Saturday, 11 February 2012

A Bull Run

Since young, I've always been fascinated by the news reports in early July every year that mark the start of the Bull Run season in Europe. No, I am not talking about the climate of stocks and shares there but rather the dynamic pictures of people being chased (and sometimes gored) by bulls along ancient streets.

I found myself one morning standing on a street just like that waiting for the bulls to be unleashed. In front of me was a sea of men dressed in similar garb: white tee, red scarf, a waist cumberband and a rolled up newspaper in hand. We were supposed to hit the bull on the nose with it to make it even angrier. What, make an angry bull angrier? Are these people mad?

Well, a day ago, I was a spectator. I had come all the way from Singapore (via Paris, St. Tropez and train to Pamplona) to see this event for myself. I was reading Lonely Planet's thick Spain edition and discovered that the San Fermin festival had already started and that Pamplona was the best place to see it. At the time, I was staying with my sister in St Tropez in the south of France in her lovely little cottage and was wondering where to go next. After the north of France and the south of England, my next destination was Spain. Oh, lovely Spain, where people stayed up late after midnight and took siestas in the afternoon. My kind of life.

Seeing that I was already a few days late, I decided to scoot from my sister's place and hop onto a train "tout suite" (immediately) as they would say in France. My sister was very supportive and wished me well. The next morning, sans breakfast, I was already standing at the bus station in town around 7.00am and waiting for the bus to take me to the nearest train station at St Raphael. From there, I would shoot to the south-west of France and cross into Spain at Hendaye. It was already evening by the time I reached there and could only guess at what the place looked like in the semi-darkness. I was napping when the train stopped and was awakened by the conductor. Through a window I could only see a metal gate with the sign Hendaye awashed in incandescent bulb light. It was like a scene out of a movie. By the time the train resumed its journey, I remember thinking I was on the right train and fell back to sleep.

I reached Pamplona sometime before 10pm. At the station, I did a quick check of the Lonely Planet guidebook and learned that the best place to be was at some castle wall ruins. That would be a great vantage point to watch the nightly fireworks. Since I was early, I decided to walk the way there, but not before checking-in my luggage at the station. It was rather busy and I was amazed at the amount of rucksacks piled up in the backroom. Fortunately, I was carrying a hardcase (in eye-catching amber yellow no less) which had a combination lock. The staff guy at the luggage counter gave me a quizzical look (I think he was an American, temping) surprised that I didn't carry a backpacker's rucksack like the 99% of tourists there.

Although I was on a backpacker's trip, I liked using a hardcase for a variety of reasons. Chiefly, it was for security. Unlike a rucksack, a hardcase is not easy to slash open with a knife. Secondly, it has a secure handle with which I can chain to whatever I choose: a shared bunkbed at a backpacker's inn, a bench at a small, quaint train station, or the luggage rack on a train (without worry of it being stolen, allowing me to nap in peace). Thirdly, my clothes are not stuffed or compressed and hence stink less. Fourthly, I can better protect brittle souvenirs from being crushed.

People I've met were often surprised by my choice of luggage. But if they had travelled like I did, they would know that most major train stations had lockers that could even accomodate large hardcases. Mine was only medium in size. And many such lockers then were not time-based and hence cost-effective. I could leave my bag there and go gallivanting around a new place luggage-free.

All in all, the benefits of using a wheelable hardcase outweighs the negative and I am glad to have made that smart choice. I find it doubly important if one is travelling alone.

The only time this didn't seem a good idea was when I was holidaying with a girlfriend in Portugal and a bus dropped us a distance from our youth hostel. He directed us to a lovely but ill-advised short-cut through the forest. We ended up having to carry two hardcases head-over shoulders over some very big boulders up a hill. Other than this misadventure, using a hardcase was always a convenience.

Having checked-in my luggage, I am now light and free as a lark. I took that 15 minute walk to the castle ruins and waited with the crowd for the fireworks to begin. It started promptly at 11pm (Lonely Planet was pretty spot on with this, as in other matters as well) and it went on for 20mins. Twenty minutes! That's more than twice the amount of fireworks time typical in Singapore. It was amazing. Even more amazing was that the fireworks would go on every night during the two-week long festival. (With the bad economic situation today, this firework display might be reduced in showtime.)

At around midnight, there was some commotion. I found out that bulls and cows were being moved to their pens at the foot of the hill for release in the morning for the Bull Run. Since that event was many hours in the future, I decided to head to the Town Centre where all the night activities were. What I found at the main Town Square were white tents and stalls. A live concert was going on and people were sampling food and drink. It was crowded, but not crushingly so. Everybody was gyrating to the music, which was jazz, and really having a good time, clinking glasses.

As I followed the crowd and explored, I realised that there were four other concerts going on at the same time. Each concert catered to a particular type of music. Besides Jazz, there was Big Band, Pop, Disco and Flamenco. If you didn't like one, you could move on to another. I was beginning to think how wonderful this whole San Fermin festival is.

Throughout the night, I moved from concert to concert listening to music and chitchatting with people. As a Chinese I stood out. The place seemed to be filled with Amercian college kids on vacation. I also met quite a few from Down Under as well. Their accents were unmistakable. Many of the kids were surprised at my standard of English. Once I spoke, their apprehension melted away. Speaking with them, it wasn't as annoying as four years ago when most Americans thought Singapore was in China. Quite a few knew it was in Asia.

When I arrived in Pamplona that night, I did not plan to book any accommodation. I was just going to party until morning and then decide what to do. I must thank Lonely Planet for being so accurate with the festival information. In any case, arriving so late at night and with such a crowd, finding any accomodation would be neigh impossible.

Well, you know what they say, time flies when you are enjoying yourself.  Pretty soon I was with the crowd at 7.50am beside the barricades waiting for the Bull Run to start. Pamplona is stituated on a hill. The main street up to the Town Hall is cobbled and winds its way from the foot of the hill to the bullfighting stadium at the top. All in all, it is about two kilometres long.

The Bull Run began at 8am sharp. A blast of horn and the bulls were released from the corral below. You could tell that the bulls were running up from the excitement of the crowd and the bull runners themselves fleeing. You could see it coming in waves as the Run progressed. Very soon, it came to my section where I was observing everything. It was not far from the Town Hall.

The Bull Runnners were easily identified by their white outifts and red scarves. The braver ones would hold a rolled up newspaper in one hand to whack the bull with it. Not the smartest thing to do when a beast that big and heavy is bearing down on you. But it's just a bravado thing; there's no wrong or right about it.

In a flash, the Run was past my observation spot. I ran along the side hopping to catch more of the action but the crowd was three-four rows deep.

I hurried to the stadium at the top of the hill and in all that excitement, was persuaded to buy a ticket to watch a bullfight that was slated to begin at 3pm.

As it was still early, I decided to check Pamplona out a bit more thoroughly. The castle complex was larger than what I saw last night. It was fun to explore as there were more open spaces than the usual nooks and dungeons. At an open space, someone was cooking paella in a giant pan under a tent. I ordered some for breakfast (it was delicious) and afterwards found a spot to lay down and sleep. Everybody else was doing the same. Bodies everywhere under the shade of trees.

What impressed me that morning was how the cleaning crews were so quick to get to work. By 9am, all the barricades for the Bull Run were already taken down. The streets were hosed clean of the previous night's revelry (mostly piss from kids drinking too much coke mixed with cheap table wine) and everything was soon back to normal. Apparently, all such actions repeat themselves day after day until the festival is over. It was all super super efficient. It's a cycle that starts every evening at 6.30pm and ends next morning at 9.00am.

I had a good nap sleeping atop the castle wall ruins and washed myself up a bit at a public tap. For lunch, I again went for paella. When overseas, I usually go local and do not hankle for home food. I am very fine with potatoes, bread, and pasta.

Near 3pm, I entered the bullfighting stadium and went to my bench-seat somewhere in the middle of the gallery. The place was almost full. To my surprise, two young Taiwanese girls were in my section. They were on a backpacking trip too. Naturally, we struck up a conversation. I was glad when they informed me that the apartment they were staying at had a free room. It turned out to be a very posh place (trust Chinese girls to find clean and decent accomodation) owned by an elderly Spanish lady. The floors were marbled and the furniture ornate. The best part was my room had a TV as well. I spent that night watching the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final there.

Back at the bullfighting stadium, the first bullfight had already ended. It was not a pretty nor fair fight. The bull is first bloodied by a guy on a horse with a spear. He does this twice. Thus bloodied, the bull is said to be 'agitated'. Afterwards, the bullfighter teases the bull with his red cape. In intervals, the matador (bullfighter) will stab the bull on its shoulders and neck with those fancy arrows they call banderillas. The whole point is to weaken the bull and lower its resistance. When enough banderillas have landed, the matador then draws his thin sword and plunge it diagonally down from the neck to the bull's heart. If the bull does not die immediately, it's spinal cord is severed near the top of its head with a small knife.

In a day's program, there would be six bullfights. But after seeing how unfair the whole thing was, me and the Taiwanese girls decided to leave the stadium after the third fight. They had their fill of photographs (one of them was clicking away with her SLR) and I, gore for the day. We went and had coffee somewhere.

That night, after watching the World Cup final, I made up my mind to do the Bull Run. I knew that if I'd travelled all that way there and not do it, I would regret the decision the rest of my life.

That morning after, dressed in my jeans (I had no white pants) and white shirt and red scarf and holding a rolled up newspaper in one hand, I joined the rest on the Bull Run street. I picked a spot where I thought was safe and stood looking down the street and hill waiting for that all-important signal. When it did sound, I could literally see and feel the ripple of excitement percolating up the winding street. Heads were bobbing and bodies were moving. Pretty soon, folks in front of me were turning to run away from the bulls (and cows). I did the same and caught a glimpse of the bull behind me. I quickly snapped a picture of it before I running a bit more and then slipping into a doorway I had picked out as a safe 'step-out'. The bull horde ran past me and continued up the street.

As I got out to catch my breath, everything around me was rather quiet and empty. I ran further up to see, but both people and animals have disappeared. Were they running that fast? Quickly, I made my way to the top where the stadium was. Everybody was there celebrating and feeling elated. The bulls had been run into the stadium and a lively one was kept in the centre arena for people to play and tease with. If it got dangerous, the folks would just have to climb or jump over the side walls around the arena. It was challenging in that way.

I happily asked someone to take a picture of me all fresh from doing the Bull Run. I looked a little flushed. But it's a picture I would treasure for the rest of my life.

Next story: A Monster To Live With

Fukaya 7 - A Guys' Night Out

The Friday before I left for home, a few of the Toshiba folks I've come to know well decided to give me a farewell treat. They did not say where we were going, only that we had enough people for two cars and that it involved driving out of town. The whole thing was to be a surprise.

I got into my main host Tateshita's car with three other fellas. It seemed quite full but we were comfortable. The guys were smiling and nodding to each other in conspiratorial tones. It only fueled my imagination as to where they were taking me.

The first week that I arrived in Fukaya, these nice folks had taken me and Chee out for Japanese sushi and teppanyaki. The eatery was in a part of town not too far from our hotel and we all had our meal sitting cross-legged on the floor. At the time, Tateshita had told me why he had preferred to work in Fukaya rather than Tokyo itself. He said the houses there were much cheaper, some 40% less. The one hour commute might seem long to others, he said, but to most Japanese, an hour's commute by train was quite common. He also like the more tranquil suburban setting of Fukaya; it suited his hobby in gardening.

Tateshita was in his 40s and married. That made me wonder if he, like most Japanese men than, handed over his pay check to his wife. He jokingly said yes and hoped that his wife would not run away when it came time for him to retire. Tateshita looked and sounded like a very open and caring man. I could only imagine him having a loving relationship with his wife.

In the car, the Japanese fellas were talking amongst themselves in a very convivial mood. I tried to make conversation, but given our language barrier, that effort met with little success. I noticed that we had left civilisation and was now driving along some hilly terrain. We started off from the Toshiba factory at around 5.30pm when the sky was still blue and bright. Now, the sun was setting and the light fading. We had driven for almost 45mins with no destination in sight.

At one junction, the fellas stopped to ask for directions. After some finger-pointing by the locals, we set off again. We continued on hilly roads flanked by tall grass and grassy knolls. I could see light moving out to make way for shadows..

Finally, after another fifteen minutes, we came to what looked like an abandoned two-storey concrete building. Grass was overgrown everwhere and the entrance itself looked boarded up and weather-beaten. It was obvious that the place had been closed up for a long time. I asked Tateshita what that was. He sheepishly admitted that they were looking for a striptease joint that they had known existed. It was funny the way he tried to illustrate striptease with toweling motions across his back.

I laughed when he told me that. I told the fellas that they must not have been to the place for donkey years. A good sign, I thought, for some of these married men.

Well, the fellas were obviously disappointed and apologetic. But it didn't last long. These guys were all get-up-and-go sort of persons and after some quick consultation amongst the leaders, we got into our vehicles and drove on.

After another half an hour, we arrived at a place called Ota. The name reminded me of a Japanese colleague in our factory in Singapore. His name was Ohta though, spelt with a 'h'. He might or might not have originated from that town.

We were all desperately hungry and I was glad to see that we had stopped off at an Indian restaurant. Its main door was glass and aluminium, and decorated with ornate designs in purple and in a Persian kind of way. It was an Indian restaurant run by a true Sikh in a turban. Seeing that, I felt relieved. I was gonna get some real curry and not the brown beany stuff that the Japanese passed off as their own.

When the naans and chapatis came, the long and disappointing drive from the factory was soon forgotten. These fellas from Toshiba Japan couldn't be better hosts and dinner companions. They seemed to like real curry too, probably a taste they had acquired visiting Singapore. Or perhaps it was a taste acquired in Ota from one too many visits to that now defunct striptease joint. Whichever the case, I was just happy that my taste buds got titillated instead of some other body part. Succulent mutton and brinjal curry. Man, these kind of stuff I would rather choose over a striptease act anytime!

Story origin: A VCR Affair
Next story: A Bull Run 

Friday, 10 February 2012

Fukaya 6 - Of Handguns and Cosplay

The next morning, I took a train to Akihabara, that Japanese Mecca of the latest in IT and consumer goods from the Land of the Rising Sun. There were many tall glass buildings in that city. The whole place looked like a discount store because the buildings themselves featured glaring highlighter pen-coloured banners dripping down its sides.

I walked around and saw the latest Star and Epson dotmatrix printers and other gadgets. Remember, this was sometime in the early 90s. I entered a multistorey departmental store and was greeted by salesgirls in cute uniforms. That store was selling different types of washing machines.

Walking around and exploring the building, I chanced upon a toy shop that sold replica handguns. A Magnum 45 model was very life-like but it was gas powered and could only shoot round plastic pellets. I was tempted to buy one but remembered our no-nonsense Customs police.

On the shelf next to the handgun was a remote-control toy robot. It was the 1/24th scale model of that fierce rival robot in Robocop - you know, the one that looked totally mean and which blasted one of the suits in a meeting to smithereens. Again I was very tempted to buy it. But thinking a little harder I realised it was all boys stuff and would be quite useless once I brought it home.

My next destination was Asakusa, a place famed for its old and huge temple. Actually the temple was more famous for its complex of small shops in the courtyard (which had a large iconic lantern hanging over its main entrance) popular for its jellied sweets and mochi, all individually wrapped in very colourful and exquisite packaging.

I'm not religious but was curious, so went into the temple and prayed. I made some offering and was given a printed piece of 'fortune' rice paper. The portents weren't great. I worry for Chee. Although I was supposed to tie it to a row of string for others to pray for me, I took the paper home instead as a souvenir. It's still there in my photo album.

As I stepped out of the temple to retrace my steps back to the subway station, I again spied that golden statue that looked very much like a piece of durian, or sh** if you like. I think it was meant to be a symbol of wealth and prosperity but certainly, there could have been other more palatable symbols. Nevertheless, I touched its goldness for good luck (or as an antidote to that earlier misfortune foretold) and went on my way wondering if I would get home safely.

Sometime in the 70s, a family friend introduced my mom to a form of Japanese Buddhism worship. The beads we used were rather unique, chained in such a way that it had to two strandly bits on one side and three at the other. We would put this chain and strandly bits acrossed our hands and between the fingers. We would rub them slowly as we chanted and prayed. The chant went something like this: "Lum mo oni tau futt, lum mo oni tau futt" twice. There was even a small prayer book. I remember the logo on its cover to be a phoenix bird of the Japanese kind.

On Sunday morning, I took a walk to the Imperial Palace. I could only see it from the outside, and the walls were high. The park around it was eerily devoid of people, like in some Ultraman episode. Wait a minute, is a monster gonna come and swipe down some buildings?

After that non-event, I took a train to that famous place for fashion rebels called Harajuku. Almost everybody there tried to dress differently. There was rock-and roll, gothic, cosplay - you name it. That weekend, a few bands were playing too on makeshift stages. From my overhead bridge vantage point, I could see various groups all spread out along the main thoroughfare. The place seemed closed to traffic.

Near the train station, a Hare Krishna group was dancing to drum and tambourine beats and accosting people the most with their religious propaganda.

I crossed the bridge and entered a shopping area. There were carts along the pavement selling trinkets and stuff, not unlike those found at our own Bugis Junction. There were quite a few shops selling 18th century European frocks, or what some behavourist might term Lolita wear. It was later, in the 2000s, that I fully realised how fascinated the Japs were with all things European - even in manga such as the terrific TV series, Monster.

I didn't hang about in Harajuku long. Much of the stuff there seemed geared towards very young women. I took the train to Akihabara to take a second look. As I was strolling along the main shopping belt, I noticed a bookshop (the open sort with books and stuff spilling onto the pavement) and stopped to take a look. I was quite surprised to find triple-X hardcore pornographic materials mixed in with mainstream works. There didn't seem to be any attempt at segregating what's for adults-only and what's not. It was done at the video shops, so why not the bookshops? And the materials were offensively hardcore with bondage and stuff done mostly to young, pretty women.

I found it all rather hard to stomach, and to reconcile culturally with the Japanese. Here is a culture that was by all accounts polite and civilised and seemed to treat their women with respect. Yet they would allow such materials to be freely browseable at a public bookshop? What about protecting the young from such adult material? How come the mothers are not up in arms over it?

I've read The Pink Samurai and yet still find it hard to fathom the Japanese pysche. They oftentimes seemed technologically advanced, yet on an emotional level, they still seemed pretty animalistic. Perhaps this is the reason why Japanese leaders are always making public gaffes saying the most outrageous things. It beggars the mind, really, that their worldview is so high-schoolish. Don't they do courses in critical thinking or even learn basic stuff about the human psyche and universal morality. Perhaps that's the price they pay for being traditionalists.

In the afternoon, I took a train back to Ueno station and visited the Shitamachi Museum in Ueno Park. It's a small museum good for an hour that showcased the old life around the old buildings of Tokyo before the Great Fire in the 1920s or earlier. I liked its many realistic miniature period dioramas. It was like stepping back in time and staring down at it from the heavens. At one section were several mock-ups of life-sized shops, including a traditional sundry store.

Outside, in Ueno Park itself, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the midst of an animal rights parade. Some folks with placards were marching with their dogs. Stalls were also set up along the avenue to educate people about Animal Abuse, especially those perpetuated in cosmetic research. There were pictures of rabbits with badly infected eyes and skin. Quite a few big names from the Japanese cosmetic industry were implicated. I seriously hope that these companies have stopped such practices. These is really little reason to use animals as test subjects. People could be paid and insured for that kind of job.

That night in Tokyo, I decided to spend it in Shinjuku. The Shinjuku Prince hotel was pretty X at US$500 a night. But what the heck, it was on company expense. I'd heard that Shinjuku was the night jewel of Tokyo and so felt compelled to go take a look. As I exited the train at the Shinjuku subway station, there was music and vibe. I followed that instinct to an exit where upon emerging to the world above, I was in the midst of a crowd gathered to watch a huge Sony Jumbotron screen with a music video being played. This was way way before the same thing invaded our shores (like some ten years later, on Lido's side facing the Borders bookshop). Somehow, I was not surprised by such a screen in Shinjuku. Everywhere I looked, there was neon light and glitter. I could tell that this was a place that did not sleep.

I saw an arch sign over a street and went to it. That usually denoted some sort of activity area (like a night market, old district, etc). In that street, I was again accosted by young chaps keen to hand out tissue packs to me. I took and pocketed them without comment. I did not want to offend anyone and get set upon. As a lone traveller, I had to watch out for myself. In any case, Shinjuku was like one giant club outdoors with plenty of eye candy of the neon sort. There was much to see and explore.

My last impression of Tokyo was walking past a sumo wrestling stadium just after a match. People were spilling out into the streets and chatting. I understood how the game was played but had little affection for the regimented way these people trained. It seemed way disproportionate to the slapping that aways went on in a match and its short duration. If size mattered, this was the sport for it - all that flabbiness (wrestler Atisano'e being the main cultprit). Looking at the giant match billboard, I wondered how this wrestler would look if placed in a wind tunnel. He would probably slap himself silly if he stood himself up against the wind long enough.

I smiled at that humorous image and stepped into the crowd. Quickly, I was swallowed up and became one of its many wandering souls seeking action, companionship and a thing to do under all that man-made light.

Next: Fukaya 7 - A Guys' Night Out

Fukaya 5 - Nightclubs and Parlours

When I go on a company trip and have a weekend to myself, I often maximise that free time to go sightseeing. I'm pretty productive at it - why my colleagues would often look at my pictures and jokingly wonder if I ever got any work done when over there. Haha... The answer is simple: If you are not required to work and is in a new place, why not just go out and explore a bit?

When I was in Indianapolis, USA over a weekend, I went to a large IT flea market, a miniature train shop (from where I found some spherical dice), a children's museum, a zoo, and managed to take a road trip to see some covered bridges. These were made popular by that love story, Bridges of Madison County) then.

So this trip to Fukaya was no different. As soon as I returned from the Toshiba factory on Friday night, I checked out of my hotel and took an one-hour train ride to Tokyo. I then deposited my bags into a three-star hotel room that Caroline had booked for me (see Part 4) and left to walk around the night streets of Tokyo. My hotel was just next to the busy Ueno interchange train station, and it was teeming with night life that weekend.

The Ameyoko night market there is well-known. The first few stalls were already surprising me with stuff I couldn't find in Singapore: Knee-high leather fashion boots which I was sure a couple of my sisters would be most interested in. Each pair cost S$300 - a steal compared to what was available at home. Further in were stalls selling T-shirts and pants and an assortment of lighters and dried foods. To one side, small eateries sold steaming-hot cooked food.

As I walked along, I would encounter young men on the streets handing out tissue packs. On the backs of these tissue packs were suggestive pictures of women and a phone number to call. I could only guess that they were calling cards for escort services, bars and night clubs.

I'd heard that it was not wise for a foreigner to pop into a night club on a whim. He might end up being held hostage by the Yakuza (Japanese gangsters) and be asked to pay thousands of dollars for just a simple drink. This scenario was later played out in one of film-maker Beat Takeshi's gangster movies. In the story, an intimidated night club visitor's credit card was swiped for a few thousand dollars. It did not matter if he hadn't enough cash on him.

I'm not the night club kind of guy, so I there's no worry of me getting into that sort of trouble. Plus I know karate, so I guessed I could beat the Jap gangsters at their own game, that is, if they didn't come at me all at once.

In any case, I was curious so would pay extra attention whenever one of these establishments popped up along my strolling route.

The nightclubs I saw were quite unlike any I've seen. They were quite different from those in Geylang, where I grew up. Bright neons signs and gaudy vinyl panelled doors made them stand out.

In Tokyo, the neon signs were small - mostly shaped in a Martini glass with straw, as if to say cocktail rather than bar (with girls).

Quite a few were subterranean, meaning they were in a basement of some residential-looking cluster building. At street level, all you could see was a small narrow staircase going down to a basement. It's hard to believe that that narrow passage led to some night club. Don't people emerge from clubs in twos or threes?

As I was observing the night scene, I was trying to keep warm from the chilly night air. I kept my hands in my coat pocket. Before long, I realised it was late and decided to make my way back to the hotel. However, on the way back, I came across a big Pachinko parlour with its bright lights bouncing off an opposite building. I just had to step in to take a look.

I'd seen such parlours on TV and in the movies, and always wondered what the fascination was with them. People simply sat on stools and shot ball bearings the whole day, watching them drop through the slots. Where's the thrill in that?

I stopped at a machine and watched a young salaryman play. He was holding a half-full plastic bowl of small ball bearings and feeding it to the machine, repeatedly tipping a small lever to launch the ball. It was done in such a robotic manner that he didn't seem to care. I remember thinking he could have been home doing something more productive or useful. Perhaps he was there in that late hour to avoid issues at home.

The steel balls used in that parlour were not very large and each had the image of a clown stamped on it. It was the same image as the giant pink/white neon-light graphic at the front of the parlour. I picked up a couple of balls off the floor and kept them as souvenirs.

It was almost 1am by the time I reached my humble hotel. Sumo wrestling was on the telly. The image of two fat blokes in tight girdles slogging it out was the last thing I saw before falling into a tired but grateful sleep.

That night, I did dream of two geishas girls on each arm. They were fat and had hair swept up like sumo wrestlers. It was a strange but not all unpleasant dream. I woke up hungry and a little wet. An aircon duct was leaking.

Next: Fukaya 6 - Of Handguns and Cosplay

Fukaya 4 - The Girl Who Stares At Walls

The next morning, I had my first real hangover. The experience was not unlike walking two steps behind your real person, a kind of disjointed, out-of-body experience.

I decided to skip breakfast at the hotel and have it somewhere else instead. The fresh air outside would do me good.

After a short walk I found a Dunkin' Dougnuts near the cab stand, and sat near its glass partitioned entrance after collecting my order of doughnut and some American-style coffee. American coffee might not be as strong as the French but the Arabica beans were heaven to the nose nonetheless. It also reminded me of McDonald's back home.

Sipping the cuppa, I looked out at this foreign world waking up and getting to work. Surprisingly there wasn't any of that 'surge of humanity' so commonly seen on TV about Japan and its people in the cities. The pace today felt more like a weekend. Perhaps it's normal in place like this some one hour by train from downtown Tokyo.

I checked my watch date to make sure. It would have been disastrous if I had been comatosed from drinking for two straight days. Of course, I was only joking with myself. It would have been better to have passed out in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) with a geisha in each arm. Hey, it's not only ang moh guys who have such fantasies when setting foot upon the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time!

Speaking of ryokans, I had actually asked our department's secretary, Caroline, to book me such a place to stay in over the weekend (when I would be on my own). But according to Japanese regulations then, only locals were allowed to stay in such traditional inns (or so Caroline told me). I thought the rule was rather snobbish. But nevermind, Caroline did manage to find me a room instead at a three-star hotel that was clean, serviceable and with a small TV hanging from a ceiling corner.

It had a rather unusual feature though: a bathroom that reminded me of one in an Airbus 380, you know, the kind that's moulded from a one-piece fibre glass or some tough plastic. It even had a bathtub! I could imagine how splash-proof and easy to clean the thing would be. There didn't seem to be any seams at all save those at the door and ceiling.

Caroline was actually our department's top boss's secretary. There were actually three of them in the pool (the other two junior secs being Diana and Doris) taking care of six other managers altogether.

Caroline was a very sweet girl with big black eyes and sleek black hair and a body shape that induced men to think thoughts their wives might find objectionable. Although she was irresistably pretty, she had bite, why with one fierce look she could bring wayward men back onto the straight and narrow. She spoke with a lilt that's part girly charm and part nervousness. Or it might even be manja-ness. Yes, there were a couple of engineers who fell for her charm and would do anything for her, like lifting boxes or refilling the photocopier with paper. A guy from Hong Kong named Patrick was particularly susceptible. He sat within sight of her desk and I've caught him stealing glances at her more than once.

Of all things, Caroline hated to be rushed. She would go into a fluster and start to hyperventilate. She was young in that regard.  I found her pretty and liked her straight forward manner. We did go out for a while but it was nothing too serious. We had shared the same hair salon in her neighbourhood in Ang Mo Kio and nothing much else.

Eventually, I think it was because I found her rather odd. One day, whilst conversing with her in her bedroom, she suddenly told me she liked to sometimes stare at walls. I don't know why she told me that, but at the time, I knew some girls liked to tell guys strange stuff just to test them, like how this girl Wendy used to test me by asking: "Would you think me strange if I told you I liked to wrap two towels around my head instead of one after a shower?" I smiled at that, but inside, I was like, What??? Does it really matter?

Similarly, I did not know how to respond to this particular cracker from Caroline and so simply said: "Er, okayyy..." The funny thing was immediately after making that statement, she went silent and actually stared at the wall in front of us. Thinking back, it was rather an endearing trait. I mean it could have been worse. She could have said: "You know, I like to stand right next to people and watch them sleep."

In any case, we did go out for a celebration once, and she made me pierce my one ear - the one that actually had a natural dimple in the lobe - to commemorate an event. But because my trip to Fukuya was impending, I decided against wearing that one ear stud. At the time, the Japanese were still known to be rather conservative. Those in the Engineering trades would be even more so... Or so I presumed.

The coffee helped somewhat with my hangover displacement. When I reached the Toshiba office, I was early. I walked by a vending machine in the hallway and decided to check out its contents. They were mostly canned coffee and candy bars. I wondered if that meant the Japanese often worked late.

An innocuous dull green door opened to a very large open plan office with rows of low desks. The Japs didn't seem to like office partitions very much. Everybody set at the same kind of green colored metal desk with rounded corners and secretary chairs, all very 70s-like.

Tateshita's group was in another section visible on the left. Its layout and arrangement were the same: Manager in front, slightly elevated, with the rest facing him in pairs. Common workbenches were turned in facing one another. Unsure of where I would be sitting, I walked over to a workbench and sat down. Someone in T's group was already there. He was nice enough to introduce himself, but speaking no English, he pretty soon left me alone.

The workbench had a dot-matrix printer and a PC. I was piqued to see that it was from NEC. I wondered if it was similarly running Windows 3.1 like the one I had back in IVP, Singapore. Was this the same PC that T's men used to read the files I had transmitted over?

Turns out, that was the case. It was the only PC that could run Windows 3.1 and had Pagemaker 3.0 installed. The rest of the PCs and systems were all running on Japanese developed operating systems, mostly from NEC. I found that rather odd. Here is the world's most prolific consumer product developer and exporter and they were not running Windows like the rest of the world. How are they going to collaborate at an international level?

At the time, Windows was in ascendancy and version 95 was about to be launched. That would be a huge improvement to Windows 3.1. Apparently with Windows 95, foreign language scripts could be implemented easily so folks could begin to use their PCs in their own language.

But as I discovered later, it wasn't going to be as easy as typing 1-2-3. Yes, Win 95 was a vast improvement over Win 3.1 but not until Windows XP did the whole foreign language thing take off.

Back in the office, that workbench had the same fax-floppy drive machine that T and I both used to send files to one another. Back then, network speeds were still low (around 10 Mbs) and large files took forever to transmit over. At the time, we often shared CAD drawing files in large TIFF or DXF (an AutoCAD graphic format) sizes so that fax-floppy drive machine helped speed things up.

As time passed, I checked at my watch. It was nearly 9 0'clock and people were already filling up their desks and standing to attention. I stood up too.

Tateshita greeted his section and they bowed to one another. He then read out a list of things. Later, it was explained to me that he basically recapped the previous day's accomplishments and told his staff what was expected to be done that day. Back in Singapore, that's not how we worked. We had meetings and set targets. If a manager needed an update, he would call for a status report.

In a way, this Japanese method is quite open and it keeps everyone on the same page. Problems raised could be tackled head-on straightaway, or at least other colleagues could make suggestions. There is no hiding; everybody walks the same timeline.

After the briefing, Tateshita mouthed his thanks and they bowed again. Everybody then broke off to do their own thing. I noticed that T wore the same beige coloured workshop jacket as the other managers. They were uniform like that.

Lunch was precisely at 12 noon. It was the typical one-hour lunch but I noticed that people seemed to rush about a bit more. Curious, I asked my host Koide why that was so. He said most staff would have a quick lunch and then go about their extra activities such as sports like baseball, basketball, and even swimming. Swimming? Yes, he said. There's a pool on Toshiba's factory grounds.

The canteen itself was quite large. I went up to a stall and picked a tempura set. I was half expecting Jap-style 'chap chye peng'. Even the soup was the unmistakable miso with cubes of tofu inside. As a Cantonese who grew up with all sorts of soups, I am always surprised that the Japanese don't have more soup varieties to offer. IT IS ALWAYS MISO!

After the meal, I opted to walk around a bit and could see a lot of staff engaged in sports. They were really into it. At  home, the hot, humid weather prevented any activity of this sort. In fact, most people opted to stay indoors for lunch because of cool aircon.

At precisely 1 o'clock, everybody was back at their desk in their work clothes standing at attention. Some could be spotted with combed wet hair. Their respective managers were again standing at the front ready to address them. This time, their speeches were short. When the mutual bowing was done, they all broke off and carried on as usual.

For a non-conformist like me, I watched the proceedings with a sense of amusement. It was after all their workplace practice. It made me curious about the other aspects of Japanese work culture like tea-pouring for the seniors and the legendary long after-hours.

I was not to be disappointed on one account. Some lady engineers were seen doing the tea service for some of their senior colleagues. As for the long hours, I must hand it to the Toshiba folks at the time. They were trying to change. When I was there, there were compulsory Light's Off days to make sure folks left at 5.30pm sharp. An alarm would sound and the offices and factories would empty. I think it happened on a Monday and Thursday.

Well, there's also the after-office hours drinking and merry-making. I did go out with a few of them to a karaoke and a live-band bar once, but I am not sure if that was because of me visiting or it was something they really did when no guest was around. I suspect it to be the former. The younger folk in my group seemed more keen to reunite with their girlfriends and hobbies (one guy like surfing Tokyo Bay) than hang around the office or in bars more than necessary.

At the live bar, I was asked to sing. I had noticed in the shops and restaurants that although the Japanese spoke no English, they liked listening to English songs.

My group, which consisted of three guys and a girl, asked me to sing an English song. I had done Paul Anka's My Way at an office function before and so decided to reprise that. It would be a safe bet judging from past accolades. Well, they liked it too and asked for another. I next sang the Bee Gees' Massachusettes with its soaring chorus. The group sportingly sang along.

This last song brought the proprietor's daughter out. She was a rather chubby and sheepish looking kid no older than 18. The lady proprietor asked if I could sing an Elvis song as the King of Cool was her daughter's favourite singer.

By now, I was ready to quit on a high. But as Elvis was my favourite singer also I decided to give it one more go. I believed the song I chose was The King's Are You Lonesome Tonight. Back then I was pretty good at imitating a singer's style and so I sang Lonesome with Evis's typical timbre and vibratto. It turned out well and impressed the guys there.

What I did not expect was for it to move the proprietor and her daughter so much. She offered the girl to me for marriage! What??? Well, that's how my teasing colleagues translated amidst laughter at my predicament. I shyly said no...that I already had a girlfriend (not 100% true). By then, the poor girl was already thrust next to me. I could only do the decent gentleman thing by kissing her hand. She blushed pink like a Spring cherry blossom. After that, we finished our drinks and moved on to a sushi bar. We were laughing all the way.

Next: Fukaya 5 - Nightclubs and Parlours

Fukaya 3 - Amazing Spares

The next morning, we left the hotel and took the short walk back to the train station to catch a cab. I could see the eatery we went to last night - the one with the 'free-spirited' figurines. It had yet to open for the day.

At the cab stand, a few cabs were waiting for fare by the kerb. They were typical of Japanese taxis I've seen on TV - two-toned colored (a red and white combi). I noticed that the cab drivers all wore gloves.

We took the first one in the queue. I was rather amused when the cab door flung open by itself. Singaporean cabs would later adopt this feature some 15 years on but it has not been seen since. I think Singaporeans were just too quick in pulling at the doors.

Our ride to Toshiba's factory was just 10 mins. It stood in a big compound surrounded by a low white wall and a large sliding gate. I could imagine big container trucks going in and out.

We met our hosts Tateshita and Kobayashi (someone from the Overseas division of T's group) at the main office building.  There were altogether five people from Toshiba. Once seated, they were whispering to one another as if to confirm who was coming to the meeting. Later, I realised that although the Japanese didn't seem very extrovert, they shared information pretty quickly.

At this first meeting, Chee and I basically reiterated the purpose of our trip. Our counterparts also laid out plans they had for us. From the looks of it, we were going to have a pretty busy itinerary the next few days. Well, partly because Chee would be returning to Singapore first. I would stay for one anda half weeks in Fukaya to better know Tateshita and his team. The first order of business was a site visit. The next, we would discuss both our parts numbering systems. Later, I would immerse myself in Tateshita's team to best see how my group could support them.

The meeting on the numbering system went quite well. At the end, they asked me if I understood. I said, yeah, not a problem. Language aside, the Toshiba system was not difficult to grasp. I'm not sure about Chee though. He was more keen being a PR person, smiling rather excessively. Later in the hotel he would ask me to explain what he had missed, it was practically the whole lot. (Tateshita was a 40-plus man and he later did ask me if all managers in IVP were as young as Chee. His implication was that in Japan, one didn't get to be manager after a certain senority. I saw his point.)

In that earlier meeting, the Toshiba folks shared with us a pecularity. They had something like US$5 million worth of after-sales parts. That kind of blew me away. IVP's was considerably less and we were more discerning of what parts to keep, mostly the parts that had to do with the VCR itself, parts that broke down often.

The Toshiba folks, well, were keeping items like carton boxes and foam guards that came with the VCR upon purchase. What, are they serious? I remember thinking. Why would they want to do that?

They explained that if a Toshiba VCR owner wanted to move house and needed to pack his machine up, he could order the original packing materials from one of the company's many service centres.

Wow! That's rather ridiculous, no? Who would repack their VCR like that? Would they do the same to their TV, refrigerator or toaster? It all sounded rather silly to me. But also, perhaps it was after-sales service to the hilt? With the Japanese, more likely the latter.

In any event, the Toshiba folks were aware of their problem, that their spare parts inventory was ballooning out of control. They wanted to learn from Thomson a better way. I think they just needed a case study to convince the others to fall in line. The US$5 million worth of spare parts is a lot. And where would you find the space year after year, VCR model after VCR model to store everything?

Tateshita himself confided in me all these later on. He showed me the large building where these spares were kept. I could see it walking to his office. It was all rather mad.

The next day, we returned to the factory and was shown a part of the factory that did video tape research. I was thrilled to look through a microscope and see the actual magnetic video recording on the tape itself. It looked exactly like the diagram in my training handbook during my student days even though that was only a mere grayscale rendering. This was actual and in full technicolor. As normal, the tracks were slanted to enable more room for information to be recorded.

Another area they showed us was where they still manufactured VCRs in Japan. I had thought all manufacturing then were outsourced to our large IVP factory in Singapore but apparently, they kept the high-end ones - those that could connect to the satellite receivers back on home soil. Watching that manufacturing line was a wonder.

There were less than 20 production workers along that single line from start to finish. Folks who pieced, assembled, tested and packed a VCR together. In our factory, we would have needed twice as many workers and on separate floors. In Japan, labour was already very expensive then and I could see how this expert and reductionist way of producing a VCR was helping to save costs for the company and in the meanwhile keeping it active in production.

On the third day, Chee and I were brought to visit two places. The first one was to Toshiba's own advanced service training centre. Its main training room was particularly impressive. Each place along a long counter desk was equipped with a document camera that could transmit live images to a screen in front of the class. The whole purpose was so a trainee serviceman could point out which part of a schematic he did not understand or need more explaining. Similary, the instructor's desk in front also had one.

Such a set-up would seem normal now because vidcams are so cheap and readily available. But back then such cameras were pretty expensive. I remember we had something like that back then in our IVP factory as well. It was a standalone overhead camera projector that was IP-enabled and cost quite a lot. This piece of office equipment allowed engineers from all over the world to look at stuff for discussion - be they schematic, circuit components or simply inside a product (which in our case was a VCR).

Looking at the advanced set-up in the lecture room, I could not help but imagine myself standing in front and conducting a class in the future. Standing beside me at the time was Mr Sato, a tall handsome chap who was most interested in Esther my colleague. He purportedly proposed to her once, probably half in jest. And he would always buy her flowers whenever he was in Singapore. He was proud of the training centre he had helped build and equip.

The other pre-arranged place we went to was in Yokohama. Arriving there via the flyover was quite spectacular. We could look down and see all the portside cranes and containers. It was not unlike our own PSA wharf. I felt dwarfed as our car swept past giantic container cranes and what not. Unlke Fukaya or Tokyo, Yokohama truly announced itself as a gritty industrial port city.

Tateshita had brought us to Yokohama to introduce us to a printing firm that was responsible for all of Toshiba's service manuals - manuals that contained information that Esther, Tuang and I had provided.

This printing firm was not very large and we were shown a printing press that also saddle-stiched the spine of a manual. Thomson manuals were often just double stapled at the spine.

This firm, Yamagata Printing, though small, was a big player in the Technical Writing industry. They could translate an English-language manual into many different languages. I noticed that their head-writer was an ang-moh guy.

That day in Yokohama, our hosts from Yamagata gave us a lunch treat at a rather uppity Chinese restaurant. I liked going to Chinese restaurants overseas. They were more Chinese in decor and ambience than those back home. In Singapore, the designs tended to be contemporary Chinese. This one in Yokohama had dragons, phoenixes and lanterns. The dim sum was pretty good too!

On the fourth day in Fukaya, Chee left, but not before our Japanese hosts had bought us a typical Japanese sushi dinner.  There were altogether about eight of us (all guys) and we had a rousing time. The Japs could be rather noisy after a few drinks. I also drank a bit, my first time with warm sake. (I dunno. At the time, I had a high tolerance for stuff like Tequila, a fave drink of mine. I could drink nine shots and not get drunk. But warm sake was another matter.) That night, back in the hotel room, although the aircon was on full-blast, I was feeling all hot and bothered. I took off my clothes and fell back onto my bed in just my underpants and fell immediately asleep, distinctly remembering how tough it was to eat raw squid. The damn thing was like chewing gum!

Next: Fukaya 4 - The Girl Who Stares At Walls

Fukaya 2 - Strange Eatery

My main job in After-sales was to teach and provide our factory partners with technical information about the VCR we produced. Such information would go into a Service Manual.

Service manuals were often paper based, but a few leading car companies were starting to experiment with CD-based ones.

Much of the technical information we provided to Toshiba consisted of troubleshooting steps and circuit waveforms. To obtain these waveforms, we would probe the respective circuit boards of a VCR. The waveforms would appear on an oscilloscope. To capture a picture, we would snap it with a B&W Polariod instant camera. Afterwards, we would scan the quick-dry photograph and keep it in our computer.

It was a pretty low-tech approach but it worked. It was a time when TIFF was a more popular format than JPEG.

Later, to make the process even more convenient, we needled the company to buy us a computer-based software oscilloscope that ran on Windows 3.1. It was from National Instruments, a pioneer in this field. With software, we could simply press the 'PrtSc' (print-screen) button on our keyboards to get an image saved. We could then import the cropped image into our desktop publishing software Pagemaker. It was simply version 4 then, the installation program elegantly contained in a few 3.5-inch diskettes.

The person I communicated with most from Toshiba in Japan (our partner in the j-v factory) was Tateshita. We would often exchange technical information via email, fax and floppy. Floppy? Yes, but instead of sending each other floppy disks, we used a floppy drive that was also a fax machine. We simply faxed files to one another. He only had to have the same machine as I did.

Often the files we shared were either in TIFF or DXF format that we had converted from AutoCAD or P-CAD drawing files. P-CAD was a popular professional printed circuit board drafting program at the time. Whether TIFF or DXF, the resolutions obtained at the time from conversions were pretty low and a challenge to use in desltop publishing. We often had to put in extra finishing touches.

Being in constant contact with Tateshita meant one thing: I would soon get to meet the man. It was customary working in an MNC like IVP to do that, to meet the person you work closely. I did that in Indianapolis, USA; my NPE buddies met their counterparts in Villingen, Germany, where Thomson had an R&D lab. A few went to Paris, home of Thomson. My colleague Esther went to Fukaya, Tokyo where the Toshiba factory was. At the time, I wondered about Japanese society and if their women were still subservient. I asked Esther about it but she simply shrugged and said, "Ok, lah" in her typical nonchalant manner.

IVP had a handful of Japanese working in our local factory then, with the majority in R&D. In my previous department, there was a middle-aged Japanese manager who had an office near our lab space. But no one really knew what he did. When he was at his desk he would be fastidiously arranging neat piles of papers on his table-top into neat rows. He liked orchids and had a beautiful white potted one at a corner. His name was Ohta-san.

My trip to Japan was much anticipated and would include my boss Chee. Presumably he was going along to introduce me. But that's largely unnecessary became I famously get on fine quickly with folks that I don't know well. I remember a colleague thinking I had been at IVP for "donkey years" when I had been only there for a few months. I'm like comfortable furniture: people get used to me pretty quickly.

In any case, Chee and I were visiting Toshiba to share our TOCOM parts numbering system as well. It was going to be an exchange or sorts.

We flew to Tokyo without incident and I managed to get us both to Fukaya by train. Chee was confused by the train system but to me these things all have a certain logic to them. They weren't difficult to figure out. Fukuya was just an hour from Tokyo City but by the time we reached there, it was already past 10 o'clock at night.

We checked into the Grand Saitama Hotel (a four-star hotel near the train station) and as we were hungry, decided to poke around outside for a bite. We spied a row of shops and headed for the one with lights still on. It was longish and had a rather large signboard with a graphic of bowl and chopsticks. Lacking no other choice, we decided to venture in.

The place was dimly lit. Immediately past the curtained doorway was a corner glass display cabinet. Inside were small figurines not unlike those found in Chinese folkore, you know, 'The Boy Tending To His Buffalo'; 'Old Man Fishing'; 'Two Old Men Playing Chess', etc - stuff often used as aquarium decoration pieces.

But upon closer examination, I found them to be wholly different. The figurines were actually of couples engaged in various stages of undress and sexual congress! I wondered if the theme had anything to do with the food of the establishment. Maybe the owner was quirky. In any case, that was my first instance of x-rated Japanese culture. I would later see much worse at a city bookshop.

The eatery had no tables but a low countertop. A women with a headband was cooking behind a slanted glass screen. We moved along the counter to see what she had to offer. Noodles were being cooked. Fine, we thought, and pointed. Not able to speak Japanese, we "e-e-ah-ah" our intention. The woman was all smiles and seemed to understand what we were saying. Relieved, we proceeded to look for a place to sit down. An old man was eating his tofu in soy sauce. Another fella near him was stabbing at a small jackpot poker machine mounted on a wall. We squeezed past them and sat at where the counter turned into a cozy corner and started make small talk.

Our small talk turned into longer talk. By then 30 mins had passed and we wondered if our food was ever going to come. The woman had initially served us tea and then went back to her stove. I looked at my watch: 11:30pm. My stomach was complaining. I asked Chee if the woman might have forgotten our order. Must be, he said. I went to the woman to check. I mimed slurping a bowl of noodles. I think the woman got the idea and also felt a bit apologetic. I had pointed to my watch.

"Hai-ed, hai-ed, sumi ma-sen," she said, nodding away at the same time.

In any event, the noodles did finally come and we ate it with relish so hungry we were. We paid for the meal, make sure we had the receipt and exited the place. The old men were still at their places, one nimbling on his tofu, the other punching buttons on his poker machine.

As we headed back to the hotel, the air outside was nice and chilly. I looked back at the noodle incident and didn't feel good not being able to speak Japanese. As I zipped my coat up and tucked my hands into my pockets, I wondered what tomorrow and the rest of the trip would be like. I'd never felt so alienated and handicapped in my life.

Next: Fukaya 3 - Amazing Spares

Fukaya 1 - A New Beginning

Have you ever worked at a place for years and was never an actual employee?

Well, that was my situation when I was at IVP, a large VCR factory in Yishun.

IVP was a joint venture between Toshiba and Thomson. It had 2800 employees and exported to the world. A particular thing about this j-v was that the companies kept their respective R&D departments. Although I was physically in IVP, I actually worked under Video Engineering Pacific Pte Ltd, a Thomson Consumer Electronics company. It handled all the design and processes necessary to bring a VCR to production.

I was then a CE Design Engineer. Started in RF but decided to switch to Product Evaluation and a test project.

When that test project came to an end, I wanted to leave. My excuse was to go write a book. I was quite active in sci-fi then and wanted to write a story or two. But really, the reason was that the project tied me down. I was missing out on a couple of career opportunities that was more challenging. One was to work with underwater submersibles. How cool was that? But I've never been one to leave things half done, so I stayed.

My boss, Andrew, on receiving my 'white envelope', was surprised. But I must say he took it rather well. He reported the matter (as according to protoccol) to his boss, an elderly American gentleman by the name of Jack, the general manager of VEP. We sat down and chatted.

I was quite surprised that Jack knew what I was up to in the company. Besides that important test project (which became an engineering showpiece there), I was also involved in IVP's QLP (quality leadership process) Steering Committee. I was young but the company gave me opportunities to flourish... which is why I enjoyed working for that French company TCE (often simply just called Thomson).

My other responsiblity was as member of TCE's inter-subsidiary Recreational Club. TCE at the time had several divisions in Singapore reasearching and making things like TV and audio products. There were also Sales and Marketing offices.

A year ago, I had run a very successful bowling tournament at Kallang Bowl for all these TCE employees. They were hoping that I would repeat the same event again that year. Back then, I didn't like bowling. It was often associated with smoking and gambling and I was never into those things. Fights were also common at the lanes.

But I took on the bowling assignment as a learning opportunity. It was not easy as I had to arrange practice sessions for the teams as well. The tournament turned out to be quite the success. In the process I found new confidence in event management. I also had renewed respect for folks who bowled. My weak wrist could never spin that heavy ball the way they did.

Jack leaned back, put his fingers into a steeple and asked: "I heard from Andrew that you wanted to write?"

"Yes," I replied, wondering what he thought of the idea. I further mentioned my interest in the Sci-fi Association of Singapore, that we had just finished a live-action role playing game on Fort Canning Hill the year before. A mega production that involved lots of props building and costume making mostly from the help of young volunteers.

"We have this position over at Documentation. For a while we have been thinking of expanding that to provide more After-sales support. It involves writing and teaching. I think you would be most suitable for it given your product knowledge and outgoing nature. Andrew has good things to say about you."

On hearing that last bit, I was rather embarassed.

Personally,  I felt bad leaving Andrew's New Product Evaluation Group. The folks there were excellent buddies and Andrew, as I would compare later, was a pretty good manager. Like most managers, he was a task master, but at the least he sought to make things easier so that our work got done. He was a facilitator even before that term got trendy. Andrew would also bother to build rapport with us by playing darts together, often at a pub in Duxton Plain (Tanjong Pagar). One time, we even played a prank on him by moving his car to another part of the company's carpark. He was quite sporting about it even though he was concerned about his fave Saab 'tank'. I actually took a while to get his car going because till then I had never driven an automatic before.

At the end of my meeting with Jack, I was asked to mull over what was discussed. A reason Jack gave for holding me back was that IVP R&D was trying to build the same test project (actual name: Auto Evaluation Station, or AES) in their lab and as lead programmer, my expertise was needed to help the two engineers involved get started.

The AES was cutting-edge because it could evaluate four VCRs in 45 mins instead of the usual four hours. I also built an interface box that connected the video, audio and RF signals. Control was via infrared remote control, RS-232, GPIB bus and PC parallel bus. Such interfaces were common before the invention of USB. That high-performance interface box itself was built for less than $500, something I took great pride in.

Also, unbeknownst to me at the time, Andrew had sent the project up for NSTB National Technology Award consideration. It thrilled me and my project partner Mong Hua that it got nominated. But I knew then we would never win because the award was always biased towards those in the Sciences. Engineering innovations often got ignored even at the international level (like the Nobels). Nevertheless both of us were chuffed that the project received national recognition.

The new AES and the fact that my new role would be worldwide was another impetus to put my writing ambitions on hold.

The only thing I was unsure of was my new boss Chee. The few times our paths crossed, he came across as young and not very sincere. He was the sort that smiled a lot and used the words "No problem" too easily. Compared to him, Andrew was a paragon of wisdom and rock-solid reliability even if he could have been more technically savvy. Andrew was a Big Picture fellow, why I think he later found success designing and setting up factories.

I think the basic problem with Chee was that he isn't very bright. I found that out during our first trip to Japan. We were at the Narita train station and he couldn't figure out the subway map. In the end, I had to take the lead and got us to Toshiba's VCR factory in Fukaya. It ws about one hour away from Tokyo by train. Like him I too was new to Japan and did not read or speak the lingo.

Chee might not appear very bright but he was ambitious. I remember thinking what a dangerous combination both would make.

My other executive colleagues in the new after-sales unit in the Documentation Group were Esther and Tuang.

Esther was an engineer in her late 20s. She was not overtly sexy but was comely in a full-woman manner. She was fair, had rosebud lips and a nice pair of legs. Her eyes weren't very big and were single lidded. They seemed to scrutinise whatever they set upon. One could easily tell that Esther was intelligent and observant. But she was a gentle person at heart. You could tell this by her voice, which was sweet and sometimes "manja-ish". She was an engineer feminine in more ways than one.

But do not be mistaken, Esther had low tolerance for dumb blondes. I think most engineering girls felt that way at the time (maybe even now).

When I first met Esther I was thinking here was a mature and competent person who should have been running Documentation rather than Chee. But as I got to know Esther, I realised she was a good soldier who preferred not to have too much responsibility on her shoulders. I think she was more of a guy's gal than an Alpha girl. She preferred a guy to take the lead. She was laid back like that. But Esther was meticulous in her work and would stay behind late to finish a job, no matter how late. She was married but did not have any kids then.

Esther's smart yet soft womanly ways endeared her to our Japanese colleagues in Fukaya. One was particularly smittened and would send her flowers whenever he was in Singapore. He even proposed to her one time when she was in Japan, probably half in jest. They knew she was married.

Tuang on the other hand was a bit of a worry wart. He would often say: "What? Are we really going to do that?" or "See, didn't I tell you so!" He was lean, tall and spoke English with a dialect accent oftentimes in a rather loud voice. He was a vegetarian and we would lunch at a certain place in Yishun Street 22. He often spoke of his mom and came across as filial and a decent bloke.

Actually, I don't blame Tuang for worrying. What we were about to do was not going to be easy. We would be teaching service heads around the world how to service and maintain IVP-made VCRs. We had to teach them not only the existing models but also new ones that were going to be launched. At the same time, there would also be new troubleshooting methods to grasp. IVP VCRs were getting more advanced by the day. Our RCA lab in the US was particularly innovative, churning out new VCRs that were slimmer, lighter, and with fewer PCB boards.

One particular model was impressive. The PCB boards did not need screws; they simply clicked and locked in place. Other models were all very servicemen-friendly. At the base of the VCR were points-designate where a technician could probe to find out if a certain waveform was there. If not, that could indicate a fault somewhere.

Whilst the R&D folks were innovating and creating all these features, someone had to inform the various world-wide service center heads of the changes. They would in turn inform and train their own men.

That's where me, Tuang and Esther came in. We were called the After-sales Team because the information and training we provided were essential to the 'after' sales of a product, i.e. in the servicing and maintenance of its lifespan. Such information were all contained in a service manual - the bible of the Service folks. From this manual, they could glimpse common problems, remedies, troubleshooting steps, data specs, etc,... The whole technical writing lot.

To be effective, me and Tuang as instructors had to be pretty savvy with the workings of all the VCRs that our factory exported. These comprised of models that worked in the PAL, NSTC and SECAM TV system markets. For example, much of Asia followed the PAL system. In France and parts of Africa, it was SECAM. In the Asia Pacific region, Japan was the oddball out as it used a version of NTSC that the US uses. The Chinese market was an unknown then as it was just beginning to open up.

Tuang was a bit worried that we might not know everything. But after saturating himself with a ton of system manuals and technical documents, he simply said:"Bo chap, chiao gar!" meaning "Heck it, let's just teach" in Hokkien.

In a way, we needn't have worried too much about teaching the more experienced Service Heads "how to suck eggs". Our job was more to inform than teach, i.e. to tell them of the new circuits, features and methodologies so they could prepare and ready their centres and staff for the new VCRs to come.

With our minds cleared up about that, we buckled down to organise ourselves better. I would take the NTSC markets, Tuang the PAL markets, and Esther would be our Base Support person. There were three other staffers under Esther who belonged to the Documentation Group proper (Ida and two other ladies).

Mr first meeting with Chee did not leave a good impression. It was to sign my new appointment letter. In it was a list of  responsibilities that included the job of PC network administration and making an e-document solution work. This was never discussed with me before.

That e-document solution was something TCE had bought from Canon about two years ago (no thanks to Chee). I think it was called Canofile. It had been a white elephant ever since. That's not a surprise as people were more accustomed to faxing, photocoping than pdf-ing then. The PC network bandwidths at the time were simply too narrow to support large file transfers. Chee asked me to make the e-document work. I read that to mean "save my ass".

Chee had dumped all these additional work on me without due consideration of my principal role in After-sales. There was no discussion. I don't think he even knew in depth what After-sales was or should be. In any case, I had little choice but to sign on the dotted line. At the time, I had just recently handed in a resignation letter to Andrew. If things did not work out, handing in another white envelope to Chee wouldn't be too difficult. Chee probably deserved it.

Next: Fukaya 2: Strange Eatery
Previously: A VCR Affair