Thursday, 12 December 2013

Appreciating Nudes

Nudes. I started to like nudes when I was a very young kid.

I think that topless Iban woman who regularly delivered fresh fruits to my family in Kuching had something to do with it.

There she goes, jaunting up our garden path in all her natural bounciness! She had huge breasts that hung low... probably the lovelies had not seen material support since, what, puberty? Forest folks like her didn't indulge in fabric support (and maybe still don't). And she had such wonderful copper-tinted skin that sunlight would glint off it making my recall of her look even more sepia and dream-like. That's how I recall things these days: in sepia tones and at times, Gaussian Blur.

From that encounter, I realised that we human beings had been hiding behind clothes all along. So I did what most kids hit with an epiphany at that young age would do: I rebelled. I, of course, went overboard to make a point. I walked around as much as I could without my trousers!

I was three years old so no police were called in to arrest me for indecent exposure. Most people thought I was cute. And if that day was my birthday, they would even use my little pecker to pick up numbers. Luckily no one struck any prize and won, else my thumb-sized of an appendage would have been extremely busy... Put on a pedestal even!

No boy or guy should grow up thinking his willie has such awesome power. It's never good for a guy to think he has THAT much influence! It's enough for a guy to be blessed with Morning Flag Pole Syndrome or MFPS, or what working women all call "morning di seow" (morning disturbance), all dressed up ready to leave when the hubby wants his honeymoon all over again!

Ok, so I had an understanding of nudes when I was a little kid.

Trying to draw them was another matter. If you were Chinese, you just didn't. You would be caned for being "ham sup" or sleazy. Worse, you could be labelled a "sik long" or sex maniac.

Understandably, I had to suppress my desire at that early age to draw naked figures. I dared not even try to do it in the privacy of my own good self least one of many siblings should uncover my artwork and tattle-tale.

I would then observe and try to draw in my mind, which was a success every time! I at times marveled at my own faithful reproductions. Ridiculous, really!

But my mind-nude drawings would at times create misunderstandings. Kindly aunties would wander over and say, "My, what huge cute eyes you have!"

They didn't know I was underessing them all the time.

But it all got rather tiring after a while. I then decided the best way to draw nudes was to focus on animal bodies. Dogs, cats, fish.

Then came a spider. It was tough, full of apprehension. Would it keep still? Would it sprint at me? The session would eventually end with one of us running away. Or at one time, I had to kill my 'model' as it got really close and personal.

I think artists killing models was not new even then, but still, it was traumatic. And after the spider was smashed, its beautiful body outline lost all symmetry. So sad it was.

Snails. I then decided to draw snails, which were excellent subjects given their penchant for loitering and their 'I've got the whole day' attitude.

But snails with their hard shells were not what I was after. I liked the body form, the soft curves. Up till then I was only fascinated with the female form. The flowing hair, the high cheekbones, the svelte waist, the slim ankles, etc.

A kid with a keen mind can see a lot.

Then Incek Osman turned up.

He was a fisherman who brought us fish. He too was top naked like that Iban woman. But oh, what lean muscles he had!

Up till then, my male human body template had been my dad's on his weekends shirt off. And he wasn't exactly Adonis; not even close. He had a slight beer belly.... A body like any other middle-aged man content with after dinner naps and TV on the sofa.  

So I was surprised to learn that there were such things as muscle and sinew.

My young mind went into overdrive.

When Incek Osman came near, I had to poke him to make sure. Hmm, hard flesh.

Incek Osman laughed. "Eh, lit-tah boy," he would say each time he saw me, clicking his tongue at the 'little'. Afterwards, he would speak in Malay with my mom.

From that day on, I started looking at men, the end template of which I would grow up into. Of course, I didn't know anything about the relationship between solid body and exercise, just that the natives were all leaner than the angmohs who worked with my dad.

Perhaps they didn't have enough to eat, or that they ever only ate fish and not meatier stuff like pork.

I also started scouring for pictures of people and bodies, which was difficult given the place we lived in It was on the outskirts of Kuching town. The only books I could reference were some religious text that my brother brought back from his Sunday school. Not much help there; only semi-nudes like Jesus on his cross and slaves working in the grain fields.

But my interest in drawing nudes (and people or animals) soon waned after we started catching butterflies and moths to put into picture frames. In unspoilt Kuching then, butterflies were a dime a dozen. All kinds, you name it. They were different in size, wing pattern and color. There were also huge insects like the stick insect, horn beetle or the noisy cicada.

These days, we balk at catching any butterfly so rare they are. But back then, the situation was very different. We could do it day after day and there was still no shortage of them to frame up. But of course, back then, the climate and environment were both so different from today's. Such delicate creatures thrived then!

When I got to primary school, I had very interesting art and craft lessons. We  not only drew and painted, but we sewed, embroidered, knitted and crotcheted. We also made miniature furniture, weaved mats and created stuffed animals.

Then one day, we were taught portraiture. Memories of my early childhood interest in nudes resurfaced.

Would I dare draw something?

By then my 12-year old self had learnt and seen much. 

At 6, I had seen my dad's stash of naughty playing cards he had brought back from Vietnam, no doubt meant for those lonely GIs over there fighting an unfamiliar war so far from home. They showed guys and gals posing in the nude. Nothing alarming there except they all had salon-done hair. The ladies would be wearng flaming red lipstick and six-inch heels. If I have to take my clothes off, my hair and footwear would be the least I am worried about. 

At 9, I had watched Sex and The Animals in the cinema and seen all manner of bestial intercourse (within their own species, of course). Some coital unions were alarming, some sweet, and some, wholly ingenious!

At 12, I had stolen glances at a couple making love in their bed, tenants of our room for rent. They were a young but odd couple that did not follow the usual routine of normal folks. They spent most of the day in bed and went out only occasionally at night. My mom thought they took drugs and terminated their lease not long after. They did look rather unhealthy. Even their lovemaking was unenergetic. (You cannot blame a boy for spying when he comes home from school and hear strange noises!) 

That year, I also saw a woman give birth. It was played out in glorious technicolor video right next to the main entrance of the old National Museum - the one with the whale bone hanging over its main staircase inside. In the video, the camera was right smack where the baby would emerge, pubes and all. I don't know why the museum would choose to showcase something like that and to the public some more. Was it to encourage them to have more babies? Or scare them? Some men get traumatised watching a video like that. "Watching my wife's pubes become deformed like that was like watching my favourite pub burn down!" a famous male singer once said.

So, when protraiture came around during art lesson during primary school, I was kind of jaded and lost my eye for the body beautiful. Mind you, sexual connotation hadn't come into the picture as yet. My male hormones hadn't kicked in. The human body was still the mirror of the one I had, all innocent and underdeveloped. I saw it as that, what the good Earth gave. Or what mom managed to bake in her 'oven'.

My return to appreciating nudes would be much later when I took an interest in photography and started looking at pics that were stylish and highly technical.

But in those days, people's attitude with nudes were still pretty conservative, no doubt influenced by religious and puritan biases. They often failed to separate the cultural and social elements from a nude work of art.

A nude photo or art celebrates more than just the body beautiful. It's about what goes on in our heads and hearts at our most vulnerable and private moments. We've all been there in the bathroom, tap full on, water running down our backs trying to make sense of the world or trying to make an important life decision.

I don't think anyone can be anymore naked and exposed than that. 

With clothes back on, we lose that nudist honesty about ourselves. Clothes, in a sense, become our body's mask once more.

Nope, I don't think I have any more ambitions to draw or photograph nudes. One, getting anyone to pose nude still presents a challenge. Two, it is a highly technical art requiring special equipment and setup (talking about photography here). Three, I'm more interested in buildings and architecture.

Interestingly, buildings when bare look unfinished, abandoned. When we are bare, we are ready to start anew. Or simply, take me as I am.

Next story: A Monster To Live With

Ren Hang - China's provocateur photographer and poet. RIP 28 Feb 2017. Some of his less X-rated works below.
Last photo (sundial) my own humor piece. ;-)

A Life of Jeans

Don't mean to sound odd but in a way, jeans are very much like girlfriends: you seldom forget the first one you meet and fall in love with.

Growing up in the 70s, Levi's was the must-have jean. Failing that, you bought some other brand like Lee Cooper, Texwood or Lawman.

If I remember correctly, Coopers were for those with shapely behinds; Texwoods for those who were slim and tall; Lawmans were, well, more Asian in cut and size.

I, like how I would choose my GFs later in life, opted for one called Jenkins. It was green in color and altogether rather different. What kind of green? Imagine the color of broccoli with underlying yellows; kind of green-fresh like sea moss, kind of yellow-cheery like the morning sun.

You can tell I related a lot to the color and mood that that jean brought about. And its fabric wasn't thick. It was a denim that felt cottony soft, almost like seude. The cut was piped at the ends (i.e. not flared) and that suited me fine. I was very skinny then.

Altogether, a Jenkins denim was thin and light, very slacks-like.

From that green pair of jeans I finally wore a blue colored one, albeit a stonewash. I've always worn them stonewashed. I didn't quite like the solid blue ones because they reminded me too much of dye. I loved the stonewashed fabric with its "lived in" pathos. It even has an ethereal quality reminiscent of girls with fair and angelic faces.  Mind you, that's by looks itself. Whether the girls have anything upstairs is another matter.

Just like how some jeans look tough but would give way upon the slightest of rough outing.

I tore my first jeans riding a motorcycle. No, I wasn't thrown off like a whipped catapult. Thank goodness!

A pick-up truck had inadvertently backed up against me as I was riding past. I did not fall over but wobbled for control. After I stopped my bike and checked the pain on my thigh, I found a short gash along its length. Fortunately, no skin was broken, only a heavy bruise. I could count myself lucky in not suffering worse.

I got that jeans sewn up again and it was serviceable once more. I guess that's the nature of denim. Takes a beating and keeps on going! Why, I suppose, it is a fabric first worn by miners and railroaders.

That pair of scarred jeans accompanied me on most of my motorbike rides in that mostly student phase of life. And I did ride far, often travelling from my home in Woodlands to Changi Airport to fetch my air stewardess GF home after each international flight. She lived in Tampines then, so the ride home for her wasn't too bad. But my return journey would be another matter.

Having missed her for a week or two, I would want to spend as much time with her as possible, By the time I bid my adieus, it would be late, around 2am+. At that hour, the ride along some of the expressways was cold, especially along BKE where forests flanked both sides for long stretches. Global warming wasn't a buzzword then, so the ambient temperature at night must have been much lower than it is today. Also, there was like 50% less cars than now. Less carbon emissions, less greenhouse effect.

Later, after I broke off with this GF, I retired that pair of jeans. Wearing it was just too painful. Plus, we had bought it from a factory outlet at Rochor Centre, a favourite hangout place of ours. The jeans was branded Hoko's and by the time I retired it, it had faded much and frayed. And became snowy white with only flecks of its original pale blue colour remaining.

After that came another pair of green jeans. Why that particular color, I don't know. I can only guess that it was my favorite and hence gravitated towards it. Or perhaps after breaking off with my GF, I had to return to my roots. That I needed something to cheer up my mood might explain the sun-cheery underlying yellows of the fabric as well.

That new pair of green jeans was a Hara, bought from OG at People's Park. I think Hara was also commonly sold at that popular tee-shirt outlet called Heshe (i.e. "he, she"). Do you remember the Heshe stores? I visited the outlet at Parkway Parade quite often.

The Hara brand had a motif of a Red Indian Chieftain sewn near the lip of the jean back pocket. It signified adventure and that's what I did. With my Hara jeans, I was single again and went out to resume my hiking/trekking ways.

The first place I hiked to was Mount Ophir. It was with a couple of army buddies. Well, one army buddy and two lady JC friends. I think my friend was trying to set me up with one of them. But I remember thinking it was all too soon. And the girl he was trying to set me up with had a funny laugh. Why I did not kindly let her know about that, I don't know. Politeness? Maybe. Telling her would be awkward, like saying someone's nose was too large. Right thinking folks are supposed to look past stuff like that. 

But keeping silent would be like letting a friend walk about with a pant zipper down. Someone has to say something!

Till today, I regret my inaction. Something like this can affect a girl's fate for life. She could continue to turn people off with her snorting, flatulating kind of laugh. She was after all a very sweet girl like that pair of jeans just fresh from a clothes dryer you just want to snuggle up to. Until she laughed.

From Mount Ophir, that Hara jeans followed me on to various island trips around Malaysia and even on trips overseas.

I drove my first left-hand drive car in that pair of jeans.

I took off that pair of jeans to make love for the first time on a large continent, right there in front of a lovely fireplace in a very charming little cottage inn.

I tell you, images are powerful reminders. Especially when you remember folding that pair of jeans into your luggage and thinking that the trip should have gone on for much longer; perhaps never ending. Is that how honeymooners feel? I dunno. That was just a side trip from work.

I also started my Reservist in that pair of jeans, a rather traumatic re-introduction to Army Life after an absence of six years since ROD. Ops Orders? What Op Orders??? Oh...that. What are the steps again?

Haiz.... When I changed out of that green pair of jeans, I would think what a long in-camp it was going to be. Army was a different green back then and not that Hara green. That pair of jeans was good while it lasted.

Some years later, I had to, with sadness, retire it. I had started my career as a journalist and unlike my more taxing Engineering work, I had begun to put on weight (from all that sitting down to write). I was no more the skinny me. An inch can made a lot of difference to the waistline of a pair of jeans and I had advanced by a couple. That's when my age also matched my waistline - not a good thing! But I think this sort of phenomenon only happens to guys than girls. And that Hara pair of jean wasn't really the stretchy, accommodating sort. So into the "has-been" bin it went.

The pair of jeans that came after was a tougher, more regular sort. It was a Lawman's. I wore that everywhere, including winter time in Hanover, which made realise jeans aren't the best option in that weather. Once outdoors, they felt wet and cold. My crotch never felt so vulnerable. But bore with it I did. And because the jeans was fitting, I couldn't wear extra clothing like thermals underneath. Oh, what a bummer!

Fortunately, I had a long winter coat and that kept the cold winds from snapping at my family jewels.

Another problem was wearing normal office shoes and socks as I would in my home country, which had a tropical climate. Nope, such shoes weren't exactly winter wear either! But who could blame me when my travel there was to work? I think a guy would tend to forget to buy the right shoes to wear.

But then again, even in wintry conditions, women could still be seen in skirts and high heels. What's that Chinese saying about "valuing beauty above death"?

But I liked the Lawman jeans for its fit and "jeaness", so when this pair of denim trousers became torn and ripped from overuse, I had to retire it and buy another. I remember my mom complaining each time she saw me. "Like a beggar," she would say. "Can you please go buy a new one?"

But procrastinate I did. We all know how comfy an old pair of jeans can be. But a ripped pair of jeans doesn't show up well at smart casual events, so I had no choice but to say bye bye to it. I mean bits of my my underwear were already showing through!

My next pair was another Lawman's and that would be my last pair of jeans.

Why? Because I had gotten into PR work and wearing jeans wasn't the thing to do. We all wore tailored clothes to look smart. And frankly, cloth is always more comfortable than denim. Cloth pants don't bite as much at the crotch and don't give one hip stress. They are lighter.

So what memories did my last pair of jeans give me?

It followed me on a backpacking trip to Europe that lasted 35 days and covered 24 places. Yet another pair of very special and memorable pair of jeans. Much like this ex-GF I am thinking about now!

Next story: Appreciating Nudes 

Tailor Made (Mistakes)

As a teenager, I think going to the tailor is a sure sign that you have grown up, joining the ranks of adults.

Unless, of course, if your family was wealthy and your clothes were mintly tailored every Chinese New Year. A friend lived that...clothes tailored since he was three. He has a photo of himself in a tiny waist coat looking very much the Little Master he was called by his two amahs.

That was until his father's business took a dive and he had to wear hand-me-downs. He suddenly realised that clothes could last! And in his case, they did. His father's business took a while to recover. But although he was economically challenged, he did not buy clothes off the rack. He'd always found those ill-fitting, he said; and continued to have them tailored whenever he could afford it.

I suggested if it was all in his mind this need to tailor. He smiled and said maybe.

I then told him that although I had my clothes tailored once, they didn't fit. It was during my student days at Pre-U college. It was the beginning of the new school year and the school thought they could do the students a favour by hiring a tailor and have the uniforms made en masse, just to help the students save some money. It was after all a mission school and saving money a desired virtue. Besides, the students' families might appreciate the gesture. Maybe there were a number of needy students in our school that year!

I decided to sign up. For me it was just a matter of convenience. No need to go to a tailor and afterwards having to pick up the clothes there myself. Everything would be done at school. I also needn't worry if my uniform would be of the right shade of school color. Nobody had ever heard of the Pantone color-coding system at the time yet, let alone SCOTDIC the one for textiles.

Surprisingly, even though it was a centralized effort, our school uniforms took longer than usual to finish and deliver. Were there too many orders?

In any case, on the day itself, I was very excited. I couldn't wait to wear my uniform and begin life at the new school. Pre-U sounded exciting and vastly different from secondary schooling. The Pre-U kids I've seen were more like young adults than pimple-challenged pubescent kids in shorts. I couldn't wait to be part of their cohort!

Finally, the Day of the Uniforms arrived. My classmates were just as excited as I was. My new classmate Long was also eager. He came from a kampung in Nee Soon (Yishun) and never had his clothes tailored.

But alas, to the disappointment of everyone, the uniforms came back very poorly made. How bad? Well, the inside seams of the pants didn't match for one. They were impossible to align when ironing (that's two!). The seamline would always be different each time and end up being crooked!

For someone who grew up with NPCC and smart uniforms, such awkward pants were rather off-putting. How could I wear these, I wondered?

I made a report to the school. It turned out that I was not the only one. The school was inundated with similar complaints and getting flak. The girls too were affected and had skirts with A-lines that were anything but. One classmate kept pulling at hers. The situation was so comical that we could only laugh. How can a tailor get such basics so very wrong? It was not as if they had to work with a difficult material such as silk! I  mean all they had to do was sew straight, right?

We all wondered who made those clothes. It turned out to be a professional tailor. Really? We were all incredulous. We suspected that the shop subbed them out to other less-able contractors. Maybe the pants were sewn by two blind midgets taking one pant leg each. Sigh....

As with young adults, the reasons came fast and thick as did the inevitable jokes. Someone suggested that were our school uniform a sarong, things might turn out better. No sewing required. And we could change into our PE gear real quick without having to go to the changing room. At sports meets, we would have a flag to wave about, etc, etc. We could use the sarong to snap at each other. My classmates were not very book smart, but heck, their heads were always full of crazy ideas. 

So, even though we might have become young adults, our thinking then was still very teenager!


I looked at myself in the mirror in my new school uniform. A young man in ill-fitting clothes stared back. The shirt was tight at the shoulders making him look hunched. The backside looked out of shape. The lower left leg seam was crooked. 

I wished the mirror to be a trick mirror but it wasn't!

I presented myself to my sister who laughed out loud immediately. "Yau mo gau cho ah!" she exclaimed in our dialect Cantonese. "That's really messed up! You better go get it changed!" She was still laughing as she exited the room.

And so the next day, I took my school uniforms (three sets) back to school. It turned out that we had to liaise with the tailor ourselves. And as the queue was long, I decided to live with it. After all, it was only for a short two-year course, barring me failing and having to repeat. After college I would be called up for National Service and can say goodbye to school. No more school uniforms for me! 

During NS, no one complained about mismatched seams and strange hemlines; we strangely fitted into our clothes rather well. Perhaps the "botak" haircut took away more than just hair. It also took away our critical nature. We all just blended in like apples in a barrel. And no one wanted to be labelled a Complaint King in that first three months. You could get "blanket partied".

And since school was mostly a half-day affair, our time spent in that lousy uniform would be minimal. Besides, I was involved in a few school activities that required me to change out of my school uniform, so, I really can't be bothered with it at all.

A consolation was that my school uniform was not the worst. Fellow classmate Ding's school pants were all poofed up at the crotch making it seem as if he had a small pillow tucked in there. It looked as if there was no difference whether he worn his back or front. Yet others had ill-fitting pocket openings that had extended openings like some bovine's inverted vagina. Good luck with keeping a wallet in there!

Man oh man, how could a tailor (or a bunch tailors) get their orders so very very wrong???


My first tailoring experience was at a tailor shop named Brazil in Bukit Timah Shopping Centre. I used to school around that area and when I served my NS in SAFTI, Jurong later on, that place opposite Beauty World became a journey mid-point back-and-to camp. So naturally, I would hang out there for coffee and to do some window shopping. I remember spending quite a bit of time at a ground floor electronics shop that also dealt with hi-fi.

A few years earlier back in secondary school, BTSC was already our regular hangout place. We used to go to a nearby sch for Technical Studies. Even though encumbered with our T-squares and drawing boards, we still hung out at BTSC. We watched Jackie Chan's Drunken Master there when the cinema at the top floor was still active. There was also the rather "atas" (expensive) The Ship restaurant for business meals and first dates!

The reason I had to tailor my clothes at Brazil was that I needed a suit for my Officer Cadet School graduation. I also needed something for a farewell party so I added an additional pair of pants to the order. For that private function I was expected to bring a date so there was incentive for me to look better than usual. And I did want to impress my date!

The pants turned out very well. They felt like a second skin and was in a color that I really liked - a kind of water green with barely visible threads of brown, gold and green to make the fabric look interesting up close.

The suit was similarly very well done. It was in a nice grey-blue material with inlaid threads of black. Oh my! My very first suit! I guess most guys would remember their first suit... whether it was made for work, a wedding or even a funeral. Especially if the latter's their own.


Back in the 80s, I had a neighbourhood family friend who was a tailor. He and his fellow tailor brother ran a shop nearby. It was around that time that I realised the profession was going the way of the Dodo. He (the elder brother) knew it too and started leasing out part of his shop for other business. My mom was the first to take up that space to sell her small jade and silver jewelry pieces.

It was then that we had more conversations with him and come to realise that departmental store ready-to-wear clothing was killing both his business and profession.

How to save it? we asked. But the older brother was resigned to his fate and started to trade in stocks and shares - a booming profession at the time.

In the end, trading in stocks became so addictive that the elder brother decided to sell off his shop to concentrate on that. The younger brother also stopped making clothes to help out at a nearby hawker center.


You know, I thought my tailoring misadventure ended at Pre-U college, but no. When I started work as an adult, I needed work pants. At one time, the trend was to make three pairs for $100. Not a bad promo, I had thought then. The first set I got made was at a stall in the hawker centre opposite the ferry terminal (beside the old World Trade Centre). The pants turned out excellent and I took pleasure in wearing them for many years. I also liked the jean-style pockets in front, not something one could find easily off the rack; and this old man tailor did make them very well!

Many years on, with pants worn down to bare threads, I decided to revisit the same tailoring promo idea and went to a stall in Marsiling that charged only $88 for three pairs! Instead of being more expensive as time passed, tailoring new pants got cheaper!

It must be the competitive nature of the business that drove prices down. Or the downward spiral of material cost, no thanks to China or India dumping their surplus textile products on their neighbouring trade partners. Either way, we got to enjoy good cloth at pretty low expense.

And so from good cloth were those $88 pants made. 

At that price they were even better than the ready-to-wear pants sold at John's Little or Chinese Emporium. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have gone to Marsiling (near my home) to make those pants. The guy seemed rather nervous and did fumble with the measuring tape. He also seemed shy measuring my crotch area. Was it that intimidating? I wondered mischieviously. In the end, his wife took over the measuring task. No, she wasn't young and she wasn't taken in by my good looks and prominent crotch bump. She just couldn't tahan her hubby.


When I did eventually collect the pants, two of the them had major mistakes. One pant leg was shorter than the other. 

I checked my own legs, they were not at fault at all. Nope, they were very much in the manner I was born with. Same length albeit a little bow-legged. (Was I a cowboy in my past life?)

I highlighted the error to the tailor guy trying to be as gentle as possible so his ego would not be hurt. He was, after all, older. But instead of apologising, he tried to make up an excuse for the mistakes.

What excuse could he possibly give, I wondered, jaws dropping and eyes opened wide in an "Are you serious?" look.

"Wear already no problem," he said, in Mandarin and matter-of-factly.

What??? Wear already no problem?!

I wanted to tell him that I was no magician who pulls optical illusions on unsuspecting folks walking by. 

If a pirate had a wooden leg, HE HAD A WOODEN LEG!

The gall of him to tell me to just go with it. Wah piang! Wah lau eh! was echoing through my numbed mind.

I steeled him an eye. "Ah chek (old man), what are you going to do about this?" 

The man was utterly lost for words and a solution. He could only stare at the handicapped pantleg perhaps willing it to grow a few inches longer. Honestly, I couldn't tell if he was sorry, mulling or thinking.

Finally I said: "Come, I teach you."

"You have to hemp here at the leg end. Unfold it and you will get back roughly two inches. To replace the hemp, just fold the edge less. Alter the other side to match too."

In my mind the solution was pretty obvious. I had learnt to sew in primary school (all part of the regular Art lessons) and was a designer of sorts.

But the tailor guy looked at me as if I was speaking Yiddish.

I was starting to get angry. Look man, here I am trying to fix your mistake. Could you be a bit more contrite, and maybe also a little bright?

At that point the wife came out of the shop. I explained to her again what happened. She looked at her husband and then at the pants, anger rising. I proceeded to explain to her what could be done. 

"Ok, I know what to do," she said, giving her husband a really chilly look that asked "Am i seriously married to you?" 

The following week I collected the pants. They were altered and they fitted. What a relief!


The tailoring shops I first knew as a kid were the ones at Peninsular Hotel where a visiting family friend and her family always stayed. There, the tailors were those who were often called upon by visiting tourists or dignitaries for a cheap but good suit. Pretty much the same as what was happening in Hong Kong then in the 60s and 70s.

In the 80s and up till now, it was Thailand and their tailors' magical skill with silk (and sometimes batik) that pulled fans over.

As a kid growing up in Geylang, my aunty's first BF was the son of a tailor whose shop was along the main road. He would always turn up for a date dressed in what looked like expensive and immaculate duds. His shiny pants always made an impression - the kind successful pop stars wore. His shirts were no slouch either. All in all, he came across as quite the happening dude. And he drove a Mini then, another in-fashion statement.

But surprisingly, my aunt, who was pretty in her own way, did not go further with him, Instead, she picked a rather dour fellow to be her future husband. Maybe his strong chin had something to do with it. Or that she, despite being a quick wit and motormouth, was actually quite conservative at heart.

My best memory of her BF family's tailor shop was the sign above their shop. It was very iconic and made in a style of that era. It featured a model's head and letters painted on zinc sheet and mounted on a backboard made of long wood strips. 

Beside the shop was a small home-factory sewing hats and bags out of plastic drinking straws. The (sun) hats were actually quite prickly to wear. You don't see these kind of products anymore, just as we have stopped making door curtains out of rolled up calendar strips as well.

But today, we continue to go to a tailor for that one-of-a-kind outfit. Nothing fits better than a tailored piece. Girls should know what with their tailored Coming Of Age gowns. And I am glad that some tailors have up their ante with fashionable designs and interesting materials.

I don't like calling a good tailor a tailor. It's like calling a good hairstylist a barber. No disrespect to barbers out there, but a hairstylist has a greater degree of styling and professional skill. A couturier? A dressmaker? A clothier? 

In the news recently, someone designed a bullet-proof and stab-proof suit. Incredible, no? A skill is a skill is a skill. It all depends upon how one applies it. And cooks and chefs best illustrate that as well as artists and sculptors in the interior design space.

Next story: A Life of Jeans

Mt Kinabalu 3

Having reached the summit of KT Kinabalu, we couldn't linger about long. Our guide told us that there would be others coming up. I think we eventually stayed there for just an hour - enough time for the sun to fully rise and reset the day. The date was May 1st. The last part of the climb was indeed laborious, what with the altitude affected breathing at the last stretch. (It surprised me even, that every 10m required deep gulps of air!)

But we all made it. Our guide said we were very lucky to not meet rain, which was often. This time, everything was dry and pat.

Just as we were finished talking, full daylight arisen. We could finally see everything around (and below) us. 

There was still that floating layer of cottony clouds but now it seem less frothy and more settled. In parts where the clouds parted, we could see towns and padi fields and ribbons of road connecting them.

Looking down from that great height, I thought how wonderful it would be if one could parasail or glide from the summit. In fact, some people did do just that at the time. How fantastic the feeling must have been!


As usual, as with any trip, the return journey was faster than the forward one. I was amazed at the short time we took to descend Mt Kinabalu. In fact, it was so eerily fast that I wondered why we took as long as we did going up.

With a skip and a hop, we were soon back down to those service roads that meandered from the Ranger HQ. I'm not kidding; it really seemed that fast! (Like some 2.5 hrs?)


For me, the quick descent brought on a fever. It must have been the change in weather between altitudes. The usual fit me was surprised but there was little I could do than to bear and grin it. It was a bad fever but given my history with flash fevers, it would go away after 24 hrs. But in the meanwhile, my body would be wracked with pain! That's the trade-off I had to bear with.

I remember bunking over at the Ranger HQ for the evening before heading back down to town. I was really in bad shape and moaned about it, alarming my climbing mates with my distress. I had to tell them that I wasn't dying and that I would feel better afterwards!

And as expected, I did feel better the next day, but I was still not well enough to join them for the Tree Canopy Climb. Instead, I went and soaked myself in the next door hotspring bath. There was nothing natural about the bath though. It was just a handful of tiled rectangle bathtubs set in a row and served by some taps that channeled water from an underground spring. But (unlike the local Sembawang hotspring water) the H2O here in Sabah did smell of sulphur. At least that should do some wonders for my fever-wracked, tired body!

The baths were really old-school and reminded me of those found in homes in the 60s. They were rectangular in shape and had those familiar light green tiles. My neighbour who lived downstairs in Geylang had one. But theirs was larger and waist high. And the workers would scoop water out from it to bathe or into basins to wash things with. The whole affair at the hotspring was thus rather nostalgic. 

As the water was hot, I did not soak for long. When the other guys appeared from their canopy walk, we all washed up and took the transport back to town.

As it was near sunset, our guide brought us to Tanjung Aru beach to walkabout a bit. It was an excellent idea as the sunset there was great. Better still was the big expanse of beach acessible during low tide. It seemed that one could explore the mudflats for two kilometres or more!


The next morning, the Fourth Day of our trip began. It's when we would start our land adventure proper. The first thing on the agenda was River Rafting. Our adventure tour guide arrived and met us at our budget hotel in town. 

For breakfast, he brought us to eat "kon lo meen" or dry, non-soupy noodles - a popular way of eating noodles in Sarawak and Sabah. It was quite similar to our own wanton noodles except the noodles were more wheaty in color, curlier and "QQ", i.e. springy - best to be eaten with minced meat actually,

The noodle shop was situated in a long, raised wooden shophouse with verandah and zinc roof. A short flight of wooden steps led up to it. It looked like a throwback to those shophouses we would find in our own little Chinese villages in Singapore back in the 60s and 70s. I absolutely love such buildings. I dunno; such architectures speak very well to my psyche (that and wooden rooms that jut out from walls supported by struts). I sometimes wonder whether my past lives have anything to do with it!

After breakfast, we drove to the railway station that would bring us to our designated angry river. It was supposed to be a Cat 4 one, a waterway that foamed and would toss unsuspecting tourists into water if they were not careful!

Along the way, we stopped at roadside stalls that sold 'todi' - a moonshine made from fermented coconut juice. It was alcoholic that tasted sour - not exactly pleasant!

After this, bad news. The way to the fast river was blocked by a landslide. The train could not get us through. We stood at the simple railway platform feeling rather deflated. We were all rather looking forward to a river rafting ride. None of us had done it before.

Our guide, sensing our disappointment, decided to bring us to another river. But he said it wouldn't be a Cat 4 angry one, more like a Cat 2 or 3. We all jumped at the chance as we were already imagining wet heroics.

But the river turned out to be as calm as my fish tank back home. Dang!

No matter, we went gamely along and raised our arms in mock danger each time the raft slipped past rocks and into an eddy pool. Haha...what losers we were that day!


The next day was much better. We spent it on an offshore island called Pulau Sapi. It wasn't a big island but the waters were very clear and the sand white.

We swam and ate water melons. I liked going to islands to relax and would rank this as one of the most enjoyable and relaxing. Richard and his wife dug for clams to eat, which I felt was rather cute.

But really, what more could one ask after scaling a mountain and then relaxing by a beach with pristine waters? I think all of us felt recharged afterwards.


On our last day, before we left Sabah, we visited the National Museum. At the time, it was hopelessly short on exhibits. That made me appreciate our own museums even more and got me thinking about museum Renewal, Upkeep and Upgrade. Not easy if a country doesn't make it a priority or treat museums as serious tourists destinations.

The one thing we all enjoyed at the museum were the longhouse exhibits outside. They reminded me of the one I visited as a child when I was three years old and living, at the time, in Kuching.

There was the central cooking place in the longhouse. The rattan weaved carry baskets; and the gourd water containers. 

That night, before we flew back to Singapore in the morning, we all visited the one and only shopping centre in town. We all sat on the front steps eating ice cream. That was the last take-away picture we took.

And rightly so, a very happy and satisfied group of climbers and travellers.

If there's one regret about the trip, it was the missed chance of seeing a real Rafflesia flower in full bloom. Yes, that giant of a Stink Plant.

Oh well. Better to leave Sabah on a high 'ice cream note' than with the smell of dead rotten flesh! 

So all in all, our trip to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, achieved a few things:

1) We visited Signal Hill Observatory;
2) Jumped on a few suspension bridges;
3) Ate Kon Lo Meen;
4) Reached the summit of Mt Kinabalu;
5) Did the Canopy Walk;
6) Soaked in a hot spring;
7) Watched a beautiful sunset at Tanjung Aru;
8) Tried river rafting;
9) Went to a pristine island for snorkelling;
10) Visited the National Museum.

Yes, I would definitely go there again. And thank you Richard and Peck Hong for doing such a wonderful job organising this!

Next story: Tailor Made

Mt Kinabalu 2

The next day after our arrival, we woke up early and had breakfast at the hotel. It was a simple affair.

Our tour guide then arrived to show us the city.

He was of medium built, strong and very tanned. He seemed to be in his 30s and was a local. Dressed in a safari suit, he looked every bit the outdoors guy as well as businessman!

Our guide Jack was friendly and spoke good English. 

He brought us first to Signal Hill Observatory, probably the most famous landmark in Kota Kinabalu. It was a lookout point that gave us a bird's eye view of the city. 

Afterwards, Jack brought us to various places that had suspension bridges.  It was fun. And there were many of them all seeming to span across mangrove swamps or green colored rivers. Most of the bridges were made of steel cables and laid with wooden planks.

At some bridges, we struck fun poses and took pictures. These suspension bridges reminded me of the ones Indiana Jones would inevitably run to escape across one, chased no less by bloodthirsty natives waving machetes.

In the evening, we had dinner along a food street and retired for the night - all ready to begin our ascent of Mt Kinabalua or Mt K for short.


Early the next day, we made our way to the base of the mountain to start the climb.

But first, like everybody else, we had to register ourselves at Park HQ - a large wooden building with a patio deck built at the back for campers to make last-minute preparations. 

We also met our guide for the climb, a skinny and seasoned-looking chap. It was mandatory to climb with a guide. Once we settled the administrative stuff, we adjourned to the patio to redistribute items in our backpacks (like food and cold weather gear) so they could easily be accessed when needed. 

Richard kept a bunch of bananas in a plastic bag tied to his backpack. He would later feed us that along the way, which caused our group to be named the Banana Group of 8. (Oh, by the way, bananas are a great fruit to bring along when outdoors. It provides energy and allows one to pass motion (i.e. shit) more easily even if dehydrated.)

After some mutual body checking and making sure our shoelaces were firmly tied, we then set off. Not far off was a metal swing gate. Once you pass that, you are well and truly on your way to climb Mt K.

The initial part of the journey was not too difficult. It was like climbing our own Bukit Timah Hill. The paths were narrow but easy to follow. We also crossed a few service roads going up the mountain.

The morning was bright but not too sunny. The wonderful weather put us all in a good mood. There were two couples in our group. The other four were all singles. I buddied up with Dave Wong, who was a reserved but cheerful chap who smiled easily. My friend Cecilia partnered with Jee Yong, who was much older than the rest of us but just as enthusiastic. I decided to look out for her, just in case.

The lot of us were not alone that morning. As we climbed, we met others going up or coming down. Those coming down were also full of spirit and did not look at all tired. That made me think the climb up the peak was easy, which was encouraging! But unbeknownst to me, there were many levels to this National Park. You could climb sections of it in high heels if you prefer.

At 1900m the paths became a bit more natural, lined with bramble or veined with protruding tree roots. Climbing became a little more countryside-like. The paths were in surprisingly good condition and made climbing easy. Perhaps the Park authorities had some sort of maintenance regime in place. 

Along the way, we caught up with a large group of geriatric old men from Japan making their way up. They looked about in their 70s and all had walking or hiking sticks with them. On their foreheads, oddly enough, a kind of miner's headlamp. I would later learn (to my chagrin) what they were for. Though the group was bent with age, they looked a familial and determined bunch. I wondered if they had climbed elsewhere together before. That would have been nice, wouldn't it? For a bunch of old friends to still travel and explore together!

Travelling with this group of old folks were women porters. They were not young nor old but middle-aged. They rather impressed me with their strength and industry. The loads they carried were not light. And not carried with modern equipment too. These women porters used a kind of traditional, large pointy-ended rattan basket to carry their stuff. No backstraps but a simple rattan-fibre band across the forehead - the kind you see on Iban tribal folks in nearby Sarawak.

The pointed bottom of the basket helped it stand quickly on the ground or be leaned easily against a tree. I remember these baskets coming in a set of three and were all made from rattan. The large pointy bottom one was for larger goods; the smaller cylindrical ones were employed like backpacks. Growing up, my family kept one. It was twice the size of a quiver. It was bought from Sarawak during a year's stay there when I was very young.

Over the subsequent years, we often used that round rattan basket as a carrier for a ground mat whenever we went to the beach. 

In Asia or Africa, tribal folks seem to like carrying things with their heads. The neck does have powerful muscles and can carry seriously large and heavy objects (such as a large bundle of laundry, for example)

Beyond 4500ft, the weather around the mountain forest palpably cooled. The paths also widened into 2m ones, both landscaped and large-stepped. The steps were reinforced by short stakes to prevent damage and soil erosion. The many visitors to Mt K every year probably necessitated that sort of measure. From this cooler height, the flora and fauna of the place also changed. There were signs pointing to scenic diversions such as a mossy forest, a stinky Rafflesia plant, a waterfall, a cave, etc. 

Naturally, we stopped at the crossroads to decide where to go or who to do and see what. Cecilia and I decided to visit the Mossy Forest.

A good decision it turned out to be. The place was truly enchanted! 

It was filled with morning mist that gave the place a heavenly or surreal look. One could walk in and disappear from sight!

Cecilia and I took the chance to snap some beautiful photos.

Derrick and his girlfriend Jean went off to see the waterfall. I wanted to see the Rafflesia plant but changed my mind. Choosing the Mossy Forest over the Rafflesia was like choosing Beauty over Stink - not that difficult a choice. It is well known that the giant Rafflesia flower (some 2m tall) gives off an odour like rotten fish or a dead corpse. I had smelt a dead corpse up close before and the memory was still fresh. Nope, maybe I could see a Rafflesia plant at a city botanical garden later. But the only Rafflesia plant I ever saw later was one sculpted out of concrete. The dimensions and color were all correct but there wasn't any foul smell. But why name`such a stinker of a plant after Raffles? Was he that obnoxious?


From an open spot near the path to the waterfall, we could see the summit. It looked like a collection of giant stones piled next to one another. Sabah is called Land Below The Wind and the wind had certainly swept the top of Mt K clean of vegetation. To be fair, much of South-east Asia sits on a bedrock of hard stone with millennia-old forests carpeting its surface. Sabah with its Mt K was no different.

Looking at the peak, the guide pointed out its prominent features. "That's the Rabbit Ears," he said. 

I didn't need any further explanation; I had seen that silhouette many times on tee-shirts and mugs.

After our visits to the side-tracked attractions at the crossroads, we continued with our climb.

At 9000ft the weather turned noticeably cooler. It was like being in Cameron Highlands or any place that had outdoor air-conditioning. We also reached the first rest point, which was a large flat rock area dotted with a few dormitory buildings.

We entered a spacious one for some hot cocoa and a chance to rest our weary limbs. 

Looking at the accommodations, we wondered if we would rest there for the night. But our guide informed us that our rest station was still some 2000ft further up. The reason was so we could climb the remaining distance of 1500ft to the summit to catch the sun rise. It had all been timed to perfection! But that meant starting our climb at 3.00am!

We all wondered about that, i.e. climbing in the dark but our guide assured us that with the moon out, the journey would not be difficult at all.

That settled, we looked around the spacious kitchen for a table to sit at. There were already a few people there and we took the opportunity to rest and chat a bit.


The climb to our hut at 13,000ft was rather uneventful. Sad to say, nothing much interesting happened. We reached the place at roughly 2.30pm after threading through some narrow paths that were surrounded by bushes and shrub. It was no different from climbing Marsiling Hill back home before it got all 'parked' up. And after a climb and turn, there stood the small zinc roof hut we were looking for. It looked only slightly larger than an outhouse toilet from first impression.

Yes, the hut was small but it contained a couple of double-decker beds and a foldable table so commonly found in Asian homes. Well, I guess it was sparse because it was meant to be just a way-station. On the other side of the zinc wall was another hut. So essentially we had one hut for the gents, the other for the ladies. The name of the hut was Waras.

After choosing our bunk beds, we emptied out our packs to make lunch. Richard, our leader, finally told us what he was cooking up special: Nasi Lemak. We saw the remaining fingers of the bananas we had lugged all the way up from the base HQ and was glad it was not more of that stuff. 

Richard then took out a small gas stove and cooked away. Soon the irresistible smell of fried ikan bilis filled the air. Man, after privations along the way, we all swore that was the best food ever. Period. The sweet sambal belachan chilli was authentic, so you could imagine how rapturous we were feeling!

What Richard had done told me two things: 1. Do not scrimp on enjoying food even when on an adventure such as this. 2. Learn to cook.


At the Waras hut, there were bathing facilities. But none of us were inclined to clean ourselves as the weather was very chilly and no water-heater. Who in their right mind would wash up?

In any case, most of us have cleaned up at the hostel facilities earlier on; and the climb up to this hut was not tiring at all.

After our lunch (cum dinner) we sat outside the hut to chat, to while away some time. I took the opportunity to know my buddy Dave a little bit better and discovered that we were both interested in the game of soccer. He was really a nice, friendly albeit soft-spoken chap!

Before light faded, I took the opportunity to take a picture of myself outside the hut. I certainly stood out in my yellow and white ensemble, resembling some Swiss hiker in knee-length pants!


At 2.45am in the dark of night, the guide came to look for us. We had all set our alarms and so was already waiting to start the climb with him.

Fortunately for us, the moon was out. The sky, though cloudy, didn't look too brownish like it was going to rain. We thanked our lucky stars (there were many stars out that night and visible!) and plodded on, not sure what we would face in the semi-darkness ahead of us. But soon our eyes adjusted to the night and we could all move along quite nicely without the need for torchlight.

The route up the summit began easily enough. I only remember a difficult stretch when we had to hug some boulders to go round, holding on to a length of anchored rope. Other than that, the spaces slowly opened up as the landscape became more slate-like and stony. Mt Kinabalu, like most of Southeast Asia, sat on a giant slab of rock.

At one point, we overtook the group of geriatric folks we met earlier. Annoyingly, they were still wearing the miner torchlights on their foreheads, this time lighted and glaring. The lights blinded us and took away our night sight.

However, I practiced a trick I learnt long ago. When faced with a bright light, don't close both eyes, just close one. In this way, the other eye is not affected and can still see in the dark. It is a very useful trick to use when driving along dark highways.


Near dawn, my bowels started to act up. It was a habit that returned after National Service, i.e, to clear my bowels every start of the day. By then we were straggling a bit as the air up there had thinned out a lot. Every 10m became a mighty struggle and we would pant very hard.

As the toilet beckoned, I couldn't wait and so went to the side to take a quick crap. That side turned out to be a sheer drop of a few hundred meters over the ledge! 

Even in the half light, I could see several planes of jagged rock sticking out like bloody knives ready to slice anybody up. 

I took a step back in slight alarm and checked for wind speed. I wouldn't want a gust of wind to toss me over and be sliced like carrot on a mincer.

In any case, I was worried about being missed and quickly took my crap. Thanks to the bananas, it all came out rather nicely. I even gave myself some seconds to moon the world. Not everybody can often claim to have done that at 14000ft above sea-level. Man, it felt good!

Crap done, I rejoined the group. Although I was quick about it, the guide noticed I had gone missing and gave me a gentle stern reminder for straying. I felt a bit stupid but was glad to have seen the other side of the mountain. Apparently there were folks who preferred to climb the hard way from that direction. Folks from the military, and folks, I presumed, to be a bit thick in the head to even attempt that!

By the time we all struggled to the summit, the first rays of the sun peeked through the clouds. It was all timed to perfection! Even the summit was suitably small and narrow, giving us the impression of having reached the pinnacle of a mountain. As we sat down, our guide removed a tin container from a rock cover and took out a log book. We all signed in and was proud of the moment.

The sun continued to rise, sending out golden rays of light that skimmed over that a layer of cottony clouds. We were so high we were above the clouds! It was like being on the outside of a jet plane for once. And with the shadow of the mountain on it, the clouds did look like ground, albeit soft and willowy like being on a bed of marshmallows.

On the other side from whence we came, the ground sloped for about 300m and rose to another high point known as Low's Peak. Because the summit was devoid of vegetation and just slates of granite, the place did indeed look like some desolate valley in some sci-fi film (or nurb space on a curved gravity well). I took a lovely picture of David and his girlfriend Jean who really stood out in her red jacket in all that grey. The photo captured them well, arms raised in jubilation. We all felt like that. The climb up Mt K was not difficult, only long.

That picture remains one of my favourites from the many places I've traveled to since.

Story continues with Mt Kinabalu 3