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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Stockholm Bar Top


One of the more interesting PR assignments I have ever undertaken was to help a Swedish telecom giant organise a launch party in Stockholm. The thing to launch was a Technology Showcase Centre of innovative 3G handsets and applications. The good folks there wanted to open the Centre during a 3G 'blue sky' (read possibilities) conference organised specifically for European users of their network equipment, i.e. the Telco operators in their own backyard. They wanted to give these customers a glimpse was what 3G mobile comms would be like after W-CDMA.

I was surprised that they asked our Asian PR agency to help them organise the event. Yes, we were international, but, er, aren't their own Internal Communications people capable of handling it themselves? I think the reason could be that it was a huge (and important) affair for them and that they were also paying our agency a seven-digit retainer each year. In any case, my agency decided to send me over as I was the most senior in the Telecom practice and was rather meticulous in my event planning.
 
Of course I did see a couple of 'road blocks' in that assignment, if I may borrow language from The Amazing Race.

One, I'd yet to comprehend fully Swedish culture. Two, I'd yet to comprehend fully Swedish 'corporate' culture. So, now you see why even as I accepted the assignment, I knew it wouldn't be that straight forward a job as organising a mere launch party.

In fact, one of the first culture-clashes to crop up was the issue of drink. For some reason, the Director of Communications (our client-boss) refused to have alcohol served during cocktail. I asked him why but he did not say. All he offered was that no alcoholic drinks should be served during office hours. I could only conclude that 1) the Swedes don't hold their liquor well; 2) they go overboard with their drinking once they smell alcohol.

Well, I never really got that cleared up because the Swedes themselves confuse me. I had a client-colleague there who would ask me out for a beer at almost anytime. And when I ate at their staff canteen (which served very good Swedish food), all I saw were people drinking either coffee or fruit juice. They were all pretty heath conscious, well-adjusted and not hungover.

In any case, it was rather odd not to have alcohol during a corporate cocktail function. Beer or wine had always put people at ease through the millennia. But more importantly, it's tradition; or so I thought. Naysayers probably felt better not to have alcohol at all, worried that the odd drunk might stand up on a table or something and make a fool of himself. The bigger the function, the worst. With media folk around, it was thus better to play it safe. Since my client had indicated his wishes (he was rather adamant about it), I agreed to go along with the 'no- alcohol' rule. (Later, I would learn from another company director that the reason could be that some Swedish journalists tended to go overboard whenever there's free booze. Our client-boss director was afraid some would become drunk and behave like boorish louts!)

Aside from drink, another thing I learned during my stay there was that you could furnish your office quite differently. I know, it sounds obvious. But don't we all have offices where we sit behind a writing desk and on a cushioned chair? It's the most typical set-up. But after working with this lady project secretary named Pia, I came to appreciate not sitting down so much.

What she had in her office was an adjustable table that's set to bar top height. Instead of a chair, she had a small sofa put against the wall across her small office. So in effect, she would be standing most of the time when doing her office work. She only sat on her sofa to think, enjoy a cup of coffee, or chat with a colleague. Lovely idea, wasn't it?

Later, I was able to adopt the same approach in one of my offices. Instead of against the wall, I used the bar top table like a center island. What I discovered is that my table could function as a meeting place too, truly like a bar top in a bar! I would quickly gather the people, discuss the issue and then disperse. No need to chope a meeting room for all that and no need to sit down. And I found that people on their feet tended to think and work faster. Perhaps it is just the act of not sitting on their asses that gives that sense of urgency and get-go.

Physically, besides avoiding deep-vein thrombosis, standing (and walking) enables better circulation and gives better definition to the muscles of the leg and butt. Pia, as I recalled, had rather nice 'assets' in those departments. Sorry, I didn't mean to pay attention to such things, but I was sitting on that sofa behind her quite a few times. With my own bar top table, I did feel better not sitting down that much.

As a matter of fact, recent research indicates that sitting down for more than three hours a day can shave off two years of your life. So, quick. Get that office table changed now and throw out that chair! And what's a bar top without a mini-fridge full of beer? Or an expresso machine. See, the possibilities are endless and changes much the traditional idea of an 'office'!.

Next story: Dislocated Minds

This table I designed consists of a recycled kitchen tabletop bolted to hollow tubes of clear acrylic. Artificial flowers have been placed inside to add beauty. Other things of choice may be placed inside, turning a normal office table into a changeable art object. The table top can be repapered to a design of choice.


Bangkok Junket


Public Relations work is interesting. If you can write and communicate, you can probably work in a PR agency. But it does take more than that to succeed.

For me, I've always found PR work to be 'light', in the same sense that it is "not so serious work". I've worked in R&D Engineering before; it is considered more traditional and, serious.

Yes, Engineering work requires a level of concentration and skill in manipulating Math and Science, but the work environment itself can be incredibly dull. Imagine a bunch of people quietly verifying their designs or performing measurement analysis.

In PR, I usually found my colleagues to be more communicative and outgoing than in Engineering. And they were no less serious about their work. It is something I admire a lot about about these professionals.

So, going into PR work, I too tried to professional. And at the same time, to enjoy it as much as possible.

Before PR, I was (a journalist) on the other side of the fence where I got wined and dined. I was at the receiving end of what PR people planned and executed. These were mostly press conferences, one-on-one interviews and of course, press junkets. All journalists look forward to press junkets. It's when you get to go on a trip and be treated like royalty. Well, almost. But you get the idea.

The trips are almost always sponsored by corporate clients of PR agencies. An exotic location is usually selected; the invited journalists brought there; and a dinner is then hosted, often by a senior person of the client company. So you can imagine such press junkets to be expensive and only afforded by well-off MNCs with large Comms budgets.

For me as a journalist, more than just a good makan time, I view such occasions as opportunities to gain access to the top people of a Fortune 500 company. The CEO of Microsoft or Oracle, the CTO of Cisco or Intel, etc... decision-makers we would otherwise have a hard time meeting (or get an opinion from) under normal circumstances.

For large companies, such press junkets are often organised as part of a corporate retreat with stakeholders, i.e. the customers and partners. There they would learn of the company's future direction in terms of a product roadmap, marketing and channel strategy, changes in personnel, etc.

The Management types would often take time out to share their vision with the media so fresh news of the company can get out. But as such news are usually sugar-coated, I would try to get hold of a customer to talk to. But of course, the company or PR person will try to keep you from doing that. No one in their right mind would want a reporter to talk to a customer unsupervised. It would be like shooting yourself in the foot. But there are always ways if a journalist is so inclined. It could end up as a cat-and-mouse game.

Such trips cut both ways. It is the classic "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" kind of endeavor. But as a writer, I am always be mindful of the hard-sell these companies who invite you make. They rely on you to get their corporate message out to the industry and always want it to be as rose-tinted and positive as possible. But as a reporter or writer, you have a certain integrity to adhere to. Also a duty to your reader to remain unbiased.

One of the more elaborate press junkets I've been too was in Bangkok. I was invited by the kind folks of Canon. Back then, I was writing for a regional IT trade paper.

That function in Bangkok began with an expensive dinner cum traditional dance. It was held at the 7-star Oriental Hotel by the Chao Phraya River. Afterwards, we were then taken on a slow boat ride where we sipped wine, ate finger food, and made small talk with Canon's people. They got to know us better and we, them - all in a casual and non-threatening setting. Non-threatening to a point. After all, we were kept in a boat and could not run away!

The next day, we travelled to Canon's new inkjet printer factory in Ayutthaya, that ancient kingdom of Thailand. I was very impressed by what I saw there.

The production line processes were novel and innovative. They were not your typical linear type of operation. The time and personnel required to assemble a printer were greatly reduced. Work for production workers was also less repetitive and more varied, factors that could help reduce job burn-out and absenteeism. Canon's new and revamped production lines were certainly operating very differently from what other manufacturing folks were doing then.

I should know because I had worked in an advanced factory of almost 3000 people in various capacities before going into Journalism, and so could appreciate what Canon was trying to do. Besides, Canon's factory in Ayutthaya was the biggest employer in that area. It thus should play a greater role than just make printers.

As a matter of fact, they did.

The factory put in place pro-Community policies after much consultation with its workers. One such initiative led to the setting up of a supermarket on its premises. The supermart allowed the majority population of female production workers there to buy things before heading home after their end-of-shift, which could be late and the shops closed. The set-up was especially good for the mothers amongst the workers. I was told that shampoo and baby milk powder were the two most popular items bought at the supermarket. Not surprising, really.

After the factory visit, we journalists were led to room where we could ask more questions of the new manufacturing setup. In our group were quite a number of journalists from India. What I discovered about them was not pleasant.

For one, they were rather gruff and rude. They behaved as if they should be feted like VVIPs all the time and showed it. During question time, they did not even bother to introduce themselves nor precede their question with a polite Mr So & So. They sounded bored and appeared as if they much preferred to be somewhere else.

That was not the first time I had seen them behave in such a deplorable manner. They were the same during our first-night dinner. At times, they were so rude that you just want to punch them in the face on behalf of the hosts. Little wonder that the PR and Communications folks preferred to deal with us reporters from Singapore, Malaysia, HK, or the Philippines. We seemed to have better Asian sensibilities and etiquette than those ill-mannered blokes from the land of the Maharajahs and Untouchables. Perhaps they were channeling a bit of both, so proud and insecure they were. Or they could be exhibiting unsavory traits learned from their colonial past. I know in their work culture there, the bosses still preferred to be called "Sir". In any case, manners aside, I considered their behaviour to be very unprofessional. I wondered then if the PR folks even had to give them "cha (tea) money" to run a press release!

In the afternoon, my group of journalists were treated to a tour of the ruins of Ayutthaya. They were impressive, but I rather see the ones in Europe. You see, because the weather there is usually dry and cool, the ruins look better. They are not moldy and covered with algae or some damp patch. They also do not smell of mildew and dog urine, which was quite bad at Ayutthaya. A couple of times, I saw much worse. You could say the visit to Ayutthaya was a 4-D experience: 3-D structures with the additional dimension that assaults your sense of smell.

Therefore, as much as I wanted to appreciate the ancientness of Ayutthaya, its more recent foul additions made the visit wholly unpleasant. Nice to look at from a distance but terrible to explore up close. A solution would be to mask your nose first with lots of Tiger Balm or Axe Brand Oil!

Next story: Stockholm Bar Top

March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 3


This story continues from: March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 2

When I woke the next day, it was still early and the sun had yet to rise fully. I took to the footpath and walked that short distance across the island to the beach on the other side. It was strangely still and deferential  Looking at the dead corals again reminded me of the killing fields of Cambodia. Here, instead of piles of bones, were piles of dead coral. I wondered what it would take to revitalise the whole zone.

I skipped a few stones into the sea and retraced my steps back to the footpath. The kitchen should be serving breakfast soon and the rest of the guys and gals would be up and waiting.

The second day was all sand and sea. A few of us tried canoeing and windsurfing. I either laid on the beach or dipped into the sea. I had canoed quite a bit in my youth and so had no more interest.

But windsurfing was catching on in Singapore then and so I was keen to try it out. However, the winds that day were not very cooperative. I decided to just laze about and get tanned. Later, we all got together and played volleyball on the beach.

Around late afternoon, we went on an excursion to Big Brother Island (i.e. Pulau Sibu Besar). In size, it was about six to seven times larger than Pulau Sibu Tengah (aka SIR) and about 2km away. We visited one of the five resorts there. Unlike SIR, they were the rough-and-tumble sort and each was served by its own flimsy jetty.

Some guests we saw there were sun-bleached, wiry and wore headbands. They looked very much like the seasoned hippies of the '60s. I remember thinking they were no different from "harm yu" or salted fish laid out in the sun too long. It made us wonder if these over-tanned folks had lived on Pulau Sibu Besar all their lives!

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On the second day, we learnt from those who canoed that there was a sea eagle's nest around the left side of the island. It was nestled in some rocks quite near to the beach below. The cliffs on our island were not high, roughly six to eight storeys tall. Only the top of the right cliff was accessible via a narrow footpath.

From up there, we could get a good panorama view of the ocean as well as the sea route our ferry had taken in to approach the resort. Although the cliff was small, its stony facade somehow injected a natural sense of ruggedness and adventure to the place. They bear an inscrutable testimony to an outdoor life.

The reason that the eagle's nest was so low is that the place was isolated and free from human encroachment. The nice beach there could only be accessible by boat.

We knew it was nice because Mr Hassan had told us during that first night conversation. He was describing the new kind of clientele he was targeting at and related the story of a well-off Indian couple who were there for their wedding anniversary.

Wanting a private spot to celebrate, the couple had approached him for help. Mr Hassan then picked out that spot of beach where the eagle nest was, knowing full well that no one else could get there on foot.

"That Indian couple had a late night picnic with champagne and stuff. We picked them up later. Much later," Mr Hassan said, ending with a wink in his eye.

I saw the beach the next day, not by swimming but by windsurf canoeing. That's when you use sit on a windsurf board and canoe with a paddle. I was bored and wanted some adventure and so off I went on my own.

The beach was indeed nice: White sand with clear waters walled in by some rocks which gave it a private, lagoony feel.

The waters were surprising shallow for a long stretch and colorful. There were many big rocks that somehow  gave off colors of the inside of an oyster's shell. That made me wonder if the same seascape stretched for 2km to the bigger island. I had seen the same thing before between two islands off the shores of Sabah. Over there, I could even wade through coral-filled waters to get to the other island during low tide.

The sheltered bay of 'Eagle's Beach' made the island feel near and safe. But once I got to the turn, that's when the sea really opened up. It made me feel as if I was in a paper boat bobbing in a large ocean. In such a situation, it is hard to keep faith with a flimsy surfboard, but I held fast to the conviction that it will not sink.

With a canoe, I alone could not right a capsized one. Trust me, I've tried that during my canoeing days. You would need a buddy in another canoe for that. With a surfboard you could even paddle without an oar! That's the reason I went sightseeing with it.

Now facing the open sea, I began to think about sharks. Are there any around? A Big White has been known to taken a chunk out of a surfboard, so in the end, my smart idea wasn't so smart after all. I decided to paddle on and watch out for them just in case. Big Whites had been known to roam the Gulf of Thailand which was many miles away from where I was. Still, one should be wary. Stories of rogue sharks attacking swimmers in coastal waters surface from time to time - kind of like how car park wardens turn up from time to time to remind motorists to behave.

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Having made that turn, I was now paddling past the back of the island. The familiar sight of chalets and those dead corals (undersea) gave me comfort. I didn't go too near to the beach though, but stayed a comfortable distance out to see if I could spot any still-alive corals. There were none.

As I paddled on in this little adventure of mine, the island became bigger. I guess the reason was that much of it was inaccessible and hence not factored in. Also, that short footpath through its middle between the beaches also gave the false first-impression that the island was small. I mean you cannot judge a woman's assets by her small waist alone. Look at Dolly Parton.

And just like Ms Parton's curvaceous outline, I eventually reached another turn and come up against a big lump rising into the sky. It was the same eight-storey high rocky precipice I had seen arriving on the first day. Looking at the same cliff now up close and from a flimsy surfboard, my feelings were different. It's not so much awe-inspiring as bleak. It was a cliff no one could climb. It was simply an absolute obstacle.

That thought reminded me of one of my favourite movies, Papillon. It is a 1973 movie about a man of the same name (Papillon is French for butterfly) who refused to surrender to the harsh prisons he was sent to after being convicted of a revenge killing he claimed he was wrongly accused of. After several near deaths, escapes and recaptures, he was eventually sent to Devil's Island, a place ensconced by cliffs, rocks and strong waves that no one was deemed able to escape from. But escape Papillon did and quite ingenious too.

So, in view of all that Papillon went through, my own round-the-island adventure was really child's play.

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From the cliff, it was a matter of minutes before I paddled myself back to where I had started: the front of the resort. But not before battling some strong currents.

I was hoping to just slip unnoticed into the verandah and sit down for a drink, but some of my friends rushed out to ambush me. One of them was pretty livid. "Where the hell were you? We thought you were eaten by sharks or something! We looked everywhere for you!"

I felt sheepish then. Going out on an adventure on my own was fine but taking my friends' concern for granted was not. I apologised to them and explained that I had gotten carried away. It was true in a sense - I had wanted to see the Eagle's Nest. Fortunately, the matter was soon forgotten. The guy who had made the most noise was Yew Meng, my OCS platoon mate during NS. I thought he should have known better that I could take care of myself. I wondered then if he would have approved if I had first told him of my plans to circle the island on a surfboard. Probably not. But Yew Meng was a mother hen like that.

But for an hour or two that morning, I felt like Robinson Crusoe or Tom Sawyer going on a grand sea adventure. Sometimes a guy gotta do what a guy gotta do in order to experience new things; or else you wouldn't be reading this story!

Next story: PR Tale 1 - Bangkok

March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 2


This story continues from: March Madness 3- Pulau Sibu 1

As told, the sea journey was relatively short. Surprisingly, none of us got sea sick. As the ferry slowed its approach to the Sibu Island Resort, we noticed something unusual. There wasn't a jetty in sight!

Instead, two resort workers were seen pulling pontoons out. We could ride on these with the rest of our 'barang-barang' or simply jump into the sea to wade ourselves in. Most of us opted for the latter. It was a great invitation to immediately start our new beach holiday! Besides, with such clear waters and white sand, who could resist?

The front of the resort looked to be in a lagoon. The beach itself was surprisingly short even if covered with alluring white sand. Beside it was a raised verandah that led to the main Admin Building - a dark wood construction that reminded me of resorts in Bali and elsewhere. Not cheap, not expensive, just typical. The large verandah gave a 180-degree view of the sea and beaches. We found out later that below the verandah were the rooms for karaoke and storage for canoeing and windsurfing equipment. How convenient that they were right by the sea!

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After deciding who to stay with whom, we checked into our chalets. The ones we had booked were essentially Couple affairs. Each had a bedroom, a verandah with coffee table and chairs, an attached tiled-bath with instant hot-water heater and a flushing seat-toilet.

We noticed that there were indeed few chalets on the island, just 22 of them; they were all standalone affairs. The bigger units could be found on the back beach, a short 5-10 mins walk from the Admin Building. The path to that place was not paved but natural and surrounded by shrubs and short coconut trees. We were told we could request for fresh coconuts every morning, a novel idea to us young folks then!

The beach at the back turned out to be just as pristine as the one in front. But it was much, much wider. There were corals too, but sadly, all of them had died. It was all quite the pity because there was a wide swathe of them all along the beach front. There was even a path cut in between to wade through.

During low tide especially, it was a sight that could make a grown man cry. If these corals had not suffered from White Coral Death - a cancer of the ocean, this part of island would have been wondrous to behold. . Now, it was just a graveyard of porous stone. White as skeletons and just as eerie.

We quickly put away our things in the chalet and changed into our swim gear. The sun was still burning and the sky cloudless. By dinner time, we had all gotten wet and burnished with a tan. But just.

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Dinner was a strange affair.

Unlike the kind of cheap, fast-to-cook food one typically got from seaside island resorts, SIR actually had a menu typical of a Malaysian mainland Chinese restaurant. There was hor fun, mui fan, steamed fish, sambal kangkong, venison meat with ginger, etc.

We were pleasantly surprised and hungry after having just arrived and exerted somewhat. So we ordered what each of us liked. A couple did not have any preference and ordered just to see how good the cook was.

That done, we put the menu aside and chatted as we sipped on our soft drinks and fruit juices.

Half an hour passed. Then one. Then one and a half.

All the while, we turned to check the kitchen hole, if food was coming out. None. Oh, we could hear banging and clanging in there alright, but to what end we were mystified.

Finally, when the food did come, we were all relieved. But no explanation was given. The staff were locals and did not seem to comprehend English very well. We decided to not pursue the issue. We told ourselves that we would order in advance the next time if such was the case.

Interestingly, though the wait was tough, the food was excellent. It really tasted like what our favourite restaurants back home could dish up. None of us had so much pleasure gobbling up our food on an island before. The only setback was wondering whether to order more and wait another eternity.

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Just after dinner, as we were lounging in the dining area (which was next to the main verandah area and with a sea view too), the owner of the resort turned up.

Up till then I had not met anyone up-close who owned a resort, let alone an island, so I was rather intrigued by this person. He was a big-sized Malay chap around fortyish with an air of a 'datuk' about him. In other words, he radiated wealth and connections. He was dressed casually in khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.

The owner, let's call him Mr Hassan, had dropped by to say hello to Kim. He and Kim had become telephone friends through the many bookings Kim placed on behalf of her expat colleagues... she being the department secretary and all that. Even Kim's boss had been to SIR too. So Kim was a VIP in Mr Hassan's eyes.

After the obligatory introductions, Mr Hassan asked how our dinner went. We confessed it was surprisingly good and then politely mentioned the rather tardy serving time. Mr Hassan apologised and said his staff was still coming to grips with what was expected of them. He also confided that he had spent considerable effort in hiring a good Chinese chef to whip up both Chinese and Western fare. His reasoning was that a good resort should be matched by good culinary experience. On that note, he was on the money. I mean there is little point in setting up a four-star resort just to serve up crummy food.

I was curious what was before SIR and asked him.

"Oh, it was just a rock. I bought it from the government and spent money developing it," he said, sounding more like a technocrat than businessman.

"It wasn't just building these chalets. That was the easy part. The difficult part was making sure the island had a good source of water and could handle the future sewerage. We couldn't run this place with mineral water alone."

Inside, I found that funny. To many Singaporeans, bringing mineral water on an island trip was as essential as bringing toilet paper. In fact, probably more important, especially for the girls. To some, taking care of the hair was paramount, not to mention the face too.

We boys who had been through National Service was less bothered. We just made sure we didn't imbibe anything unclean and catch diarrhoea  Swimming with a weak stomach is definitely a no-no. Dark pools could form unwittingly.

Through further conversation with Mr Hassan, we found out that he had spent more than half a million Malaysian dollars buying and redeveloping the island. It didn't seem like a small sum nor was it a an astronomical one. Monies involved in island purchases typically ran into the millions at the time, or so we thought.

A couple of us wondered how much more under-table money he had to pay to smooth things with the Malaysian Government (often perceived to be corrupt then) but we decided to be polite and not to open that can of worms. I doubted he would even tell us!

Before Mr Hassan left, he joked with Kim that she should have her honeymoon on SIR; he would give her a special rate. Kim, who was unattached, turned red and gave an embarrassed laugh. With that, Mr Hassan bade us good evening and wished us a memorable stay.

Later, when we got up to pay, the staff told us Mr Hassan had halved our dinner bill. It was to make up for the long waiting time. We thought that was rather decent of him to do that. He didn't have to but he did. He really did want to make the resort work at another level.

Suitably fed, we then sat around the verandah a little longer to discuss what we would do the next day. Some wanted to laze around, while others wanted to learn to windsurf. An instructor was available on the island free of charge. We simply paid per hour - or per day - for equipment use.

Later that evening, the girls went and entertained themselves in the karaoke room. They found it equipped with the latest song management system and had a blast till late. I sat and read a book by Robert Ludlum by the verandah and listened to the soothing sound of the sea lapping.

All through, I could tell that the resort was rather absent of people, just as the owner had intended. I thought how wonderful that was for a change. SIR might just turn out to be the resort game changer Mr Hassan had wanted after all.

This story continues with: March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 3

March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 1


Another March/April long-weekend public holiday, another island adventure. This time, Pulau Sibu. There, I engaged in a death-defying act and met Death. Death? Yes, eerie. But if you were there, you would feel the same.

Back then, Pulau Sibu was a newly minted four-star resort. The first isle besides Pulau Tioman to offer true First Class facilities. First class as in a seating toilet with flush, air-conditioned bedrooms, and a hot shower. In other words, honeymooners can go there without the new wife complaining how cheap the new husband is.

Or be bothered by mosquitoes and sandflies when making out on a beach. A place they can take snapshots of themselves singing karaoke, windsurfing or buddy canoeing... not just play the usual carrom, UNO or Scrabble in a leaky and smelly thatched lounge.

The Sibu Island I am talking about was where Sibu Island Resort Version 1 had been, that is. The current SIR has changed beyond recognition after a complete makeover.

That makeover added a star to its former rating. Five stars now, it has the obligatory cocktail pool for those too lazy to walk that 20m to the beach.

Pulau Sibu was small then and still is. Very small. You can throw the proverbial stone and have it land on the other side of the island. A crab walking on the beach over can get stoned! Or a coconut could fall and everybody would know. It's that small!

If it is so small, where's the charm then?

Well, I remember the island being surrounded by sparkling waters and white sand. Plus, the resort had few chalets. Meaning as a guest, you didn't have to fight anyone for beach space. And if no other guests turned up, you could jolly well be the only ones on the island. Wonderful, wasn't it?

I first heard of SIR from Kim, my tennis partner. During a break in a game she had told me and our two other tennis kakis, Julie and Pauline, about this newfangled resort her German expat colleagues had been raving about.

"Oh, they say it is really nice and cozy," she had cooed.

"Sibu Island Resort? Isn't that in the Philippines?" one of us noted.

"Sibu, not Cebu," said Kim. "Apparently it is part of an island chain called Pulau Sibu. Sibu Island Resort is actually the smaller, middle one. And the best part is, it doesn't take long to drive there. We can spend more time on the island."

Er, drive there?

"I mean drive to the ferry terminal. Apparently Pulau Sibu is very near to the mainland unlike Tioman," said Kim.

At the time, Pulau Tioman was the most famous island along Malaysia's East Coast. But the ferry journey was long and 3/4 of the day would have passed upon arrival. With SIR, we could be there by 11am. Enough time to unpack and still catch a tan.

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I might not have known of Pulau Sibu but I knew of the other islands nearby like Pulau Tinggi and Pulau Aur. They were rustic and visited mostly by people who liked to fish. One of them was my NS staff sergeant, Francis Lee, who went there often to spear fish. He invited me once but I wasn't keen on punching holes in anything, let alone fish that I could easily get from a supermarket. I do wonder where Francis is now. Last I heard, he was very into Christian mission work.

"Wait, how many days are we thinking of for this holiday?" I asked. I hate to feel comfortable at a resort and then have to leave.

"Well, over the Good Friday hols. Four days?" suggested Kim. "The best part is my boss is also on leave. He has left me use of the company car!"

That was good news indeed. One transport problem solved.

Just as I was thinking how unusual it was for a guy to go on an island holiday with three girls, Pauline chimed in. "We could ask Kum Fatt and Yew Meng."

Both these guys were my buddies from NS (both BMT and one OCS). In fact, I had gotten to know Kim and the rest through Kum Fatt. All these friends were from St Andrews Junior College. I was from CJC, a sister school. Our colleges at the time were better known for sports (rugby and badminton respectively) and boy-girl relationships than academic excellence. Well, for the first year at least!

In the end, Kum Fatt couldn't make it but Yew Meng could (he and his girlfriend). With two other guy friends, we managed to round up a total of four guys and four gals; quite the neat pairing for a trip, I thought.

With the two cars, these folks went round Singapore to pick up the rest in the early hours of dawn and then headed over to Malaysia via the Causeway. There was no Second Link then. I was staying next to the Customs at the time and was the last to be picked up. That's one thing I liked about living there: Proximity to Malaysia.

The road journey to the ferry point for SIR was smooth and uneventful. I remember we driving along curvy kampong roads and passing villages that harked back to the '50s and '60s. It was really a pleasant drive except for a couple of instances when we had to overtake some road-hogging lorries that were packed to the brim with oil palm fruit or pineapples.

Of course, since we hadn't been to the island before, we had to rely on information from Kim's colleagues. They in turn had to rely on information provided by the travel section of a German executive magazine, now translated for Kim's benefit. Kim, at the time, had only a rudimentary grasp of the German language and was undergoing lessons at the Goethe Institute.

The instructions to get to SIR were thankfully straight forward. There weren't many unfamiliar detours and we could simply follow the major road signs. But once we neared the coast, we had to turn off onto a rural farm road. That was the only time we felt kind of creepy. It always was back then when in remote parts of Malaysia. Still is, actually.

The road we were on was a dirt track with grass growing out in the middle. By the sides were fenced-up grazing grassland with no animals in sight. In fact, the simply wired fences looked kind of neglected. Sections of it were weighed down by wild shrubs and fallen trees. It seemed as if the farmers had found some other thing to do than plough land or nurse animals.

Malaysia's economy was booming then and tourism was on the rise. Folks like us (and expats working in Singapore) were making a beeline for their island resorts, star or no star rating. So many of the locals there joined the tourism industry for a change of economic opportunity.

========

As we drove along the farm road, I was looking out for coconut trees, a sure sign that the coast is near. I did indeed see them and before long, our cars had to come to a stop. The road ended in a small opening right next to a ramshackle hut. We could also just see the sea over some rocks and shrubs.

A skinny young Malay chap then arrived on a Honda Cub motorcycle. Young men like him all over Malaysia all seemed to like riding these 70cc auto-gear two-wheelers from Japan. I was told they were affordable and very fuel economic. A bike was indispensable riding to and fro between a kampung and town. Besides, public transport in Malaysia were notoriously inconsistent then, unlike in Singapore.

After an exchange of pleasantries, the young Malay chap instructed our drivers where to park their cars. He pointed to a squarish grass patch that was fenced up rather flimsy like the rest we have seen driving up. It was also gated by two hastily nailed-together planks that were chained to a post. It looked OK for fencing in goats but certainly not cars with superior horsepower and value.

Kim, who had large eyes, rolled them even bigger. "Er, he is not serious, is he?"

She did not appear to want to park her boss' expensive Audi in that make-shift parking space. Frankly, I wouldn't too. It was not even sheltered! The pressing concern was, What if the car went missing? Kim would have to spend the rest of her adult life paying off her automotive folly. Lose her job even.

But what choice did we have? Turn back? Unlikely.

Seeing Kim a little upset, the girls gathered round her to give comfort and make conference. I didn't think it was a big deal because quite a few expats must have done the same thing in the recent past. So why should we even worry?

That was as much what I told Kim and the rest. The girls picked up on the logic and mollified Kim further with their sweeter voices. I could tell Kim was softening to the rationale. As added insurance we decided to pay the young Malay chap $20 to look after the vehicles. That made Kim feel better and so the matter was settled.

The young man at first refused our offer saying it was his duty to his uncle. He only accepted after some persuasion. $20 at the time wasn't a small sum and he didn't look the greedy sort. But it was better to have bought his allegiance than not. Back then, Johor had not picked up the reputation as a place where one could easily lose a car, be shot at beside a busy kopitiam, or even have a purse snatched. All that would come a decade and a half later, when young men would actually ask for money to do something.

With the cars safely 'locked up' in the car park, we picked up our belongings and followed the young Malay chap towards the sea. He led us down a rocky slope and onto a backyard jetty just as a small ferry was arriving and sidling up to get us aboard. To those of us accustomed to formal ferry points, this backyard affair was quite surreal, but it was not totally unexpected. Some kelong launch-off points were the same. Makeshift jetties all along the coast were used mainly by local fishermen.

We were not the only ones boarding the ferry. A couple of locals were bringing fresh produce to the island resort. We half hoped and joked that it included fresh lobsters and crabs.

The ferry that came was a wooden one with a small cabin typical of the many that plied between the islands in those days. It was painted in green too. Back then, no one worried about life jackets and such. We got onboard, kept our belongings away from getting wet and found a corner at the bow to sit in. A place free from trailing exhaust and where one could enjoy the fresh sea breeze and spray upfront. The kind of things that told us we were finally on our way to an island resort and far away from the noxious atmosphere of city life.

Story is continued here: March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 2

USA 6 - Yosemite 2


This story continues from USA 5 - Yosemite 1

Another Giant Redwood Forest

After driving for a while and getting all funked out by bland scenery, we arrived at a giant redwood forest. This was the same kind of place as Muir Woods which we visited in SF. But from the marketing brochures, the trees here seemed thicker and taller; they were like the "giants amongst giants!". It was also here that that famous Tunnel-Thru-The-Tree could be found. (A redwood tree so thick that they made a hole so a car could pass through it.)

May and I did not stop to look at these giant trees. We simply observed them from the car as we drove past. Light was fading fast and we could no longer dilly-dally on our way to Yosemite summit.

How far more did we have to go? Well, our map was not very helpful. It was a tourist one, and did not have precise info like 'elevation'. And since this was a mountain climb, distances on the map would be much shorter than in reality. That threw any real ETA (estimated time of arrival) assumptions out of the window. The road signs along the way were helpful as they gave distance-to-the-summit numbers but were rather scarce. The other alternative was to note the every-mile small-pillar markers by the roadside. However, in the gathering darkness, they were getting harder and harder to spot. We would have to stop the car to look at them, and we weren't too keen to get out of the car in that semi-dark wilderness. Aren't there supposed to be wolves in the Sierra mountains? In any case the two-lane road we were on pointed up, so all we had to do was to follow it to its natural conclusion. The good thing was that our car was proving to be very reliable and trouble-free. The odometer was clicking along nicely telling us how far we had come.

By 9 P.M., the sun had completely set and everything was pitch dark outside. I was surprised that there were no street lamps to help light the way. Don't four million people visit it every year? I guess they were trying to preserve its natural environment.

In complete darkness, we could only rely on our vehicle headlights. It was kind of strange driving in such conditions. At every turn our headlight would flash off a rock or hard granite surface. After a while the effect became strobe-like and hypnotic. I had to sing or make conversation with May in order to not fall into a trance. The radio was useless at this point. Shielded by terrain, it played only static.

In some places, the rocks looked huge, and jutted out. However, it was just the glare of the headlights playing tricks. I always had to refrain the tendency to swerve.

Bridal Veil Falls

In any case, we drove on like that without incident. By the time we arrived at Bridal Veil Falls - a lower Yosemite attraction - it was already 1 A.M. We thus couldn't see the waterfall (why the 'veil' reference) but only heard it. May and I took it as a cruel joke and left it at that. (It became a kind of running joke with us afterwards.)

From Bridal Veil Falls, it was just a short drive to the Yosemite Park summit where the Visitor Center and The Village Store were located. There was even a restaurant. And yes, the Village Store sold their souvenirs as well as Gilroy's garlicky ones.

As we sat in the restaurant to perk ourselves up with coffee and a light meal, we learnt more about Yosemite Park itself and its famous sites from some tourist brochures we'd picked up from a rack. According to these write-ups, there were quite a few giant 'domes', i.e. giant bald outcrops that look as if a piece of rock has been cleaved in two. As a result, sheer 90-degree cliffs formed. They rise skywards for a few hundred metres at least and are thus popular with rock wall climbers and movie producers alike. I believe the opening scene from Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, was filmed there.

Another attraction the brochures said to not miss were the waterfalls at Yosemite. These often issued forth from fissures and cracks high in the granite faces of the mountain; they then plummet spectacularly to pools below. As a matter of fact, Yosemite do have some of the tallest waterfalls in North America - Bridal Veil Falls included. In Native American language, the Falls are called Spirit of the Puffing Wind. well, whatever that means!

The last attraction and probably the reason why most folks go to Yosemite are the many hiking trails there. These snake about Yosemite and the Sierra mountain range. The trails total some 840 miles (1351 km), the John Muir one being the most popular.

What's most disheartening was that all the pictures in the brochures seemed to have been taken in summer, where everything looked bright, brilliant, and in glorious colour. So summer was probably the best time to visit the park. Also, looking around the Visitor Center building, we came to realize that Yosemite Park was a very popular destination with schools and families, and that many would make advanced bookings to be able to camp or stay up there! And there we were at Yosemite Park on a whim!!!

No wonder we arrived late and missed seeing Bridal Veil Falls in all its full gushing glory like that seen in the brochure.

Looking at the brochures for stayovers, May and I regretted not bringing our luggage along. We had thought the journey to be short giving us ample time to arrive and then return to Monterrey. Now, we would have to drive back to our Fireside Lodge and then all the way back to the airport in San Francisco.

Not wanting to waste anymore time, we left Yosemite summit at 2.15 A.M. The road down was the same coming up: dark and unlit. But since we had traveled on it before, our journey this time was much faster. Pretty soon, we reached the near-bottom where the redwood forest was. We could see lights around the barracks (or were they dormitories?) some distance further in. Seeing a familiar place gave us comfort and confidence, and so we drove on faster toward the way we had come earlier.

In no time we even passed Merced and was once again travelling through the small towns between it and Gilroy. In the dead of night, these places really looked deserted, and sepia, in their yellow light street lamps. Not a soul was in sight. So imagine our surprise when we were stopped by a police patrol car. It seemed to have come out from nowhere.

Having seen many US police shows on our local TV, I knew to keep still and leave my hands on the steering wheel. I waited until the policeman came up to my side and gestured before winding down the window.

"Yes, Officer, is there a problem?" I asked, feigning innocence.

"Did you know you have been speeding?"

"Er, no. I didn't know we were going that fast." (Honest)

"You see that sign there? This is is a low-speed zone."

"Oh, I thought we were still on the highway," I said, which was true. Some B-roads were part of the U.S. highway system.

"Can I see your license?" asked the cop finally.

I had an international licence but chose to remove my Singaporean one instead and passed that to him. Back then, it was still that green piece of paper.

"Sorry, officer. We were just trying to get back to catch a flight," I said, trying to get some sympathy.

"And where is that?" the cop then asked.

"Monterrey, then SF."

"You're some distance away, aren't you? Where are you from?"

"Singapore."

The cop then walked into the light of a nearby lamp post and looked at my licence, turning it this way and that. And then he walked back towards me.

"Look, I can't do anything with this. Here, you can have it back. Next time, try not to speed through the town area."

I thanked the cop and repocketed my driving licence. I then waved goodbye to him and continued on our way. May, who was roused from her sleep when the cop approached, now closed her eyes again and slept, clutching her woolen wrap around her to keep warm from the aircon. The cop followed us in his police car for a distance and then turned away. I smiled to myself, satisfied that my little ruse worked.

Back to Fireside Lodge

May and I surprised ourselves by reaching our motel, Fireside Lodge in Monterrey in a very short time. We probably took 2-3 times less time than yesterday going in the other direction. OK, we were driving at a leisurely pace going to Yosemite. But to get back to the lodge before 7.30 A.M. meant we took just five hours to cover that 450 km or more distance between Monterrey and Yosemite Park, also driving much of the mountainous roads in darkness as well. Still, that didn't leave us much time to have breakfast or say a proper goodbye to the Lodge's proprietor lady. Our flight was at 10 A.M. and we needed to reach the airport by 8.30 A.M. at the very least. So very quickly, we packed up our stuff, wrote a nice note to the proprietor lady and pasted it on her kitchen door.

I felt sad leaving that Lodge as it was very nicely done up with a fireside place and all. May and I really had a nice and intimate time there.

On the way to the airport, I realised it's not good to be pressed for time in an unfamiliar place. For one thing, I had to return the car to another location, not the same place where I had taken it from (which was at the airport basement car park). Thankfully, my sense of direction was quite good and we managed to find the drop-off place without much fuss. The only problem was that the slip road going in was on the other side of the highway. There I was, barely 50m from the exit of the facility.

So I did what any Malaysian or Singaporean would do under such circumstance. I looked out for traffic and drove against the flow. Heck, it was just that 50m and saved me, well, God knows how many minutes the other way! I mean once you get on a highway, you'd never know where the next exit might be! There was no time to dawdle and so I had to make a quick decision.

The drop-off facility was actually a fenced-up hangar-like building with a sand parking lot. After signing off on the car, we waited there together with a few other customers for a shuttle bus to bring us to our respective flights. Thankfully, the wait was short and soon we were airborne and heading for home. No drama throughout.

I must say that this holiday is one I wished could go on for some more days. Driving with May had been such a pleasure. It always is when that person is good humoured and importantly, able to navigate as well. Years later, when I am old and decrepit, I can look back on this trip and die happy. Wouldn't it be nice to meet May on the other side and start a new journey?

Previous story: USA 5 - Yosemite 1; Next story: March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 1

USA 5 - Yosemite 1


The next morning, May and I woke up at the Fireside Lodge in a bit of a funk. It usually is after an unbridled night of love-making. Fortunately, the coffee made by our lovely old-lady proprietor was fragrant and strong. The breakfast she served up was also nice; simple but appetising. Thus refreshed, we sat down and looked at our road map from the Budget car rental company once more..

Fireside Lodge was situated opposite the US Navy's Postgrad School at Sloate Ave, an innocent sounding institution but was actually a top-notch research facility where our own scholars have been to. The Postgrad School was strong in analytics (useful in establishing terror cell relationships) and some say even latter-day defence tech like DEWs, i.e. directed energy weapons. These DEWs could fry you like a microwave oven from a distance, useful for riot control. You'll be red like a lobster and don't even know it until it hurts. The US tended to test their early weapons in conflict-places like Afghanistan. I cannot help but imagine a hapless 'terrorist' combatant lying on the ground burnt to a crisp like a piece of bacon and frozen in extreme pain.

Sloate Ave was just outside of Monterrey from which May and I had come the day before. The distance from it to Yosemite didn't look far. We would be crossing some plains - a bit like travelling from the Shire to the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit. The highway route looked straightforward with few detours. The journey would be a piece of cake.

Besides, May and I both liked nature. The bonus was that we would be driving through part of the Sierra Mountain range too. How lovely was that going to be?!

Of course, being foreigners, we didn't know if it was the season to be there. A colleague of mine used to ask me to buy him Sierra Mountain Club calendars each time I was in the US. He loved the pictures that marked each month, which were mostly brilliant photos of hillsides painted in exquisite autumn hues and shades. The other pics showed indigenous animals such as the American eagle and fox.

We figured if we drove at regular speed, we could reach Yosemite before nightfall. We could even stay the night there even!

So, having reconfirmed our route, May and I returned to our room to freshen up. We then took along a 2-litre bottle of mineral water and hopped into our car. We could return later, spend the night at Fireside again and fly off back to Singapore and home.

Countryside

The first leg of the journey was fantastic. It was very scenic.

Unlike the coast, this was all plains and distant rolling hills. For me, it was classic American countryside imagery come true: Fields of wild golden hay accosted by wind and shimmering in the sun. And where such fields were cut, there were pelts of hay all rolled up and lying in the sun. They looked like lemony log cakes waiting to be devoured.

This stretch of Americana beauty, I believed laid between Watsonville and Gilroy. We had left Monterrey and taken the Cabrillo Highway north towards Watsonville; it wasn't a long drive. Then we headed westwards towards Gilroy, which we saw on the map to be leading to the foot of the Yosemite range or thereabouts.

It was such a pleasure to drive through such scenery.

In Malaysia, when we drove up North via the east coast inland, much of what we saw were palm oil plantations. They were either full trees or chopped and burnt to a stump. Here, in American out-country,  it was all open plains and far horizons. Very much less claustrophobic.

The way to Gilroy was hilly. We often had to wind in and out, dip high and low. Some stretches were isolated but that did not make us feel lonely. For in some distance would be some farmhouse or community. Quite a few had those ubiquitous grain silos.

When we approached Gilroy, we noticed the land flattening out. Now the highway was much tree-lined. We also noticed something else, the smell of garlic. It invaded our senses way before we even reached the source of it, which was Gilroy itself. It made me think of the Doppler Effect; this time applied to smell, not sound.

At the time, May and I did not know then that Gilroy was famous for that vegetable. We only knew after reaching Yosemite and saw garlic-themed souvenirs in its gift shop. 'Gilroy'. Gilroy who?

So, oblivious to its fame, we did not stop at Gilroy town. We did however make a stop at one the many fruit and veggie stands outside the town and beside the highway (which was a B-road, actually) to pick up some nourishment.

What's funny is that I would later dream of visiting a fair in Gilroy and see all kinds of things made out of garlic and its derivatives, just like how some crafts people would abuse macaroni and make inane stuff. I think it was right after watching a food program that featured the garlic town. It's really interesting how your subconscious would make things up to compensate for life's missed opportunities. Oh, by the way, another famous product of Gilroy's was peanut butter. A favourite bread spread of mine.

Fish Museum

One time, after entering a straight stretch of highway, we drove past a huge white sign with red letters and an arrow pointing to a Red Top Fish Museum. Red Top being a place-name. But really, a fish museum?

We were driving fast and did not bother to stop to swing back. I imagined the museum to showcase walls of taxidermied fish. Perhaps even prized trophies of local fishermen.

May, on the other hand, summarised the setup quite neatly: "So, it was just a 'kiam hur' (salted fish) museum. We can skip it then." I think May was worried we would bring the smell back into the car. Good point. But, haha.

I laughed at her comment and expressed the thought that maybe our friends in Kuantan, Malaysia (where we once had great Salted Fish Claypot Rice) should take up the idea. They were after all the kiam hur capital of that country.

Getting Lost

From Gilroy, we targeted another intermediate lankmark to help us get to Yosemite. We picked the large town of Merced located about 100km away as measured on the map.

What we didn't notice at the time were the two highways - No. 99 and No. 5 - that came in-between. On the map, they looked like two faultlines we had to cross from Gilroy. More sinister still were the mess of crisscrossed roads between the two.

Now, after driving on US roads for a while, May and I had come to appreciate the help the many road signs along the way provided. So far, they had been accurate. But that was all about to change.

What we learnt is that in the US, sometimes major highways would rope in minor B-roads as part of its system. This was especially so in helping it connect one highway to the next.

So, although it looked like a straightforward job driving from Gilroy to Merced, May and I got lost in that maze of B-roads between the two.

We made one wrong turn and that burned up an hour going in the wrong direction.

But despite that, we found the drive interesting. We passed really small towns with few people. Real American small towns with their Main Avenue as the main road connecting them to other civilisations.

Many of these small towns were sitting on flat plains, continuing a landscape we had embarked on since Watsonville. But that started to change as we neared Merced. The terrain became more mountainous and the weather more wet than dry.

Merced

As our destination Merced neared, May and I were glad. We were getting hungry so we stopped at a fast food burger joint on the outskirts of that town. The restaurant was a typical single-storey flat-top all by itself off the highway.

May and I had learnt long ago that it's better to eat light when driving so we ordered the least we could.

After the meal we again topped up on petrol just in case we couldn't find any later on. As I pumped petrol and looked at a small community outside of Merced nestled amongst some hills and trees, I couldn't help but think how similar it was to towns featured in movies like The Deer Hunter which starred a young Robert de Niro. Or the one in that horror series called Harper's Island. You know, places that are wet, cold and where folks liked hunting and fishing and carving things up?

Always in these places (in the movies), someone would use a woodchipper to grind up a neighbour or some unwanted trespasser into a bloody pulp. Then they go and welcome another unsuspecting visitor with smiling eyes and a cup of coffee.

Haha...Horror movies are either cautionary tales or fuel for an active imagination! In any case, I felt safer buying coffee from a fast food joint.

Not long after Merced, we entered what looked like Sierra Mountain country, a place I'd seen featured much in sought-after photo calendars and National Geographic features. In these publications, the trees always looked colourful; the rocks imperious; and the streams sparkling. Even the weather was bright, dry and shiny.

Now, what May and I saw before us were all devoid of that. Everything was either in a shade of rust or grey. Most trees and shrubs were "botak", shaved of foliage. I don't know. If I didn't know better, I would say my car's windscreen had switched from Colour to Black & White.

I imagined we must be on our way up to the Yosemite peak, why else would we be driving up an incline, gentle as it was. The road was narrow and two-lane. But really, of what nature we would find, I was beginning to have my serious doubts.

Previous story: USA 4 - Carmel/Highway 101/Monterrey; Next story: USA 6 - Yosemite 2

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Dwarves of Meno



[I came across this pix (above) on the Internet and thought it was rather funny, how the seven dwarves were called Itchy, Bitchy, Sweaty, Sleepy. Bloated, Forgetful & Psycho - after the symptoms of what some women go thru when enduring menopause. So, here is my version of the classic Snow White and The Seven Dwarves tale based on that. It is part satire. Do enjoy. :-)]

Snow White sat at the table and cried. She could not understand why Dwarf Bitchy would call her "cunt" again. She had told him time and again that it was an unkind word and shouldn't be used, least of all in her presence. It triggered bad memories with her stepmother Queen, who was cruel and liked to call her names, especially when her dad King was not around to hear them uttered.

Stepmother Queen had often used the word "cunt" when talking to her wide-screen LED Mirror TV equipped with 64GB onboard memory, a front-facing 3MP camera, 4G LTE wireless and Google Voice. She would say things like this to Google:

"Mirror mirror TV on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?"

And Google Voice would reply. "Why, it's Snow White, of course!"

Each time Stepmother Queen heard that, she would fly into a rage and shout: "That cunt! Of course she is fair. She's stuck in the castle all day. Meanwhile, I am the one who has to go out to work. Who went and died and left me this financial mess? Snow White's father! Why I can't even mention that cunt's name without flying into a rage!"

Google Voice would always attempt to calm her down. "I sense that you are upset. Do you want to have some ice-cream? My location adviser tells me that there is a Wall's ice cream truck parked nearby. Do you want me to ping them?"

"No! I want you to get rid of Snow White for me!"

Google Voice would then cluelessly reply: "Sorry, that did not quite compute. What do you mean by 'get rid of her'? Do you want me to send Snow White a Google Chat message to ask her to let you be for an hour or two?"

This only made Stepmother Queen livid. "You-goddamn-good-for-nothing-Google-TV-screen! Go check your Wiki Dict for that meaning, you son of a bitch!"

With that, she would then slam the TV screen to 'standby' mode and storm away. Half a day later, she would return and ask the very same question again.

In time, Snow White figured out that it was her GPS coordinates that gave her away. But switching it off in her Samsung Galaxy III smart phone did not help. Neither was hiding in some far corner of the castle. She was still the "fairest of them all". At least in that remote corner, she wouldn't be able to hear her stepmother call her "cunt". But the Queen's rage still reverberated within the castle's walls afterwards.

Although that had happened many years ago, Snow White would still shudder each time she thought about her stepmother. That woman after all did try to posion her with an Apple one time. It was an iPad Mini with a poison-laced screen. One swipe was all it took to send Snow White into a coma. She was just trying to answer a conference call. Turns out, it was her Stepmother Queen calling to trick her into touching the iPad and to gloat. "Hahaha...now you die!" was what she said before disappearing in a GIF cloud of smoke.

Fortunately, Snow White did not die. A passing karung guni man, who was actually a prince in disguise looked in and kissed her thinking she was the air stewardess girlfriend he once loved. By the miracle of his poison-killing saliva, Snow White lived. But the prince was then whisked away by some A*Star agents and locked away, some say in the deep research dungeons of Biopolis Park, where the nefarious arts of virus infection, distribution and incubation were being practised. The agents were keen to find out how his saliva could kick poison powder butt so well. So potent it was.

The prince, afraid of being tortured, spilled everything out. He related how he was at a sex orgy party late one night at a car park in Hort Park. It was held in a CNB "Party More, Less Drugs" campaign bus. At the time, high on drink, he had given tongue to half a dozen women as well as oral sex to a senior official there. If the agents wanted answers, the prince told them they should round up those people and take swab samples.

The agents took down his statements but also laughed at his ridiculous suggestion. No CNB official (and a senior one at that) would risk his reputation and pension to do something so wanton and perverse, they said. Who would be so stupid? they asked.

But the prince then retorted and said "Well, your scholars have a history of being peeps and perverts!" With that he got smacked across the face and fainted. Some say the prince then fell back and knocked his head, causing him to go into a coma. The irony! one of the agents familiar with the case noted. But outside, no one was sure if the prince was really in a coma or dead. Either way, the agents involved could still test him for an anti-poison antidote. They just didn't have to put up with his potty mouth anymore that's all.

=======

Back at the Dwarf cottage-hole, Snow White was still an emotional mess. Ever since she turned 40, her hormones had been giving her hell. One moment she was feeling happy; the next, she would crash with grumpiness. Then there were the sneezes and bashfulness (hot flashes).

"Bitchy had every right to call me a cunt," Snow White said, to no one in particular. "I haven't been myself lately."

But there was more between Snow White and Bitchy. Bitchy, you see, was actually a dike in disguise. Snow White and her had been carrying on a lesbian relationship for many years. Apparently dwarf women don't get menopause; they have always been that grouchy since puberty. Unruly facial hair is the norm too, why dwarf women were sometimes mistaken as men and brought down to the mines as well.

Of course, it wasn't easy to carry on a relationship with someone on the quiet in a small cottage-hole of eight occupants - Snow White included. The only person to know anything about it was Forgetful, who would always soon forget what he saw or knew. But he would still nudge-nudge wink-wink at Snow White each time, not entirely sure why he was doing that. Habit likely, was what Forgetful concluded. Like all his other involuntary actions such as masturbating beside the well (an event which he would also soon forget afterwards to the chagrin of the others. The well was after all common property and provided water for everyone!).

Like Forgetful, the other dwarves were also busy with their own issues to want to bother with Snow White and Bitchy.

Take Itchy, for example. He's too irritated by his own skin allergies to care about any other thing else. Sleepy was the same, almost always half awake only. Bloated would be chased out of the house because of his condition. He farted and burped once too many times, even when food and drink was being served. Now, he stayed mostly on his own in the annex tool shed. Sweaty was always sweaty and liked spending his time outside the confines of the tiny cottage-hole in a nearby hot-spring. He claimed it helps to cleanse his body of perspiration and odours. To find a permanent cure, Sweaty even resorted to TCM. He purchased a popular wooden tub from China for this purpose, a kind of personal sauna that steamed herbs really. That left only Psycho. But Psycho all along had Bipolar Disorder, so no one really took him seriously. If he said something controversial, someone would always retort: "Siao eh, ah!" or "Kenna sai, always talking cock!"

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Feeling slightly better, Snow White decided to talk to The Huntsman. He always knew what to say and do. It was he in fact the one who had saved her in the very first place when Stepmother Queen made the unusual request for her heart one Halloween night. She had claimed she needed it to complete a costume for a party. At the time, Snow White was but a wee Snow Flake and The Huntsman had taken pity on her and set her free in the forest. "Fly, you fool," was what he commanded when she had simply stood there unsure of which way to go. And fly she did, tripping over brambles and wild boars making love in the thick of night in the unfamiliar and largely scary forest.

It was then that she ran into Bitchy, half naked and seemingly admiring her own adolescent breasts under moonlight in what looked like an Elven Spell Circle of leaves piled in the middle of a ring of trees. Snow Flake was at first shocked to see a man-boy with breasts, but she also had been taught to expect the unexpected by her grandma who once lived in these enchanted woods. It was a pity that she died so soon and in such cruel fashion too, being eaten alive by a talking wolf. The Huntsman had come too late to save her. Maybe that' s why The Huntsman saved her from Stepmother Queen: He needed to atone for not being able to save Grandma White from that deceitful wolf. Snow White (as Snow Flake) still remembers that fateful day well. The Huntsman half-naked and glistening in sweat when he came running and swinging an axe, looking a little flustered and out of breath.

Snow White remembers Grandma White as being a skilled lady who could bake and ride a horse. It was she who first taught Snow White how to ride her first pony. It was also she who gave her a riding hood made entirely of soft red felt that she had sewn together. Her nickname for Snow White then was 'Red Riding Hood' - something Snow White liked but not loved. A menstrual incident later while out riding with friends (boys!) also hardened her dislike for that nickname. And when Grandma White died, she decided to let the nickname die with her. 'Snow White' was fine except it did not sit well with Stepmother Queen. That bitch would rather call her "cunt".

Snow White picked up her skirt and hurried along the forest path. The Huntsman cottage was just ahead and she could see smoke coming out of the chimney, meaning that The Huntsman was at home.

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Snow White knocked on The Huntsman's door. A handsome man in his late 40s answered it. He was in lederhosen pants and topless. The Huntsman was obviously still in good physical shape judging from his six-pack abs and tight muscles elsewhere. If they caused Snow White discomfort, she didn't show it.

From inside, Robin Hood in tight pants, mascara and lipstick emerged. He too was topless and seemed to be in a funk, eyes glassy. Snow White wondered if the men had been 'wrestling' again, as The Huntsman once explained when she found them locked in some strange, tight embrace. At the time, the Wrestling Regional Finals were indeed round the corner and so she didn't think too much about it. But now....

Snow White blinked away those thoughts and invited herself in. The Huntsman could, after all, help her with her dilemma. How to calm a butch like Bitchy and keep their beautiful same-sex relationship going.


The End - by TC Lai

Next story: A Monster To Live With