Monday, 26 March 2012

Precious Friends

I don't often have reunions. One, I think I am still too young for that sort of thing. Two, some folks are still hung up about their past.

I've messaged hellos to a few old acquaintances on Facebook, but have yet to receive any replies. It's maddening.

Maybe they don't need the friendship of this old friend. After all, old friends can become new enemies. Perhaps they worry more about them becoming a nuisance in their ordered lives. I don't know. So many years have passed, anything that has happened should have flowed under the bridge or be swept away by the wind. Any envy dissipated, any misdemeanor forgiven. Or do they worry that the success of some puts them in the pale.

I believe if you have lived your life with just one person who relies on you as a friend, then you would have made it as a decent human being. After all, no man is an island. And we can't be friends with everybody in the world, can we?

The other day, I just had my first reunion of sorts with school mates and classmates from my secondary school - folks I have not seen for more than 30 years. I had met up with one of them last year and he had set the ball rolling.

One guy in particular, Harrison, I was glad to meet. He and I and a group of kakis spent much of our teenage years growing up in the then-new HDB town of Marsiling.

Old friends like him are hard to come by. For one, I have few precious photos from that era. As we chatted, our teenage shenanigans in that neighborhood resurfaced and played out again like some old movie. We cycled, we flew kites, we played soccer, we fished/crabbed and jumped off that now-gone jetty. We plucked soursop from wild trees near a kampong.

As we chatted, names of people I've forgotten got reunited with faces I once knew - people without whom my teenage years would have been vastly different.

And that's the point really, isn't it?

If only my old acquaintances see that then perhaps they would be more willing to show their aging faces before we don't recognise them anymore.

You see, we were all actors in someone's life. Importantly, we were acting a part that was not culled from a preordained script. And in that sense, none of us can judge or critique what has gone on or happened.

And seriously, how much did we know of each other's lives back then when growing up? Only that we had strict parents? - Folks who only let us join NPCC because the uniform was free? That we looked smart but were not rich? That we all had aspirations that got derailed at some point or other?

Our reunion started at 8.30pm and lasted till 2am. We covered a lot of ground. What I particularly found enjoyable were the boy-girl secrets that came out. Who liked whom, the friendly romantic rivalries. Stuff that only circulated in certain cliques back in school.

A girl classmate is still single. Three guys turned to one another, surprised, and commented. "See, we were all after her the illusion that one of us would propose!"

"It's our fault that she's still single!"

The guys there that night were excellent. And I guessed they must have all truly put everything behind them when Harrison was asked how come he was a year older than the rest of us. "I repeated Primary 6," he said.

The stoner amongst us stupidly asked "How come?".

"It was the trend then," was Harrison's reply, with a twinkle in his eye. That's how far we have come, and that's how it should be. Harrison was quite the steady chap then, and he still is. And he seems successfully now, judging by the large BMW car he drives. (No, I don't care much about such things. People can go drive what manner of cars they like, as long as it is not an oil guzzler. For me, ostentatiousness always smacks of Emperor's New Clothes, so beware what message you are putting out.  Everybody defines success in their own way. And I've known millionaires who don't even own cars in Singapore. They either bus or taxi (something I often do when overseas). They are right: Cars in Singapore are lousy consumption goods to throw money at.

A recent Sunday comics about life's success is quite apt: People who go for material things end up with a bigger house but smaller obituary. Those who aim for a richer life end up with a bigger obituary but smaller house. The point is, people are remembered more for what they have accomplished in life than what they have accumulated.

For me, if you do right by your family, then you would have succeeded. Got children? Managed to send them to school? Passed. Got marriage? Happy and contented with one another? Passed.

There's no point in lamenting what could have been; it's the future that matters. And if we 'rediscovered' acquaintances can help in that regard, the better it is, isn't it?

As I grew older, I came to realise that much of my young life was dictated by the wishes of others; even when in school. In Sec 3, we were all streamed. Did we have a choice in the matter? Not really. And the Science, Arts, Technical streams presented were not always what they were touted to be. The Technical stream in Pre-U 1 & 2 went nowhere. Workshop was scrapped. I would find out why later when I wrote a master-level case-study for a public policy institute. It discussed the parliamentary debate on streaming policy in 1979.

Through my research, I discovered that the MOE was then a rather messed-up place, why LKY had to send in an economist like Dr Goh Keng Swee to put the house in order. After his spring cleaning, educators became more systematic in their approach to policy-making and implementation. They became more aware of "desired" and "measured" outcomes.More engineers, economists and systematic-thinking people began infiltrating the ranks of the MOE ruling establishment. Young people's lives could not be left to people who failed to analyse, plan and execute a program.

So, people like us studying up till 1979 were more like guinea pigs. This explains the many policy flip-flops at the time. Even those who went to the VIs (vocational institutes) were not immune. There was no proper assessment of ability during an intake (such as literacy level and age), potency of coursework, nor what's going happen after graduation. It's no wonder parents balked at sending their child there. They rather their kid enter the workforce or join a private apprentice scheme (like those from Philips or Shell). At least, with these options, their children had more hope, a more discernible future.

Reading the research, I was alarmed (and aghast) to learn that policy-making was mostly top handed down. Administrators back then were kind of obedient and dumb like that. They did not think how well a policy should be carried out or what 'Ah Gong' actually meant when he said we needed the Chinese-educated to speak better English. They just imagined what was dictated and ran with that.

And we students and teachers thought they knew better!

But they never did and we students and teachers suffered. Victims, all.

Dr Goh's spring-cleaning of the MOE in 1978/79 is all documented in a publication better known as the Goh Report (February 1979). It is a useful learning-document on how good policy thought up by some well-meaning politician can be so woefully implemented by a compliant and less-than-enlightened public-servant body.

They hear "Egg is good for children" and go make every child eat soft-boiled egg, steamed egg, fried egg, fried beaten egg, etc., etc. You get the picture. Everybody was too afraid to ask; too afraid to pause and say, "Wait a minute. Is this what you have in mind?" Perhaps that person meant: "Egg (shell) is good for children in Art class."

Wah piang, can vomit blood!

Afternote: If you have ever struggled with English or Mandarin in school, take heart. Our situation has been described as such: "It's like the kids in the UK being asked to study in Russian, told that their mother tongue was French and they then go home and speak English." That's the reality majority of our school kids faced when going to school and be taught in English and learning Mandarin as their 'mother tongue'! Most spoke dialect at home then. (I'm Cantonese, not Mandarin).

Also, note that though systematic thinking is useful, it is just a thought process. It doesn't mean we educate our children better. It just helps us to implement and think though what we intend to do.

A Cautionary Tale: The Goh Report. Next story: Priscilla - Queen of Chek Jawa

Dummies in Retail

The uncertain economic situation of today reminds me of the one in the mid 90s. It was worse, actually. Retrenchments were happening left, right, centre - especially to folks in the retail trade.

The "lau jiao" in the office often say that playing dumb is the safest way to ensure job security. But that is not always the case.

Take this photo I happened to take quite by chance. The dummies inside were certainly all retrenched. No benefits, no clothes on their backs even.

A couple of ladies behind seem to be asking: "Er, what announcement are they going to make? Are we being transferred? Are we going to another departmental store? Are we going to be churned into sawdust?"

I don't know the fate of these two ladies nor the rest of her fixed-glare compatriots, all I know is that there used to be this shop in Outram Park that dealt in dummies like them. Hiring them cost an arm and a leg (no pun intended). So these dummies in the picture should be worth quite a fortune. The only problem is that in real life, workers from China probably cost less to hire, and they probably won't mind standing around all day wearing nice clothes. Who wouldn't?

Beats being  a security guard who wears the same stuff all year round.

This picture was taken outside Galeries Lafayette when it closed. I was on my way to interview a big shot from Cisco (the network equipment people, not security guard) at Liat Towers when I decided to take the backstairs so as not to be late. It was fortunate that I had my camera with me. We reporters multitasked as photojournalists back then even.

I liked the French labels such as GL and Printemps. Their summer collections were always very sunny and cheerful, not unlike the French floral scene of that season. But in Singapore, summer-oriented clothes sell only to an extent.

Although we have a warm summer-like weather all year round, Singapore is actually a cool all-season aircon place. People do not wear casual summer clothing during office hours. We are definitely not some machete wielding, banana-planting republic where people move about in floral-print shirts, bernuda pants and sewaty bods all-year round.

The inverse logic can be said of leather shoes. Our days are mostly hot, so why are we not wearing sandals? Instead, we wear closed-end stuffy shoes and nylon socks. It's little wonder that many people suffer from bacteria infection between the toes all the time!

GL and Printemps in the 80s and 90s were like many foreign brands who beat a path to out retail shores. Remember Kmart and Lane Crawford?

Kmart was innovative with their 'Hourly Specials' - where bins were marked with a spinning red police siren. Why an everyday-man store like Kmart from the US would decide to set up shop here, I do not know. Singaporeans, after all, have their NTUCs and the Chinese emporiums before that. More damning is that both had an extensive network of outlets by then. Kmart couldn't beat that with just one store. But try they did, with cheap music CDs. That was something NTUC and the Chinese emporiums did not sell.

In Lane Crawford's case, they offered for the first time in Singapore a "curated" shopping experience. This is the kind of shop where goods are displayed like museum pieces, the difference being you can actually buy them. It is a popular concept with stores that have designer products to showcase and sell.

The danger in this kind of retail approach is that people might actually browse and not buy... often put off by the high designer prices. The interior of the shop looks pretty, the items and display looks cool. But, if that adds to the price, people are likely to be turned off.

Of course, shop proprietors often defend this kind of concept by saying that such goods are mostly aimed at high-value shoppers. I always wish them good luck. In a tight retail space (money-wise, that is) the walk-in customer is still king. If you want to attract high value clients, your location and network must match up, like when you are retailing a well-known brand such as Louis Vuitton.

I had this rather interesting experience with LV in Paris in the year 2000.

I was there with a girlfriend and we were walking down the Champs Elysee when we were accosted by two women dressed like "ah sohs" from China. They were indeed from Fujian province. They looked as if they had just walked off their village wearing their Sunday best. They spoke in Mandarin and asked if we could do them a favour. If they were younger I might imagine them as slave sex workers asking to be rescued. But since they weren't....

"Would you be so nice as to go into that LV shop and help buy us two pieces of luggage?" they said, not your typical slave sex worker plea.

They then explained that LV had a quota system for their customers every day and they had just used up theirs. They gave us money and promised us a commission upon completion of the task. These two ladies were very friendly and nice about the whole affair and so me and my grilfriend decided to help them out. What's the harm, we thought? It's not often that we get to walk into an LV shop and buy something! We actually detested being brand conscious.

In other words, we would have done it for free.

Before going into that the LV shop, the aunties made clear (through an official LV catalogue in their hands) the sort of bag models they wanted. We noted it all down on a piece of paper and entered the shop. The first thing that hit me was that it was well lit.

In fact, the shop's decor was quite nicely done up - not too gaudy nor too understated. The color scheme was wood and glossy black chic. It helped the bags stand out. One could tell that the products in the display cubicles were the main stars in this shop.

The quota system deployed by LV was actually quite effective; it kept the store from being overcrowded and becoming a mad house. We managed to buy what we needed in just 20 mins in relative quietude. I remember the staff there being rather haughty and snobbish. Perhaps they had a right to be. LV was, and still is one of the strongest brands from France. Wearng an LV bag is akin to driving a Mercedes or flaunting a Rolex.

When we left the store with the bags, the Fujian aunties were both relieved and happy. They gave us 500 francs for our effort. We were quite happy to have done it for free.

Back then, that sum could buy you two decent meals in the city. And that's what we did. We were curious how the common Duck a la Orange tasted like when cooked in France and so headed to the popular Simon's to try. The restaurant was rather large and country-like with green paisley tablecloth. It felt good.

The Duck a la Orange came and we were surprised to find that sliceof meat to be so thick and juicy. It was as big as a piece of steak. The French really do take pride in having a good duck on their table. (Recent studies show that duck fat is actually good for the body.)

With the left over money from the meal, we toted it up to pay for a daily fashion show at Galeries Lafayette the next day. I still remember the store. It was not too far from Paris' Hotel de Ville, which is French for town hall. And like the local store here, I liked their modern stationery designs. The pens, especially. Very Mondrian-isque in color scheme. Me and my girlfriend shared a  thing for well-designed stationery items then. Kunikuniya Bookstore was another of our favourite hangout place for that sort of thing.

That LV experience eventually got me thinking about the Chinese then. If these Fujian aunties would pay such high prices for an original LV, imagine the price it fetched in China itself. At the time, branded goods were indeed catching on, with pirated goods still far from being the perfect copy-item.

In Singapore itself, branded goods started to flood the retail scene in the 90s and 2000. DKNY, Clarins, Fila, etc, all came on their own. But it would be a decade or more later before such goods started to flood the streets of Orchard after heavy rains. Perhaps a sign of too much of a good thing?

In any case, the lesson here is that retail businesses shouldn't die; they evolve. It's maddening that one store closes to be replaced by another. (Sogo and Yaohan are examples).

I think the problem lies in innovation.

If you don't bother to innovate and run with the pack, then, like the dummies in the picture, you will face the firing squad. Unlike them, be glad that you still have clothes on your back. (Unless you are working for day-time host Ellen; she'll probably let you keep your Ellen underwear!)

Afternote: Perhaps it is good to bear in mind the success of Dell computers. They sold computers as if they were bananas, i.e. short self -life, and made it easy for consumers to wire them up (color coded the various wires) - why the company was able to grow so fast. What if you were to apply the same principle to departmental retail stores?

Next story: Precious Friends

Stacy The Cat

Growing up, my family have kept insects, dogs, squirrels, fishes, tortoises, rabbits and cats. The most recent being cats. All of them were strays that had been rescued. Some are gorgeous (like this white Persian with a local face) while others are just, well, local. But all of them have their own personalities.

There's one who likes to chase people and swipe their ankles when offended. It's a good thing that she is rather fat (hormonal situation) or else we would be hobbling from some leg wound or other. Another likes to 'talk' or complain, rather, whenever cajoled to go to the toilet or move from her perch. Seriously, what's there to complain for a cat that sleeps all day?

My mom and sis have spent much of their free time looking after strays. Once, they even fed ex-kampong dogs so they would be less feral and become dangerous. But many times, I've come across such dogs who are more afraid of us than we, them.

To do what they have done, one needs to have a deep-seated love for animals. But to them, a neighbourhood without animals is like a garden without butterflies. It's just rather lifeless. They believe children are better off growing up in such a 'natural' environment. And it's true: Compassion in kids start from being kind to animals. I should know; I was brought up like that.

Although I've kept and learnt much about animals (especially cats), there are still some surprises left. I was reminded of an incident when I visited my mom.

I was wearing a rather seasoned tee-shirt when I appeared at her house. Not only was it faded, it was rather full of holes. My mom was wondering why I didn't throw it away. Well, you know how old tee-shirts are, I said. They are super comfortable! But that was only a partial explanation. The real reason behind my procrastination was that that tee-shirt held an important memory for me.

I once rescued a very young cat that was truly one-of-a-kind.

She was nothing unusual in sight. You would probably have seen a number of her kind of local tabby with light brown shorthair and stripes. But she had a rather pretty face.

I stay on the 13th floor and she had wandered to my apartment and meowed outside.

Since I stayed so high, I figured she must have come from a neighbour. I knocked on their doors to check but no one claimed ownership. I decided then to look after her for a while till I found her a good home. I named her Stacy, after a smilar cat of my mother's. But this Stacy was a lot more friendly.

I know Stacy's breed quite well. They are known for their climbing skill and good balance. They are also very excellent in catching prey. In temperament, they are wild-like and impatient and can be said to be rather independent. However, since Stacy was feral, she could display other traits. I decided to watch and learn.

Since my custody of Stacy was altruistic and at best temporary, I decided to keep her outside my apartment. Home for her would be a basket in a rack by the side staircase. I put up a curtain to shield her from prying eyes and for privacy.

I also prepared a litterbox for her convenience. I kept tabs on whether she was using it or not. She was.

But even so, a neighbour complained that she was peeing and dumping all over. I was surprised. On checking, it turned out to be only partially true. She was peeing and crapping at certain neighbours, one of whom I thought was deserving. The lady of that apartment was unfriendly and snobbish - the kind of folks my mother would describe as "having eyes fixed on their foreheads" - meaning they looked down on other people.

Although I put Stacy's toilet behaviour as something akin to teritorial marking, I decided to train her to do her business downstairs.

I asked her to follow me as we took the lift down. I was surprised that she did. More amazing was how calm she was walking into the lift. It was as if she was walking into a room, not a mechanical contraption.

During the ride down, she sat down beside me, calm-like. And when the lift doors opened she gave me a look of expectancy. I said "Come on, girl" and motioned her out. She followed obediently.

It was the same when we walked along the void deck; she did not stray far away, always at arm's length. When I sat down on a bench and motioned for her to sit beside me, she jumped up immediately.

I have seen people take a cat for a walk; they were always on a leash. Cats are like rabbits. They don't take kindly to new environments and would panic and hide. But not Stacy. If she was nervous, she hid it well. She came across as more curious than alarmed. And I could tell she was really sticking close to me. Perhaps that's the reason: She trusted that I would look after her.

Often times, when she wanted to stray from 'our' bench, she would look to me for permisison. Each time, I would gently put her down and say: "Go, it's alright." And she would go off sniffing and exploring.

When it was time to go home, I just had to call her name once. She would come bounding back.

At the very first few times that we ventured out together, I would walk her back up to my apartment - all thirteen floors. My intention was to let her know her way back. Well, she's a cat. I didn't expect her to take the lift all the time!

Although that familiarisation exercise was useful, it also got me worried. Stacy would disappear for hours on end. And if you know cats, you would know that they have a roaming radius of about seven kilometres at night. I often kept my fingers crossed hoping nothing untoward had happen to her. I was like the worried father of a teenage daughter out on her first date.

But in the end, she would turn up again not worse for wear.

Neighbours from the lower floors would tell me that they had seen her checking them out. She would pop her head through their iron gates. She was a curious cat who liked to travel!

It was not only the neighbour's attention that she caught. A tom cat came up one night and wanted to mount her. That brought on a cat fight that woke up the nighbours. It was quite incredulous that a tomcat had climbed thirteen floors to be amorous. Perhaps it is true the male species will do anything to get laid.

Because of that, I had little choice but to bring her into my house to stay, not withstanding the slight allergy I have to cats that had developed in my later years. Although it was something Stacy had wanted since Day One (after a meal, she would always hanker to come into my house), she would still want to go out for her nightly jaunts.

That's quite impossible because I like to keep a clean house, and cannot tolerate a cat coming and going out of the door. Unless Stacy wore booties, she would bring back all sorts of germs.

Once Stacy realised going out was impossible, her demeanor changed. Once lively, she now looked bored. She would spend her  days sitting atop the sofa looking puffed with that "so-is-it-going-to-be-like-this-from-now?" expression. - Like someone fat who has given up on exercise.

So, I was finally glad when someone did turn up to adopt her - a young man who was crazy about cats and lived on landed property.

But on the day of our parting, she clung on to me unwilling to go. Her sharp, reluctant claws made holes in my tee-shirt, the same one I wore to my mother's place.

I hugged and rocked her like a baby and spoke softly into her ear: "You've got a good home now, and you can run free. Go, it's alright."

Hearing that seemed to calm her down, and she got into the pet carrier without further trouble.

A month later, she came back to visit. By then, she had bonded with the new owner, whom I could tell was as charmed by her as I was.

Seeing her leave the first time was painful. The second time was bittersweet because I know she had found a good home but also that I won't see her again. Giving up Stacy was extra difficult - it's as if I had let a soulmate go. I think it is quite impossible for me to ever meet a cat quite like her ever again.

Next story: Dummies in Retail

St John's Island Fantasy

Going to St John's Island Camp must surely rank as one of the most memorable things to do in school. In my time, it was one of those things planned by MOE in what is today called "a learning journey". We learned camp craft, campfire sing-along and solved initiative tests to help build team spirit. We also learned on the sly, "birds and the bees".

For me, I went to St John Island twice. Once as a Sec 2 newbie and later as a student leader. We all did that: mature students passing on skills to the next generation. I remember vividly teaching my charges how to tell time from the shadows created by the sun. I drew many diagrams in sand, including one of a heart. It was meant for a special someone.

She was a schoolmate of mine. Sunny, cheerful. I had hoped to find an opportune moment during our camp to confess my affections for her. Surely on this sea-swept island, there would be a quiet spot away from prying eyes? It would be so romantic!

I marked out the locations: Tree with the sunset view, water breaker with gentle waves, cliff with dramatic view. But the chance never came. It was wasted wistful thinking and failed telepathic powers. If she couldn't read my mind, are we then meant to be?

After that, I put all my frustrations into learning how to fry beehoon for everyone. It was camp kitchen duty. Every group took their turn. But it was made worse by the fact that it would be our last breakfast on the island, meaning afterwards, good-byes would ensue. I was emotional as I stir-fried that heavy vermicelli. Mood as dark as the sauce, inside-tears as salty as the ikan bilis. But every stroke was an ode to love. Every flip, a  remonstration. Why didn't I just say something? Now she'll never know, that even then I was frying beehoon for her.

As I watched her eat, I was feeling full. The joy of feeding a loved one only a breastfeeding mother can articulate. She laughed, she bit on her chopsticks, she finished her beehoon.

Some more? I asked. Coyly, she said yes. Did she know? Ah, that twinkle in her eye! She must have!

As we boarded the ferry, I looked back on the island. I went there to teach but learned an important lesson. With girls, you cannot be shy.

So back in Singapore, I wrote her a letter. I paired it with some miniature dolls, a collection I had carefully nurtured and kept in matchboxes. How sweet that would be, pretty dolls for a pretty girl... in a match box full of fire like my heart was full of passion.

But the dolls remained distant, as did her. I never saw or heard from her again. Ah yes, at St John's there were many lessons taught, and just as many lessons learnt. I should have just sent her a packet of beehoon instead. Those damn miniature dolls were one of a kind and rather precious!

Next story: Stacy the Cat

Afternote: I found out later a sister kept her set of dolls!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Chendol Zen

I've eaten much chendol in my life - in Singapore, Malacca, KL, Kluang....cup, bowl, glass, and enjoyed every bit of it. However, since encountering this retro remake from Kopitiam, I believe this is the way it should be served up and savoured. Let me tell you why. First the construction: A dollop of gula melaka followed by some shaved ice. This is then drowned in coconut milk. Red beans and green worms follow and are topped up with more shaved ice. A flourish of gula melaka is then added last.

To eat (using a milk-tea thick straw):
Stage 1: Insert the straw straight down to the bottom gula melaka. Take a sip. The natural sweetness of the gula melaka will curl your face up in unbelievable delight.

Stage 2: Withdraw the straw a little to the coconut milk. Take a sip and savour it's milky freshness. By now, you are in twin ecstasy, not unlike writhing in silk and body lotion.

Stage 3: Withdraw the straw and let the top melted ice flow in. Eat some of the clean white ice at the top. Your palate will be cleansed, ready to sin again.

Next, stab the ice into the red beans and green worms mix to bathe it in gula melaka and coconut milk syrup. Eat this. It will feel like the thousand times you've had chendol in the past: A rich sugary, beany, wormy toffee-colored milk.

Stage 4: Plunge in to sip some more coconut milk left unmixed. This will uplift the palate and to remind yourself of the coconut milk in that brown syrup mix. It's adulterated chendol made pure again.

By now, finish off the last beans and worms. You would have reached the bottom of the glass. Suck up the last bit of gula melaka waiting for you there. The taste will reaffirm the reason why you wanted that glass of chendol in the first place. And for that few moments, life is indeed sweet. There: You had begun with gula melaka and ended with gula melaka; - Much like how the cycle of life should be. :-)

Next story: St John's Island Fantasy

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Hell Bank Notes

With Qing Ming around the corner, maybe it is timely to talk about getting rich after death.

I found this alternate Bird Series Hell Bank currency while passing a joss paper shop in Yishun. It was near a bike shop I often visited.

I was so tickled by it that I just had to buy the whole set. I later gave them to a visiting sister from Europe. She said her friends there would be amused. According to her, they would actually buy such notes back as souvenirs whenever they visited Singapore or elsewhere that sold them, like SF or HK. They were not as "pang tang" as we are about that sort of thing there.

Funerary items makers seldom get credit for the creative stuff they put out. In this instance I think the designer of this set ought to be applauded for his/her sense of humour and artistic skill.

There should be a formal ceremony to launch such First Day covers at the start of Qing Ming Festival. Maybe include them in an auction.

And I think burning currency that's close to real money makes better sense. Our dearly departed will not complain in our dreams that they are given "foreign currency" and hence have more difficulty spending them.

Hell Bank notes do have a history. Earlier ones always feature prominently the chairman of the Hell Bank, the Emperor of the Afterworld. I think he was an actual emperor of China when he was alive. Not many people can boast of such career continuity after death.

Or they feature a traditional Chinese cherub holding a peach or a carp.He would be surrounded by rabbits too. I find it interesting that these Hell Bank notes speak of auspicious things and not say, punishment or a better afterlife.

You can see these two symbols clearly being perpetuated on this alternate Bird Series notes.

In any case, many early Hell Bank notes are well designed and look positively ancient.

You know what, maybe I should start a hobby collecting this kind of currency. They are probably the only thing I can bring along to my afterlife. No Modesty Blaise comics, no cookbooks, no sci-fi books. The collection might serve as a conversation starter, an ice-breaker, or even a bribe (to make my life down there easier). But by then, maybe these notes will no longer be legal tender. What to do? Maybe there are Hell Bank bonds to buy. Now, isn't that something worth considering to ensure a comfortable afterlife? Anybody know a good, dead bond broker?

Previous story: A Walkman Legacy; Next story: St John's Island Bee Hoon
More about Hell Bank notes here. (Photo below: Actual Singapore Bird Series currency.)

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A Walkman Legacy

The current flood of tablets into the consumer market reminds me of the time when the Sony Walkman walked into our lives. The pattern was the same: a ground-breaking product being copied and improved upon by others in the greatest of haste.

Sony launched its first Walkman in 1979, and by 1982, there were already a slew of walkman-like products carrying brands like Aiwa, National, Sanyo, Philips, etc. These new walkmans were more compact, had more features, and some, even a radio. Auto-reverse soon became standard.

My brother he bought the original Sony Walkman. I think he still has it, including the carrying case. Perhaps the headphones as well, but not the sponge earpieces. They fell apart years ago.

I wasn't really a fan of the Walkman until I was in the army doing NS (1982) and felt the need for a portable music player. Maybe a platoon mate who liked to sing Chinese opera at odd hours influenced the decision. In any case, I headed down to Queensway Shopping Centre, Shaw Towers, Lucky Plaza to shop for one. These were the de facto places for Walkmans then (and school calculators). I eventually bought one from a shop in Shaw, not a Sony but a Sanyo. I liked it for its ergonomic design. Although it was meant to be carried around on a plastic belt clip, it was also designed to sit on a bedside table (see picture). The function buttons on the player were all easily accessible like that. I think I used the radio more than the cassette player.

Of the tapes I would play, they were mostly soothing guitar music or pop orchestra. Remember James Last? However, my favourite cassette tape of all time had to be Electric Dreams, that soundtrack album from the movie of the same name. The man behind the music was Giorgio Moroder, whose synthesized music influenced a generation. His No.1 hit, Together in Electric Dreams, was top-of-the-charts in 1984 for a long time; he and Philip Oakey.

When my Sanyo aged, I kept it for sentimental reasons. It had been through a lot with me. Like a diary, it listened to many of my quiet thoughts in the middle of the night even though I was the one wearing the headphones.

In the early 90s when I began exploring Malaysia more, I had another walkman to keep me company. It was a popular high-end  model from Aiwa. I think if you throw a stone in the air and it lands on someone in his 30s and above, he probably would have owned a product from this Japanese company. Or one that has been surreptitiously obtained, like some iPhone 4.

The way I came into this walkman was the same. I was withdrawing money from an ATM in Woodlands Centre to change into ringgit when someone tapped me on the shoulder. My first instinct was that a bum was asking for road-money again. No, it turned out to be a young man dressed in dark cord jeans and a rolled-up sleeved shirt. Plaid, and yes, he was Malay.

He was thrusting a box in an onion-skin plastic bag at me asking if I wanted to buy it. "New," he said, in pasar English.

Well, that kind of put me at ease because I thought he was trying to sell me ganja or some other forbidden drug. He motioned to a flower trough, we walked over and sat down (not in the trough but on its ledge). Inside the box was Aiwa's latest walkman model, the HS-J505 - the one with the BBE, High Definition Sound and Auto Reverse. AR was the big new innovation for tape decks then. The HS-J505 ran on two small batteries with an optional rechargeable pack that could be slid on from below. How cool was that?

Most walkmans were going for around $200 or less at the time. This particular model was retailing for over $300, nearer to $400. It was more expensive because it was a higher end model. Most people would just eye it in the showcase and move on. But here I was with this young man offering to me what looked like a brand new unit for only $150. It even had a warranty card.

Although I was suspicious, I had no reason to doubt this fella as he looked sincere. And besides, nobody was copying walkmans at the time like what the Chinese are doing now with the tablets. I did not have to worry about the thing blowing up in my ears or suffer some other form of faulty electronics anxiety.

And so I decided to part company with the three brand new $50 notes I'd withdrawn and yet to introduce to my wallet. After the young man left, I stood there holding the walkman box for a while; quite unbelieving what had just happened. Was I under a spell and sold a magic stone?

I needn't have worried as it turned out to be a good buy. The HS-J505 was indeed a wonderfully designed piece of portable audio equipment. It was so compact and 'solid'. Besides, its headphones were the bud types, not the macaroons from yonder bell-bottom days.

Well, like all walkmans before, this Aiwa followed the Sanyo into retirement after some years of use and neglect. It too had a bad case of slipped belt and dislocated hip. I tried repairing it, but each time, I ended up with more screws than I had started with. That is what happens when you try to dismantle something small and compact. It's nutty to even attempt, actually.

After buying all these walkmans, I received a Sony mini disc player as a present for a change. I tried using it to interview people in my work but it just simply refused to cooperate. Battery life was a critical issue. You know a product is pretty useless when even the karang guni man refuses to buy it from you as a 2nd hand item. And so it has since joined my graveyard bin of has-been gadgets - still shiny and new.

Well, I did have an urgent need of a tape recorder at one time, so, guess what? I bought another one. Yup, it was an Aiwa no less. I like it because it looks like a mini boombox with radio. (And a good one at that!) Now if only someone makes an MP3 player just like that, with the flick switches, faux or real VU meters, etc. I can bet you it will sell like hot cakes. Good too if they sold like macaroons!

It is sad to see the once-mighty Aiwa's fortunes decline over the years. It was eventually bought over by share-holder Sony, whose own walkmans diminished to just the weather-proof sporty types. After the purchase, the Aiwa brand suffered the same fate as Lotus 1-2-3 after it was bought by IBM. They did nothing to strengthen its market presence and simply let it slip into the dust of time and anonymity. A travesty, really, committed against these once standout household names.

But the Aiwa lesson is still relevant to 'second horse run' companies today. If you have success, reinvest that into a future product that people want. If you stop innovating, your business will be swallowed up by a competitor and be permanently put out of commission. You have been warned.

Previous story: Diving Right In; Next Story: Hell Bank Notes

Photo 1: My first walkman; Photo 2: My 2nd walkman; Photo 3: My current 'walkman' with new Aiwa logo.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Diving Right In

It was 1997 and scuba diving had become the new social thing to do. It had actually started a few years earlier but I've never been much of a fad person and so resisted. I had also learned earlier from a young person at the Curse of the Witch Queen event that diving was a costly affair. It involved buying much 'personal' equipment and ultimately owning a good computer watch. If it was going to be a fad, it would be one expensive BTDT (been there, done that) thing. It didn't make sense at the time. Also, if I were to dive, I would do so professionally and with explosives - something I explored as a career choice right after National Service.

But the boss of that diving outfit turned me off.

The interview was strange, to say the least. The boss, a lean, youngish chap, probably in his mid-30s, was looking at a fax when I stepped in. He was behind his desk.

"What the chee bye is this?" he exclaimed, upset at what he had read. A lady, whom I later identified as his secretary and wife, replied. "Probably the same old thing."

I introduced myself and we thus began a conversation that had more CBs than I would ever hear from a platoon of Hokkien peng. Reservist included.

"Do you know what the fuck you are getting into?" he asked.

"I think so," I said, somewhat unnerved by his choice of vocab and angry tone.

"You know this job is not for any chee bye son-of-a-bitch."

At this point, I think I rolled my eyes, but said, "Yeah, I think so. I've handled explosives before."

"I know, but do you know the first chee bye thing about diving."

"Um, no. I thought this would be a good place to start."

"Nao hia, you think this is a school, is it?!"

Well, I was beginning to wonder if there was any point in continuing the conversation. I mean it is good to act tough and try and throw a potential candidate off, but there's such a thing as polite exchange in conversation. All I was getting from this guy was that he liked his chee byes a lot.

And his wife was right there in the office. Does she curse with "lun chiao"? That would make them an ideal couple.

Can you imagine the conversation?

She: "Eh, lun chiao tau, wanna go for lunch?"
He: "Aiyah, always eating the same old chee bye."

Sigh. In any case, before I left I found out that it was a family business. That put me off completely. In a family business, an outsider is always considered an outsider. After 20 years an idiot son would be chosen to head the company even if you knew the business like the back of your hand. You will always be a lackey in their eyes.

Now, back to that social/casual diving thing.

A close friend of mine (Set) from my Thomson days called. He needed a buddy for his diving course and wondered if I would like to stand in. We had been to many off-shore adventures together in Malaysia so it didn't take me long (nor much persuasion) to say yes. If we ventured out again, we would each have a buddy to dive with.

Before long, we found ourselves attending lessons at the Raffles JC pool in Bishan. Our instructors were two guys who taught SSI scuba diving. At the time, there were only two popular dive certifying bodies: SSI or PADI, so we often referred to the instructors according to their affiliation, much like in kung fu: Wudang or Er-mei?

PADI was more popular but some folks felt they were too lax. I liked SSI for their systematic approach.

We couldn't ask for two better instructors in Kelvin and Robert. They were very professional, patient yet fun; great guys to be with. They made our dive lessons and open-sea outings very enjoyable.

Kelvin was a supervisor at a precision engineering firm. But his real talent was in taking very professional grade underwater photographs. I've told him many times that they deserved to be in a coffee table book.

Robert flew fixed wing for the RSAF. He had a big pot belly which matched his jolly sense. He's the only guy I knew who drove his car like he was sitting in a deck chair. The backrest was that far back. Was that how they flew helicopters back then?

We did quite a number of pool lessons and then went to the open sea for more. We had to be open-water certified before being able to dive on our own. We went to Pulau Hantu for that, which was in Singapore's own backyard.

At first we were disappointed that our instructors did not bring us to a more exotic locale, like those blue-water ones in Indonesia. Pulau Hantu's claim to fame was sediment. Diving in there was like swimming in tea with a burst teabag. Visibility was as far as the guy's backside in front of you... on a good day.

But Kelvin and Robert were adamant. They believed that training in the worst places brings out the best in people. I just thought they were cheap bastards.

And the island itself was nothing to shout about. A few park benches and simple showering facilities overshadowed by terribly sullen-looking Casuarina trees drained of most color.

But having gone through the course, I must say Kelvin and Robert were 100% right on that score. If you train in a sea with extremely clear visibility, you quickly learn a false sense of comfort. In Pulau Hantu waters, you learn instead (and very quickly) that your buddy is your second lifeline - the first being your air tank. In murky waters that hide even an outstretched hand, keeping your buddy close in case of danger becomes paramount.

In clear waters, one tends to chase fish and explore coral and forget all about having a buddy. So, I was very, very glad to have trained under Kelvin and Robert and dived in Pulau Hantu. I'd also learnt that the waters at Pulau Hantu, although sedimentary was teeming with life. One just had to look closer, nose a nudi branch even.

My dive certificate eventually took me to Pulau Perhentian (east coast), Pulau Gemia (west coast, where one could swim with sharks) and the famous Pulau Redang in Malaysia. That one was deep. The sea life below was truly amazing. It really was like walking in a coral garden replete with pebble paths and coral arch. I am not kidding nor exaggerating. That alone made up for all the money spent on what was then to me a faddish sport.

(Set and I paid $460 each for our SSI open-water course in 1997. We only had to buy our own set of fins and googles. (A good set is extremely useful for snorkeling, especially in places with strong currents) By the early 2000s, operators were offering $280. I know of a friend who was considering a $230 course. It made me wonder about its depth and quality and if that friend of mine has become fish food floating along some South Pacific current tow.)

Soon after, in 1998, golf took off like nobody's business, thanks to one guy named Tiger Woods. Everybody switched to golf. Come to think of it, Tiger had a lot in common with the fella who ran that underwater demolition outfit. Both of them liked their CBs very much.

Afternote: Taking this diving course introduced me to Wee Nam Kee chicken porridge opp Novena. We would go there after our pool lessons. I would eat the porridge with a few dollops of their minced ginger/sesame oil condiment. The more the merrier. The ginger heat is great after a old session in the pool. This rigged porridge reminds me of the street chicken porridge I used to eat as a kid growing up in Geylang. You can read more about it here: Dog Bite Porridge

To see Curse of the Witch Queen pictures, click here. My explosive past: Lost Fingers

Next story: A Walkman Legacy

Photo (L): At Raffles JC pool. L-R: Alfred, Set, Me, SK & Regina; photo (R): Filling in our dive logs during lunch on Pulau Hantu, with tips from Robert. Also present were asst instructors Justin and Eric.