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Thursday, 2 August 2012

March Madness 2


Another beach adventure I went with Set and the gang (my colleagues at IVP) was to Pulau Tioman, or Tioman Island. This island is perhaps Malaysia's most famous. It gained infamy after that movie South Pacific showed pictures of it. (In the movie, Tioman was known as Bali Hai). South Pacific was only the second Broadway musical to be turned into a movie (the first was Oklahoma!) so there was a bit of hoo-hah over it. Furthermore, Elizabeth Taylor was auditioned for the leading lady role but got rejected. The director found her singing voice to be not up to par.

In the 1970s, TIME magazine selected Tioman as one of the world's most beautiful islands.

The fame of Tioman, of course, made me curious. Up till then, I had only been to Sentosa and St John's Island and that micro island called Sibu that was also located off the eastern coast of Johor.

What I knew of Tioman then was also not flattering. For a long while, the island had been suffering from White Coral Death, a kind of cancer of the ocean. Tioman was no longer the island depicted in the movie South Pacific anymore.

Set, an active Johorean, was privy to this, why, when we traveled to Tioman, we did not frolic on its famed beaches. Instead, we went straight to a small outcrop just to the north of it (Pulau Tulai, I believe). Swimming in that small enclave was like swimming in a pool made out of Mother-of-Pearl. It was that colorful and mesmerising!

The corals were alive and fishes aplenty. I seriously hope the place is still there. At the time, it became our private piece of paradise. Our own South Pacific.

On the beach, we could find sea cucumbers. Big juicy ones which we unkindly used as water pistols by squeezing on them. There were so many we even made letters of our names out of them. But do not worry, no harm came to them. We simply returned them back to the sea. I did wonder however, if the creaturs were sentient. I certainly do not want people squeezing me and have my pee sprayed around like some pool gun!

After sometime in the sea and on the beach we came ashore to have lunch. We had brought our own stuff and it was all quite delightful. When it came time to go, we packed our things into our basin pails again. These basin pails were ideal as they could float. As we waded in the shallow waters back to our waiting ferry boat, we simply pushed them along in front of us.

Simple as that may sound, it also proved to be dangerous. Set, who was usually a careful chap, did not see a big rock in front of him. It had been blocked by the basin pail in front of him. I think he was distracted chatting with someone behind him. It seemed barely a knock, so Set dismissed as just a scratch.

Back on the ferry, we noticed that his cut did not stop bleeding. There was nothing much in the First Aid box onboard except for some lousy Handiplast. We applied that on Set's wound but it soon puffed up red and fell off. We continued to apply first aid till we got back on land.

Sometime later, when Set's wound showed no sign of improving, we began to be more concerned. I knew then it needed stitches and suggested we should start looking for a doctor. But as it was a long weekend and holiday, the island's clinic was closed.

Through the islanders' help, we made further enquiries. Eventually, a doctor who was on standby was found. It was pure relief to know that he/she would be able to see us that hour.

We quickly made our way to the clinic using whatever transport was available.

The place we came too was rather strange. It was familiar yet somehow foreign. Only when the lady doctor appeared and explained the situation that we then understood. She was a vet! The place was a medical facility for treating riding horses and other animals on the island!

Set and I exchanged glances and laughed. But he was like me and could see past the facility's 'animalness' and appreciate the doctor's skills. And so, we agreed to let the doctor treat him. We actually had very little choice in the matter unless we preferred Set to bleed to death.

A companion joked that Set was after all, strong as an ox, and so being treated by a vet was quite the appropriate thing. Again, another round of laughter.

In no time, the lady doctor had Set stitched up and bandaged. I felt bad for him as he was our trip's chief organiser. He should be enjoying himself, not getting all cut up! A couple of our girl companions took the chance to have their cut toes looked at. Theirs was less serious and required no stitches. They were certainly relieved to hear that diagnosis!

Extremely grateful, we thanked the lady doctor profusely and headed back to our holiday abode.

Though he was banged up and had to walk with care, Set's holiday on Tioman was not perturbed. We continued to enjoy fishing, playing cards and eating BBQ by the sea.

When Set's wound eventually healed, it left a strong visible scar. It would remind us fondly of a time when an injured young man was treated by a vet. Many people go on adventures but few get to say that.

Fishing during this trip also threw up some funny moments. In our group were two Mechanical engineers. One was named Lim, the other Anthony. Lim was much older than the rest of us and at times seem a little too eager to fit in. He was a nice man though. Both were, except Anthony liked to talk quite a bit. He would have some theory about this or that, no doubt encouraged by his work. He was section head of VCR mechanical designs in our factory and often had to validate his solutions to requested job specs.

To fish, we hired a ferry to bring us out to richer waters. Once anchored, we would throw our lures over the side of the boat and wait. Lim was very confident that he could catch a whole lot of fish. In fact, all along the way, he was telling us theory after theory how fish loved to bite his bait. The young girls in our midst listened with wonder. The rest of us were skeptical and decided to wait-and-see. Anthony, not one to keep quiet, embarked on a one-upmanship with Lim. "Yes, you sometimes must quickly jerk the line so the fish will not get away." Er, I tried that when I was young and all I got was the fish's lips. I felt so bad for that lipless fish (how was it going to eat now?) that I stopped fishing for a while.

"You can tell by the color of the waters where the fishes are."
"You can use flour as bait."
"No you can't."

And so on it went. Meanwhile the  ferry chugged on, trailing black smoke in its wake.

I was glad when the boat finally dropped anchor. We were now somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Now's the time for these gentlemen to put their skills where their mouths were.

Long story short, Lim caught nothing. Tried as he might - changing positions on the boat, lowering his lines to different depths, nothing. Zilch. Zero. Anthony did no better. Instead, it was the rest of us - those who had tagged along for some leisure fun - that caught fish. Even the girls who were novices caught something to make the trip worthwhile. It was funny to see Lim become increasingly stumped, then exasperated. Though red-faced, he did not offer too many excuses. Anthony on the other hand, had other theories to offer. He's quite the jovial chap, so one couldn't be sure if he's half serious or just jiving. He really should have been a salesman and not a Mechanical engineer!

Of course, BBQ that night was extra special. It's always is with your own seafood catch. I remember there was even a rare blue garoupa amongst the fishes caught. For once, Lim and Anthony kept quiet and just ate.

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March Madness 1B - Pengerang

The seaside resort we had arrived at was located before a sharp turn of the coastline. It could be clearly seen on the map. Roadwise, it signalled the start of a journey to Desaru, some 200km away. Since we were just leisure riders, we had no intention of cycling all the way to that most famous seaside resort of Johor.

The 'resort' we had arrived at looked more like a small kampong than a tourist trap. There were no manicured gardens nor paved walkways. Everywhere was sand with shadows cast upon by short coconut trees.

A row of A-shaped "A-huts" lined one side of the compound. These were small and meant for two persons. Fronting the sea were a couple of bigger units with verandahs and deck chairs. I imagined relaxing in them and letting the sea breeze lull me to sleep. The resort was not shoddy but simplistic; it seemed new. It did give the feeling of living the rustic life. It was all very "kampong" indeed! (I believe the place was called Batu Layar.)

Prior to coming over, we had booked the bigger units, one each for the 'boys' and 'girls'.

After everyone had settled in, the next thing we did was change into our swim gear and dive into the sea. The tide was still pretty high.

Once in the waters, we swam and played games. There was "kare ma" (Cantonese for horse riding) or surf-jousting. Some of us swam; others hung around to relax and "talkcock" in the waters. After some five hours of cycling in the hot sun, the cool seawaters was a welcome. If my butt could talk, it would say "arrigato gozaimasu" to me for being so considerate!

Unfortunately the sun set too soon and we had to leave the sea for dinner. BBQ was being prepared for us. The dinner was ok, and aftwards, we set on the verandahs and chatted some more. Somebody had brought spirits, so it was doubly enjoyable. During the night, some of us lugged our mattresses out and slept on the beach. The sky was clear and the stars were clearly out to sparkle and welcome us in great spirit!

The next day, morning came with the call of cockerels making their typical announcement. For me, morning at the seaside is always special. It usually takes a little longer for the sea to wake. Everything is quiet until the waves come pounding. Then birds would fly about and the place is suddenly very much alive.

When we woke, the sea was quiet as it was low tide. But what we saw shocked us. The area we had played in the day before was surrounded by rocks! Not smooth, pretty rocks but black, jagged ones. We thanked our lucky stars that none of us were in that cluster and be torn unknowingly to shreds! It was really that perilous!

An hour later, the tide rolled in. It was then roughly 8am. Walking a little further onwards, beyond where the land curved towards Desaru, we discovered a better beach. It was wider and flatter and fringed by tall swaying coconut trees - quite the idyllic image usually found on postcards. Gladly, no rocks could be found along the waterline. However, the waves there were strong and noisier. The braver among us would wade out and wave-surf in. We found the waters extremely cold! But, what the heck! Fun was fun.

But we took care not to venture out too far off into sea. At Desaru, the currents could be deadly and people have been dragged out to sea and unwittingly drowned, especially kids. As an adult, I had experienced the same thing there before. Fortunately for me, I had my snorkeling flippers on or else I would have become another drowning statistic, body perhaps never to be found.

After breakfast and coffee, we did not loiter long. We climbed onto our bikes to begin the long journey home. We passed the melon fields, which now could be seen dotted with many workers. The uncompleted politician's home, the small tucked-away idyllic kampong, and then the sand quarry and finally the village of Sungai Rengit. We arrived just in time for lunch, which was a hearty fare of chilli crabs, foo-yong eggs and the usual Chinese menu-fare.

We also had a good dose of Coke and kopi.

Now certain of our way forward, we seemed more relaxed and so chatted and enjoyed each other's company the rest of the last 18 kilometres. We were also more playful on that now familiar ribbon of a coastal road.

Once back at Changi Village, we found Cheap John waiting for us with his van. We gladly handed over our bikes to him and adjourned to the nearby hawker centre. There we cooled ourselves down with some cheng-tern and ice-kachang desserts. Some of us ordered sugarcane drinks. In no time, everybody was quenched and happy. All of us agreed it was one hell of a trip. Someone suggested going again. But with bums still sore, it was not a prospect everyone was looking forward to at the time. Some mumbled "See how, lah". After all, most of us were still beaming with the heat of the sun on our faces and already growing an uneven tan!

For me, the trip brought our ragtag bunch of colleagues closer. We worked better and more cooperatively together afterwards. The trip also gave us common fodder for small talk and laughter during lunch and tea-times in the staff canteen. For that, it was priceless. I am sure if my bum could talk, it would agree and find it all a worthwhile sacrifice!

Previous story: March Madness 1A - Pengerang Next story: March Madness 2



March Madness 1A - Pengerang

This lovely vista reminds me of a cycling trip I once made with some colleagues to Pengerang in the early 90s, an area along the south-eastern shore of Johor.

At the time I was working in a factory that had 2800 employees, quite the departure from the 14 or so I was working with in a TV tuner R&D lab before. However, the work between the two was no different: I was still engaged in an engineering project (which was later nominated for a National Technology Award. I believe my partner and I were the first engineers to be nominated thus) but the factory environment was certainly an improvement; even the aircon felt different! In the Tuner Lab, we had our own TV signal generating equipment, and they all produced a lot of heat. The super-cold aircon had to keep these racks of equipment cool and we, unfortunately, over-chilled!

We had to wear winter jackets everyday just to keep warm and for our brains to still function. That the colleagues there were also reticent kept the temperatures even lower. When an opportunity opened up at the new IVP factory, I decided to scoot for the proverbial "better climes". It turned out to be the right decision. Not only was the Engineering work scope wider, the people there were also more fun to work with. This was especially true of my new colleague, Set, a young Malaysian chap from Kluang. We often teased him because he looked like a young Lee Kuan Yew - all narrow eyes and determined jaw.

The thing about Set is that he dearly loved adventure. During the months of March-April-May, we would - together with the girls from the Trial Run Lab - go beach-combing or hiking somewhere in neighbouring Malaysia. (We - the New Product Eval Department - shared the same lab space with these TR girls. They were mostly young - 16 to 18 yrs of age - and very nubile and full of giggling effervescence. Then, there were also the Engineering Assistants (EAs) who were older and mostly polytechnic grads.)

One time, we decided to go on a cycling trip to Pengerang. I think there were like 18 or more of us. The trip promised a trek through kampongs, seasides, melon fields to finally end up at a seaside resort.

The starting point was at Pengerang/Johor, opposite Changi Point. Like the Causeway, it had its own Customs and Immigration Checkpoint albeit a two-man operation. For bikes, we rented some from Cheap John's - a popular bike shop next to Sembawang Shopping Centre (SSC). John would ferry the bikes to Changi Point in his panel van.

We knew about Cheap John because our factory was in Yishun and we often lunched at the SSC. Back then, SSC was very different - it was full of small shops. The foodcourt at the basement boasted several nice foodstalls. Chief of which were a couple of Thai seafood joints. Popular was 'Pineapple Rice with Fried Fish in Green Curry Sauce'. Upstairs, the Sembawang CD shop run by a certain Mr Boo was incomparable. He had the latest and widest collection of CDs in Singapore. Folks from Orchard Road would even make a beeline to his shop. For us, we would often loiter there past lunchtime to listen to his wide collection of discs. I remember my colleague MH liking synthesizer music. We bought a version of Tubular Bells there. The shop also sold the now obsolete and clunky laser-disc movies..

Our musical sojourn, however, did not last. Our factory Management, tired of staff taking 2.5 hr lunches, issued a general warning letter to us all. Well, it's not as if we could help ourselves. When the factory was in a lull production period (with many workers back in Malaysia for a holiday), there's very little to do but play Windows Solitaire or Minefield. So a long lunch was necessary to avoid looking bored in the office!

The ferry ride to Pengerang from Changi Point was very short, almost a joke. It made carting the bikes on/off the ferry seemed rather unnecessary. But once on land, beckoned by that sun-bleached tarmac of a ribbon road by the sea, we could only look forward to what was ahead.

Along the way, we would find traditional brick and wooded kampong houses dotting the land on the left. They looked pretty in blue with their potted flowers on the front porch. However, they were few and far in-between making me realise what tranquil kampong-living must have been like back in the 50s. By the sea, it was even more charming!

The next 18 kilometres were more or less the same. After the first 10, scenic wonder gave way to concern if the road would ever end. Some of the girls were parched and hungry. Quite a few were unaccustomed to long-distance biking and their butts were beginning to feel sore.

At the 18-km mark, we arrived at a town called Sungai Rengit. I thought the name was "Sungei Ringgit" or 'River of Malaysian Currency' and wondered about its history. Was it a rich mining town like Ipoh once upon a time?

The town was very small and dotted with dark brown wooden zinc-roofed houses typical of those found in 60s/70s Singapore, particularly in the more ulu Woodlands and Lim Chu Kang areas, i.e. Chinese village centres that smelt of earth, river and damp moss. It certainly brought us back to a different era.

Sitting there in the kedai kopi (local coffeeshop) and sipping Coke, I mused that we didn't need a Back-To-The-Future DeLorean supercar to travel back in time. A simple mountain bike did the trick.

I must admit I wasn't using a mountain bike at the time. I'd brought my own racing bike. An odd choice, I know, given the outback B-roads. But back then, I had only ever ridden road racers. Mountain bikes were just gaining popularity but they were slow on paved roads. As a road racer, I'm accustomed to carrying my bike whenever terrain proved formidable. Fortunately for me, all the roads along Pengerang were good to cycle on, even the dirt ones.

After Sungai Rengit, we came across a sand quarry. The better cyclists among us made sure nobody got left behind or got run over by the passing dump trucks. The sand and dust gave the girls something to wince about but they were mostly rather sporting.

After the quarry, the dirt road continued to slope downwards towards the coast. Angela, a skinny and very vain girl from Lab Run, thought she could make it. However, her pride was undone by a stone in the road. She fell rather awkwardly and cut her knee. We were a bit surprised and later she confessed that she was twisting to protect her face. We laughed as we all knew how precious that piece of real estate was to her. The first thing she had asked after getting up was: "Did my face get scratched?"

Although the cut on her knee was not life-threatening, it needed attention. One of us cycled ahead to look for First Aid. We soon found a hut but had a hard time trying to convince the old Malay woman living there what we needed. She finally understood after much gesturing and brought out some yellow solution. Although Angela was vain, she was rather brave, no doubt brought on by her need to keep lady-like composure. She did not complain about the pain but I guess the knock must have hurt a little. Although hobbling, she gamely continued to cycle on with a hanky tied around her injured part as bandage.

From there the coastal road cut inland and winded its way through a grove of tall coconut trees and across a small brook. In all that green shade was a cluster of houses. The whole scene looked lovely and truly idyllic.

Not long after, the tarmac road again gave way to track. By the time we exited that kampong area, we were back to the seaside. We decided to stop for a while to rest and enjoy the breeze. Plus the scenery was very liberating. The sky was blue, the sea was rolling in white waves. It was all shouted freedom and adventure!

Daniel, a Quality Engineer from our factory's Test and Control Department spied a really short coconut tree by the beach and decided to pluck its beckoning fruit. Although the tree was short, it was not a midget. The fruits were beyond our reach and we had no implements that could us help bring them down. We stood around and looked at each other for a solution.

As Engineers facing a problem, our first task was to break it down with Theory. And as usual, everyone had one.

"Let's get a rope and bend the tree down." Where?
"We could shoot the coconuts down with a catapult?" What? Who has one? Nobody.
"Let's go find a monkey!" Huh, what??? Where?
"No, stand on my shoulders." Can't balance.

As you can see, it was mostly done in jest.

Daniel then started to climb the coconut tree. He failed and slid down. He humped it instead. A lot of good that did.

Daniel was a fun chap to have around. He had a spiritual look about him, no doubt imparted by his high forehead. He also always wore an easy if not mysterious smile. He's actually quite intelligent and his jokes tended to have a sarcastic wit about them. One time, we got him drunk on tequila during an Office Christmas Party and he ended up going round the whole floor singing Christmas carols to anyone who cared to listen. He then fell dead drunk and we had to cart him home. The same thing happened at the factory's D&D (dinner and dance) function the next year.

Back at the beach, someone finally found a long scaffolding pole that we could use to knock a couple of the coconuts down. We then cracked them up on a sharp rock. The juice inside was extremely sweet.

Suitably refreshed, we cycled on. Along the dirt track, we came across two large bungalows being built. It didn't seem normal (SO out of the way) and we could only guess that some rich politician must have squirreled money to build such luxurious homes away from prying eyes. In any case, the design of the homes was rather obiang (Singlish for "ugly"). The exterior was tiled in cheap, deep-blue glazed tiles like those found on Chinese "huay guans" (clan houses). The Malaysian Chinese among us were typically cynical with their country's politics and their politicians. And not to mention their sense of home design taste.

From that tree-lined area, we burst into the open, right smack by the edge of a watermelon field. Oh, what joy to see such plump water melons sitting so invitingly in their patch. It was difficult to resist and so we went and picked a few.

We crept under the simple wire fence and sought out a couple of nice melons. We then lugged them back to the group. But we felt bad stealing other people's labour and so left two Malaysian ringgit notes tied to the snapped vines as token of payment. Funnily, it was only during our return journey that we realised we could have found the farmer and bought more (and paid him direct). The melons were dirt cheap (if you pardon the pun) and utterly good on a hot day. But semi-pilfered fruits somehow always tasted better!

After the melon fields, it wasn't long before we reached the seaside resort that signaled the end of our journey. Many of us were glad to get off our bikes. All in all, we had cycled some 36 kilometres - not a mean feat for any novice rider. Our bums were indeed saddle-sore and we walked like cowboys not unlike John Wayne in some Country Western. Someone said he felt like a "gay loh" - meaning a gay guy. We laughed and proceeded to look for the resort's Admin Office to inform them that we had indeed arrived. (See link below for continuation)

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In Food Buddies We Trust


Background: I wrote this note about myself and Singapore food for an overseas food group on Facebook.

1) INTRO

This doc lists the makan places I've been to in Singapore that have moved me in some way. Mostly they have given my palate much to ruminate about and my senses the dreams of new culinary adventures.

I am Cantonese by descent whose grandpa had come from Guangdong, China to settle in this land of lions and swordfishes. We are a tribe known to eat anything that flies, runs, and crawls. Stuff we find hard to swallow, we turn into soups.

As a transplanted Chinese in S'pore, my tastebuds have evolved.

As a kid, I ate chapati for breakfast accompanied by American peanut butter and British jam - far from what my grandfather woke up to as a kid. As a youth, I grew up fired by Malay chillies and seduced by Peranakan sauces. In work, I'd travelled much and often came home lusting for strange menus with names that twisted tongues and scratched heads.

Once, I even contemplated marrying an Indian to satisfy my craving for oven baked dough, curry and other busty delights. Busty as in full flavour, I mean.

A marriage of such convenience could have worked if not for my genes. My granddad had four wives. I am sure his taste in food was just as polygamous. And so, I've found it quite hard to settle. And it remains till this day with what I like to eat. It's a seduction, a courtship. A lovely lass that's hard to pin down but moves you enough to pen poetry. A dish can be such a darling. Flavours can be such flirty pheromones.

2) THE THREE TENORS

If the world once had three tenors, Singaporean food is the same. Its charm is resonated in restaurants, hawker centres and kopitiams.  Restaurants echo the island's always evolving cosmopolitan culture - from Spanish tapas to Chinese mala steamboat. Hawker  centres beat the wayang drum of streets once cluttered with cart food. Kopitiams sing the family hymn of familar dishes - dishes mom (or dad) could have cooked. Central to the kopitiam are two stalls: chap chye and zhichar. Two brothers - one of largesse, the other of invention.

In lay-speak, chap chye is what makes up a rice, a meat and a veg. You choose from an array of dishes in front of you. Zhichar is what you want the kitchen to cook for you. They are like the poor man's kitchen if you like.  But Singapore is such a food utopia that no man is poor. You can spend just as little or spend as much as you want; food still taste delectable. Abalone and sharkfins do not walk only in the gilded halls of 5-star hotels only.

But bear this in mind: The songsheet of Singapore's food is trebled and clefed by the unique cultures of its people: Cantonese, Teochew,  Hainanese, Peranakan, Parsi, Tamil, North Indian, Eurasian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Myanmarese, and of late, Filipino. Expect the expected and yet some.  So, when you go looking for food in Singapore, tune in to the various subtleties. Char kway teow has cousins, mee goreng its fraternal twin. There's also food in town and food in the neighbourhoods (HDB estate, that is).

Good or bad, there's a range in-between. It's true. When it comes to food, everybody in Singapore has an opinion; - why I am sharing with you what I think is good and not what is best. Please keep that in mind and have an eventful culinary adventure in this not-so-small 'red dot' of an island. Foodwise, that is. It only takes 45mins to travel coast to coast.

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Love in Decals


I found this scene in an old bookshop. For it is only in old bookshops that packets of Letrasets can still be found hanging about like this. No one uses them anymore, not since punched tags became popular followed by those super easy-to-use Casio/Brother handheld labeling machines. Labeling or 'choping' things became a habit for some people. Files, keychains, cookie jars, etc.

The death-knell was further rung by the arrival of cheap ink-jet printers. Making labels and greeting cards became not just easier, but more versatile and in color too!

These Letraset decals, however, bear a special meaning for me. I used to buy a lot of them to make unique cards for a special someone. In days before PC inkjet printers, using decals to make a sentence was common practice. The prints looked more professional. It was also something architects and draftsmen used a lot in their work, especially in labeling their models, maps and showcase floor plans. Besides sets of letters and numbers, decal sets also offered font symbols. It's what Microsoft Word now term as "widgets".

For me, once a decal phrase has been added to a greeting card, I would then protect it with a clear adhesive sheet, much like those used for wrapping books. In this way, the delicate letters would not be rubbed or peeled off. I would make the cards in a variety of colors using paper from a block of colored craft ones. It's an art form you can easily adapt as craft work with kids.

At times, I would put inside the card a piece of tracing paper that has been illustrated with line drawings done in Indian black ink (with a Rotring drafting pen no less). It was lovely like that. Black ink on grey tracing paper really stood out. And with drafting pens, there's a choice of nib sizes: 0.3mm, 0.5mm, and 0.7mm.

When that special someone is your first love, you do all you can to make that person feel happy, desired and missed.

I still remember the many designs I had come up with. My girlfriend's employer was so impressed she actually asked me to do up an ad for her in the Yellow Pages. The graphic was a silhouette of a crowd of office workers queuing  in front of a lady seated at a desk and typing. The silhouette outline was formed by a string. This lady boss ran a temp agency after all.

With my cards went several short poems. Unfortunately, it was all infatuation as I would realize later. But 'spring love' is spring love. And as the Chinese would say, "Spring love is eternal." I remember the dalliance with this girl well. I sometimes wished it had the good fortune to see autumn.

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A Pen-sive Affair


I just realised the other day that I've been nursing a peculiar habit for more than 30 years. It is this attraction to pens.

With pens, come bookshops... especially those old family-run ones. They are actually book cum gift shops. They were once the place to go to for stationery as well as gifts for teachers on Teacher's Day. These shops are dwindling though.

You can find one at Paya Lebar, an intriguing mess of a shop. A popular one at Sembawang SC has since moved to Yishun. There's another one at Woodlands Ave 6, opposite Admiralty Primary School. My favourite has been the very old one at Beauty World Centre. There are a few at Bras Basah Complex.

Whenever I see such an old bookshop, I tend to stop by to take a look. Invariably, I would end up looking at that round plexi-glass carousel where all expensive pens such as Parker, Sheaffer and Cross are kept. I would be like moth drawn to flame.

Funny thing is, I've given up on owning a pen for many years now. I presently carry a small little tuckaway (ballpoint) that's handy for jogging down quick notes...usually on the back of a piece of scrap paper. No one carries a small notebook anymore. I sometimes wish my smartphone to have scribbling abilities like the Samsung Galaxy Note. But it is just crazy to carry such a big handphone around! Other smart phones have a card scanner function, but I don't bother with it. I find snapping a picture to be more reliable and quicker.

Although I do not own a specific pen, the desire to have one is still there. This yearning to own something slim, sleek and shiny (the 3 Ses) is still very strong. It all boils down to wanting a perfect pen to write with. A pen that's a comfort to hold, ink that gives a warm feeling and pen nib-action that is both smooth and seductive. Oh, what letters I could write with such an instrument! Or a poem, a love note. Perhaps a thought. Maybe sign fabulous cheques with it even!

But alas, over the years, pens with sharp nibs have torn holes in my notebooks. Their ink has leaked and smudged neat works of mine (not to mention shirts). Scribbles that have ruined clear intentions! I just can't seem to find the right pen with the desired characteristics.

I am disgusted whenever my writing comes up looking like it's written by someone else. Sherlock Holmes would be stumped. It looks as if I'm disorganised, insecure and nervous ... qualities that I do not possess (well, most of the time anyways). But that is what happens when I write with an incompatible pen. (The word 'lousy' comes to mind!)

With much typing on computers these days, my penmanship has gone even further south. Have you tried writing a letter again?

I think the most recent hand-scrawling any of us have done is that paragraph on 'What's your next five-year plan?' in that last job application. How long ago was that?

Or perhaps that form you have just filled up for a free credit card, and pray not, a hospital admission form. These days, with so many condo launches, it could be a Letter-of-Intent.

In my case, the most recent form I had filled up was a police report, after finding some lost jewellery. The scenario writing took only 5 mins ("I was cycling by a bus stop and saw...yada yada.") but the police admin part took 1.5 hours. What? One and a half hours???

Yes, they were really making it difficult for me (or anybody else for that matter) to be honest. I certainly regretted afterwards going to that police post. Not only was the policeman there one-finger typing, he also seemed to be duplicating work. Their procedures could certainly be better streamlined.

That was not the first incident. The very first time was when my handphone got pinched at a nearby golf range. That took two hours. I should have learnt my lesson then!

But police admin, or a.k.a civil service admin, can be tedious. A case I did during my MTM showed how inefficient the Met Police were in the UK. That one involved a photocopier and how paperwork flow in the office prevented detectives from doing up paperwork quickly and less joylessly.

My first pen. The first pen I have ever come across as a kid was my dad's. He had a Parker Ballpoint, that popular one with the stainless steel half-body. The other half was in plastic of a solid color.

My dad kept his pen in his study desk. In those days, study desks - or writing desks, were common. His was not the roller-shutter type though - it had an angled hinged cover. This hinged cover doubled as the desktop once it was lowered. It was supported by two sliding beams as well as a retractable hinge. I wish the desk is still around; it was rather unique.

In appearance this study desk looked normal: It had cupboards and drawers below. Behind the cover, it had small shelves and envelope slots - features that were common in a writing desk then. But it had one outstanding feature that amused us kids, especially at a time when James Bond spy movies and Hardy Boys mystery books were popular: It had a secret compartment. It was located at the back and could only be accessed by moving the desk away from the wall.

This little secret compartment worked well. Parents back then often worried about being robbed at home, so this secret hole offered some mystery and security, keeping their valuables safe from ransack. We kids were obviously sworn to secrecy about it!

I liked my dad's ballpoint pen not so much for its writing abilities; more so for its iconic arrow that served as a clip as well. Robin Hood and his Merry Men stories were always a fixture during my childhood as was the game of Monopoly with its cute metal tokens. My favourite had always been the Racing Car. That Parker arrow would have made a lovely token!

I've come to realise this fascination with pens whilst looking at an old photograph from my secondary school days. I had written some comments at the back and it then hit me like an epiphany when I realised that I could actually recall the pen from which the ink had come from. It was a slim plastic Red Leaf with a button at the top and a small (square) retraction button at the side. A short unscrewable part of it was in dark blue; the rest of it was in beige grey.

At the time, I was experimenting with various pens to find the right one to use. This simple Red Leaf stayed with me for quite a few years up until Pre U! It was a record! The reason could be that the ink was an attractive shade of lighter blue; the body slim; and it was pretty smooth. It was also cheap.

I also tried using a fountain pen again. But it was just not practical.

I started using a fountain pen in Pri 4. Surprisingly, I still have it. One was a Hero, the other a Pilot. I also have a modern Hero look-alike Pilot fountain pen bought from Mustafa Shopping Centre in Little India. It has the same gold cap and Volvo Green colored body. But the insides are slightly different. The Hero has an inlaid pattern, reminiscent of those 'ancient' times when artisans still bothered to dress up their simple products.

I had bought that Mustafa retro Pilot pen some years ago. Once in a while, I would revisit fountain pen writing. I dunno, maybe I'm just a die-hard romantic because it reminds me of the very nice cursive handwriting I used to pen. Or the prettiness of ink when it diffuses on paper.

An ex-girlfriend shared this passion with me once. Both of us loved stationery design and would hang out often at Kinokuniya's at Takashimaya. One time, I brought her to Paris to tour and we saw some lovely modern-design pens at Galeries Lafayette. We didn't get any as the refills were not available in Singapore. A pity as the pens were designed with very strong home-appliance colors. Surpisingly modern, chic and youthful. Stationery designs often reflect a youthful, joyful mood. Perhaps these were the reasons that appealed to the designer in me.

In any case, I don't think my fascination with pens will go away anytime soon. Right now, I am interested in writing well Chinese calligraphy with a brush. The big characters are easy, but try writing them small.

So, not just pens. I am now fascinated with finding a good brush. Muji stores seem to carry a good one self-inking one. Oh my, it doesn't seem to end, does it, this love affair with writing? It's like reading. You'll go back to it one day just like how space operas in sci-fi seemed tedious and boring at one time.

Footnote (see bottom pix): Recently I came across this wonderful Parker 'pen' only to discover upon unscrewing it that it was a fake. The nib was a felt nib commonly found in bookstores (a Pilot V razor point?). The fountain pen nib you see is only for ornamentation. The felt nib was like any other slender pen refill. The pen wrote well (very smooth) and had a sort of shock absorbing action - unlike most fountains that tended to scratch. But - and this is the sore part - they offered gloss paper as sample paper to write on. Of course the writing is going to be smooth! At $SGD320, it was rather expensive for such fake technology. And the nib was nothing to shout about when used on normal paper. Go get a dollar plus Pilot V Razor Point instead.

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Malaysia Cup 1994


Whenever someone brings up the Malaysia Cup in football conversation, emotions run high. For me, I've followed the exploits of Quah Kim Song and gang, and subsequently those of Fandi Ahmad and Steven Tan. Didn't they used to call Steven Tan the Super Sub? In my mind, he's more the 'Damn!-He-Lost-The-Ball-Again' Tan. I liked the Malaysia Cup when Singapore was winning - not so much when they were whining.

Oh, they had genuine reasons to whine. When they played in Malaysia, the pitch seemed rougher, the tackles much harder. The referees were also more 'kayu'. A match seldom finished without a contentious decision. These were the reasons why I didn't think Singapore should have continued playing in the Malaysia Cup. I believe the same problems will arise in the newly announced edition. New era, same bias. I can understand the practice our Young Lions need, but to play in controversial matches again? Nah.

My interest in the old Malaysia Cup peaked at the finals of 1994. At the time, I was into my second job and had started dating. My object of affection was a slim, intelligent girl who ran a family counselling centre. Luckily for me, she had a colleague who was related to Fandi Ahmad's manager and they both got on well. It was Fandi who invited us to go along for the finals. We drove up in two cars, the two of us riding with the manager. The manager was unlike anyone we have ever seen in football management. For one, she was female - an elderly lady probably in her 50s. She had auburny-grey hair and a maternal air about her. From what I could see, she had a penchant for silky floral print dresses. She wasn't slow when she drove, but she drove with care. There were others in the party.

The match was to be played at the new Shah Alam stadium. We had concerns about locating the stadium as it was shown on the map to be in some industrial part of KL, but that turned out to be a needless worry.

We checked first into a 4-star hotel on the outskirts of town. We had barely put down our bags when the manager excused herself to answer a call on her mobile. Later she told us that it was Fandi. She said he always got nervous about a match and would talk to her first to ease his nerves. We did not loiter long in the hotel but quickly left.

Arriving at the stadium, we parked our car at a sandy lot. It looked like a car park that was unfinished. When it comes to football matches, I'm always apprehensive about mobs, so I would always look out for signs of trouble. That day, however, everything looked pretty low-key. There were banners put up and people chanting from chartered buses. Everything looked ordinary, so we streamed into the stadium when the public loudspeakers beckoned. Once inside, we realised that we were amongst the early ones. But once the stadium started filling up, so did the noise decibels go up.

The pre-match atmosphere was electric. There was singing and chanting and the passing of a giant square banner over the heads of spectators - the kind one often sees at large foreign stadiums like the San Siro or Bernabeu.

A lot of it had to do with the design of the Shah Alam stadium. Unlike the National Stadium which was small and dowdy by comparison, the Shah Alam was open, sweeping, and it kept spectators close to the action. The seats (not benches) reached all the way down to the pitch!

Many of the Singapore supporters were decked out in red; we were no different. We also wore special-edition bandannas tied round our heads. Other folks used them as scarfs.

The match itself was surprisingly lobsided. Singapore had the upperhand throughout. And whenever our side scored, we would shout ourselves hoarse. We won, no, call that "thrashed the other side" by 4-0. Abbas Said was the hero, but we were just glad that Fandi Ahmad finally got on the score sheet. We were also happy for the manager that Fandi scored. We all felt that this match was Fandi's swansong.

My girlfriend and I never got to meet Fandi. We celebrated a little at the hotel and spent the night. The next morning the sun shone extra bright; we woke up feeling great. The Malaysia Cup had always been a kind of Holy Grail given the issues mentioned earlier and I was glad that we finally wrested it back to our shores. Given that Singapore was retiring from the Cup, we felt extra special to have been there to witness the momentous occasion.

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Priscilla - Queen of Chek Jawa


In 2001, I was invited to see Chek Jawa by my brother Joseph Lai. He is often credited for saving the place from certain reclamation. But back then, he was just an NParks officer and nature guide passionate about his work studying, cataloging and introducing the wonders of Mother Nature to mostly school children, first at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and then at Sungei Buloh Wetlands.

By then he had brought students many times to Pulau Ubin to marvel at its rich flora and fauna. Whenever possible, he would point out the island's indigenous plants and animals, creatures such as the ubiquitous red jungle fowl. But Joseph was in particular charmed by the intertidal flats off Check Jawa where a former village once stood on the northeastern coast of the island.

The Chek Jawa intertidal flats were indeed very rich in marine plants and sealife, stuff that many Singaporeans often paid good money to see snorkeling or diving in Malaysia's coral parks. That the place harboured such a rich marine habitat was by itself astonishing. I saw during my first trip there many coral plants and even held a giant nobular starfish, a creature I had not even seen during my many sea-adventure trips in Malaysia. There were also seahorses clinging to aquarium-like seagrasses. What's even more mind-blowing about the place was that it would soon be reclaimed. Reclaimed? you ask. Yes.

I couldn't believe my own ears too when my brother first told me that. What's more damning was the government claiming to have done a coastal survey and found nothing worth keeping. NOTHING WORTH KEEPING? How could that be? Were those so-called scientist surveyors blind? Or were they more concerned about protecting their academic rice bowls than do their professional duties?

Chek Jawa turned out to be much more richer than anyone could imagine. It was home to over a dozen species of seagrasses that dugongs all the way from Australia would come to buffet on. And true to our tourism habits, a replica animal was later erected at the site to act as our welcoming emissary. I wonder what the real dugongs think about that.

Besides the seagrasses, there were also a variety of sea pens, nudi branches, sea slugs, etc., including no small amount of sea stars and sand dollars. Everywhere I walked (and this was before the boardwalk was built) I had to avoid stepping onto some kind of carpet anemone that's left half-exposed by the receding tide. Often I would see one devouring a small crab. (Which reminds me much of single-mouth monsters in sci-fi shows like Space 1999!)

The whole Chek Jawa plain itself was a joy to walk on. When the tide was low, over 700m of exposed sand and grass beds could be seen. I could only imagine the crazy fun village kids back then had when Chek Jawa was a kampong alive and well.

For me, the highlight of the trip was meeting Priscilla, the star she-boar resident of Chek Jawa. She's tame and people-friendly. I was told she was once raised by the nearby kampong folks. Often, Priscilla would leave the flats with us at dusk only to stop short at where the tracks and barriers were, and where vehicular traffic started. She seemed to understand that those noisy four wheeled vehicles were a danger.

Patting her, I only wished I had an apple with me. I was told the fruit was her favourite snack.

That was my first trip to Check Jawa. On the second trip, Mr Mah Bow Tan was there. By then, my brother and his kakis had gotten the attention of the authorities to consider holding off their reclamation plans and save Chek Jawa. Besides the minister, Priscilla was there too. It was like meeting an old friend. But it was an old friend with a scar. We found barb wire marks around her neck. My brother told me then that some construction workers had tried to capture her for meat. We were both concerned, as were the other volunteers. But there was little anyone nor I could do to help. Priscilla was wild, and back then, there weren't any proper government agency there that could help keep an eye on her.

It was thus with much sadness to discover on my third trip to Chek Jawa that Priscilla had gone missing, presumably into the stomachs of some itinerant poacher.

It's furious to know that some people cannot just leave a good natured beast alone - one that could have lived a full life and given much joy to the many children that would subsequently visit the place. It's a sordid crime against the porcine kind really.

Afternote: We later discovered that Priscilla was not poached. She was found dead in the forest by some NParks rangers. Below is a note from Wild Shores blogspot:

"Alas on 27 May 2004, Priscilla was found dead by NParks rangers. There was no obvious cause of death aside from "a small festering wound, and blood coming from her nostrils". She was buried where she was found, next to the access to Chek Jawa's shoreline. Her final resting place may be unmarked, but her mark on many of our hearts remains till this day."

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My brother was presented this plaque by mr Mah Bow Tan for his efforts, featuring the stunning nobular starfish (btw, the modern term for starfish is 'sea star'):



















More pics here:
http://wildshores.blogspot.sg/2008/09/memories-of-priscilla-pig-of-chek-jawa.html

"This was my last photo of Priscilla taken on 2 May 04, patiently putting up with shutterbugs as she tried to cool off her butt in the mud." - from Wild Shores