Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A VCR Affair

Speaking about places of work, I am still impresssed everytime I see that National factory sign in Bedok. A classmate of mine worked there as a power supply design engineer more than 20 years ago. If there is one positive thing to say about the Japanese companies, it is that they are long stayers unlike the Europeans.

Europeans tended to go to where the labour is cheap.

That's my experience with them in the early 90s. But credit must be given for their ability to uproot and replant.

At the time, I was working as a New Product Evaluation Engineer in IVP - a joint venture factory between Thomson and Toshiba. It made video cassette recorders (VCRs) for export to the rest of the world.

Before you say "Eeeww, such old tech!" I must say that we were were not making old Ford Model Ts but the VCR version of modern Maseratis.

The VCRs we produced were sleek, fast and full-featured.

Thomson VCRs had the best on-screen displays (the screens that appear on TV to interact with a user) and the fastest rewound speeds in the market...reasons why Toshiba partnered with Thomson in the first place. Anybody who has ever used VCRs in the 80s would know how frustratingly simple the Japanese on-screen menus were. Few VCRs then had FPDs or front panel displays: most just had a counter to measure how much tape had been played.

Nevertheless, the Japanese were very good at manufacturing.

Interestingly, even though these two companies were joint venture partners, they each kept their own separate R&D departments in the factory. The Thomson team had a dedicated  software group to look into on-screen instructions and the brains that ran the whole VCR. Trying to control a servo motor (not a digital one) with a two-bit or four-bit controller is very challenging. A guy I knew in Europe became a rather celebrated engineer because he was very good at it. A servo motor in a Thomson VCR has to perform quite a few neat tricks. It has to spin fast and stop quickly without breaking tape. There are also programmed-stops and slow motion. All in all, quite a feat of engineering.

Back then, state-of-the-art semiconductor chips were just getting better. An Intel AT PC that booted up with Microsoft DOS OS was considered quite good. Digital components were improving but still a longways to go yet.

As a member of the small New Product Evaluation Group, I interacted very often with the R&D folks. I always found the Japanese chaps to be more willing to look at any small hiccup that might handicap their VCR product. And they were rather professional about it.

I remember a problem we once encountered after doing a six-point spark test (a high voltage test to simulate electrostatic discharge). One particular corner of the VCR would always cause the whole VCR to stop functioning. Although it was just a 1/6 chance, the Jap R&D fellas took it seriously and found a solution for it. It did not matter that an extra capacitor was needed in the end, to be added to the original design and parts-list, but these folks cared more consumer safety and experience.

In NPEG our task was straight forward but not easy. We had to make sure that any new VCR product intended for production would pass all qualification tests, i.e. tests such as functional, audio, video and RF. It also had to pass an external audit before being allowed to be manufactured. Most times we had to build on we've learned in school and look at a problem for what it is and tweak the machines to perform the way they should. We turned Engineering into both art and science.

It was especially trying when external assessors from Paris were around. They would want to approve new models of VCRs for production after having traveled all that way to Singapore. We could not disappoint them by saying "We need to send this model back for a redesign! Haha...". Plus, the New Product Engineering people (not Evaluation) would have made sure that the VCR designs were already up to scratch before passing it on to us; we had long meetings for that sort of thing. But given the many stages and processes in manufacturing, even the best designed VCR would exhibit hiccups at some pilot production stage.

And it is the Pilot Run, Trial Run and Lab Run folks that make sure these hiccups are spotted first. We shared our office space with them sweet folks. The role of the PR/TR folks was to simulate the actual production run of all new VCR models. The LR folks, on the other hand, worked frequently with concept models from R&D than real-life mock-ups. Their job was to ensure that the R&D designers were production savvy. Concept models tended to look garage-made with casings constructed of hand-machined/assembled acrylic boards.

We enjoyed working with the PR/TR/LR folks because they were a fun bunch. Many of them were young but highly qualified operators; a majority of them were from Malaysia. They often used the latest "xin yao" Mandarin songs as test audio tracks and that's how I got to know music groups like Grasshopper and Wang Chieh songs. If not for these test-run folks, I probably would still be a mushroom about these popular bands!

The head of stores in this PT/TR/LR place was a woman called Ah Noi, a bossy and gregarious lady who was rotund and short and not much in the looks department. But she added much color to the proceedings. Her loud and piercing voice would rattle the racks whenever one of her girls slipped up in their tasks. I remember Ah Noi crying once also when she was mistakenly accused of something she didn't do. Ah, gossip was rife with her around. She was what we would call a "character" - the sort that would remind you of her birthday and then cajole you for an ang pow or treat. A few years ago, I heard she passed away after an apparent heart attack - news that was related to us no less by one of 'her' PR/TR/LR girls.

Given that we would go through roughly 22 models of VCRs every month, the factory was rather large and fast-paced. It was. We had 1800 employees spread throughout a four-storey main building and some more at a two-storey Annex. This smaller building was especially built to manufacture VCR drum heads, the little magnetic fellas that does the actual tape reading. It's all a very sensitive and delicate kind of operation and required the building to be specially designed and built. No unnecessary vibrations and disturbances

The VCRs we made were play-only, play and record, timer record, instant-timer record, standard play, long play, super long play, two heads, four heads, karaoke, mono audio, stereo audio, single speed rewind, multi-speed rewind, single function buttons, dual function buttons, auto-detect insert, front panel, no front panel, phono jacks, SCART connector, etc.

The brands we manufactured for included Toshiba, Thomson, Saba, Brandt, Telefunken, Ferguson, and RCA. You could roughly tell which markets these brand names were destined for. Saba, Brandt, Telefunken and Ferguson were TV brands from Europe that Thomson had purchased in the 80s. Same with RCA in the US.

With regional markets, we had to adapt our VCRs to a particular TV system. Our machines ran on PAL, NTSC and SECAM. PAL itself has many flavours: B/G/DK/I/L/M/N, each letter denoting how sound paired with its video. Mostly, our VCR tuners simply auto-detected these signals. SECAM was the French terrestrial TV standard. It was only recently replaced this year (Nov 29th) by another modern system. Like France, many countries have migrated to the DVB-T standard or some variant of it.

A couple of mysterious engineering problems cropped up during my time in NPEG. Once, a VCR started displaying black fuzzy lines on TV. It caused a big hoohah because it was already in production. The New Product Engineering manager was put on the spot. After all, it was his team that OK-ed the initial design from R&D. Fortunately, this chap, Gene, was technically competent (he was a RCA Technical Award recipient). He deduced correctly that it was due to an RF transistor. A faulty batch had been supplied to the factory.

The consumer electronics business is like that, often having to use the lowest-cost components to make the best top-quality product. It's fast paced (just like Advertising) and why I got into it. With components, cheapest may not be the best and there would be lots of homologation tests done before its use is OK-ed. It's challenging but rewarding.

Another case was even stranger (this time, a functional problem). A cassette deck that was loading tapes 100% here was found working only 90% of the time over at our sister development lab in Indianapolis, USA. For some reason it would fail during one of their 'idiot' tape loading tests (such tests simulated how a careless user might load a tape improperly into a VCR).

Try as we might, we could not repeat the problem here. In the end, running out of idiots, my manager decided to send me to Indianapolis to see for ourselves the problem they said was happening over there. This was a time before video conferencing so I was glad for the travel opportunity. Plus, my manager had a shopping list of stuff only the US had that was cheaper. It was some ski ropes and archery stuff.

True enough, the engineers at RCA weren't hallucinating. The problem occurred after the VCR had spent some time in the Life-Test room - a place that simulated a VCR working in a country full of hot desert sand and camels. We had the same conditions here in our LTR so, why did the problem not show? It was all quite strange. In any case, regardless of whether we shared the same problem or not, it was a problem and so a solution had to be found. Our poor mechanical engineer Vincent in Sg had to work overtime to get that fixed.

On several occasions, because our automated test station was shared between workers, it often got infected by viruses as floppy discs got read and written over. One particular virus - the Stone Virus - a common one then, would corrupt a hard disk's FAT sector. If that happened, then nothing in your drive could ever be read. You'll get that message: "(A)bort, (R)etry, or (F)ail".

One time, I got that message and as usual, tried to recover using a clean boot disc. But try as I might, it could not be done. We were frustrated because we had a week's worth of data inside that test set-up. Losing all that data meant turning up at an important meeting empty-handed. Not good.

At the end, out of options, I decided to just wait. Perhaps in the morning, things might be different.

Sure enough, when I tried again to access the hard disk, its FAT sector was back. I was both happy and relieved. Nevertheless, I ran the antivirus program once more just to make sure. Later, I would send out a memo to say that in future all disks would be scanned before they could be used in our test-setup. We would also be more diligent with our data back-up schedules. I didn't think we (or I) could take anymore such heart-attack situations.

From these episodes, I learned that despite all the technical knowledge we possess, sometimes, things just happen the way they do. At best, there is nothing you can do but sleep over it. In that latter case, it worked. I didn't have to pull my hair out over it or beat myself up silly!

Note: As a Technical person, I usually prefer some logical explanation when things go wrong. Then we would know how to deal with the same problem next time, just as how we might approach medical symptoms. But working at NPEG and dealing with the problems there, I'd learned to be more forgiving (the French has "C'est la vie!") But at the back of my mind, these unanswered questions remained. Next: Fukaya 1: A New Beginning

I bought these sci-fi books while at Castleton, Indianapolis, where RCA R&D was based. These books were speculative fiction: they contained high-tech musings from scientists and a sci-fi-probable story from a leading sci-fi writer.  Published and edited by Byron Priess.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Lessons In Kranji

What would you do if you were young, fit and had lots of time on your hands?

Well, a friend and I decided it was a good time to try out labourer-type jobs. We had just left school after finishing our O-levels. Academically, we were both doing well and had aspirations (like the rest of Singaporeans then in the early 80s) that would eventually lead us to a white collar job in an airconed office. Our thinking then was: "If not now, then when?" And so we made a bet: Let's see who will last longer in our respective back-breaking jobs.

At the time, I had a sister who was working in a wood products company in Kranji. Besides manufacturing their own window and door sills for export, the company, Amigo Timber Pte Ltd, also processed their own raw timber planks. I asked my sis if I could join Amigo as a labourer, someone who helped to sort out the good and bad raw planks. They presumed I was just trying to earn some vacation money and so they said no problem. I then went to Woodlands Central to shop for workman clothes. I bought a popular brown jacket made in China that was clothed from the same tough but processed hemp that I would later encounter in Taiwan as an NS soldier.

My friend, he decided to try out as a construction worker. He bought himself workman clothes and a hard hat.

It did not take long for us to regret our decisions. After the first day, we could hardly pull ourselves out of bed... We were so goddamn dead tired. Our moms had to threaten and coerce out of the house. "How can you disappoint the companies like that!" was their common reprimand. "Work for one more week!" was their follow-up command. In that one day, we learnt that some work were truly "back-breaking!"

My job at Amigo was simple: As a labourer, I was just required to work with two Sorters to, well, sort out wood planks that were either good or bad for manufacturing. The planks were long, often at 12 feet and came in a bundle of 200 bound in steel straps. The light colored ones were usually not heavy, probably 2-3 kg when held at the ends. But the dark heavy woods were a different story. Even at just 4x4 or 5x5 inches, they weighed like a ton, and were a struggle to lift. They were the ones that could even break a camel's back, let alone a scrawny boy sixteen going on seventeen.

The work of the sorters were more specialised: a knowledge of wood types and disease was necessary. What they usually looked out for in a plank were pinholes, evidence that insects had bored into the wood. They would then mark out the offending area with a piece of chalk (or crayon) and the plank would then be put aside. When the percentages were calculated at the end of the sorting, they would decide if that bundle of planks was mostly good or unusually bad. The supplier would get a earful and maybe not get paid. A rather well-known pair of sorters in the industry at the time were the Koh Brothers, both in their 40s. They were quick and could pick out a bad plank even when the evidence was not so obvious. They were often sent to Kalimantan by my boss to quality-check timber before it was paid for and sent back to the company as raw material.

While sorting, we would put the good planks aside into a separate bundle. When that bundle reached a certain height, they were strapped and then forklifted into a corner of the giant shed we all worked under. Needless to say the place was often filled with bundles of wood and much sawdust.

My day would begin at 8am. At 10am, a break. We would know it was time for a break from a shift siren that sounded all over Kranji. That was how we generally sensed time. There was no need to look at our watches.

Our break was either coffee at a small open-bench area next to our company office or at the opposite Kwong Maw Sawmill canteen. This was a small concrete building that faced the main road. I remember the place not so much for its breakfast noodles but for an incident that took place. That day, officers from the government's veterinary service were outside culling wild dogs. But one of them did not shoot a dog very well and it ran past Kwong Maw with its intestines hanging out. I spent the rest of the day replaying that scene. It wasn't pleasant and I was angry with the officers for doing such a sloppy job. If you had to kill an animal, at least do it right.

There were many dogs around the sawmills in Kranji then, even at our company, which had a large expanse of unused land at the back. We treated the dogs like our pets and gave them rice mixed with whatever leftovers the lived-in workers had. The canines were healthy and carefree. However, each time the shooters came, they would retreat further in-field, howling their protests as they did so. It seemed as if they remembered what had happened to their kin before.

Amigo's lived-in workers were all from the Philippines. They usually signed on with a no-break three-year  contract. 'No-break' meant not being able to leave the country to visit their families back home. It was tough because a couple of them were married and had kids. Their families were poor. I remember helping Ricardo (a roguish chap in the mould of HK actor Simon Yam) to buy pencils, ball-point pens (Red Leaf) and exercise books to send back home to his children. At the time, school children in Singapore didn't think twice about throwing such pens away even if they were good and still filled with ink.

Another memorable occasion was to help George, our resident forklift driver, to buy a special remote controlled 18-wheeler toy for his fourite nephew. I didn't know then that such a toy existed (it was mostly cars and helicopters then). George was a garrulous fella who looked dark like Justice Bao. He drank quite  a bit and his bloodshot eyes only made him look more fierce than he already did. He told me he had a degree in aeronautics. But as the degrees in his country were little recognised elsewhere, his could only find work in other trades. I found George intelligent; you could tell from the jokes he told.

There were others characters such as Yahya and Ismail, both Malays. Yahya was our boilerman, a stout fella who made sure that our boiler was kept optimum by feeding it wood. This boiler supplied steam to the pipes in our wood drying kiln. It was run at a temperature of 230 degrees Celsius. Yahya also looked after our air-quality meter, a revolving cyclinder with graph paper and ink needle. This device was attached to our chimney to monitor air escaping into the atmosphere. Its graph paper often needed replacing. Besides air quality and boiler operation, I also learnt from Yahya a thing about being presentable. Although just a boilerman he was always very well groomed and neatly dressed. His tailored pants were ironed to a crease, his white shirts and singlets very FAB-white and never old. Although he spoke little, he had a great presence. His smile was the most genuine and warmest I've ever seen on someone.

Ismail on the other hand, was a skinny chap with curly hair. He was chatty and his big bright eyes seemed to indicate a kind of lively innocence and goofy goodness. He was my wood-carting budding (me at one end, him at the other). In age, he was one year older than me and had dropped out of school earlier. Like my neighbour Aziz, he also aspired to have his own motorbike. Even then, Malay youths seemed to have a thing for bike riding - something Chinese parents often frowned upon. I was very happy when Ismail later got married, but was also sad when his new wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was breast-feeding their new-born girl then.

As work buddies, Ismail and I often spent our breaks together. After lunch we would find the coolest spot atop the wood plank bundles to lay back and "talk cock". Afterwards, we would fall into a siesta. Lunch-time sleep was what helped us recharge everyday.

Kranji was, at the time, quite the happening timber and wood processing industrial estate. A few large companies were into making furniture. Next to our company Amigo was the largest of them all, HK Teakwood. They churned out standardised furniture, not all of them natural wood. Our own company was only involved in making sills that were exported to window makers in Europe. These manufacturers would in turn churn out complicated double-glazed windows that opened out in three different ways. This allowed them to be used in all kinds of weather. The window sills that Amigo supplied were not difficult to put togther. They were often made up of three pieces of narrow wood planks glued together and than routed (cut) to a specific profile. There were, of course, grooves and slots too for holding specialised metal hinges.

Kranji Industrial Estate itself wasn't that large then. Mostly, it ended a short distance from where our company was, at a spot where the only bus service to that place - No. 208 - made a u-turn and headed back up to Marsiling. The road did not run through to Neo Tiew/Lim Chu Kang then - it ended next to a waterway. This and the wharf at Kwong Maw Sawmill were very popular fishing spots then. But at the time I was more interested in flying kites than fish.

My time at Amigo Timber was just a couple of months but I learnt quite a bit. Things such as the various types of wood felled and planked, the art of quality-checking them, the use of a two-needle moisture meter and kiln operation, and the wonderful people who treated their work and materials with great respect. I also learned to drive a forklift, which was quite different from driving a car - the steerable wheels were behind. I also learned to strap bundles of wood together using a common crate strapping tool. The narrow steel straps were hard and could cause a nasty cut when they were tightened too much and snapped.

More than all these, I learned a litte bit more about life. And not just blue-collar life. It was life in the back alleys and dark saloons. It happened one public holiday eve.

Ricardo and his pals invited me to a drink in town. Town was somewhere near Desker Road along Serangoon Road. After some drinks, they went their separate ways. Ricardo pulled me into a backlane. The place was crowded with men and well-lit, with big white bulbs and colorful lights. Pinkish light also spilled from open doorways to splash on adjacent walls. It was all quite the fantasy. Young women with thick make-up sat just inside the doorways, waiting. I realised then that we had plopped right into a  red-light district area.

Ricardo asked me if I wanted to "do it". I was quite sure and said no. I've heard enough about VD from public education campaigns to even want to contemplate. Plus, I respected women too much to want to get into that sort of thing. Ricardo simply shrugged and said "Ok, wait for me here" and off he went, disappearing into a dimly-lit doorway. I looked for something to occupy my time and found a make-shift stand nearby selling all sorts of aphrodisiacs and sex aids. Much of the medicines seemed to originate from Thailand or India, judging from the squiggly scripts on the labels. There were also many condoms that had hair attached - supposedly stiff animal hair whose function was to help titillate female genitalia while the silicon sac offered protection to the men. Some of the packaging did look old, with suspicious yellow lubricant floating in them.

After an indeterminate time, Ricardo emerged all broad smiles and flustered. Was it his first time? I decided not to make a comment, slightly amused at his state. "Come on, let's go," he said.

"Let's go" brought us to a bar in Kallang, near the National Stadium. It was one of those dimly-lit affairs with round high-back sofas. We bought a couple of drinks for two skimpily-clad girls. One of them spoke Riccardo's dialect and soon they were laughing away. I was trying desperately to act all grown up hoping that my tender age did not show. In an act of manliness, I put an arm round my companion - she didn't shrink away and didn't seem to mind. I remember her smelling of a mixture of perfume, cigarette smoke and hairspray. In that dim light, we could not see each other very well but I think she was probably in her 20s. We sat like that, listening to Ric's animated conversation. From time to time, she would stroke my thigh. I didn't know what else to do so I played with her rather stiff curls.

After some time, Ricardo and I got up to leave. "Come, let's go, she's not here." Who's not here, I asked. "Sally."

That night, I never found out who Sally was nor where she had disappeared to. From that bar in Kallang, we hopped on to a few more, eventually ending up somewhere in Orchard Road looking for that elusive girl. I was all in a daze because, from not having been in a bar before, I was like in half a dozen in one night, drinking and getting fondled. Maybe I shouldn't have been wearing that tight trendy pair of pants after all!

I knew Sally wasn't Ricardo's wife. In an earlier time, I would have been very critical of him. But having worked and ate with these fellas, I realised that they lived mostly a life of deprivations, only able to see their loved ones once every few years. Because overseas calls were very expensive, they didn't even telephone each other, preferring to write letters or send postcards. Or maybe that their families were too poor to even afford a phone. Even if they could, maybe the waiting line was long, like in India. That wait could take 10 years or more then.

That short work-stint in Kranji opened my eyes to a few things. I learnt not to judge unfillial husbands, sex workers and ladies who worked in smoked-filled and dimly-lit rooms.  Unsavory as their world might have seemed, they each have a role to play. And each was just trying to make a living. Somehow, the pains from my physical labours seemed insignificant compared to the challenges these folks faced. I made it a point to study hard then and hopefully make a difference to such folk when I finally come into my own as an adult. In my head I was imagining doing that from behind a large desk in an aircon office. "Really?", "Honestly?". In life, there are no easy answers.

And my friend? He went on to do what he loved best - being a rice microbiologist. But not before working in the insurance business first to make enough monies to finance his studies further. Life, as I implied earlier, often runs not to a preordained script. And this friend came from a rather well-to-do family that owned a timber business in Johor. Yellow teak, best shelving wood ever.

Next story: A VCR Affair

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Woodlands Road

Writing about Bukit Panjang made me recall friends who lived just further up along Woodlands Road before the Yew Tee junction.

Many of the houses stood alongside the railway tracks. If they were on the other side of the road, they were mostly up on a slope embankment (Kampong Lengkok Saga?). Classmate Cedric used to lived there near a Shell petrol station. His house was typical of those in the area - a combination of brick, cement, wood siding, louvre windows and zinc roof. Most of them were painted in light shades of green or blue. Each had a compound that was beautified with grass and flowering plants like bougainvilla or hibiscus. The houses altogether looked quite picturesque especially on a bright sunny day.

Schoolmate Allen and his elder sister Anne lived in a similar sort of house across the road by the railway tracks. Allen was a tall lanky chap who played badminton well. He and I were on the same badminton team in school. Both he and his sister were fair- skinned Eurasians that looked ang-moh with their light brown hair and striking eyes. Allen was the more playful of the two with a penchant for pranks and jokes. Anne on the other hand (she went to the same school but was a couple of years older), was more mature and sensible. She was often kind and considerate. In person she exuded a homely sexiness that some plump women possessed. But she was neither skinny nor plump. She and I later joined the same St Vincent de Paul Society that was affiliated to St Joseph's Church, situated next to our alma mater. I was not Catholic but I liked doing charity work. I also happened to like Anne.

I visited Allen and Anne a couple of times and always enjoyed my stay there. Like most classmates who lived on a farm in the area, their families also had fruit trees either in their yards or nearby. I could never forget the longan trees that grew. During fruiting season, Allen and Anne would help protect the longan fruits from insects by wrapping them in soft tracing paper. From a distance, these trees stood out with their care.

Further up from where they lived was Yew Tee village. A prominent road there was Stagmont Ring Road. For many years after, many NS men would use this road, cross the tracks to get to their ulu army camp (Kranji, I think). I myself never ventured in but hung around the atap shops and market by the canal along the main road.

My classmate Ming Yew lived across Stagmont Ring Road in an atap house that led from Jalan Gali Batu. His family too had fruit trees and one time, we climbed a big one to get at its jambu fruits. Ming Yew too was a scout like my other best pal Kok Leong. But he was not as tall and had legs that was longer than his upper body. (We were all rather awkward growing up.) When he and Kok Leong stood together in their scout uniforms, it was quite the funny sight. But both of them were good scouts and would later spend countless hours chasing waves in their scout speedlaunch at Sarimbun, a coastal area off Lim Chu Kang. Ming Yew and I were good at technical drawing and we often sat together during TD class at Toh Tuck Secondary. He later went on to become an architect.

Jalan Gali Batu used to be rather quiet until the RDC company started its operations. Then large vehicles would trundle in and out creating a sand storm each time. I think there was a quarry inside and that the company was involved in construction and building research. When it got unbearable, Ming Yew and his family moved to Ghim Moh HDB estate. His old house soon fell into disrepair.

My badminton coach in school, Tony, was my senior. He too lived near Cedric. He was a strong athletic chap who was also nimble. You had to be nimble to play badminton well. He liked wearing those track shoes that were popular then, you know, the light nylon ones with a thin urethane sole. I'm not sure why he wore them for badminton because they were never strong enough and would tear. I still remember that green aluminium Yonex racquet he used, the one with the shiny steel shaft, before carbon shafts came along. That model was quite popular with competitive players like him. Those of us who could not afford the latest played with wooden framed racquets still, or with the Blacken 8100 models. When I was in Pre-U, Yonex introduced their popular Carbonex 8 model.

Away from Yew Tee past the Mandai Road junction, one would soon arrive at the Kranji war memorial. Along the main Woodlands Road was a Chinese village. Many of the houses lining the road provided motorbike maintenance services. You would find them left and right of the entrance to Kranji Road (west). Classmate Hua Boon lived there. He was a rather chubby chap but looks can be deceiving. He was in fact quite the top notch goalkeeper able to dive and stretch to make fingertip saves. Our school and alma mater was a force in the local secondary school football fraternity. Most schools strived to beat us.

Hua Boon was an easy fella to get along with and always wore a smile. Nothing seemed to faze him. I think his family also ran a small sundry shop from where they lived. I bought an iconic bike from his neighbour who ran a bike fix-up shop. It was a gift from my dad (surprise, surprise) and was one of the first bikes built for off-road use. It had a kind of flat banana seat, front and back suspensions, and thick tires. Though unique, it was actually rather heavy and slow. But I loved it all the same and would explore Marsiling extensively with it.

From Hua Boon's village onwards, one would soon arrive at Metal Box, one of Singapore's first metal forming factories. At one time, it made the news because it acquired the technology to produce the sort of drink can you and I now use today. What's so special about it you ask?. Well, the old kind of cans were like the baby milk cans you find today. They all have a seam that was soldered together. With a soft drink can, there are no seams. It's as if something just punched and drew a whole piece of metal into a small cylinder. This cylinder is then topped and sealed. The factory later became Metal Box-Carnaud, or some joint-venture like that.

Beyond Metal Box, Woodlands Road would end at the Causeway customs. But just before that, on the left was a kampong of sea gypsies living in houses that stood on stilts. A narrow river ran by it to the sea some 300m away. I know the distance because Allen and I (and  Maria Tan and her girl guides) wanted to explore that area. But only Allen and myself ended up in the crotch-deep mud. When we fished up a flatworm that measured one metre long, the girls 'eeewwwed' even louder and became resolute about not joining us in the now suspect mud. I also wondered what else lurked under that inscrutable surface. But not willing to give up and lose face, Allen and I continued downstream to the river mouth. Once there, we cleaned outselves with sea water and hankered down to dig up some mussels. They were just below the sand surface and was an easy catch for us. We later met up with the girls at Woodlands Central  hawker centre and ate some iced "loke mei" (original cheng tern). Looking back, I think Allen and I were quite brave if not reckless to wallow in all that mud. But at the time, we were young and gung-ho.

Across Woodlands Road from this river was an Ajinomoto plant (exactly opposite Woodlands cinema). Anybody who has lived in Woodlands since the 70s can tell you about the huge pond this factory had. It was nothing spectacular for the eyes but it made quite an impression on the nose. It often gave out an obnoxious smell that was akin to rotten eggs. Imagine, a landmark that buses had to pass by everyday to get to town. It was a huge sigh of relief for everyone when the plant was finally relocated to Senoko. Seriously, what was Ajinomoto making then that smelt so bad. And the plant actually looked quite dilapidated. For a long while that brand gave me the creeps.

As the main trunk road heading into the Causeway and into Malaysia, Woodlands Road was often inundated with goods lorry traffic. It was mostly a two-lane dual carriage way and one lane of it going up would soon get bogged down with lorry traffic during the peak hours, and especially so if immigration processes slowed. It was worse when there's an accident. And we residents of Marsiling would rather walk the last mile than get stuck waiting for it to clear. It was only when the BKE opened that congestion on this road eased. Nobody uses Woodlands Road anymore except the trucks. But if you had to cycle to Bukit Timah, this was the only road accessible. Bicycles then and now are still not allowed on expressways.

There were not many bus services that ran along Woodlands Road - 170, 171, 180, 182. Service No. 170 ran all the way from Queen Street to JB. I find it amazing that it still does. Of course, there was also that JB-Singapore express bus service that cost only $1.50.

Right about the time that Ming Yew left Jalan Gali Batu, the area between Bukit Panjang and Yew Tee saw more the comings and goings of construction trucks. I am not sure, but I think it had to do with the soon-to-be-built BKE. All the houses along the road - Cedric's, Tony's, Allen & Anne's were being chased out and demolished. In one fell swoop the whole area became wild grassland again, re-conquered by tall lallang and wild maize. Many a times when I drive past these familiar places, I wonder if it was all that necessary to clear these lovely homes when nothing else was rushing to take their place. If I had not lived in the North, I wouldn't have met these classmates and their lovely families and experienced what I had been given - a kampong warmness and generosity in spirit. It has made up many times over for not going to that good school in the East.

Next story: Lessons In Kranji 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Bukit Panjang

Singapore sheds its old skin ever so often. I think one place that has changed the most in recent years has to be Bukit Panjang.

I schooled there for four years from the mid-70s onwards. How I got there is a long family story. But just a couple of months before, I had secured a place in a very good school in Katong with my PSLE results. And because I had moved up north to Marsiling, going to that school became neigh impossible. My family did the next best thing, i.e. they found me a place in an English-speaking mission school nearer home. And thus Assumption English School in Boys Town I went.

On the map, the distance from my home in Marsiling to Bukit Panjang is not far. Roughly 10km, which is certainly not a far journey by bus. But remember, this was in the 1970s. No shortcut like the BKE. The only road to town was via Woodlands Road and then Upper Bukit Timah Road (which cuts through Bukit Panjang town. There was no such road as Bukit Panjang Road. (Even today, many people think Upper Bukit Timah Road stopped at 7th Mile. The road in front of AES is Bukit Panjang Road. The road was only created after Zheng Hua Estate was founded.) Heck, where Ten-Mile Junction mall is now was only a three-prong road. One going to Choa Chu Kang, another to Woodlands and the other to Upper Bukit Timah. There was no road going into the present Zheng Hua Estate. What's there was open farmland spreading all the way to Mandai and Ulu Sembawang (where the hot springs are presently, and where the old Seletaris mineral bottling plant was.) This route became a topo march for us NS men some years later, starting from Jalan Malai (opp Ten Mile Junction) and ending in Ulu Sembawang.

The junction then was a circus, not a cross. It had a giant tree in the middle. I know because I used to drive to school when I was in Sec 4, in my father's red Mazda with him sitting beside me. By then my younger sister had also joined AES and in Sec 2. Together, we would head to Bukit Panjang for breakfast and then school. Driving round a circus required skill entering and exiting. Otherwise you would be stuck going round and round in circles hoping someone will give way. I think Newton Circus is one of two left in Singapore.

Where Ten-Mile Junction mall is now was a police station and behind that, Bukit Panjang English (Primary) School. It was a charming little school made of panel wood painted green and topped with a black tar roof.

Home being at Marsiling Lane (2nd phase of the HDB estate), I had to pass by Bukit Panjang everyday to get back. Bus number was either 180 or 182. Both stopped at a make-shift terminus by the roadside opposite Blk 2 (along Marsiling Drive). It was beside a cluster of rubber trees and big granite stones. The trees and stones are still there. A proper terminus was later built beside the hawker centre in front of shops at Blk 19.

Every morning going to school was a rush to get a place on either of these two bus service numbers. No. 180 went all the way to Tanjong Pagar; No. 182 all the way to SGH. - Both very long journeys! Not surprisingly, many office workers also jostled for a place on these buses with us students. JB students usually traveled to AES in school buses (the old bug-eyed Austin-Morris JU250 kind) or took bus service number 170 which was the only Singapore bus that went all the way into Johor Bahru from Queen Street. It still does. (Together with those Singapore-Johore Bahru direct buses that used to charge $1.70 (later $2.20) per trip). They were a common sight passing by AES/Boys Town.)


Attending AES was an eye-opener. For one thing, the school itself was quite physically different from any secondary school common at the time. These were mostly of the Chestnut Drive Secondary School variety, you know, four-storey types of brickworks and metal panels. A canteen below and an assembly hall cum badminton court upstairs.

AES during my time was made up of the old Boys Town School buildings many of which were built for trade school use originally. They were then converted to classrooms when Boys Town Vocational Institute was built. Brother Roger Venne was personally involved in the renovation himself, driving a red truck of supplies up and down that circuit road that ringed BT. He was also a photography enthusiast and to him we are indebted for many of the early photos of BT when it was just a toddler. He even went all the way up to Bukit Gombak hill to get a panoramic shot of the BT estate.

The other surprising thing about attending AES for a city boy like me was that many of my classmates lived on farms or in kampungs. I was born in Jalan Sayang not far from present day Kembangan MRT station and lived in a terrace house. As such, my early childhood days were spent around that area. The only kampungs I visited were the ones in Bedok (Malay) and Chai Chee (Chinese). A relative lived near the Malay kampung and so we had plenty of occasion to visit.

Later, because of termite infestation, my family moved to Sims Avenue, Geylang. You can read my Growing Up In Geylang blog for my impressions of growing up there.


As a city boy, I had never seen a farm or been to one. Many of my classmates in AES then came from farms in Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang, Woodlands Road, and Mandai. They grew vegetables, reared pigs and cultivated orchids.

They also lived in kampungs on either side of Woodlands Road, such as Lengkok Saga and Yew Tee. Or Gali Batu.

And quite a few lived in Bukit Panjang itself. Either up Jalan Cheng Hwa or opposite in Lorong Ah Thia, which was a bustling place with a cinema and popular kopitiam. A primary school friend actually had a relative who lived there and was well-known for selling their family recipe kuehs.

Chye Khian, for instance, was from Jalan Cheng Hwa. We were both from the NPCC and I remember vividly one time waiting for him just a little into that narrow road that led upwards into his kampung. I did not dare venture in because of the sound of barking dogs. After some minutes, Chye Khian did finally appear, in his usual swagger and curious smile. He also always had his shirt tucked out in that "pai kia" way. Chye Khian was slightly built and fair; and girls were utterly jealous of his rose bud lips.

I would always remember this scene of him walking down Jalan Cheng Hwa because in those days, mists would form in the morning due to the much vegetation around. So him walking down from those kampung houses surrounded by mists was something out of a Chinese painting. You don't get this anymore unless you visit Bukit Timah Hill early in the morning or go Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.

Boon Hong was another classmate from our AES NPCC unit. His family owned a timber and paint business in a shophouse row some three bus stops away from school. (Aik Huat Timber and Paint Pte Ltd, I think.) They now live opposite Assumption Pathways but during our time at AES, his family home was a large house just by Jalan Taluki outside Hillview. It was a nice, big kampung house of brick with a zinc roof. And well, of course. I used to go to his house to study and revise for exams.
Boon Hong was especially good in math.


This 10-mile point of Upper Bukit Timah Road called Bukit Panjang must have been like the last civilized outpost in Singapore's ulu north before people headed up to Johor Bahru. That's what it felt like for me when I moved up to Marsiling. I still remember that fateful day very clearly. I sat atop the lorry that was ferrying my family's belongings and furniture to our new place. I was like a scout looking out for our final destination. Passing through, the feeling was the same as travelling through Malaysia in the 80s - when small towns mattered and before multistoried shopping centres "choped" their place and reared their often ugly concrete facades. Little did I know then that I would soon get to know this place quite intimately.

As mentioned, Boon Hong father's shop was in the last section of a long row of shophouses farthest from Jalan Cheng Hwa near our school. His family did not live there but in a zinc-roofed house not far from Hillview Road entrance. That place was for a long time recognisable for one entity that stood the test of time: a Standard Chartered Bank branch. Unlike modern banks, this one was smallish and approachable. I remember going there once to deposit a large sum of money - workers' wages to be precise, some $25k or so when I first started work. It was probably the biggest sum of money I've ever "kiap" under my armpit so that no one would snatch it away!

Outside this bank was a very popular bus-stop that served many bus numbers. Buses that came from town and heading to Bukit Panjang, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang and Woodlands. Residents in Hillview HDB Estate often alighted there to walk that short distance (and under the railway bridge) back to their flats. These numbers should sound familiar - 170 (JB/Queen Street), 171 (Mandai/Queen Street), 172 (Lim Chu Kang/?), 173 (Hillview/Stevens Road etc), 180 (Marsiling/Prince Edward Rd), 181 (to Queensway and Beach Road), 182 (Marsiling/Orchard Rd etc), 178 (connect at 7th Mile), etc. Man, you have to tip your head to the bus drivers for such long routes they have to traverse on a daily basis. It's quite crazy, actually. And the piles they must have suffered too. OMG!

Classmate Maria Tan, an all-Chinese girl with surprisingly dark skin and a perpetually sunny disposition, lived in one of these HDB flats now demolished. Her family ran a fruit business nearby in Princess Elizabeth Estate. When visiting Maria, we often climbed the hill behind where she lived. We found out soon enough why the place was called Hillview! Some time later, a large defence camp was built and part of this hill area was then cordoned off. The military put up red signs were put up threatening to shoot anyone who did not stay away!

Badminton teammate Thiam Chuan's family ran a motorbike repair business from an atap house next to this Hillview/Upper Bukit Timah road junction. It was part of a small cluster of ataps that was the first kampong houses to go. Thiam Chuan was a big, mature chap with a sunny personality and a killer smash.

The shops along Bukit Panjang were two-storey types, the kind you would find in the oldest parts of Singapore. After school, me and my classmates would sometimes wander along the five-foot ways. The corner coffeeshops were all traditional with their tables of marble tops and teak-wood legs. I liked looking at watches and a watch retail shop there was a favourite haunt. Another shop that fascinated was one that sold record players and styluses - the needle points that give voice to vinyl records. A good, sensitive stylus would cost a lot of money. I believed the top brand then was Shure.

Over at the opposite side of the road, in a shophouse, was a shoe shop that I also frequented to buy my school canvas shoes. This shop was situated near an overhead bridge after Lor Ah Thia. Classmate Sutjianto, an Indonesian, often took a shortcut through this lorong to his home in Phoenix Gardens, a bungalow estate. His family seemed pretty well off, and if there was a new digital watch from Casio, he was the first to wear it.

Sutjianto and I got along. He was smart and good in Math. He had also a keen interest in badminton (his countryman Rudy Hartono was king then). But he was not very athletic. I think his pampered upbringing had something to do with it. In person, he was fair and soft-spoken and walked with a slight hunch. Sutjianto seemed more mature than the rest of us though. I often had the feeling that our school was just a temporary stop for him. He was not alone in that regard as there were others like him. Quite a few of my schoolmates were from Johor Bahru. They told me that our school was the only decent English medium one nearest to the Causeway and that most of them had plans to leave for overseas study once they completed their O-levels. Eventually, quite a few did do just that.

Sutjianto also liked to play table tennis and we, together with Ser Yang, his brother Sze Heng, Kheng Huy, Kok Hock and Boon Hong used to bat around in either the large indoor school hall or at the more open Boys Town Home hall (where we often hosted prize-giving ceremonies, dinners and fundraiser cinema shows). Ser Yang was good enough to be a national player and I remember the last thing he taught me was how to top-spin. I in turn gave him and his brother tuition in Geography and other subjects.

(A primary school classmate of mine who lived in Geylang had grandparents living in a kampong high up in Jalan Cheng Hwa. For generations, her grandpa sold his famous Teochew kueh in Lor Ah Thia - in that food area around Sin Hwa cinema. Another acquaintance's wife grew up in a kampong along the lower stretches of Jalan Cheng Hwa, right next to a wide longkang/river. In December, the heavy rains would flood the place - why they call their kampong, Lift Up Sarong Kampong. Haha, quite funny.)

Kok Leong was a Malaysian like them. He was another good friend of mine and an active scout. After his O-levels, he went to the UK to further his studies. He was the one I gave my tube of kuti-kuti collection to as a token of our good friendship. Sadly, we lost touch with each other and I do hope he is keeping well. A senior of his, Kam Loon, whose sister was my sister's classmate, was also sent to the UK to study. He was quite the orator and was a good inter-school debater. School debate competitions were a big thing then in the 70s and 80s. He was someone I looked up to. Last I heard, he is residing in S'pore and has started his own consultancy and listing firm. Seems to be doing quite well judging from what his sister tells me. That's great to know.

The changes that has happened to Bukit Panjang are plenty. First, the junction that connects Upper Bukit Timah Road, Woodlands Road and Choa Chu Kang Road used to be a circus. I should know because I drove to school when I was 14 and that circus was my first roundabout. Bukit Panjang Road did not exist then. There was a police station where Ten Mile Junction Shopping Centre now stands. Behind it was Bukit Panjang English School, a quaint little primary school housed in a brick and teakwood building. It was painted in shades of natural green.

Across the road from this school was a post office that was converted from a childcare clinic. Beside this, a windowless Telecom switch building that looked like a solid block of concrete (they always were like that). A narrow metal track road  (Lor Malai) ran between these two buildings. Before the BKE was built, we NS men used to start one topo exercise from this spot. We would then hike across vast farmlands all the way to Ulu Sembawang, near where the former Seletaris mineral water processing plant was at the time. It was quite the distance. Stray dogs were plenty and there were also treacherous (but pretty) 'pandan kueh' ponds. We often kept to the tracks just so we wouldn't fall into one by misstep. And clutching map and compass, we would plod on from one landmark to the next.

That Seletaris factory later became a Coca-Cola bottling plant. It was situated previously along a now defunct road called Jalan Ulu Sembawang. This snaked from the main road near Chong Pang Village into farmland and kampong. Folks often traveled on this backroad to search out a No Signboard restaurant.

Over the years, Bukit Panjang town started to show its age when traffic increased and kampongs got cleared. It was irrevocably changed when a few rows of its shophouses were demolished in 2005 to make way for an up-market condominium. This condo looks like one of the many steel and green-glass ones along Paterson Road. Why it was built in ulu Bukit Panjang town and so close to the main road left me scratching my head. Maybe the developers knew something I didn't. The answer became apparent in the last three years when much more development occurred around it, turning the place into a mini Hong Kong condo city.

The first condos in Bukit Panjang sprang up in Diary Farm near Hillview. Highrises in Cashew Road soon followed in the early 90s.

The areas near Diary Farm were mostly wild nature back then. Its boundary linked Chestnut Drive which besides having a private bungalow estate (some fancy units there) it was also home to a few tobacco leaf farms. That place became a popular cross-country route for my school. We often joked about making cigars with those plants but we never did. I often joined my school's scouts (esp Kok Leong's troop) on hikes around the area and would end up munching on wild pink jambu fruits. That area is vast and runs all the way to Bukit Timah Hill. If you knew your way, you could hike past a quarry to its base at Hindhede Road.

Hindhede Road itself was home to a well-ordered Chinese kampong that stood on a network of canals. The houses there were zinc-roofed and slated and puntuated with glass louvre windows. I remember the slats were painted black, why the place was called "orh choo" or black houses. Classmate Ser Yang and his brother Sze Heng lived there, as well as Oon Chin Teik, a fellow NPCC mate. Ser Yang was a very good table tennis player and he taught me quite a few tricks, including how to topspin. Sze Heng was more the ladies' man. One was in NPCC while the other joined the Red Cross. But both were in the school table tennis team.

Bukit Panjang New Town sprang up at a time when I was busy with my career so I didn't see it evolve. I didn't like the place much because the area was low and the flats were close to one another. Come May, it felt warm and stuffy living there. For years it was as isolated as nearby Jalan Teck Whye HDB Estate... until the LRT was built. That gave birth to the Ten Mile Junction station and shopping centre. Naturally, the police station that was there had to make way, as did that quaint primary school.

Now, if you visit Bukit Panjang town, you will be greeted with more construction and road works. A future MRT station will open there. You can still catch glimpses of the old town if you look hard enough. Boon Hong father's shophouse row is still there, the last surviving stretch. An iconic clan association building is not lost and sits not far across the road. A restaurant there is famous for its crab tanghoon (if it has not moved). The areas around Lor Ah Thia has long been demolished and tarred over. It was home to a cinema and kampong and one time, whilst on my way to buy Dragon Fly badminton shoes, I recall seeing a Chinese wayang set up near its entrance. It must have been Hungry Ghost month. With so many physical changes to the town these days, I doubt even the ghosts of yesteryear will recognise the place. Like me, they will wander and wonder to find familiar landmarks of an era that has now slipped quite permanently into the past.

Afternote:  Classmate Swee Lak, who was a kaki friend of mine in Marsiling, grew up in a kampong in Bukit Panjang. His said his father sold cloth at a pasar malam on Friday nights along the main road. The market would open on Sunday mornings. Swee Lak recalls two opposing groups of  gangsters on either side of Bukit Panjang Road that often created havoc for the folks living there (gangsterism had been a part of Bukit Panjang since the mid-19th century, something the brothers/priests of Boys Town had hoped to eradicate). In fact, Swee Lak said he once witnessed a primary school boy from Boys Town being knifed there (near the clan building) and died. Another classmate, Nancy Ng, who was a Red Cross member, used to do Red Cross duty in the area. Apparently they were often on standby on Friday evenings in case fights broke out and people got hurt, fights that involved some of the more rowdy boys from Boys Town Vocational Institute, for example.  I didn't know my schoolmates had to do that sort of stressful thing. I only knew that fights broke out sometimes in our shared canteen with the VI boys. Our canteen was also our school badminton court and we often practiced there on Saturday morning. So at times, we would arrive to find blood and broken bottles on the floor.

About Lorong Ah Thia:

This road is named after a rich Chinese businessman, Chia Ah Thia (d.1930), who came from China at a young age. Chia Ah Thia had houses and property in Bukit Timah (near Bukit Panjang Police Station), Buffalo Road and in Kranji. Between 1912 and 1914, Chia Ah Thia owned rubber plantations and carp rearing ponds in the Bukit Panjang and Mandai areas. He later also acquired landed properties on the 10th milestone of Bukit Timah Road in Bukit Panjang, which became known as Lorong Ah Thia. The road name was decided by the Singapore Rural Board at a meeting in August 1938.

Chia Ah Thia married a Peranakan, Sim Guek Kee (d. 1941) the daughter of a goldsmith in Upper Circular Road. They had two sons and two daughters. His eldest son, Chia Yong Hoe was educated in St Andrews School, and was the first Asiatic Inspector in the Police force in 1925. During the Japanese Occupation, the children sold all their parents' heirlooms. Ah Chia's grand-daughter is with the Peranakan Voices, a choral group of the Peranakan Association.  - Source: Singapore Street Names - A study of Toponymics. 

Next story: Woodlands Road

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Story of Winnie

I feel a sense of regret to hear that Rochor Centre is going to be demolished to make way for the new North-South highway. I used to own a flat nearby in Short Street; and RC was the place where my girlfriend and I visited often for meals, grocery shopping and picking up that odd sundry good. It was a special time of our lives. The distribution shops upstairs also reminded me of my family's business, which was in Engineering Services. The work involved tools, meters, ball-bearings, bolts and nuts and other mechanical things like that.

I met my girlfriend Winnie during NS, at an end-of-OCS party. She was brought along by her best pal whose boyfriend eventually became a career army officer. Me, I went on to study Engineering.

Winnie began her working life early, right after her O-levels. She started at an advertising firm and then became an executive at a temp placement agency. She was a mature, conscientious worker with a sweet personality - all her bosses doted on her. In person, she was a leggy beauty in the mould of Goldie Hawn: big eyes, sassy hair, warm persona. You could immediately tell that this person was innately kind and gentle. I was most attracted to her sexy lips and eyes that were shy, cheeky and sparkly all at once.

Like most girls her age, she enjoyed shopping and was skillful with make-up; but she was frugal. I credit her for teaching me how to shop and look for a bargain. She also liked fashion and I learnt a thing or two about matching clothes from her. If I hadn't met her, I think my engineer wardrobe would have remained cerebral and taken longer to evolve. Maybe never.

Despite her secure day job, Winnie would take up a second one waitressing at hotel banquets. A close friend of hers thought the same, so it was a case of positive buddy influence. Maybe she was working hard to save money.

I found out why one day when she asked if we should apply for a flat. 

As I was still studying, I wondered if we should wait. She was quite adamant that we go ahead.

Winnie wanted to live in town so we bought one of  those old red bricked flats along Short Street. It was all we could afford. It had one bedroom, a hall and a small kitchenette. Although old (the flats were built in the 50s), it came alive after we stripped and repainted the walls. I also did a bit of masonry work on the toilet to bring it up to date. Winnie had a thing about toilets so I was glad to oblige.

Our flat was just beside Sim Lim Square which itself was diagonally opposite Rochor Centre. We would go to RC often to eat and get supplies. Winnie liked a factory outlet there that sold branded garments. With their branded labels cut-off, the clothes sold for $5-$10, sometimes $2. Because they were such good deals, Winnie bought me a few sweaters for school. Aircon there was a killer and so the sweaters were a lifesaver. My schoolmates soon noticed my change in wardrobe and complimented me on my new look. They thought the sweaters were bought from overseas because they were of good quality. They also knew my GF to be an air stewardess. My female classmates would often ask if she was back. They liked her.

Yes, Winnie by then had become an air stewardess. It happened quite by chance after meeting some SIA directors at a hotel function she was waitressing at. They were impressed by her skill and manners. When the  next round of recruitment came up, she was hired. She later wanted me to join her but I thought better of becoming an air steward. The IT industry was booming then and I wanted to be part of it. Air stewarding didn't seem so mentally challenging at the time, nor had it long-term prospects.

Even though Winnie had become an international air stewardess, her frugal ways remained. She seldom ate out. For meals, she would cook rice or instant noodles with a small Philips travel cooker in her room. In all that time that I knew her, she only pampered herself once with an LV luggage bag which was a common purchase amongst air crews then. I would later learn that she manged to save up quite a bit after just a few years working at SIA. She was on the international flights that paid more.

When Winnie wasn't scheduled to fly, we would spend weekend mornings strolling around the area where we lived. Many small coffeeshops existed then, serving HK-style wanton noodles, Chinese nasi lemak (which was a fave with the late-night taxi uncles), bak chor mee (old-style with that bit of fried fish), and Hokkien mee (which was cooked by a teenage couple) - well, just to name a few. 

Rochor, before the river was cleaned up, used to be home to a shanty town and a slew of auto-repair shops - why a large commercial complex now exists in the same area to house back many of the displaced auto businesses. It even has a small Shell petrol station at its atrium.

The area was quite diverse and charming back then. 

For some reason the place gave off an old vibe. Maybe it was the flats. Or it could be the many uncles and aunties who lived and thrived there. Those 'Tiong Bahru' flats behind our flat also gave the place an undeniably nostalgic feel. 

At RC, Winnie and I liked having breakfast in that coffeeshop opposite the NTUC supermart. We often patronised that stall with the assortment of kuehs. The coffeeshop lady was also chatty and friendly. Further along inside the Centre, there were a couple of well-stocked sundry shops that always attracted a flock of curious browsers. An old-style watch shop also reminded me of those from South Bridge Road that I used to visit as a kid living in Geylang. We bought our first clock there for the flat.

As time passed, I wondered if getting the flat was such a good idea. Winnie and I had started to drift apart. She was flying more frequently and my studies were getting intense. We only met up when she was "back in town". We got along essentially like an old couple, but there was nothing intellectually common between the two of us. Also, the one-year grace period was up and we had to put pen to paper to seal the deal for the flat with HDB. That meant getting married. I realised I wasn't ready for such a leap in commitment.

Most likely, it was youth speaking. I brought the issue up with her. Winnie got very upset and called my eldest sister, who hurried down to comfort her. After a while, Winnie accepted that maybe we were indeed too hasty.

I understood better why: Winnie was brought up by her grandma. When she moved back in with her parents, she was desperate to get her own place. Her mom wasn't a good caregiver nor housekeeper (her kitchen floor was sticky like malt candy) and her dad liked walking around in his underwear even when I was around. Her only sibling - a younger brother, was also coming of age and needed his own room.

Though Winnie eventually agreed to split, she made an unusual request: Would I stay on with her till she found someone else? Winnie was a nice girl and I did not want to see her hurt or left alone, so I said yes. Maybe it was her way of dealing with the loss. But marriage is a big step and I realised I was the sort who needed a soul mate who could chat with me all sorts of topics under the sun. Marriage would lead to children and for me, that mattered. I wanted us both to be happy in the long-term.

In time, Winnie hooked up with an old guy friend of hers who had an earlier interest in her. But I didn't like him much. You probably wouldn't too because he was unresponsive and liked to keep his sunglasses on all the time, even at first-meeting. Winnie told me that that Jeffrey was an ex-SAF pilot chopped for dangerous flying. At the time that he and Winnie hooked up again, Jeffrey was helping a relative run a restaurant in Florida in the US. I don't know how Winnie did it but she eventually got him employed by SIA as a pilot. Not a bad turn of events for someone once considered a dangerous flyer.

However, this did not have a happy ending. Jeffrey cheated on Winnie with some air stewardesses on several occasions when he started flying. It was Winnie's ex-colleagues in SIA who found out and told her about it. But by then they were already married and had two young kids. Winnie was so depressed about it that her friends, worried for her health, checked her into Tan Tock Seng hospital for observation. But the hospital didn't watch her too well. The day she was admitted, Winnie sneaked out to a nearby HDB point-block and jumped to her death.

I found out about her death one year later from a newspaper obituary. It had been 7-8 years since we last broke up. I was stunned.

What stunned me further was to learn from Winnie's close friends that her mother-in-law, afraid that Winnie might return to haunt the family, actually took scissors to her nice clothes and snipped off all the buttons and pockets. She and Jeffrey then packed all her clothes in black garbage bags and threw them out. That was a grave act not unlike a curse. You mutilate someone's clothes like that only if you do not wish that person's spirit to return - or be reincarnated. I was speechless and aghast at their cruel actions. I thought this kind of thing was only done to enemies???

Here was a decent girl, loved by most and yet have a mother-in-law behaving like that. Did the MIL not know that the chief scoundrel was her son?

On the final day of her wake, her close friend Helen told me that Winnie was sent off by over a hundred of her friends. That seemed right. To me, she remains that hardworking, sweet girl who is fiercely loyal to her friends. She was very generous in spirit and though frugal, was fond of buying thoughtful gifts for friends from her many travels. I should know; I still have a number of them in my Treasure Box of Memories, including several Hallmark cards.

With me, she was extra generous and so she must have been with Jeffrey - why the more it pains me to learn of what he has done to reward Winnie in such a manner. She even bought a house in Sophia Gardens (next to Cathay cinema) so as to start a family. That was where all her savings went. 

I did meet Winnie once after we broke up. It was maybe a year before her death. We bumped into each other at Cold Storage in Holland V. She must have been visiting her close friend Helen who lived nearby. Her young sons, probably aged one and three, were there with her. We had a perfunctory but friendly chat - the sort that acknowledged that we both have moved on. We wished each other well and then parted ways. She looked good and did not seem troubled.

Back when it became clear that our relationship was over, I stood along Rochor Road looking up towards the flat we shared that one year. I was hoping to see Winnie one last time. I knew it was best for the long term, but no matter what, there's always a tinge of regret when separation becomes amicable. Yes, I was sad that the relationship had to end. I just wished I didn't have to think we were incompatible. But that tiny nugget of truth inside me refused to let my heart rule. I left that night without seeing Winnie again. It would take another nine years before I could start another relationship.

But oh, if only we had kept in touch! At the end of the day, she was a decent and beautiful person. And she always said I made her laugh. Perhaps she could have called me in that dark moment of hers and be cheered out of it. Winnie's death changed the way I would handle my ex-gf relationships. There's no need for awkwardness or keeping a distance. We should value a person for whom they are, maybe more, for the qualities that attracted us to them in the first place. 

RIP, Winnie. Thank you for those Rochor/Short Street memories. More importantly, thank you for loving me. I still remember that cabin smell you'd bring home from your long-haul flights, stepping through the doorway dressed in that SIA sarong kebaya that fitted you so well. I missed you then and I still miss you now. Please be in a better place. The angels will count you as one of them.

Note: The red brick flats beside Sim Lim have all been demolished some 4-5 years ago to make way for that iconic Lasalle College of Arts which now stand on the site. Rochor Centre will follow suit from 2013 onwards. By which time, destruction of physical memory of my time there will nearly be complete. Next story: Bukit Panjang

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Beauty World Market

My school did not have workshop facilities, so whenever workshop classes rolled around, we would make our way to a nearby school, usually a government-funded MOE school. If the classes started later, we would leave our own school usually after recess. Else we would head to our workshop school first and then return. This made us feel like migrant workers. But it has its rewards. Moving about gave us reason to loiter outside, especially if workshop class ended earlier than the normal school day.

One such popular hangout place was next to the old Beauty World market. I believe it was along Siew Tin Road. At the time, our workshop technical studies were done at the nearby Toh Tuck Secondary. There  was an empty square behind the market and a Mama store nearby. We learnt from a fellow classmate (Meng Thye, a nice big-sized fella with little interest in school) that besides sweets and entertainment magazines, it also sold porno mags. Not just Playboy or Hustler, but yellow mags from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand. Of course we boys were grateful and ashamed at the same time. We would have been happy just ogling at girls in bikinis, let alone skin. So we flipped through the mags, had a good laugh about the whole thing, and that was that.

Besides these skin mags, the Mama also ran an arcade game inside his store that was more akin to gambling. The machine resembled something of a self-made Pachinko machine.

But what was unforgettable was Beauty World Market itself. I think it was formally called a Town than Market. It was situated at 7-mile along Bukit Timah Road and it's Mandarin name, "Qi ying li pa sa",  referred to it as such.

I liked to roam about in BWM because it reminded me of the Sungei Road market; it too had an old world charm. But unlike SRM, the market itself was a tight warren of shops selling a rojak of stuff. Under that great expanse of stall canvases and zinc roofs, cooked food, fruits, sundry and departmental goods were sold. A stall that faced the main road was especially popular; it sold char kway teow. As it was behind a bus stop folks on their way home or having to change bus rides would queue to tapow the noodles back. For me the market was where I frequently bought my school shoes and stationary supplies.

The shoe shop reminded me of the one that was featured in the HK movie Echoes of the Rainbow, where Simon Yam's character was a shop-owning cobbler. It too had a glass showcase although the one at BWM was a revolving one. I know because at one time, the glass case displayed a pair of good-looking white canvas school shoes from Taiwan. The brand was ROC, not the country but the bird. Perhaps it was a play on Taiwan's international acronym. At the time, Taiwan was pretty ostracised, no thanks to Big Brother China. Everytime I passed by that shop, I would ogle at the shoes, telling myself that I would get them once my own school shoes expired. It didn't take very long as I often played badminton. The game was fast-paced and put great stress on the feet. Every time I moved around court, one of my trailing feet would cause holes in the sides of the shoe canvas leading to premature wear and tear. That ROC shoe looked tough, and smart.

Another brand of shoes I would buy is Fung Keong, who sold a Badminton Master look-alike. The white lines that run by the side of the soles were more plastic than rubber but they ran on their red coloured ones as well unlike Bata. On red, they looked really nice.

Near this shoe shop was a back staircase that led to the back and side of the market along Siew Tin Road. The sun that pieced through that opening often lit up flying dust, kicked up by folks who hurried through.

Not far from this shoe shop was that stationery shop. It was quite neat and somewhat big. I believed it was called Grassland or chao yuan. I often shopped for my technical drawing supplies there, including Pentel pencil leads and Tombow or Steadtler erasers. They sold technical drawing blocks as well.

Over the years since I left secondary school, I seldom visited the market. For one thing, JC was hectic. Immediately after that, national service. In July 1984, not long after I RODed from the army, BWM caught fire. Some 20 shops were burnt but luckily, there weren't any casualties. However, what that was left standing was soon demolished.

Not long after that, Beauty World Complex was built diagonally across the road. Many of the former shops from BWM restarted their business there, including that Grassland bookshop. Some of the food businesses also moved upstairs to the hawker centre. It remains a good food haunt till today, famed for its satay bee hoon and Chinese mutton soup. For some reason, towels I buy from a shop there do not discolor or shrink.

There are a couple of shops there that I would visit each time I go to BWC. A toy shop that sells a wide range of playthings both local and imported, and an equipment antique shop run by actress Michelle Chia's uncle, who was once a policeman in khaki shorts. I am still eyeing that 1950s battery-operated bike torch he has in his cupboard. Its design is reminiscent of the finned autos from that era.

Over the years, I have certainly wished I had gone back to BWM more often to eat and take pictures. Perhaps my classmates who lived around that area did. It would be good to look them up. Maybe they could also tell me what happened to that enterprising Mama and his shop.

But that cleared space where BWM once stood remained vacant for a long time. Then a small car park was built to cater to late-night supperers at the nearby Al Amin prata place. A few years ago, construction crews moved in to start on the MRT line. I am not sure what else is planned for that space in the future.

A lasting image I have of the market was the last day of our exams. Clutching our technical drawing boards, we waited by its side road for friends to go watch Jackie Chan in his new Drunken Master movie. It was being screened at the cinema across the road in Bukit Timah Shopping Centre. It was a very funny and good movie that caused us boys to be 'drunk' for a while. After the movie we went back to the market for fried fritters. The place which sold them was old and not too clean. But, man, the fritters were good!

Next story: The Story of Winnie

Friday, 2 December 2011

Workshop Days

Whenever I see a geometry set in a bookshop (you know, that tin box that holds the compasses, divider, protractor, etc) I am reminded vividly of my technical stream studies in secondary school. That all took place in the  late 70s, a period which saw great economic expansion in Singapore. Many factories were being set up and the call for engineers was frequent and loud. As my family had a history in engineering services, I was naturally channeled  into this so-called "sensible profession". Folks of my generation never thought of becoming authors, stage actors or ballet dancers. If we did, we would be told that we would starve and die unhappy. In some cases, even our families would disown us.

In those days, streaming in secondary school was done at the end of Sec 2. You were either in the Science, Arts or Technical streams. You had a choice, but to be in the Science Stream, you must have the results to back up your claim, especially in the subject of Science.

Gaining freedom
My results in Sec 1 and Sec 2 weren't too bad, but their were not as stirling as I once had in primary school. Back then, I had good reason to perform: my ultra-strict father made sure of that with his cane. In secondary school, he was largely absent from my life, so I was like a monk without a frock, praying TGIF and out imbibing spirits so to speak. Even as I enjoyed school life more, I made sure my results were good enough to win me bursaries. Even de-frocked monks can remain filial and I had still my poor mom's aspirations to consider.

And so, in a twinkle of an eye, I was inducted into the Technical Stream. We TS students sat in the same class as the Arts students because we shared similar lessons in English, Math and Science. That last subject was the only thing that displeased me. I didn't want to do General Scence, which was a diluted combination of Physics and Chemistry. I wanted to do the pure sciences. But my results weren't that fantastic and so I got stuck with GS.

A love for science
To this day, I regret not fighting for it more. Science was and is a subject close to my heart. I think I am one of those fellas who'd do well in the fundamental sciences, that which concern how atoms interact and are put together. I've always had questions that drilled down to the bottom of the matter (no pun intended). But in that school and time, questions like these were dismissed becaused it deviated from what the textbook said, even if what was said wasn't much then (and perhaps now even). They just didn't encourage that sort of inquisitiveness and sec sch science was mostly simple physics and chemistry concepts. I find it sad that we would spend so much time pounding repeatedly on such simple and obvious phenomenon. It's like turning hammering a nail into a high-faluting art form. (Why I probably don't make a good apprentice chef. Peeling potatoes day after day was not my idea of 'training')

Science is about the Before, Present, and the Future. In my school and textbooks we mostly got stuck in the past, always trying to replicate what those long-dead scientists have done. I've always wondered why that is so. C'mon, they have proven it, so let's move on to the more presssing 'today' concerns! Trying to always show what was done before was boring and often unnecessary, and actually blunted our natural tendency to 'what if...'. After all, at the end of the day and lab session, we had to submit results that tallied with what was said in the textbook. What fun is that? In short, the exploratory part, both hands-on and inquiry, were both missing. I felt dulled by the whole process and it  reflected in my results.

A fun bunch
So, that was one part of TS I didn't like, the watering down of GS. The rest of it wasn't so bad including Add Math. My classmates (together with the Arts students) turned out to be quite an extroverted bunch and we had loads of fun even when class was in session. One of our teachers, Mr William Choong, never took himself seriously and liked to joke with us even. He was the reason why I tried so hard to write well and was always challenged to come up with the next complex word, much to his amusement. (One day, he asked me "TC, do you know the meaning of bombastic?" As usual, I looked it up. Since that day, I started using words more simply and sensibly.)

Everything was quite peachy until we met our TS teacher. He was a certain Mr Lim and he turned out to be quite the Nazi.

Nazi teacher
He looked the part with his small mustache, black-rimmed spectacles, extensively Tancho-ed hair, slight paunch, and excessively neat shirts. He carried pens in his shirt pocket and a black vinyl school bag always, something that was a throwback to my pri sch days. He was quite fair. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say he was a stingy bas**** and a Mama's boy who lived alone.

This Mr Lim was very anal about what we did in tech drawing class. He would shout and reprimand us sharply if our pencils were not sharpened to a fine chisel point.  Or if our lines were not fine or differentiated enough. He fussed over the way our block lettering was written. In class, he would walk around brandishing a metal ruler observing how we worked. He would whack our knuckles if our work was not up to his standards or deviated from his teachings.

A thing with pencils
At the time, we still used lead-filled wooden pencils (I think they were Steadtler). We had to sharpen these pencils to a fine chisel point. As opposed to a single point, this method allowed you to draw a fine, even line for much longer - a fact I did not know before.

Our TD pencils came in three grades: H(ard), HB or B(old). H and B grades were numbered to indicate how hard or soft the pencil leads were. For example, a 2B pencil drew darker and bolder lines than a H pencil. A HB pencil was considered in-between and hence average. To sharpen these pencils to a chisel point we would use a piece of fine sandpaper, usually kept in a small matchbox to keep the lead shavings in. The box was soft and often leaked, making a mess in our pencil cases. I kept mine in a small ziplocked bag. Still, handling pencil lead is like handling charcoal: it gets everywhere!

We had mechanical pencils by then, which were just getting popular. But even though they were convenient to use, they were not really suitable for TD because they did not have a rounded tip. This made drawing lines uneven. Only the very fine mechanical leads (like 0.3mm and 2H) were OK for use.

At times, I wondered why Mr Nazi had to speak and instruct us in the way he did. It was as if he didn't trust us. I felt his so-called high standards and constant berating to be counterproductive. In retrospect, he came across as one spoilt kid who must have things his way. Mr Nazi spoke well, so maybe we all got brainwashed by him and did not rebel. It's easy to mask cruelty with high expectations.

Fancy teacher
Our metal working teacher on the other hand, was totally different. He was calm and collected, and in a quiet and macho way, quite the handsome chap. What I cannot forget is that even though he was in-charge of metal working (a dirty class), he always came dressed as if he was going to a club. His shirts were patterned, colorful and expensive and it was he who inspired me to dress well. I am not sure, but I think most of his shirts were silk. They were also sheer, which made them doubly dear and exotic, I would think. To this day, he remains quite the inspiration and anomaly in my mind.

What TD is
In TD class, we mostly drew stuff on paper - things like cross sections of nuts and bolts, pipes, flanges and the like. Our drawings were divided into two parts: mechanical and geometric. In GD, we drew ellipses, solid shapes that intersected. Objects were also presented in orthogonal, isometric and perspective views. The assignments that we were given often tested us on our ability to figure out how these objects meshed and behaved - much like what you'd find in IQ tests.

But it was all on paper. We used our compasses, dividers, protractors, French curves and flexible rule, tee square and board to help effect the shapes and lines that needed to be drawn. We also used our calculators on occasion.

Hands-on workshops
The other classes in woodwork and metalwork gave us more tangible results. We made things with tools, machines and our bare hands. One of the first things we learnt was the different types of files. I still remember a very coarse one called the Bastard file. Another thing was the vice, which came with aluminium jaw protectors. The hacksaw was another oft-use tool that we learnt. Together, we used these three tools to shape, file and beat stuff into submission. As for machines, the drill press was indispensable. It allowed us to make holes and counter-sink holes of different diameters.

Of lathe, drill press and coolant
Of course, the mother of all machines was the lathe - a machine that essentially turned things so they could be cut by a cutting tool held against it. It's like peeling an apple by holding the knife still and turning the apple instead. Lathes came in all sizes, even table-top ones for hobbyists. With this, they could churn out rounded miniature table and chair legs.

The lathe in our workshop was the heavy-duty floor type. We often looked at it wide-eyed and wondered when it would be our turn to use it. You only got to the lathe when in Sec 4.

Whether lathe or drill press, the one thing that was quite unforgettable is the use of coolant. This was a white milkish liquid whose sole job is to run itself over hot objects to cool them down. Metal is hard, so cutting it generated a lot of heat for the tool as well. Coolant kept them both under temperature and from breaking up or damage. Burning metal has an unpleasant smell. Coolant prevents that and by itself, emits a slight and unique smell. It's not all that unpleasant.

In any case, everytime I watch that robot Bishop in Aliens break up and spill his milk-white juice, I am reminded of workshop coolant. It also splashes all over like that.

Duck tail, what?
A memorable lesson in metal workshop was learning the subtle properties of metal. There's malleable (can be beaten into sheets), ductile (can be drawn into wires) and plastic (can return to shape). We also learnt that something could be hard yet brittle. And besides pilot whales, there's also such a thing as a pilot hole. It's a smaller hole you drill first before drilling a bigger one. Another name for it was "guide hole".

At woodwork, we used whole woods and plywood to make things. The tools involved were quite different as wood was softer, had grain and would split. We used the saw, chisel and mallet most often. Sandpaper wrapped around a block of wood too. The only tool that presented us kids with a bit of a problem was the wood plane. Getting an even shave with it required technique and practice. Most of us ended up like novice barbers, you know, snipping a bit here a bit there until nothing was left. Just like hair, one cannot amend mistakes in wood with glue. But I did love seeing curly wood shavings appear from the plane and drop to the floor.

What we made
Some of the common things we made at woodwork were a letter cum pen holder, a rectangular letter box, a sliding pencil box and a paper tray. Through these we learned about butt and mitre joints, dovetail joints and comb joints. An unforgettable tool was the marking gauge. It looked like ruler sliding through a lump of wood.

The stuff we made at metal workshop was also similarly practical, things like door latches, tin trays, paper weights, etc. I was one of the more advanced students so I was allowed to make extra things with the lathe machine. Pretty and small 'Monopoly' stuff like a tiny steel vase, chalice cup or whistle.

Preparing for TD and workshop
The night before going for workshop practice meant quite a bit of preparation at home. I had to make sure that I have my clean apron with me. Mine was first blue, then grey. Both had a pocket in front. I next checked to make sure my drawing instruments were ready, pencil leads all sharpened so that that anal TD teacher have little reason to pick on me. My drawing instruments were kept in a roll-up cloth that was sewn with tiny pockets to keep each instrument in place - kind of what an artisan leatherer might have. Instead of leather, mine was made of dark blue felt with an extra soft side. When rolled up, two strings at the ends tie up nicely.

There were also the set squares and French curves, which I didn't put in my school bag for fear of crushing them. These I would put into a huge carrier bag that my mom had sewn for me to carry the drawing board with. This board had a slot for a T-square, which was quite neat. With this carrier bag, I was able to carry all my TD stuff like a shopping bag on my shoulder; no more struggling to carry the board under my armpit. But bringing it aboard a crowded bus in the morning remained a challenge. I'm sure I knocked a few elbows and knees unintentionally. But there was little I could do other then apologise, grin and bear with it.

Note: Part of this story continues in the next story, Beauty World Market.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Monster to Live With

Of all the nostalgic events I recall, nothing bothers me more than the history of the mobile phone. Its history is short. Very short. But many things have happened in between. It's as if the chick you were feeding worms just the other morning has suddenly turned into a giant monster destroying your furniture and stomping its feet demanding to be fed steak. Anybody in that situation would feel frantic and wonder "What in the world is happening?!" I think I know now how the aged feel about IT and its pervasive and intrusive impact on their lives. It's a monster they have no control over and one that is slowly squeezing them out of their comfort zone.

Mobile telephony is no less a monster than IT. You can still ignore IT to a certain extent. But mobile telephony demands that you pay attention. It's a monster with a narcissistic bent. You look into the mirror and you want to become one. Buy the latest handset, subscribe to the latest data plan. Like the proverbial Eve, we have also developed an irrational craving for an Apple.

As a kid, one of my heroes is Ultraman. He still fight monsters that pop up to destroy his city. I think over the years, I have fought this monster well. It doesn't consume me. But, like the incubus that rears its ugly head, my own history is linked closely to its birth and growth.

As a journalist from the mid-1990s, I  have observed the rumblings of this monster in its egg. As an industry insider, I watched, like most expectant parents, a sonogram of its form and shape. I celebrated each beat of its heart. I saw its first outreached digits.

Later as a PR professional, I was instrumental in helping it grow, behave and capture other people's imagination. This kid is the future, I would tell an audience like any proud parent.

I sold them stories and imaginings that said: "We have need of mobiles just as we did of the pager, and much more. It will free us, bring us TV wherever we might be. Make us readers and scribers wherever there might be coffee or a cafe. The newspapers will become 'e'. Distances will vapourise; nobody needs to fly  anymore. Conference time will be facetime in the street, in the cab... Anywhere. Given such dedicated care, my monster grew; slowly but surely, from 1G to 3G.

My first glimpse was in 1999, when I was sent to Stockholm to help organise a 3G Experience Centre opening. My client then was the largest mobile phone equipment maker in Europe. As Europeans, they preferred the GSM standard of mobile comms, not the CDMA that was aggressively pushed by the Americans. A lot of business pie was at stake. A pie that even a small slice was worth billions in potential earnings.

As part of my familiarization with 3G technology, I was given first-hand experience of how it worked. On the third morning that I arrived at the office, I was ushered into a van. Inside was a 3G phone. I looked around for the familiar handset; there were none. All I saw was a small push trolley full of electronic equipment. As a former RF engineer, I recognised some of the stuff. That's the 3G phone alright, said Nilson My Guide, affirming what suspicions I had.

The van took me on a short ride between two towers, situated some 300m apart. They were metaphorical towers, buildings equipped with 3G antennas. I watched as a face slowly comes to life on a small monitor on the trolley. It was the face of my host back at the 3G EC. The signal was shaky but clear. At that moment, I felt like one of the astronauts who first landed on the moon. There I was experiencing what many mortals have yet to even glimpse. Indeed, I later found out that I was one of the first few Singaporeans to actually experience this technology. The others, I figured, must have been the head honchos from telcos like Singtel and the then new M1, all potential and existing customers of that Swedish firm.

As a sci-fi enthusiast, I felt as if I was living a moment that would forever redefine us as human beings. Something was being birthed in that compound that would impact a whole lot of people, change the world. It felt really good to be privy to that.

Later that month, I returned to Singapore to continue to do more work for this client. The CDMA people were not idle either. We fought pitched battles (the PR sort) from KL to Bangkok to Beijing. In China, it was one province after another. The Chinese were not dumb. They had learned by then not to be beholden to any Western technology, to any legacy issue they have no control over. They knew their market was a goldmine and so wanted to develop their own TD-SCDMA system. Japan was the same. Hong Kong was a big conference destination at the time, eclipsing Singapore even. In this 2G/3G war, many bloodied heads could later be found there in that city of many neon signboards.

Once back home, we made plans to further promote this monstrous technology, painting it a wonder with endless capabilities that make lives more sweet and businesses more prosperous. It cumulated in a 3G Blue Sky event ('Blue Sky' meaning "endless opportunities"). 3G, it seemed then, was a beast to be nurtured and tamed good. A King Kong event that would have thousands queuing up for a bite of the action.

But the thing about telecom technology is that it is also tied to another monster called economics. In the accounting department, this one has another name: budget. Companies who had spent millions on a 2G network aren't going to upgrade to a 3G network overnight. Standards have to be observed to settle interoperability issues. Mobile phone users want seamless roaming, not change handsets from GSM to CDMA and vice versa once they cross borders. And besides, where were the fancy 3G handsets that consumers have been promised? Have they been designed? Manufactured even?

Sadly, no. And that was what held 3G back at the time. It's simple: One cannot have a network with no viable handsets for its subscribers. And battery technology at the time was not sufficiently advanced enough to make 3G handsets the handy devices they should be. I don't think even the most trendy folks want to push a trolley around just to show off (haha).

That was what I saw a couple of years later when I was working closely with the Centre of Wireless Communications or CWC in Science Park II. The year was 2002 and they showed me a 3G handset that was not much different from the one I saw in Stockholm. As a matter of fact, it seemed a good few inches taller and wider also sitting on a trolley. Instead of a Swedish firm, this trolley 3G handset came from Japan.

I concluded then that 3G was still a long way away. It was.

From 2G, the monster grew horns and became 2.5G. It stayed 2.5G for a long time, happy with it oats and whey. Operators simply refused to throw steak at it to make it 3G. Hey, our networks are still good sending and receiving data packets in addition to voice calls. We can wait for 3G proper, they all said. In other words, if my customers are in no hurry, why bother investing in a faster car?

The issue remained with the handsets. No viable handset, no viable subscriber. No viable features means no interesting handset, which in turn means no viable subscriber. No viable battery means no viable features and so on. Again, no viable subscriber. In the end, the monster was done in by lousy battery technology. The only way to save the situation was to develop energy saving chips and display screens that while vibrant, required little juice. Battery types also needed to be slim yet "powderful" (a Singlish slang word for powerful).

Besides handsets, worldwide standards of 3G also had to be mutually agreed upon by worldwide technical and commercial bodies. Everything would have to come together in order to grease future action. Nobody wanted a repeat of the video tape war between VHS and Betamax.

Someone also had to figure out the "killer app" that would draw users to 3G, much as email did for office intranets and the internet. Could the killer app be video calls?

As it turned out, 3G was more about getting the bandwidth to surf the Internet. Having large capacity memory cards so phone users could playback their music and videos. Having a longer lasting battery so the handset would spend less time charging and more time serving up talk-time and in time, apps.

Yes, like a newborn, the 3G monster required not just a single thing but a host of stuff to thrive. It took 10 years for 3G to learn to walk, now to run. Soon people will start calling it 4G. Monster handsets have already evolved, featuring two heads instead of one. What else will we see? Can we wean ourselves off its pervasive and invasive presence? Will the cloud feed this monster or tame it? Will wi-fi inspire it to gobble up and spew more things out?

I started out with a Nokia 6150 in 1998. It had a postage stamp greyscale LCD screen and simple SMS texting. A popular game was Snake. The handset was the size of a banana. Now I own a compact Motorola Android phone. It has 8GB of memory, a sliding keyboard and a touch screen that allows me to make video calls, surf the Web, play Chinese chess, snap a picture to take part in a contest or read e-books. It's even faster than my computer in 1998. What a one-eyed monster of a handset it is. A monster, I tell you.

Next story: Workshop Days

Late 90's Alcatel GSM phone that ran on batteries. I kept one as an emergency phone.