SINGAPORE – When Mr Sum Kin Nar built a 30cm-tall model of the Eiffel Tower about five years ago, he relied on photos and his imagination.
The 78-year-old lives alone and depends on public assistance to get by. He had never been to Paris and could not afford to travel there.
Last week, the retired carpenter fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit the capital of France when a reader paid for his trip there after reading his story in The Straits Times.
Mr Sum was featured in the newspaper last month in The Lives They Live, a series of stories on ordinary Singaporeans who helped build society here.
He quit studying after primary school and did mainly carpentry work for construction companies and renovation contractors.
He stopped working as a carpenter 17 years ago, at age 61, when companies found him too old for the manual work.
Without a steady income or Central Provident Fund savings, he started receiving $500 a month in ComCare Long Term Assistance and lived in a public rental flat. The bachelor does not have any family.
To pass time, he started building miniature models of houses about 10 years ago.
He built his model of the Eiffel Tower from the bamboo sticks of a sushi mat. “When I built the model, it was my way of keeping the dream of visiting Paris alive,” he said.
After visiting the real Eiffel Tower two weeks ago, he realised he had got some parts of his model wrong. “The real tower has a square tier near the bottom, my model has a round tier,” he added with a laugh.
He was struck by how tall the Eiffel Tower is. “I had to take two lifts to the top,” he said. “When I looked down from the top, the people at the bottom were about the size of red beans. The cars were slightly bigger, like soy beans.”
“It must have been about 100 storeys high; I didn’t know that the tower is so tall,” he mused.
The Eiffel Tower is 324m tall, or about the height of an 80-storey building.
Besides the Eiffel Tower, Mr Sum also visited the Louvre Museum and Versailles Palace and Gardens, and took an evening cruise on the River Seine.
He also tried French food for the first time. The dish that he enjoyed most was beef stew cooked with red wine. But he found the escargot “too dry”.
The 14-hour flight from Singapore to Paris on Air France was the longest he has been in a plane.
Before the Paris trip, the farthest he had been out of Singapore was a trip to north Thailand in the 1970s.
He was accompanied on his trip by an officer from Touch Community Services. All their expenses during the five-day trip were paid by a reader who asked not to be named. The reader also bought Mr Sum warm clothing and a new suitcase.
The 44-year-old senior executive in the hospitality sector said: “I’d be embarrassed if a big deal is made out of this.”
She noted that Mr Sum did not spend his twilight years idling or wallowing in self pity.
“I have so much respect for him. He must still have a sense of wonder about life to make such beautiful things out of it,” she added.
Mr Sum said he was shocked that a newspaper reader would pay for his visit to Paris. “I didn’t believe it at first,” he said.
“It became real to me only when I boarded the plane and was on my way there. I never thought that I’d get to visit Paris in my lifetime. I am so happy that I cannot describe how I feel now,” he said, his voice cracking up.