Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chapter 25: Small Shops with Great People

When we talk about shopping in Singapore, we would naturally think of Orchard Road. With a slew of major shopping centers flanking both sides of the road, from Wheelock Place to Wisma Atrium, to Ngee Ann City, to Paragon, to Centerpoint, to Orchard Point, to Plaza Singapore, the temptation of buying is hard to resist. All the labels like Louis Vuitton are there; all the luxurious restaurants like Lawry's are there; all the supermarkets like Carrefour are there. It is easy to spend the whole day there just eating and buying.

With the development of public housing estates, smaller shopping centers like Jurong Point are also built in the area to serve the residents in the estates. These estate shopping centers are usually situated just next to the MRT station and/or bus terminals. They would have the usual fashion shops like Giodano, healthcare shops like Body Shop, fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and even major electronics and electrical appliances stores like Harvey Norman. To the residents, these estate shopping centers are more convenient than Orchard Road and usually less crowded. But of course, the range of products and services would not be as comprehensive.

Going deeper into the housing estates, you will find two-storey flats, usually situated near dry or wet markets, with small shops on the ground floor. These small shops, usually owned by families, provides convenient shopping for the residents who live a distance away from the estate shopping centers. Due to their cheaper rents, the products and services found in these shops are priced even lower than those found in the estate shopping centers. However, reasonable pricing is not the only factor that attracted the residents to these shops. These shop owners are good at handling customer relationships.

My mom had sent me to the video rental shop to return her rented VCDs which were one-day late. The video rental shop is run by an old man and several young ladies, probably his daughters. It is a small shop with shelves of movies and TV serials, in VCDs and video tapes formats, from the Western countries, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. My mom would usually rent Hong Kong TV serials from this shop. Though the local television station screens TV serials from Hong Kong regularly, those serials are normally at least one year old, whereas the serials that she rented from the shop could be as new as one month old. Furthermore, she preferred to watch her TV serials in Cantonese because she felt that after some sentences were translated from Cantonese to Chinese, some native language humor could be lost.

I handed the box of VCDs to the old man at the counter.

“What’s your card number?”
“Err… I don’t know… let me check with my family.”

Gosh, my mom forgot to tell me her membership number.

“No, it’s okay. Just tell me your phone number.”

I gave the old man my house number which he keyed into the computer beside the cashier. Seconds later, he retrieved my mom’s membership number and took out her rental card from a box of other rental cards. He opened the box of VCDs, checked it and signed on the rental card.

“Okay, that’s all,” the old man told me as he kept the box of VCDs.
“Erm… I think we’re a day later than the return date,” I reminded him. “How much is the late fine?”
“Yeh, I know. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

How forgiving. Perhaps our credit card companies and that major telecommunications service provider should learn from this old man and stop sending out warning letters when my cheques were late by a day or two.

There are two hairdressing saloons and a Malay barber shop below these two-storey flats. These hairdressing saloons are not as elegantly renovated as the REDS, Vive or Peter & Guys, and their hair stylists are not as highly paid. They do not provide you Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health for your reading pleasure while waiting, and they do not serve you Evian mineral water, tea or coffee. However, their hair stylists are friendly and committed to help their customers. Oh, and they charge a much cheaper rate.

One afternoon, I was going to one of those hairdressing saloons for a much needed hair cut. Before I reached the saloon, I could hear screams coming out from it.

“Boy, I won’t hurt you… come on, let aunty cut here…”
“Baby, don’t be so scared… let the good aunty cut your hair, then you’ll look nice nice…”
“Okay… don’t move, okay? Just a while more…. “
“Baby, you let aunty cut your hair and I’ll buy you ice-cream okay?”

A lady was sitting on the saloon chair and hugging her little boy close to her, while two hair stylists tried to cut his hair. The freaked out little boy was crying and screaming till his face was all red and full of perspire. The mother tried to coax him with colorful hair clips, sweets and small toys, while the hair stylists stood on both sides of the little boy and tried to steal a cut or two when his head was still for the few split seconds.

The commotion lasted for about an hour and the hair stylists finally managed to finish the little boy’s hair cut. When the lady was leaving the saloon, she felt so embarrassed for the commotion caused that she kept apologizing to the two perspiring hair stylists.

“No worries, Mdm,” the hair stylists assured her with their understanding smiles.

After the lady and her little boy left, the hair stylists went back to work. One of them smiled at me and apologized for the wait, then took me to a seat. I had a quick and simple hair cut that was finished in about fifteen minutes and it cost me ten dollars.

In recent years, a slew of ten dollars cut saloon have opened in Singapore. These small saloons with three to four hair stylists are originated from Japan, based on the concept of “ten dollars for a ten minutes cut”. Instead of washing your hair after the cut, they will ‘vacuum’ the loose hairs from your head using a tube that sucks in air. The hair stylists do not talk to their customers except for the mechanical “good morning” or “good afternoon” greetings in Japanese that are shouted at the customers as they entered the saloon. I wondered are the uncles looking for cheap hair cuts puzzled by the string of unknown language shouted at them.

Usually we could find a bakery shop among these neighboring stores. The bakery shop at my neighborhood does not sell costly fusion breads like those pork floss breads, sweet potatoes breads and tuna breads sold in new age bakeries like BreadTalk. In stead, they have the traditional breads like cheap char siew, a.k.a. BBQ pork, breads, red bean breads and curry chicken breads. All of these traditional breads look like a plain round bun regardless of their fillings and it is not easy to differentiate which is which without looking at the name tags. They do not look as artistic as those fusion breads and they are not as finely baked. However, when I bite into them, it made me reminisce about my childhood, about those days when a char siew bread for the recess break could satisfy me so much.

Besides traditional breads, there are also traditional cakes sold in the bakery shop. These are simple sponge cakes with butter cream toppings. Butter cream, unlike fresh cream that is light and puffy, tastes thick and buttery. One small rectangular piece of these traditional cakes and you will feel full immediately. These traditional cakes were used to make huge and colorful birthday cakes in the past, with shapes like Mickey Mouse, amour tank or simply numbers. When I was still a kid, I remembered that you could tell the age of the birthday boy or girl just by looking at the birthday cake, because the cakes will be in the shapes of their age.

Two shops after the bakery shop is a hardware shop. These typical hardware shops sell cheap baking tools, kitchen utensils, working tools, plumbing tools and parts, and lots of plastic containers and pails. Before festive seasons like Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa and Chinese New Year, the hardware shop will sell lots of baking pans in different shapes and sizes for the housewives to bake their festive goodies. But the hardware shop acts primarily as a life saver for the residents during emergency situations…

“Beng! The flushing button on the toilet bowl’s flush box is spoilt! After I pressed it, it just stays down and the water just flush non-stop!”
“Mom, I think the enclosed spring for the flushing button is spoilt.”
“Then hurry up and get a new spring from the hardware shop downstairs!”

“Beng, the kitchen light is spoilt. I suspected that the starter is spoilt.”
“Okay Dad, I’ll get a starter from the hardware shop.”
After my dad changed the starter, the kitchen light still refused to light up.
“Maybe it is the light tube that’s spoilt. Beng, could you go downstairs to get a new light tube?”

I could not imagine my life without that hardware shop in the neighborhood.

To me, these shops definitely meant to me more than the big departmental stores at Orchard Road. I knew I could trust those shop owners and I could definitely use their advices. Their ranges of products might not be as rich as those offered in big departmental stores, but at least the essentials are there. And though they might not know my name, I know these uncles and aunties know me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chapter 24: Take a Break, Have a Holiday

Choi, Nicky, Sally, Kah Leng, business development manager from the Singapore Capital Markets team, and I had been talking about making a trip together for quite some time. With the Christmas season break just one month away, we decided to work on a concrete plan.

“So where can we go for a week’s break?” Choi asked.
“Should we go London?” Nicky asked. “I’ve got some friends there and we can stay at their places and save on accommodation.”
“But Nicky, I think most of London will be closed during the Christmas season,” Choi objected.
“I’m sure not all places will be closed right?”
“Let me check from the Internet.”

After a few typing on the keypads and a few clicking and scrolling on the mouse, Choi turned his notebook screen to face us.

“Dude, almost all shopping centers will be closed from twenty-fourth to twenty-sixth of December, most of the museums like the National Gallery will be closed, and even the Tower of London will be closed! What are we going to do there? Sit at Hyde Park outside Hard Rock Café and feed the pigeons?”
“Maybe even the pigeons are not around,” I added.
“I guess not everywhere is going to be closed right?” Nicky was skeptical. “Then how about those tour groups going over from Singapore? The tour guide must bring these tourists to somewhere right?”
“Erm… I think in most Europe tour packages that touch on London, our tour agencies only arrange visits to the Big Ben, along the House of Parliament, at the gate outside Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, London Bridge and Tower Bridge. So they’ll never have any opening or closing problem.” I explained.
“Anyway, London will be too cold for me,” Sally added.
“Okay, fine. Let’s go somewhere else then,” Nicky sulked.

“Guys, I read from the newspapers that there is this Icehotel in Sweden where the whole hotel is built using the mountain water from Torneälven River. Every thing there, even the furniture is made of ice. Pretty cool huh?” I suggested avidly.
“You meant pretty cold,” Kah Leng commented.
“Beng, I know Ms. Xiao Long Niu from Louis Cha’s Chinese wuxia novel, The Return of the Condor Heroes, slept on ice. But she had very powerful inner strength, a.k.a. nei gong, which we commoners don’t have,” Nicky mocked.
“Hey, you’ll be provided with a sleeping bag with liner!” I argued.
“Erm… if you don’t mind, I’ll prefer to sleep on a white goose feather and down featherbed,” said Kah Leng.
“Anyway, it’s not worth going to the Scandinavians in winter, when the days are short and the nights are long. Too much time wasted sleeping,” added Nicky the typical Hong Konger that believed that time is money.
“Okay, let’s go somewhere else then,” I gave up.

“Since most places in the western countries will be closed for the Christmas season, and their days will be rather short, why don’t we stay in Asia Pacific instead?” I suggested.

Besides the issue of having shorter days, we could have problems finding our meals as well. Most restaurants in the western countries will be closed during the holidays. This meant that we would have to either take ridiculously expensive dinners in the hotels, or settle with cheap but almost inedible Chinese food. The hardworking Chinese businessmen do not believe in closing for holidays. In fact, knowing that most western cafes and restaurants will be closed and hungry souls will be awash on the street, most budget Chinese restaurants are happy to remain opened for even longer hours during the holidays. However the problem with these budget Chinese restaurants is that most of them only serve gong bao chicken, sweet and sour chicken or beer or pork, deep fried chicken or beer or pork and fried rice or noodles, and most of these dishes taste, well, funny.

“How about Gold Coast or Cairns?” Sally suggested.
“Err… Sally, Australia and New Zealand will be having their summers during that period,” Choi said. “And I’m not very keen in getting sunburn.”
“You can always put on some sun block lotion what.”
“I don’t really like the feeling of perspiring so much under a layer of sun block lotion,” Choi still rejected the idea. “It reminds me of those national service days when I had to wear camouflage face paint and scout around in the hot forest, with houseflies trying to land on my face all the time. Oh, that reminded me. There are tons of houseflies in Australia during their summers.”

Okay, our destination should be in Asia and not Asia Pacific. Anyway, it might not be a good idea to walk beside a constantly perspiring Choi for a week.

“Let’s go to Taiwan. None of us has ever being to Taiwan right?” Kah Leng suggested.
“Hmm… Taiwan sounded good,” I agreed. “There are a couple of scenic national parks in Taiwan, like the Taroko National Park and Yangmingshan National Park.”
“Erm… I was thinking more of the shopping areas there,” Kah Leng admitted. “And Taipei 101.”
“Yah! I heard that the crystal jewellery there is stunning! And their fashion is also very ahead of us! Wow, so many things to buy!” said Sally, the other shopping queen.
“And the night markets there! Like Shi Ling night market!” Choi exclaimed. “I heard they’ve got this super-sized chicken chop there that is simply delicious!”
“Err… guys,” Nicky interrupted our excitement. “I’m not really into Taiwan. To me, Taiwan seems to look like another Hong Kong. And I would rather return to Hong Kong since I prefer the food there.”
“Hey, you guys can still go ahead without me. It is okay, I don’t mind! I can always return to Hong Kong and spend the holidays with my friends and relatives there.”
“No, no, no. We won’t just desert you like that. Let’s think of another destination then,” Kah Leng gave up Taiwan though she seemed to be disappointed. Well, if we said we will travel as a team, we will travel as a team.

“How about Japan? Like Hokkaido?” Sally asked. “I’ve just seen Globe Trekker on the Discovery Travel channel introducing Hokkaido and it seems interesting. They have a musical box museum where you can choose the tune that you like and make your own musical box, a white chocolate factory, and the Kitaichi Glass Shop reputed for its unique and elegant hand-blown glassware.”
“Good idea! Then we could try their snow crab and king crab which are as big as lobsters! We could have crab sashimi, crab tempura, yaki crab, crab miso soup, baked stuffed crab shells and crab hand rolls! Hahaha…” Choi thrived at the thought of food again.
“Erm… Choi, I heard that these crabs are expensive,” said Sally.
“Hey girl, you could only get them there. You’ll regret if you don’t try!”
“Wait… though the thought of Hokkaido with snow flakes floating down from the sky seems romantic, I must remind you people that Hokkaido is also famous for being very very cold,” I reminded.

There was nothing wrong with my language. I had used two ‘very’s intentionally to emphasize on the extreme coldness of Hokkaido. Winter temperatures in Hokkaido are known to remain well below zero and can even drop to as low as minus fifteen degree Celsius. The occurrences of heavy snow and gusty winds are also common.

“I’m more worried about you girls. Nicky should still be okay with the cold weather because Hong Kong could be pretty cold sometimes too. Choi, I’m not so worried too because he has got a think insulation layer…”

Choi raised an eyebrow at me and folded his arms.

I continued: “But are you girls sure that you can stand the harsh weather? Are you aware that the temperature could drop to as low as minus fifteen degree Celsius?”

Both gals pondered upon what I had said, looked at each other, and then nodded their heads to indicate that they agreed with me that Hokkaido was a bad idea.

“Then how about South Korea? It won’t be as cold as Hokkaido and it’s just as interesting,” Kah Leng suggested.
“Oh yes! South Korea! Why didn’t I think of that?” Sally blurted. “Then I can visit the filming sites for Winter Sonata and Jewel in the Palace!”
“What’s Jewel in the Palace?” Choi asked.

Kah Leng, Sally and Nicky stared at Choi as if he was saying that pigs can climb trees as good as cats.

“Jewel in the Palace is the most popular Korean drama in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and even Malaysia!” the shock Nicky hollered.
“What is it about? Some kind of Korean Tomb Raiders show with smart and armed thieves stealing hilariously expensive crown jewellery from the royal palace?”
“No!” This time, Sally hollered at Choi. “It is about how Jang-Geum the heroine fought through a feudalistic society with serious sexual discrimination, defeated all the male doctors in the palace and became the first female head physician of the Joseon Dynasty! It is based on a real story!”
“Not your type of bimbos kicking action movie,” I nudged Choi.
“Okay, fine. But why are we going to those Korean TV serials filming sites?” Choi protested.

This time, Kah Leng and Sally stared at Choi as if he was saying that pigs are more intelligent than women.

“Err… but I kind of have problem with those spicy Korean kimchis,” said Nicky.
“Don’t worry, Nicky. They’ve got other non-spicy food like claypot rice, stew beef, seafood fermented in salt, BBQ beef and ginseng chicken soup,” Kah Leng consoled.
“Ginseng chicken soup? I like it!” Nicky grinned.
“And we mustn’t forget that South Korea has got a cheap and good skiing resort,” Kah Leng grinned.
“And breath-taking scenery at Jeju island,” I grinned.
“So do you have any objection to South Korea, Choi?” Kah Leng asked.
“Well, with lots of pretty Korean girls surrounding me, and lots of delicious food, I’ve got no problem,” Choi grinned.

Gosh, finally the five of us had agreed on our tour destination. Since South Korea was a popular tour destination among Singaporeans, we needed to quickly decide on the tour details.

“Should we go on a packaged tour or a free and easy one?” I asked.
“Beng, we can’t go on a packaged one. Sally’s Chinese is pretty bad and Kah Leng can’t even write our company name in Chinese,” Nicky commented.
“Yah, and most of these packaged tours have Chinese speaking tour guides,” Kah Leng agreed.
“Okay, which means that we’re going free and easy…” I agreed, and then suddenly realized that something was amiss. “But which one of you speaks Korean?”

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Chapter 23: My Morning Jogs

I liked jogging in the morning, before seven, when most people were still in their dreamlands. When the sky was still dark, the streetlamps were still on, the street was still quiet and there were still dews on the grasses. The initial reason for jogging so early was because of the distance between my house and my work place. I needed to start early so that after the jog, I had enough time to bath, take breakfast, get changed and reach my office by eight thirty. But as I got used to waking up at six for the jogs, I realized that I had begun to like the tranquil environment at that hour.

It was a good time to jog because the pavement was mostly empty except for some passer-bys and, well, some motor bikes that were parked illegally. Those guys figured out that if they parked their motor bikes on the pavement, they could save on their seasons parking at the multi-storey carparks. Luckily our pavement was not wide enough to fit even the smallest 1,000cc car.

Some of those passer-bys were people on the way to the bus stops, workers standing by the pavement waiting for their company buses, parents waiting for the school buses with their children and a couple of other joggers like me. Maybe most of them were really only half awaken, like me, thus nobody said a word. They just walked, waited or jogged quietly. Well, except for once. A plump middle-aged woman, in her faded blue pajamas dress and carrying a pink school bag, was striding towards me, while a little girl, in school uniform and carrying a pink water bottle, was running behind the plump middle-aged woman.

“Just hurry up, would you?” the plump middle-aged woman turned and shouted at the little girl. I could swear that all residents staying from the second to fifth floor of the nearby flats were awakened by that stern command. The little girl lowered her head and struggled to keep up.

“How many times have I told you to check your bag before you sleep? Why must you be so forgetful each time? Why must you either forget this or forget that? What if the school bus has gone off? Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

After the plump middle-aged woman threw a series of questions at that little girl, she lowered her head even lower and tried to run in order to keep up with the pace.

What a sad way to start the day. For the mother, and even more so for the daughter.

There were two types of passer-bys which I hated to meet on the pavement. The first was the Pathblocker. These people could only walk straight. Though they could see from far that I was running on the left side of the pavement, they would not shift to the right and they expected me to give way to them. The second was the Smoker. As the name indicated, these people would smoke as they walked on the pavement, leaving a trail of second-hand smoke for me to breathe in.

There was this particular man who liked to walk his dog every morning and let it urinated freely by the trees flanking the pavement. It could have been a refreshing and healthy morning walk for both the man and his dog, but he chose to smoke. Thus while the dog was busy contaminating the land, the man was busy polluting the air.

It was a good time to jog before seven because vehicles on the road would be scarce. One hour later and there would be big tracks and motor bikes from Malaysia spouting dark smoke into the air. Not very lungs-friendly, I would say. However, jogging before seven had another kind of danger. Cars and motor bikes were usually more daring in that kind of hours because they had a near empty road to speed on and they bet that nobody would be there to catch them. Giving way to joggers when coming out from the car park was never an option on their mind. In fact I had escaped death narrowly in one of my morning jogs.

I was jogging on my usual route and was approaching a cross junction. Usually I would jog on the spot at the traffic light pole while waiting for the light to turn green. But just before I crossed the pedestrian crossing that led to the traffic light pole, I realized that my shoe laces were loosened. So in stead of crossing the pedestrian crossing, I stopped and half squatted to tight my shoe laces. Immediately after I finished tying my shoe laces, I heard a “tzzz” followed by a “bang”. I looked up and saw a red Honda crashed onto the traffic light pole. I took a glance at the traffic lights and realized that the car had beaten the red light.

The driver, a young man who seemed to be in his twenties stepped out from the car, followed by his front passenger stepping out from the other side, another man who looked just as young.

“Hey man! What the hell were you trying to do?” Mr. Passenger berated at Mr. Driver.
“I think I’ve braked too hard so the car skidded,” replied Mr. Driver who was more interested to check the damage of his bonnet than the injury, if any, of his passenger.

It appeared that the traffic light pole was more damaged than his bonnet. His front bumper had concaved at the point where it hit the pole, but it had also saved his bonnet from being seriously crushed. In fact, his bonnet had only curved up slightly as compared to the traffic light pole which had bent into an ‘L’ shape. Poor traffic light pole. All it did was standing at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Damn it! Now I’ll need to get this car to a workshop,” Mr. Driver swore.
“Do you think the car can still move?”
“I’m not sure. I just hope that the damage is not that bad,” answered Mr. Driver as he opened the curved bonnet to check his engine. “Yeh, the engine is pretty far in so we didn’t crash it.”
“Great, at least we don’t have to call a tow truck at this hour.”

Then Mr. Driver realized that he forgot to ask his passenger a question: “Hey, are you okay?”
“Yah! My shoulder hurts because of the seat belt, but I guess I’m okay.”

At that instance, Mr. Driver also realized that one stunted jogger was half squatting behind the pedestrian crossing and staring at them.

“Err… I think we’d better get going before anybody calls the police,” Mr. Driver nudged his passenger.

Then the red Honda drove off, the traffic light pole remained bent and I came to my senses to stand up. After that accident, I kept a distance away from traffic light poles for as long as one month.

Though it was considered slightly early to jog before seven, there were other walkers and joggers who liked morning exercises as much as me. Most of the time, I met grandpas and grandmas who swung their arms as they did their morning walks. Sometimes, I met some gals jogging with their headphones. The male joggers were more seasonal. For all of the guys that I met in my morning jogs, I would see them for a period of time and after that they just disappeared. Perhaps that special period of time was their last minute training period for their IPPT. Perhaps that was also the reason for their heavy pants which were rather unusual for regular joggers.

I learnt that jogging outdoors at such early hours required some planning. When I switched my morning jogs from the indoor gym to the outdoor, I thought all I had to do was to simply ‘go downstairs and start jogging’. Well, I was so wrong.

On the first day that I jogged around my house, I went too far away. A half an hour jog ended up to be a forty-five minutes and very tiring one. On the next jog, I managed to maintain the duration within half an hour but the route was not right. There was one long leg where I had to pass by a very quiet construction site where several Bangladesh workers sat by the road and stared at me. Though I could be too paranoid to think that they would be even interested to rob a jogger, I believed in been safe than sorry. Following that jog, I chose another route that happened to pass by a temple. That popular temple was crowded and noisy in the day time, but in the dim morning, it was so dark and quiet that it felt kind of eerie when I jogged pass it. That leg was too hard on my heart.

Jogging in the gym was so much easier. There was no planning required as all I had to do was to step onto the track mill and press some buttons. The television in front of the track mill might not be showing something I was interested in but at least watching news was still better than watching a long and quiet pavement.

The other advantage of jogging in the gym was that I did not have to worry about the weather. Rain or shine, I would still be in the air-conditioned environment. However when I jogged outdoors, the weather could be sabotaging at times.

Six o’clock, alarm clock went off. I woke up, got out of bed and looked out of the window. It was raining. I was pissed and I went back to bed.

Six o’clock, alarm clock went off. I woke up, got out of bed and looked out of the window. It was not raining and the weather was cooling. I washed up and changed into my running gears, went downstairs and found that it was drizzling. I underestimated the drizzle and carried on with my jog. I perspired in the drizzle, went home for a hot bath, and caught a cold.

Six o’clock, alarm clock went off. I woke up, got out of bed and looked out of the window. It was not raining and the weather was cooling. I washed up and went downstairs to proceed with my jog. Five minutes later, it started to drizzle. At the half way point, it started to rain heavily. I went home all drenched and caught flu.

Like a ‘detour’ in the Amazing Race, indoor and outdoor jogs had their own pros and cons. To me, I would still prefer an outdoor jog. At least I got to see people who were more interesting than the newscaster.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Chapter 22: Where the Tourists Go

Our two Shanghai colleagues Zhang Qin and Xiao Di were coming over to Singapore to join us in a Six Sigma training course. The course would be ending on a Friday and they had got a full Saturday to tour Singapore before departing on Sunday afternoon back to Shanghai. Rose had gathered the team to brainstorm on where we should bring them around.

“Guys, this is their first visit to Singapore, and they’ve only got one free day. We’ve to make that day worthwhile and memorable,” Rose reminded.
“Rose, I think Sentosa Island is the best choice,” suggested Sally. “We can take them to the island by cable car, which is quite cool. There is a new attraction called the Sky Tower that’s supposed to offer panoramic views across the island and Singapore, and some said even Indonesia…”
“That Sky Tower is not worth it, Sally,” Nicky interrupted. “I took my Hong Kong friends there previously and really regretted about it. The whole ride up and down was only about fifteen minutes, so by the time you figured out a famous building, you’re going down. And that ride cost me ten dollars! It was way too expensive!”

“Okay, maybe not the Sky Tower. But there is still the Fort Siloso and that museum that shows some wax British surrendering to the wax Japanese…”
“I thought it is some wax Japanese surrendering to the wax British?” Dawn interrupted Sally this time.
“Whatever! Anyway they’ll get to see some wax guys surrendering to some other wax guys.” Sally grunted.
“Actually those old cannons at Fort Siloso and the Prisoner of War artwork are pretty cool as well,” I added. “And there is also the famous Underwater World. I actually quite enjoyed that long moving travelator tunneling underwater through those sting rays, sharks, squids, huge groupas and other fishes.”
“Yah, they do look delicious,” Choi commented.

Everybody raised an eyebrow at Choi.

“Personally, I quite like the beaches there. Both the Siloso and Palawan beaches are pretty and their sand is soft and white,” Ju brought us back to Sentosa.
“And I like the Musical Fountain! So romantic!” Dawn exclaimed.

“Okay, so Sentosa Island is one good choice. Any other suggestions?” Rose asked.
“How about Haw Par Villa?” Choi suggested. “There we have statues and figurines that tell stories of Chinese mythology and legends. And that Ten Courts of Hell is my favorite! We can scare these gals with those tortures that the ghosts go through, like hooking their tongues out, boiling them in a pot of oil and cutting their bodies into pieces!”
“Choi, No. First of all, I think they’ve got enough of Chinese mythology and legends. And secondly, I don’t want them to have a sleepless last night in Singapore,” Rose chided.

“Jurong Bird Park?” KZ suggested.
“Yah, great idea!” Sally agreed. “There is this part where the whole area is enclosed with some sort of big net over the top and…”
“Erm… you meant the walk-in aviary” I corrected.
“Yah, the walk-in aviary. There you’ll have those birds flying all over you so freely. And they also have this world's largest man made waterfall somewhere inside and a simulated natural freshwater river habitat that has ducks, fishes and turtles. The whole place is so unlike Singapore!” Sally continued avidly.
“And with that Penguin Parade enclosure in a re-created Antarctic setting, with more than 200 penguins of different species, you’ll feel like you’re in Philips Island right?” I teased. “Why are we taking them to somewhere that tried not to look like Singapore?”
“Err… guys, with that bird flu spreading all over the world, I don’t think Jurong Bird Park is a good idea,” Rose raised a valid concern.

“Hmm… why don’t we take them to the Botanic Gardens?” Dawn suggested. “There is this National Orchid Garden inside the Botanic Gardens, which has lots and lots of beautiful orchid plants on display! They are so enthralling you won’t even want to leave there! And sometimes they even have musical concerts at the serene Symphony Lake!”
“But walking in the hot and humid Botanic Gardens is a real torture. Furthermore, I think we bound to have mosquitoes in a park. Are you sure we are safe from dengue fever already?” Nicky objected.
“Don’t worry. There are the Mist and Cool Houses where the temperature are dropped to a cooling level,” said Dawn.
“You mean there’re air-con places where you see air-con plants?”
“Not air-con plants!” Dawn hollered. “Those are delicate flowers, like some special orchids, that are grown in cold climate countries and in the Mist House they are constantly sprayed with a mist of water to keep them humid and cool!”
“Okay, flowers from cold climate countries. But the point is, if they’ve got only one day to tour around Singapore, why waste the day in a park looking at some flowers?” Nicky argued.
“We’ll reserve the Botanic Gardens as a second choice and ask the gals if they’re interested in flowers, okay?” Rose intervened.

“Hey Rose, which attraction would you recommend then? Let’s hear from you!” I was curious where Rose would recommend.
“Actually, personally I like the Night Safari. Do you know that it is the first wildlife park in the world that is built and dedicated for night visits? I feel that there's this mystery about seeing the animals at night, when you have all kinds of nocturnal creatures, from pumas to snakes, and owls looking at you in their light reflective eyes. It’s a really very special experience.”
“Err… Rose, won’t the tigers and snakes scare the hell out of those girls as well?” Choi asked.
“Well, if they’re scared of walking the trails, they can always choose to take the tram ride,” Rose argued.
“But they’re not allowed to take pictures right? I heard that no flash photography is allowed in the Night Safari,” Dawn commented.
“That’s not a problem. The girls can visit the zoo during the day time to take their pictures and scare themselves to death in the Night Safari during the night time. And that settles their one day tour in Singapore!” Nicky giggled.
“Good idea! Let’s put the Night Safari down as our third choice!” I suggested.
“Okay, so our third choice is the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari and we can check with the gals if they’re interested in animals,” Rose wrote ‘Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari’ as the third choice on her notepad.

I wondered did our local travel agencies have such headaches when they were planning those N-day tour packages for the tourists. But then again, they could fill in the slots with visits to the souvenirs stores and expensive but not very delicious meals at those conservation shop houses. And talk about conservation shop houses…

“Rose, how about we take them to Chinatown?” I suggested.
“Erm… Beng, I don’t think our friends from Shanghai will be very interested to see a stretch of artificially and flamboyant conservation shop houses selling expensive souvenirs and even more expensive local seafood,” Choi rejected. “And why will someone from China be interested to see our not-so-Chinese Chinatown?”
“But they can visit the Sri Mariamman Temple along South Bridge Road, which will be quite an unique experience for them,” I argued.
“Then why don’t we just bring them to Little India?” Nicky commented.
“But they can taste the nice food at the hawker center above Chinatown Complex!” I still tried to argue.
“Yeh, actually Beng is right. After taking their lunch at the hawker center, they could get some cheap parallel import music CDs from the shops downstairs,” Dawn supported.
“Err... Dawn, do you know that those cheap music CDs are parallel imported from China?” I had to correct Dawn though I appreciated her support.

“Yah, Chinatown doesn’t really sound like a good idea,” said Rose. “In fact, I’ll rather take them to Kampong Gelam. At least they get to see a totally different kind of culture.”
“Rose is right. I don’t think there’re that many Malays in Shanghai right? So that place should be pretty exotic to these girls,” Dawn supported. “And we can even bring them to the Malay heritage Centre that showcases the history and culture of Singapore’s Malay community.”
“True, and the restored architecture there are more authentic than and not as artificial as Chinatown,” Choi agreed.
“We can also show them the Sultan Mosque which is the largest mosque in Singapore. I’m sure they’ll love taking pictures there,” even I agreed with this idea.
“And we should also take them to Bussorah Mall and Arab Street. With the slew of traditional Muslim clothings, artifacts, handicraft and jewellry available there, I’m sure they’ll be able to buy some souvenirs home.” Rose grinned as she wrote ‘Kampong Gelam’ as the fourth and last choice on her notepad.

A few weeks later, Zhang Qin and Xiao Di arrived at Singapore for the Six Sigma training course. On the last day of the course, we asked the gals where they would like to visit for their Saturday free day.

“Girls, we’ve singled out a few places that are worth visiting. They are the exciting Sentosa Island, the scenic Botanic Gardens, the natural Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, and lastly, the exotic Kampong Gelam,” Rose passed the flyers of these four attractions to Zhang Qin and Xiao Di.

The two Shanghai gals flipped through the flyers, pondered over the choices for a moment, then Zhang Qin said: “Rose, actually we have some other places in mind.”
“Oh, where would you girls like to visit?” the surprised Rose asked.
“We’ve heard of this big twenty-four hours shopping center called Mustafa Centre where the prices are very cheap.”

Geez, it had never occurred to me that Mustafa Centre’s fame had already spread from India to China. Talk about globalization!

“And we would also like to visit Chinatown…”
“Chinatown?!!” the whole team shouted.
“Erm… is there anything wrong with Chinatown?” the shocked Zhang Qin asked.
“Err… no, nothing’s wrong with Chinatown,” Nicky explained. “But why would you girls want to go to Chinatown?”
“To buy BBQ pork slices” the two Shanghai gals grinned.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Chapter 21: The Battle between Choi and the Weighing Scale, Round Two

I was packing up to leave the office when Choi appeared in front of my desk with a pair of sorrowful eyes.

“Hey Beng, I need your help.”
“Sure, dude. What is it about?”

With Choi’s ego, it was uncommon for him to ask for help. So whenever he requested for my assistance, I would not hesitate to see what I could do to help. I stopped packing and sat down with him.

“You remember how I managed to lose about five kilograms and my blood pressure went back to normal after those workouts and the organic apple cider vinegar?”
“Wait… Are you trying to tell me that you’ve gained back all those five kilograms and your blood pressure had rebounded like the STI again?”
“Yeh, I’ve gained back my five kilograms. In fact I’ve gained more, and I haven’t measure my blood pressure yet,” Choi sighed.

With all the ala carte dinner buffets and eat-all-you-can high teas that he had been telling me about, perhaps I should not really be surprised by the return of his old friend fat and the friends it tagged along.

“Nowadays when I walk up the stairs I could feel myself getting out of breath,” Chai said wryly. “I suspected that my blood pressure is up again but I’m not measuring it till I lose a few kilograms.”
“So how can I help?”
“I know you’ve learnt quite a bit from your physical trainer friends in the gym regarding the right food to eat. I need you to guide me on my diet.”
“Yeh, I can do that. But you’ll still need to exercise.”
“No problem. I’m planning to swim once a week during the weekends.”
“No Choi, just swimming alone won’t work. You’ll need to do some cardio exercises like jogging.”
“Okay, I’ll jog.”

Choi had that unyielding determination look on his face that told me that the diet program had to work. I just hoped that his determination could hang in there for at least a few months this time.

“Okay Choi, I’ll tell you more about eating the right stuffs tomorrow. I’m slightly late for my appointment already and I’ve got to run”
“Cool! Thanks dude!”

That night, my mind went through all the unhealthy food that I had seen Choi taken and I tried to note them down so that I could warn him about them. He would have to bid farewell to his pig trotters, stuffed crust pizzas, fried banana fritters, char kway teows, chicken rices, laksas, nasi lemaks, chendols and nasi branis.

On the following morning, I saw a dazed looking Choi working into the office.

“Hey dude, are you okay? You look so blur!” I asked in concern.
“Yeh, I think I’m okay. Just hungry,” Choi replied in a tired tone.
“Hungry? Didn’t you take your breakfast?”
“Of course I didn’t! Beng, I’m serious about losing weight this time. I’m sure I can make it without breakfasts.”

Okay, it seemed like we had to start from the basic.

“Erm… Choi, I think your concept of dieting is all wrong,” I pulled a chair to sit next to Choi. “Look, it doesn’t mean that if you eat less you’ll be able to lose weight.”
“Why not? The less I eat the less fat I store right?”
“No Choi, it doesn’t work that way. Our bodies work in such a way that if we attempt to starve them, they will store more fat so as to protect our organs. Conversely, what we lose are actually lean muscles.”
“Gosh, the less I eat the more fat I stored, the more I eat the more fat I stored! Then what am I supposed to do?” Choi exclaimed in shock.
“Okay, maybe I should start by explaining to you how your body works. When you’re hungry, your blood sugar goes up. When it reaches a certain elevation, insulin is secreted to drive the sugar out of your blood stream and into your cells, where it is used as fuel for running your body functions. When these cells had enough sugar, insulin will re-route the excess sugar to your liver where it will be converted into fat and stored in your muscles. If you don’t exercise enough to loss the fat stored in your muscles, you gain weight.”

“Which means that if I don’t get hungry, I don’t gain weight?” Choi looked at me with a puzzled face.
“Err… Sort of. And since your body gets hungry in every three to four hours, you need to feed it every three to four hours so that your blood sugar won’t spikes to high level. In average, you’ve got to eat about five times a day.”
“Eat more to lose weight? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“No, you don’t eat more! You just eat more often. Instead of the usual three big meals, you’ve got to divide your food into five small meals.”
“And you’ve got to eat right. Take out those refined carbohydrates from your diet and put in more fiber.”
“Bro, you’ve lost me.”
“Okay, I tell you what. I’ll send you some articles to read.”

That afternoon, I downloaded some articles from the Internet regarding the differences between simple and complex carbohydrates, the benefits of fiber and protein, and what are the high fiber and low fat food. I sent the articles to Choi and carried on with my work. Minutes later, my MSN Messenger popped out. I had got a message from Choi.

“hey, those stuffs tat u sent me are not easy to digest”
“but u’ve got to know those in order to eat correctly”
“actually I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t I follow u for lunch and u just pt out the stuffs I can eat?”
“oh, ok!”

During noon, Choi, Nicky, KZ and me lunched in the food court at Suntec City. Before Choi proceeded to buy his lunch at the mixed vegetables and rice store, I advised him to select more vegetables and instead of his usual pork dish, take chicken or fish. I also reminded him to take a smaller portion of rice.

When Choi returned to the table with his lunch, I saw see a small mountain of rice with overflowing vegetables and a large piece of fried chicken chop.

“Erm… Choi, when I said chicken, I was not thinking of something that’s deep fried.”
“Oh yes… I forgot about the frying part.”
“And is your portion of rice, erm… already reduced?”
“Yeh, of course! This is half of what I usually eat!”
“Okay Choi, from now on, your single serving of rice has to be reduced to a quarter of your usual portion.”
“What?!! Oh… Okay,” Choi stared at me as if I was asking him to stop eating for a week, but still agreed with my suggestion.

After lunch, I advised Choi to get a piece of fruit for his afternoon snack. Knowing how my instructions could be mistaken like the case of his lunch, I followed him to the fruits stall.

“How many slices of water melon can I have?” Choi pointed at the red slices of water melon.
“None. There’s too much sugar content in water melon,” I was so glad that I followed him.
“Oh… then can I take the mangoes?”
“No! Too much sugar content as well!”
“Hey, why don’t you get the fruits for me instead?” Choi sounded miffed.

I picked up an orange, paid for it and passed it to Choi. Choi stared at the orange as if his stare could kill it.

“Beng, I don’t like oranges.”
“Choi, oranges are high in fiber and low in sugar content. Say ‘hi’ to it. It’ll be your fruit of the day from now on. ”

Back in the office, I briefed Choi on what he should and should not be eating. Fried food like fried chicken and fried pork chop were ‘no’, sweet food like green bean soup and ice cream were ‘no’ as well. Choi was glad that at least he got to drink his daily coffee. Since he took his coffee black and without sugar, and the caffeine could help him burn some fat, I did not take coffee out of his diet. However I did reminded him to drink more water to prevent water retention due to the coffee’s dehydration effect.

As we left for the day, I told him to take two slices of wholemeal bread with tuna for breakfast, and bring a small pack of low-fat milk to work for his morning snack.

“How about my dinner then?” Choi asked while we waited for the lift.
“Ask your mom to cook you fish or chicken porridge for your dinners.”
“Argh! I hate porridge!”
“Well, you’ve got to start liking them now, pal!” I patted his back as we entered the lift.

On the following morning, I saw a dazed looking Choi walking into the office again.

“Hey Choi, did you take your breakfast?” I hoped he did not skip his breakfast again.
“Yeh, the horrible wholemeal bread and tuna,” Choi sighed.
“Oh… and you’re still hungry?”
“Sort of. Never mind, I’ll look forward to the morning snack,” Choi mused as he took a pack of low-fat milk out from his bag and put it on the desk.

But that pack of low-fat milk did not look right. It had a brown packaging.

“Erm… Choi, about this milk…”
“It is low-fat right?”
“Yeh… but it is chocolate flavored.”
“You’re not telling me that…”
“Yeh, you’re not supposed to take chocolate flavored low-fat milk because chocolate is high in sugar.”

In the few weeks that followed, Choi followed my diet instructions strictly, though with grumbles included. For breakfasts, he took wholemeal bread with tuna sometimes and peanut butter on other occasions. For lunches, he switched between yong tau fus, roast chicken sandwiches and mixed vegetables and rice without pork and fried dishes. For dinners, he took chicken and fish porridges. He also had low-fat milk for his morning snacks and oranges for his afternoon snacks. Suppers were taken out from his diet totally, with more grumbles included.

With the controlled diet and regular jogging sessions, Choi managed to lose six kilograms this time. He then made an appointment with the doctor to check his blood pressure. The fact that he returned from his appointment with a wide grin boded well for his blood pressure examination result.

“Beng! Guess what? My blood pressure is normal!” Choi shoved a piece of paper in front of my eyes.
“Great! Congratulations! You’re healthy again!”
“Thanks to you, Beng! Your diet plan worked!”
“No, you should thank yourself for following through the diet plan and jogging sessions.”
“Yah! Let’s go celebrate! I know of this Chinese restaurant at Tanjong Pagar that has black pepper crabs in its ala carte buffet menu…”

Monday, January 14, 2008

Chapter 20: KZ’s Wedding

There I was standing in front of a modest light blue two-storey bungalow that sat unobtrusively in between two other brightly colored ones. The gate was unlocked so I unhooked the latch and walked in. Small pots of jasmine and other flowers sat quietly on the left side of the front patio. A brown wooden bench, like the ones we found in school canteens but shorter, and a short pine wood cupboard, apparently for shoes, kept each other company on the left side of the main door. I knocked on the door. Minutes later, I heard steps running down a staircase, and then the door was unlocked and opened.

“Come on in,” said KZ.

About a month ago, KZ approached me to have a talk. I had known KZ since university days and whenever he talked more than his usual ‘two words in a sentence’ in a conversation, it must be about something that mattered a lot to him. We had such conversations when he told me about Laura and how he thought she might be the girl in his life, when he had received a good result for his Masters Degree, and when he had found a job for me at this current company. With the happy look on his face, I was sure he was going to tell me about something good and which meant a lot to him.

“I’m getting married, you know, the traditional ceremony,” said KZ with a grin.
“Oh finally! It’s about time huh? How long have you been ROMed? Three years?” I said avidly.
“Haha… no, two years.”
“So what made you decide to go through the traditional ceremony now?”
“Well, Laura and I have been staying together for about a year now, so we’re thinking it’s about time to really start a family.”

ROM is one of those ‘verbs’ that Singaporeans invented. ROM is actually the acronym for Registry of Marriage. The Registry of Marriage is the place where Singaporean couples sign on that piece of paper that changes their marital statues from ‘single’ to ‘married’, and swear to take care of each other till death do them apart. Well, legally, the couples are already married to each other by their signatures on that paper, but to the Chinese, they are not. There is still the traditional ceremony that they have to go through before their parents, relative and even some of their conservative friends can consider them as married. This also means that theoretically they are not allowed to have sex until they have gone through the traditional ceremony.

“Beng, would you like to be part of my brother gang?” KZ asked.
“Hey, of course! Of course I’d like to be! In fact, I’ll be pissed if you don’t ask!”
“Hahaha… okay. Let’s go tell Rose that we’ll need to apply leaves then.”

So that explained why I was at KZ’s parents’ bungalow early in the morning at seven o’clock. KZ made me sat at the living room while he went into the kitchen to get me something to drink. It was not my first visit at this bungalow, but it was the first time that the television was not on, his parents were not chatting with his father’s friends at the sofa and his sister was not chatting on the phone. For the very first time, I could hear the birds chirping on the trees outside the bungalow.

KZ walked into the living room with a glass of water. It was then that I realized that KZ was still in t-shirt and shorts.

“Hey KZ, what time are we supposed to reach Laura’s house?”
“Erm… before eight,” KZ replied calmly as he sat down on the sofa next to me.
“What? Before eight? It’s already ten minutes past seven! Why aren’t you dressed up yet?!!”
“Hey Beng, relax…”

KZ was interrupted by the honk of a car. He opened the door and looked out. It was KZ’s wedding car, a white Merzcedes decorated with champagne roses, pink ribbons and two wedding bears at the front. Following behind the Merzcedes was a white Honda decorated with the same champagne roses and pink ribbons but less elaborated. After both cars parked on road outside the bungalow, the white Honda’s driver walked over to talk to the Merzcedes driver. The white Honda driver and best man was our university friend, Chang Dek.

Knowing that Chang Dek would brief the Merzcedes driver on the day’s schedule, KZ finally went upstairs to change into his suit. In a surprisingly short moment, KZ came back downstairs, all dressed up in his black suit and holding a tie in his hand. After he took out the champagne roses hand bouquet from the fridge, we proceeded to Laura’s house.

In every Chinese traditional wedding ceremony, there is a part where the bride’s sister gang will be so excited to try out their smart ideas and the groom’s brother gang will feel so stupid to be the recipients of those ideas. It is the part where the groom and his brother gang have to go past the sister gang defending the bride’s doorstep. As compared, it will be so much easier to kill all enemies and proceed to the next level in Quake.

“Eat these up!” a plump lady in the sister gang handed Chang Dek our best man a plate of ten red chilies. After some coughs and tears, the five of us including KZ finished the plate of chilies and Chang Dek handed the empty plate back to that plump lady.

“Now do a hundred push-ups!” another skinny lady requested. Lucky for us, twenty push-ups was an easy task for each and every one.

“Okay, now I want you to…”
“Hold on,” KZ interrupted the lady with curly hair and pointed to his watch. “With any more delay, we’ll be late for the praying ceremony.”

Lynn, Laura’s sister and bridesmaid, then came to the door and said: “Let’s talk about the price then.”
“Good. How much?” KZ asked.
“Nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars.”

KZ stepped aside while I walked up to the door with a big red envelope, took out some notes from it and started counting in front of Lynn.

“Hey, what is this currency?” Lynn asked when she realized that the notes I was counting did not look familiar.
“Philippines pesos,” I replied calmly, still counting.
“No! We don’t want Philippines pesos!”
“Oh, then how about Indonesian rupiahs? Or do you prefer China renminbi?”
“I want it in Singapore dollars!” Lynn folded her arms.
“We’ve only got three hundred and eighty-eight Singapore dollars, Madam,” I showed her the pile of Singapore dollars.

Lynn counted with her fingers and pondered a while, then grumbled: “Okay, okay. We’ll take your three hundred and eighty-eight dollars. I told Laura you finance guys are cunning and I’m so right!”

With that, we managed to pass through the door and KZ stepped into Laura’s bedroom to find a beautiful bride waiting for him. KZ flipped up the veil and kissed Laura before holding her hand and leading her out of her bedroom. They then bided Laura’s parents goodbye and proceeded to KZ’s parents’ bungalow again.

Back at KZ’s parents’ bungalow, the praying ceremony began with the worship of the heavens and the earth then paying of respect to KZ’s ancestry. After the praying, Laura changed into a traditional Chinese wedding dress known as ‘kua’. Laura would be wearing that for the tea ceremony.

As a sign of respect, KZ and Laura knelt as they offered tea to KZ’s parents and elder relatives. For the younger ones, they just bowed as they offered the tea. In return, they received lots of ang baos and some gold jewellery for Laura. By the end of the ceremony, Laura looked like a Christmas tree with her gold necklaces and gold bangles.

It was then already noon time and KZ’s relatives had already cooked dishes of delicious vegetarian food to be served as lunch. Vegetarian dishes were served because both KZ and Laura’s families were vegetarians.

KZ, Laura, Lynn, Chang Dek and I finally had to chance to sit down and chat.

“Hey Laura, how do you feel? Tired?” asked Chang Dek.
“Not really tired. But I’m feeling very happy. Happy to be officially married to KZ,” Laura grinned with a happiness-filled smile and a pair of happiness-filled eyes looking at KZ.
“So we’ll be looking forward for a dozen of little KZs and little Lauras in the near future?” I nudged KZ.
“Yeh, don’t make my little cousin jumped for nothing!” said Chang Dek.

Chang Dek was referring what happened a few days ago when the bridal bed was set. The Chinese believed that a new bed must be used by the wedding couple on their wedding day, thus although KZ and Laura had been staying together in their flat for the past one year, they had been sleeping on their mattresses in two different bedrooms. Their new bed was only purchased about a month ago. On that auspicious day when the bridal bed was set, a red tray of dried food like lotus seeds, dried longans and red dates was placed on the bed. Chang Dek’s nine-year old cousin then jumped on the bed to bless it with fertility. Once that ceremony was over, nobody was allowed to touch the bed except for KZ and Laura on their wedding night.

That night, the wedding banquet was held at a famous vegetarian restaurant in town. Instead of the usual shark fins soup, fish, chicken and prawns, we had rice vermicelli and mushroom soup, mock fish, mock chicken and lots of vegetable dishes. Though vegetarian, the dishes were delicious.

Because it was a vegetarian restaurant, no alcohol was served. Traditionally, tiers of champagne glasses would be stacked up like the shape of a wedding cake and the wedding couple would fill the glasses by pouring a bottle of champagne from the top. Even that champagne was replaced by a bottle of sparkling juice.

After the sparkling juice filled champagne glasses were distributed to KZ and Laura’s families for toasting to the friends and relatives, KZ gave a touching speech to his and Laura’s parents, thanking them for the upbringing of the both of them. That was the first time that I heard so many words coming out of KZ’s mouth. The wedding couple then went around table by table to give everybody a toast. At that point, I felt that KZ must be feeling really lucky to be a vegetarian. Conventionally the groom would be sabotaged by his friends and made to drink glasses and glasses of liquor till he got drunk. Because it was a vegetarian restaurant, the joyous KZ had no problem drinking glasses and glasses of sparkling juice.

By ten o’clock, the banquet was finally over and the wedding couple and their parents stood outside the restaurant to shake everybody’s hand and thank them for attending the banquet. After the last guest had left, KZ thanked his brother gang for all their help.

“So dude, you can finally sleep on a real bed tonight,” I teased.
“Yeh, that’s the one thing that I’m looking forward to now,” KZ grinned with a pair of tired eyes.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Chapter 19: Appraisal, We Wrote

The National Novel Writing Month event is a yearly novel writing challenge which participants from all over the world try to write a 175-page or 50,000-word novel from scratch within the month of November. It is a difficult task that is not easy to accomplish and only the bravest writers take up the challenge. However, this event is just an elf standing next to our company’s yearly writing event.

In this yearly event, all employees participate to write a 5-page or 2,000-word non-fictional report from scratch within one week. The report must be based on real life story where all characters are real and all facts are traceable. Some might try to sneak in some office politics while some might try to exaggerate numbers. But they know the judges are strict and the consequence of lies is serious.

And it was that time of the year again. The clock started to tick when we received an email from Rose. The appraisal writing event had started.

We needed all the concentration we could have in order to put all the work we had done for the year down into a 5-page report. We booked a small meeting room for half a day and our team brought our notebooks into that seclusion to write the report. We needed a tranquil environment, away from the endless phone calls and rantings in the office. Almost the whole team was there, except for Rose and Nicky. Rose was in Chennai for a business trip, while the sulking Nicky could not unplug his whole desktop computer, including two monitors, and shift it into the small meeting room, so he had to write his report at his desk.

“Sigh… this is so difficult to write! I don’t even know how to start!” complained Dawn.

It was indeed a difficult writing task for Dawn. For the past one year, she had been busy thinking of where to go for lunch, looking for people to lunch with her, dropping by Ju’s events which had nothing to do with her projects, attending meetings without preparations, sending out long but pointless emails, and starting projects without finishing them. How was she going to write a 5-page report on those?

Unless her report was going to be based on her research on places where pregnant women could go for lunch, statistics of the number of people who she tried to lunch with but was rejected and a list of their excuses, statistics of the number of times that she was blocked on our team members’ MSN Messengers, observation on the happenings in Ju’s events, grading on the food served in Ju’s events, and of course, complaints about how others had hindered her projects from completion. If that was the case, she should not have any problem writing at least fifty pages.

“Don’t worry, Dawn. Just edit your previous year’s report and add in your newer projects and it should do,” Ju advised. “And guys, I’m going to email you the template for this year’s appraisal report. There’s a slight change in the format.”

Fortunately for us, Ju was always there to take care of the formatting of our appraisal reports. With that template which she created, all we needed to do was to concentrate on the content part.

“Why do you guys hate writing your appraisal so much?” Ju asked.
“Because it’s a big stress on my brain for it to recall what I’ve done for the whole year, within one week,” I replied.
“That’s only because you guys don’t keep a diary of what you do everyday!”

Well, Ju was right. She was the only one in the team who refused to use the online calendar that was embedded in the Outlook. Instead, she used a leather-and-paper organizer to keep track of her events, meetings, tasks and lunches. Yes, Ju put her lunches in the appraisal report as well. As a marketing manager, she had regular lunch meetings with vendors, magazine reporters and event organizers. Of course these lunches will take place in hotel cafes and posh Chinese restaurants, not the food courts and hawker centers that the rest of us frequented. That was the best part of her job which we admired.

“Do you know that your appraisal is the most important document in your whole working life in the company?” Ju chided. “Your appraisal will tell Rose what you’ve been doing for the whole year, and whatever you write will be the bullets that help her to fight for a higher bonus for you from the department head! And that’s not all. Your appraisal will also be kept in our company HR database so that if any other higher profile department is interested to snatch you away from our department they can look up on your capability. So you see, how can you neglect such an important document?”

Ju’s logic was impeccable. That was the kind of knowledge that she had accumulated in her twenty over years of working experience in the marketing field.

“Err… Ju, can I take a look at your event calendar?” Sally asked. “So that I can recall what I did for the year?”
“Sally, why don’t you take a look at your to-do list instead? You could just write those tasks in your appraisal.”
“Oh…yeh, you’re right. Thanks!”

Sally’s appraisal should not be too difficult to write. All she did for the year was assisting Ju in the logistics matters in the events, like packing goodie bags and liaising with vendors for collaterals production. Furthermore, Ju had made it mandatory for Sally to update a to-do list monthly. With that list, Ju could keep track of the outstanding tasks that Sally was working on, and decide if Sally was too overloaded. That to-do list would really help Sally in her appraisal writing.

“Okay, done,” said KZ.

As usual, KZ was the first in our team to complete his appraisal. He had used less than two hours to finish a 5-page appraisal. I took over his appraisal to take a look. It was written succinctly in points form. For every task mentioned, the details were written in short and clear bullet points. All necessary elaborations and facts were given and no adjectives were used unnecessarily. That was KZ’s style. In everything that he did, he would never stray away from the focus point.

“Hey, I thought we’ve got one week to do this report?” Choi asked.
“Yeh, we’ve got one week. But judging from the way we work, we’ll end up doing it on the last day anyway,” I replied.
“And as for you Mr. Choi, your appraisal will end up on Rose’s table only a week after the original deadline,” mocked Ju.

Ju was right. Last year, Choi’s appraisal was late by two weeks by the time he submitted it. And that was already after some chasing emails from Rose. Choi had a very different approach to date and time. His works were always late for a couple of days, or sometimes weeks. However he was never late for any official or non-official appointment. In fact, sometimes he could arrive at a conference fifteen minutes before the starting time. At times, I wondered if he had a different calendar from the ones we were using. Maybe the November 15th on our calendar was only November 1st on his?

“Yo guys, are you done with your appraisals? Let’s go for lunch!” said Nicky as he entered the room.
“Yes, good idea! Let’s go Paragon! I feel like taking sushi!” Dawn exclaimed avidly.
“Give us another fifteen minutes or so,” Ju replied, ignoring Dawn.

Nicky pulled a chair and sat next to Choi.

“Bro, have you finished yours?” Choi asked.
“Still working on it. Hoping to finish by the end of the day,” replied Nicky.
“Okay, I’m done. Do you mind helping me to go through and see if I’ve got any grammar mistakes or missed out anything?” Choi pushed his notebook towards Nicky.
“Choi! How can you show Nicky your appraisal? It’s supposed to be private and confidential!” asked the surprised Dawn.
“Relax, Dawn! Nicky is our products analyst! If I’m already submitting my products’ revenues and stuffs to him every month, there’s nothing in this report that Nicky can’t see!” Choi argued.
“Okay, if you say so. Anyway, it’s your appraisal.” Dawn went back to her typing and kept quiet.

“Choi, now I know why your appraisal is always the longest one in our team,” commented Nicky.
“Hahaha… now you know the vast amount of work I’m doing right?” Choi grinned.
“No, it’s not the amount of work. It’s the way you wrote your appraisal.”
“Yeh, I tend to put in more details.”
“No, it’s not the details. It’s your elaboration! It’s like as if I’m reading a novel!”

The rest of us stopped typing and looked up. We were very interested to know how Choi managed to write a novel out of an appraisal.

“Look at this!” Nicky took a deep breath, and then read: “The borrower’s stricture hindered our proposal like the sea current trying to stop our ship from moving forward to discover the new land ahead of us. But with a zealous devotion, I managed to convince the borrower that among our cash management strategy, there must be a liquidity management solution hidden somewhere that best meets his needs. The borrower was enthralled by the undisputed solution that I proffered to him. He knew that he was looking at the solution that he had been searching for. The one that he had been waiting for had finally arrived. With tears in his eyes, he shook my hand. He could not thank me enough. Finally, we had been mandated to invest our borrower’s excess balances to yield a return that is based on the overnight market driven rate.”

After Nicky had finished reading that dramatic paragraph, all of us looked at Choi, some of us with an eyebrow raised.

“Hey, I’m just trying to show my determination in selling a solution, okay?” said Choi.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Chapter 18: The Filter is Too Big for the Tank

“Dude, are they swimming backwards?”
“Yeh… do you think it’s because the water current is too strong?”
“Erm…guys, can it be… the filter is too strong?”

Nicky, Sally and I were standing in front of the tank of Bettas that Sally bought previously. We had just installed a new filter system in the tank. It was a power filter comprised of a completely submersible motor and a filter cartridge. Nicky and I had chosen this filter because of two descriptions on its box. It could support a tank capacity of up to ten gallons and it provided water flow up to the speed of 85g/h. Though we had no idea what the unit “g/h” meant, we assumed it should be akin to “fast”. We knew this power filter could rock!

And our 85g/h ten gallons power filter was indeed rocking the one foot fish tank. The small pot of water plant in the tank had fallen, the flakes we fed to the Bettas were whirling at the water surface and the two Bettas were swimming backwards. Okay, they were not swimming. They were swept backwards by the water current as soon as they stopped moving their fins. Maybe the 85g/h ten gallons power filter was too powerful for the fish tank.

“What are you guys doing?!!” Rose hollered in shock. She had just finished her meeting and had walked over to find out why the three of us were gathering round Sally’s fish tank. She was apparently not prepared to see what she saw.
“Err… checking out the new filter,” replied Nicky.
“This filter is too strong for the fishes! Look at the poor fishes! Please stop the filter!”

Under Rose’s command, I switched off the power supply to the filter. The two struggling Bettas finally caught up with the flakes and started to eat them.

“Why did you guys buy such a strong filter for such a small tank?” asked Rose who was still horrified by what she had seen.
“Because these guys liked this cool and powerful filter so much that they forgot about the size of my fish tank,” Sally replied with a mocking tone.

After the Bettas had finished the flakes, they suddenly remembered what they were doing before the new filter was introduced – playing catching. Adam the aggressive male Betta opened his gills, spread out his fins and went after Eve the panicky female Betta.

“So it’s not our filter’s fault! It’s the tank!” Nicky blurted.
“Yes! Your tank is too small, Sally. We need to get a bigger tank!” I agreed.
“I’ve read from the Internet that in order to breed Bettas, you need a bigger tank, preferably one that is two feet long,” said Nicky.
“Are you sure?” asked Sally skeptically.
“Yes! I’m sure Nicky is right! Anyway, with a bigger tank and more plants, Eve might be able to hide herself from Adam instead of running around everyday like a mad woman,” I assured.

In the following lunch time, we went to the aquarium shop at Clementi again. I approached the shop owner and told him that our power filter might be too powerful for the one foot breeding tank. His reaction told me that our guess was right.

“What power filter? And what breeding tank? What are you trying to breed in a one foot tank?” the concerned shop owner asked.
“Erm… weeks ago, we bought this pair of Half-moon Bettas from your shop and we’re trying to breed them…”
“In a one foot tank? No, it’s too small! You need a bigger tank!”

The shop owner then walked into the stack of varies types and sizes of fish tanks in front of his store and searched. Minutes later, he emerged with a weird tank in his arms. The plastic fish tank was approximately one and a half feet wide but had the height of less than a foot. Sally’s eyes stared like a goldfish when she saw how enormous her Bettas’ home was going to become.

“You need a tank that’s at least this wide in order to breed Bettas,” he explained. “Anything smaller than this, your male Betta will chase and bite your female Betta like crazy!”

That explained the catching games that Adam and Eve had been playing.

“Erm… okay, we’ll get this tank then,” said Nicky. “Is there any tips you can give us for the breeding?”

The shop owner pondered for a while, then said: “You must first prepare the pair by feeding them good frozen food, like the frozen blood worms that I’m selling at two dollars a pack, at least twice a day. Place the male and female in a container with divider to separate them, like the Betta Show Tank that I’m selling at four dollars, and let them look at each other for three to four days. Remember, see only, no touch.”

Some how, the shop owner’s advice sounded like we needed to spend more money…

“Then you’ve to prepare this tank for breeding condition. After you’ve added water, place a heater in the tank, like the sensitive and break resistance heater that I’m selling at twenty dollars, and set the temperature to twenty eight degree Celsius. That’s the breeding temperature for Bettas. Add some plants, like the Elodeas that I’m selling at a dollar each, for the female to hide. Also, add some of those brown leaves that I’m selling at a dollar for a packet so that the male can build his bubble nest under them.”

And more money…

“Now you can add the male first to get him accustomed to the surroundings. About two hours later, add the female and gently place her in a small floating breeding tank, like the one that I’m selling at three dollars, so that they’re still separated. After the male has begun a bubble nest, and the female has displayed dark vertical bars across her body, you can release her to join the male. Within the next one or two days, they’ll breed. There’ll be some fights and fin tearing, but don’t worry. It’s normal. After the breeding is completed, remove the female from the tank.”

“And when do we add in the power filter?” Nicky asked.
“No! You don’t use filter when breeding Bettas!” the shop owner looked at us in horror. “The water current produced by the filter will burst the bubble nest that the male built!”
“Oh…” Nicky and I sighed in disappointment.

Then what should we do with our 85g/h ten gallons power filter?

“Uncle, how many eggs will we be expecting?” asked Sally.
“Erm… A typical spawn is anywhere between fifty to three hundred eggs,” answered the shop owner matter-of-factly.
“What? Three hundred?!!” the three of us screamed at the shop owner who stepped back in horror.
“Relax! Don’t worry! Usually only about fifty percents of the frys will survive,” the shop owner wiped the sweat off his forehead as he replied.
“Err… Sally, fifty percent of an average of one hundred is still as many as fifty. What are you going to do with so many baby Bettas?” I asked Sally.
“Oh… I don’t know. Erm… why don’t we just breed first then see how it goes? Maybe I’ll just give some away?”

After listening to the shop owner’s advertisements filled advice, Sally followed him around as he gathered the items she required for her new Bettas breeding tank.

“Hey Beng, we can’t just throw away our 85g/h ten gallons power filter right?” nudged Nicky.
“No! Of course not! The filter has got to stay!” I insisted.
“Hmm… since we can’t use the filter in Sally’s Bettas fish tank, maybe we should get our own fish tank for the filter?” Nicky rubbed his chin and pondered.
“Yeh, good idea!”

Having decided to get a fish tank for our 85g/h ten gallons power filter, Nicky and I went out of the shop again to look at the varieties of tanks available. We fell in love with a state-of-the-art three feet tank but thinking that having a one and a half feet and another three feet tank in the office was kind of inappropriate, we gave in and selected a two feet tank instead. Not the kind of cheap fifteen dollars plastic fish tank that Sally was buying, but a cool strengthened glass fish tank with round corners. There was even a hooded lamp attached at the top of the tank! The fish tank will set us back with almost a hundred dollars but it was definitely worth it.

“Okay… what should we put in this tank besides our filter?” Nicky asked.
“Hmm… how about some fishes?” I suggested.
“Oh yes, but I’m not really into Bettas.”
“Yeh, me too. We should get something that’s as cool as our filter.”

The two of us walked around the aquarium shop to shop for some fishes for our fish tank.

“How about guppies? They look pretty colorful,” I pointed to some mosaic and tuxedo guppies cramped in their respective small tanks.
“Nah, guppies are too cheap for our filter.”

“How about getting this baby arowana?” Nicky pointed at a sixty-eight dollars baby arowana swimming gracefully in its tank. “Arowanas are very auspicious, you know?”
“But this guy will outgrow our two feet tank right?”

“How about goldfishes?” I pointed at a group of lion head goldfishes swaying their butts as fast as Robbie Williams.
“Beng, I’ve already got eight of them in my house! Can we have some variety around here?”

“How about having a discus? They look so elegant. Look at the colors and patterns!” Nicky pointed at the tanks of stationary discuses.
“But Nicky, why are we rearing roti pratas?”

As we walked over to look at some cardinal tetras and Agassiz corydoras, Sally walked over with her mobile phone on her left hand and a big plastic bag of tank and stuffs on her right.

“Guys, Choi is on the line,” Sally handed me her mobile phone.

“Hi Choi, what’s up?”
“Beng, I heard from Sally that Nicky and you are intending to get another fish tank?”
“Yap, we’re choosing the fish now.”
“Hey, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’ve got insider news that our department will be shifting in about three months’ time. Just heard about it from the meeting this morning.”
“We’re shifting?!!”
“Yeh, but of course you guys can still go ahead if you don’t mind shifting the fish tank. By the way, how big is the tank going to be?”
“Erm… Choi, you know what? Why don’t we talk about it when we’re back?”
“Oh… okay, sure.”

I gave the mobile phone back to Sally and said to Nicky: “Do you think your eight goldfishes will mind another filter?”

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Chapter 17: Bosses and Their Subordinates

I had an unexpected visitor at my desk when I reached the office in the morning. Kah Leng was sitting at my desk and playing with my crystal globe while waiting for me.

“Beng! You’re finally here!” she pulled my right arm as I put down my document bag.
“Hahaha… I’m not really expecting an early guest,” I jested.
“Accompany me downstairs for some coffee, will you?” she winked at me.

Obediently, I followed her to the lift. Kah Leng was a business development manager from the Singapore Capital Markets team which was seated in the office area next to our team. She was a very gregarious gal equally flamboyant in dress and speech. She had only joined the company six months ago but she seemed to have made friends with ninety percents of the staffs in this Suntec office already.

We walked to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaves café on the other tower. The café was flooded with office workers taking away their first cups of the day. The counter crews were busy preparing cups after cups of cappuccinos, lattes and espressos. We found a table at a quiet corner and Kah Leng made me sit down.

“Just tell me what you want. My treat,” she smiled.
“Erm… okay, just give me a short white then.”

Minutes later, Kah Leng returned with a tray of latte and short white. As she stirred a pack of sugar into the coffee, she said: “Beng, I’ve already decided. I’m going to quit.”

What news to receive first time in the morning!

“Why? What happened?”
“It’s Carol. I can’t stand her anymore,” she sighed.

Carol was Kah Leng’s direct supervisor and Kah Leng had been having problem working with her since day one. That was not a surprise. Kah Leng was a loud person who would greet everybody when she reached the office in the morning, who loved to socialize and joke around, and who loved to join different groups of people for lunches. While Carol was the quiet one who would enter the office with a stoned face every morning, who hated socializing and talking to others, and who usually chose to lunch in. These two women came from two utterly different worlds.

“She did that email thing again!” Kah Leng raged.
“Oh, she scolded you via email again?”
“Yes! And as usual, she cc’ed our boss in that email! Can’t she just turn around and tell me the problem instead? I’m just sitting next to her, for Christ’s sake!”

I agreed that was not the best way to communicate. And I was also not sure if their boss really read every single email of minor matters that Carol sent.

“Have you communicated the problem to her?” I asked.
“You mean the problem I’ve got working with her? Yes! Of course I had! I told her that I prefer her to tell me my mistakes or any unhappiness that she has with me straight into my face instead of through those emails. Each time she’ll say okay, and she did try to talk to me for a period of time, then after some time, she’ll repeat the whole damn process again!” said the exasperated Kah Leng.

I sympathized with Kah Leng. Difficulties in work itself could be solved with accrued experience and time. But difficulties in working with the boss could probably never be solved, especially if communication is a problem.

Ju and Sally were the opposite of Carol and Kah Leng. Though Sally worked in our team with Rose as the team lead, hierarchy wise, she reported to Ju. Ju was a leader who believed strongly in verbal communication. When a job was needed to be done, she would ask Sally over to her desk with pen and papers so that they could go through the tasks together and Sally could ask her any queries on the spot. Ju believed that if you explain a job to your subordinate face to face, he/she will feel more motivated than if you were to assign the job to him/her via email.

Almost once in every month, Ju would also take Sally out for lunch and have some causal talks with her about non work-related stuffs like what were the new restaurants in town. This little gesture had actually made Sally more comfortable in bringing up to Ju the problems she faced in her work.

I guessed we were pretty fortunate to have Rose as our team lead as well. She scored pretty well in motivating everybody with those inspiring talks about our team’s future. And mostly importantly, her “walk the talk”, not her enthralling speeches, made those talks worked. Rose was also a strong defender for the team whenever we were facing outsiders. When the businesses had some issues with the work that we did or mistakes we made, she would apologize on our behalf then followed by sound reasoning to argue for the things we did. She believed in talking to us in private rather than making us look bad in front of the businesses.

There was one problem with her enthusiasm in work though. Rose believed that the best way to solve problems and improve processes was to get all affected and related parties into meetings and conference calls to discuss the issues. That was why our team’s calendars were so full of meetings and conference calls almost everyday.

Our team was fortunate because we had a leader like Rose, but the same could not be said for Rose when it came to her boss, Karen. Rose was directly reporting to Karen, the head of our department. Karen was a cantankerous middle-aged American woman and thoroughly disagreeable to deal with. She was not easily pleased and she wanted to oversee everything and everybody, even for those in the lower level of the hierarchy, like us.

“KZ, could you show me the AP revenues chart for last month and your analysis?”
“Choi, where’s last month’s product report? And where’s the product report for the month before last month?”
“Nicky, have you sent your analysis to the e-newsletter team? Show me that analysis!”
“Dawn, how’s your project? What’s the status now?”
“Ju, show me the marketing events calendar you’ve planned for next quarter!”
“Sally, have all the vendors been informed of our new branding? Show me those new collaterals!”
“Beng, I want to see the Yen, Renminbi and Singapore dollar markets performance charts!”

And being the one directly under her, Karen expected more from Rose. Every morning, Rose was required to call Karen to discuss about any new plans and outstanding issues. Once a week, Karen would come all the way to our Suntec office from her comfortable office in the headquarters so that she could have a meeting with Rose that usually lasted a few hours. For every agreement that Rose had made with the businesses, a detailed report had to be sent to Karen. For every Marketing event that Ju initiated, Karen would require Rose and Ju to walk her through the event plan. If anybody needs to know the meaning of ‘control freak’, forget the dictionary. Spend a day with Karen.

Eventually Kah Leng stayed and tried to make things work. However, I was pretty sure she would throw in the letter the moment she spotted a higher paying job somewhere else. In another department, another nasty boss did drive his staff away.

The FX department had a change in their department head. The original head was promoted and moved up a level and a British guy was transferred over from the Hong Kong office to take over the job of leading the department. Months before this new department head Alex stepped onto Singapore, the staffs tried to find out more about him from their Hong Kong counterparts. From all the phone calls and emails, they gathered that Alex was an adamant guy who will not be easily influenced once he had made up his mind. In fact his unyielding firmness was the quality that the higher management praised about, which meant that the department could look forward to launching more high profile projects. But the Hong Kong staffs missed out one important point. Alex was a guy who was only interested to work with people he was familiar and felt comfortable with.

When Alex arrived in Singapore, he brought with him a couple of his direct reports, including Betty, his public relations manager in Hong Kong. As Amy was already the existing public relations manager for the FX department, Alex assigned Betty to Amy as an assistant instead. Amy assumed that since further expansion had been planned for the FX department, Alex could have placed two public relations managers in the department to share the work load. Unfortunately, a couple of months later, Amy realized that she had mistaken Alex.

“Dude, did you hear about what happened to Amy, that public relations manager from the FX department?” Nicky asked me during lunch.
“Why? What happened?”
“She’ll be leaving the company by the end of the month.”
“Leaving the company? You mean she quitted?”
“No, she didn’t,” Nicky shook his head. “She was asked to leave.”
“Asked to leave? By Alex?”
“Yap! And Betty is going to replace her as the public relations manager for the FX department.”
“Ha! So that was the reason for the department to have two public relations managers!”
“Yeh, it’s a cruel world right?” Nicky sighed.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Chapter 16: Let Me Sell You This

It was already eight o’clock by the time I stepped out of the office. For the past two weeks, I had been seeing the moon on my way home. Yes, I had been working for twelve hours a day. I remembered that during my interview, I asked Rose what were the working hours like. She laughed and replied “Eight thirty to five thirty. By right”. It did not take more than a month for me to figure out what the laughter and “by right” were supposed to mean. To leave the office at six was a luxury; to leave at seven was normal.

From Suntec City, I walked through the City Link underground shopping tunnel to Citihall MRT station. It was in utter chaos as usual. The crowd rushing from City Link split into two crowds – one towards the MRT station and the other towards the Raffles City shopping center. The crowd who had just alighted from the train split into another two crowds - one towards City Link and the other towards the Raffles City shopping center. The crowd coming down the escalator from Raffles City shopping center split into yet another two crowds – one towards the MRT station and the other towards City Link. If a coin was dropped onto the ground, it would be kicked and lost in the blink of an eye.

I barged through the chaotic crowd and walked briskly through the MRT station gate. I then took the escalator down to the station platform to join other kindred souls who were rushing home with an empty stomach and an empty brain. A few minutes later, a crowded train arrived to throw out an excited crowd rushing to shops and dinners, so that it could be refilled by an enervated crowd who just wanted to find a seat and sleep all the way home.

I had never considered myself an agile or lucky person, so I was not surprised that I could not find a seat on the train again. Well, the Health Promotion Board recommended that thirty minutes of exercise a day is good for health right? Hopefully the act of balancing in a moving train for thirty minutes could be considered as a good exercise. Just when I was going to plug in the earphones and listen to my MD player, somebody tapped me on my shoulder.

I turned around to see a guy neatly dressed in an ocean blue wrinkle-free long sleeve shirt and a pair of black trousers, and holding a black document bag. His smile was as slick as his greased-back hair and Giorgio Armani spectacles. When such a fresh and energetic guy was found in a train leaving town area on a weekday evening, he was either on the way to propose to his girlfriend, or to sell something.

This guy looked familiar and I guessed we must have known each other at some point in time because he was calling my name.

“Beng! Have you forgotten about me already?” Mr. looks-familiar grinned.
“No, how would I? How’s life? You are looking better than you used to!”

That was a safe line. Everybody believes that at any point in life they are always looking better than how they were previously.

“Yeh, glad I left the company. Too much pressure. How about you? Are you still there?” said Mr. seems-like-an-ex-colleague.
“Yap, nowhere to run.”
“So how’s everybody at the Latin America FX team? Is Simon Hatcher still the head?” asked Mr. so-and-so-from-Latin-America-FX-team.
“Yeh, he’s still there alive and kicking asses. So what have you been doing?”
“Oh, I’m now in Marketing. Here’s my name card!”

The card read “Peter Sim, Marketing Consultant, Livelife Inc.” So he was not on his way to present a marriage proposal.

For the next fifteen minutes, Mr. Sim was very concerned with the water that I entrusted my life to. He was worried that the unclean water that passed through dirty and rusty water pipes before reaching my tap could cost me my kidneys, lungs and livers and put me in a grievous old age. And with the reservoirs opening up to water activities, he could not bring himself to believe the government’s claim that those water activities will not affect our drinking water. He thanked God that it was really my lucky day because I had to meet him on the train. This grave peril of losing my organs because of drinking water could be averted easily by purchasing a water filter that cost merely over a thousand dollars from him. In fact, if I were to join his company as one of the marketing consultants, I could have further discounts that already very reasonably priced water filter.

“Beng, think about it. If you join our company as a freelance marketing consultant, not only can you buy our products at great discounts, you can earn substantial commissions!”
“Err… Peter, you know how busy my work can be right?”
“You don’t have to worry about that at all! As a freelance marketing consultant, you can always work only when you’re free and there’s no pressure in meeting any quota at all!”
“Err… I really don’t think I’ve got the time to do any freelancing.”
“Oh… well, never mind, I tell you what. Since we’re such great pals, I must get you the discount for the water filter. Just between the two of us, I’ll pretend that I’m the one buying the water filter, and you can get the member’s privileged discount for it! How about that, pal?”

I told him that I was very grateful, however very unfortunately, I had already bought a water filter just months ago. Of course I did not tell him that my water filter was a simple one that cost me less than a hundred dollars. Instead, I told him that I paid a few hundred dollars for that new water filter and I could not just throw it away. I did not expect him to get even more concerned and more worked up.

“No, you don’t understand. Those water filters that are selling in the market are dangerous! They can’t do a clean job in removing the debris from the water! And worse, sometimes the chemicals that are used in these filters actually pollute the water further!”
“Erm… but the one that I bought was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Microbiological Water Purifier.” I knew I read these terms somewhere in the Forbes magazine.
“But Beng, how can you trust something that is certified by the U.S.? Everybody can be certified by them! As someone working in the water treatment industry, I can tell you the standards set by these U.S. agencies can’t be trusted. That’s why our water filters are more superior. Our company’s water filters are certified by the United Kingdom!”

Before he could continue to brag about how the new desalination plant had initially wanted to use their company’s water filter, but because their filters were so out of stock they had to reject the plant, I told him that I had reached my station and I needed to go.

“Hey Beng, you have forgotten to give me your name card!”
“Oh, I ran out of name cards. But no worries, I’ve got yours.”
“Oh yes, call me okay?” Mr. Sim reminded me before the train door closed.

I waved him goodbye as the train moved away from the station. I looked up at the station sign. Yio Chu Kang. Not so bad, I was only a few stations away from my destination. Patiently, I waited for the next train.

Partially due to the trend of retrenchments a few years back, more people had joined the multi-level marketing workforce. The marketing consultants from these multi-level marketing companies will recruit new people to either buy into the program or to buy products that are totally unheard of but grossly overpriced. The new recruits will then recruit additional people who will also buy into the program or buy the products. The whole process just goes on. That is where the word ‘multi-level’ comes from. As for the word ‘marketing’, they might be using the wrong word.

All marketing consultants are promised that if they could create multiple layers of sellers under them, the amount of accrued commissions could lead them to riches that they could never dream of. But the sad truth is only the big boss who started the program is really making loads of money. All others have spent their commissions buying bulks of those overpriced products themselves.

Finally I reached the station I had intended to alight. As I walked down the escalator, I was approached by a well dressed lady holding a notepad and pen on one hand, and a cup of colored straws on the other.

“Hi, could you spare me a minute?” the lady asked politely.
“No,” I had already spared somebody else my minutes.
“Just a quick one, okay? We’re offering a free lucky draw!”

‘Free’ lucky draw? Since when must we pay for lucky draws?

“What is it about?”
“I’m from ABC Insurance and we are having a road show promotion on our latest insurance products. If you managed to draw the lucky straw among these other straws in the cup, you could win yourself free accident cover for a year!” she said avidly.
“It’s okay. I’m already covered by other insurance policies.”
“But why don’t you give the lucky draw a shoot? Just draw a straw from this cup! It’s free anyway!”
“No, really, it’s okay. Thanks!” With that, I walked away briskly before she could continue.

As I walked past their booth area, I saw a couple of tables and some people really talking to those insurance agents. But who knows? They could be only interested in getting that one year free accident cover. Perhaps I was just been too skeptical, but I could not understand how a tired and hungry person who had just finished work and was on the way home suddenly had an urge to buy insurance from somebody he/she had just met for the first time, on the street.

Then my mobile phone rang.

“Hello, is that Mr. Tan Ah Beng?”
“Hi, I’m Larry calling from Relax Resorts and I’ve got good news for you! You’ve just won yourself a free trip for two to Phuket from our lucky draw!”
“Another lucky draw?”
“Huh? Sorry?”
“Never mind, so what’s the catch?”
“Oh, there’s no condition attached. You’ll just have to attend a short travel presentation at our office and…”
“I’m not interested,” I cut him off and hung up the phone.

It was one of those timeshare companies again. They will lure you to their holiday resorts presentations that last for hours and pressurize you to sign up a twenty thousand dollars package that allows you to stay in holiday resorts that are usually far away from all amenities and attractions.

After dinner, I switched on my notebook. I was planning to get into eBay. Since everybody seemed to have something to sell, maybe I should try selling some of my old VCDs as well.