single mothers. Through this small initiative, he has helped hundreds of single mothers get by during this difficult time, and he continues to do so.

From left, Gregory & Vicky, and the four of us.

SEE YOU AGAIN!

When we finish talking, Gregory shows us round the back of Mom Mom Grill where he stores the collected recyclable items. At the same time, Ah Keat from the next table invites us to visit him when we go to Sandakan. When we tell him that we plan to go there in a few days, he gives us his name card and tells us to contact him when we are there.

But that will be a story for another post.


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