Friday, April 3, 2009

Chapter 29: Who is Cooking?

Evolution is amazing. The man’s role has been changing with time in order to be a survivor. From mammoths hunting using spears made of sticks and stones, to fighting a war using bows and arrows, to killing hundreds using armor tanks, to destroying a whole city using atomic bomb, then to chopping up a rack of pork ribs in the kitchen. Yes, the man has exchanged his role with his woman, so that he could do the cooking while she continues with her overtime. In appreciation, the woman has even granted him a nice appellation – the new age man.

The woman said that a new age man should be understanding and romantic. He should be gentle to her and always be there for her not only physically, but also mentally. If a new age man is able to cook well, that will earn him enough brownie points for the woman to marry him.

The woman is too busy with her career to cook for her family. There are endless meetings and never ending overtimes to deal with and it will be too much to ask for if the man expected her to cook after she returns from work. The meals, house works and kids can be taken care of simply by employing a maid.

That is why we have Chen Hong from Taiwan and Jamie Oliver from England to teach the man how to cook. To teach him how to brew herbal soup for his wife who is so tired from her overtimes. To teach him how to surprise his girlfriend with a nice New York cheesecake when she was so angry with him. And to teach him how to teach his female colleague how to bake walnut brownies for her boyfriend. That was the reason why Sally was at my kitchen on a Saturday afternoon.

“Beng, is it going to be very difficult?” Sally asked while staring at the ingredients.
“No, brownies are one of the easiest cakes to bake,” I replied as I took out the baking tins from the cupboard.
“Will it take very long?”
“Yes it will, if you continue to just stand down there and stare at the ingredients.”
“Okay, what should I do first?”
“Line the baking tin with the greaseproof paper,” I said as I handed Sally a shallow rectangular baking tin and a roll of greaseproof paper.

I sipped on my coffee as I watched Sally put the baking tin on the greaseproof paper to estimate the size, then using a pair of scissors, cut up the greaseproof paper. She then attempted to press the greaseproof paper into the baking tin. As she squeezed the greaseproof paper to fix a corner of the baking tin, the greaseproof paper was torn. Sally stared at the paper, then at me. I sighed.

“Sally, before you fit the paper into the tin, you can try to fold the sides so that the paper can fit easier into the lengths and widths of the tin.”

Sally cut another piece of greaseproof paper out and folded the four sides of the paper according to the lengths and widths of the baking tin. She then pressed the greaseproof paper in lightly and cautiously. This time, the greaseproof paper was safe.

After I switched on the cooker to heat up the steamer, I turned the dial on the oven to hundred and eighty degree Celsius to preheat the oven. Then from one of the shopping bags, I took out the bar of dark chocolate and butter and passed them to Sally.

“Use the weighing scale there, weigh the butter and cut out a piece that is the same weight as the chocolate bar. After the water in the steamer has started to boil, put both the chocolate bar and butter onto a bowl and put it into the steamer. While the mixture is melting, make sure you keep stirring them,” I instructed.
“Hey Beng, why make such a big fuss? Why don’t we just put the chocolate and butter in the saucepan and boil them directly?”
“Because if you do that, the chocolate and butter will dry up.”
“Geez, this is so troublesome,” Sally sulked.

While Sally was stirring the mixture, I asked her: “Why are you baking walnut brownies for you boyfriend? Is it his birthday?”
“Yah, and when I asked him what he wanted for a present, he said that he wishes to have a birthday cake that is baked by me.”
“Is he aware that you can’t cook?”
“Nope. I didn’t tell him that. So I guess he just presumed that I could bake.”
“And he asked for brownies?”
“No he didn’t specifically say what kind of birthday cake he wanted, but I like brownies,” Sally grinned.

Just as I suspected. It was not really common for guys to like brownies. I would have chosen a tiramisu or a coffee cake.

After the chocolate and butter mixture was melted completely, I helped Sally to take the bowl of mixture out from the steamer. Under my supervision, she used an electric mixer to beat together the sugar, vanilla essence, salt, eggs, and nearly some egg shells. Sally had accidentally dropped a substantial amount of egg shells in the mixture when she cracked open the eggs but luckily I was there to scope them up. I then instructed her to sift the flour while I stirred in the chocolate and butter mixture.

“Sally, did you take home economics as a subject during secondary school times?”
“Yap, I did.”
“And didn’t your teacher teach you how to cook?”
“Yes she did, but I was not interested,” Sally sighed. “Do you know what they taught in school? Rock buns, sultana biscuits, fried noodles, stir-fried eggplants… argh, if I don’t even like these foods, why will I be interested to learn how to cook it?”
“Hey, you can’t be learning strawberry shortcake, English shortbread, fried rice with X.O. paste and grilled salmon steak at that level right?”

Sally showed me the sifted flour and I instructed her to fold it into the mixture. From one of the shopping bags, I took out the packet of walnuts and passed it to her so that she could add them into the mixture as well. I then helped her to pour the brownie mixture into the prepared baking tin and spread the mixture evenly.

I took another bigger shallow baking tin and filled it halfway with hot water from the kettle before putting the tin into the oven. Then cautiously, I placed the tin of brownies mixture into the tin of hot water. After that, I closed the oven door and set the timer to thirty minutes.

“Beng, what is the purpose of that tin of water?” a wide-eyed Sally asked.
“If we don’t do that, your brownies will have an ugly crack on the surface. The purpose of this tin of hot water is to spread out the heat in the oven,” I explained.

While waiting for the brownies to be baked, we sat down in the living room to have some coffee.

“So how did you pass your exam since you can’t cook?”
“Oh, I managed to have a borderline pass,” Sally giggled. “I knew that my practical tests will score badly so I tried to push up my marks by doing better in theory.”
“But did you really score very badly for the practical tests? What were you tested on?”
“There were two practical tests; one was sewing and the other cooking. For the sewing part, my mom did the skirt for me and I just handed it up.”
“Then you should have scored well right? Unless your mom’s sewing skill is just as bad?”

For that comment, Sally hit me on my arm.

“No, the skirt was fabulous. But the sewing test had two portions. In the second part, everybody was supposed to thread the sewing machine one by one and show it to the teacher.”
“And you didn’t know how to thread a sewing machine?”
“Yah,” Sally blushed.
“Then how about your cooking test?”
“We were supposed to bake ginger bread for the cooking test and we did the test in the school kitchen so there was no way to cheat,” Sally stuck out her tongue. “My ginger bread turned out to be a total failure. I mistook the salt as sugar and I forgot to put baking powder into the mixture. Worse still, the ginger bread was burnt.”
“Erm… and I assumed that your teacher had to taste everybody’s ginger bread to give marks, including yours?”
“Yah, poor teacher,” Sally giggled.

“Anyway, I don’t see any purpose in taking home economics classes,” said Sally. “I don’t see any need to learn how to sew or cook at all.”
“I could understand the sewing part. But you do need to learn some basic cooking right?” I disagreed.
“Well, I can cook Maggie noodles,” Sally grinned.
“Hey girl, after you got married, you can’t expect your husband and kids to eat Maggie noodles for lunches and dinners right?”
“Huh? Why must I cook after I got married?”
“You can’t be expecting your husband to do all the cooking right?” I raised an eyebrow.
“No, silly! Of course not! I think my future husband will kill me for that!” Sally laughed. “There’s always the maid right?”

Thirty minutes had passed. I took out the baking tin from the oven carefully and put it on the table to cool. Sally and I looked happily at the brown and fragrant brownies that looked simply delicious.

“Can I cut it now?” Sally asked.
“No, let it cool first. If you cut now, the brownies will stick to the knife.”
“Hey, baking is not that difficult after all!” Sally realized. “All it takes are some mixing and then just shove it into the oven!”

Yeh, baking or any kind of cooking is never rocket science. Maybe somebody should tell the woman that cooking together with her man can actually be fun.

Chapter 28: The War of the In-laws

The tension between mother in-laws and daughter in-laws has existed for centuries all over the world. Movies and books have been written based on this unique relationship between two women. These stories can be comical, depressing or even horrifying. And everyday, the same drama is actually happening in somebody’s family somewhere out there. Perhaps the tension is created because somebody has to accept a stranger into the family and share her son with this person, and somebody has to treat a stranger like an elder and respect her wishes just because she is related to her husband.

When I stepped into the house after work and saw just my dad alone at the dining table, I knew that something was amiss. It was unusual for my dad to take dinner alone.

“Dad, where is mom? Has she gone out?”
“No, she’s in the bedroom. She has got no appetite for dinner.”
“Is she sick?”
“No,” my dad put down his chopsticks and continued. “Her old school mates called her up today for a chat, and they asked about Ah Hao.”

That was a very valid reason for my mom to lose her appetite. It was a taboo to talk about Ah Hao, her youngest grandson. It never failed to sadden my mom and made her cry upon the mention of Ah Hao. At the beginning of the year, my younger brother had walked out of my mom’s life, taking along his son Ah Hao, under the command of his wife.

My younger brother Charlie had met his wife Alice in his first job and she became his first love. Alice was a very independent gal with a strong character. She had left her family after she graduated from the polytechnic, due to some disagreement with her father. Since then, she had not been visiting her family except for the Chinese New Year. On the other hand, my younger brother Charlie was a quiet guy with a soft character. Among the three of us, he was the most pampered since young and my mom would always give in to him. With such combination, Alice was destined to be the one who dominated.

Alice was never willing to share Charles with anybody else. Even before they were married, Alice had restricted the amount of outings that Charlie had with his friends. Eventually, Charlie lost contact with most of his friends, even his good friends since secondary school times. After they were married, the couple got a flat at a distance away from our flat and Charlie shifted out, out of my mom’s sight for the first time in his life. Becoming Charlie’s wife had caused Alice to be increasingly possessive. Whenever Charlie was not working, she wanted him to spend all his time with her. Their weekly visit to my parents became monthly, then eventually quarterly.

Then one day, Charlie called my mom up and told her that Alice was pregnant. My parents were exhilarated and they tried to help out in any way that they could. Those were the happier moment that my mom remembered because the couple would pay a visit almost every month. My mom would then brew some herbal soups for Alice, hoping that the soups would make her and the baby healthier and stronger.

Nine months later, Alice gave birth to a baby boy who was named Ah Hao by my dad. Alice was very weak after giving birth and her legs were so swollen that she could hardly walk. Although Charlie took annual leaves to take care of her and the baby, he was not experienced enough and it was also too knackering for him. To help out the couple, my dad traveled everyday to their house to cook lunches and dinners for them. As for my mom, she stayed at their house to take care of Ah Hao. She would wake up and feed him at night so that the couples could sleep. It was a very tiring task but she did it without complaint.

Eventually, Alice’s leg was not swelling any more and she recovered adequately to take care of Ah Hao. One day, she suddenly remembered that Charlie and Ah Hao only belonged to her and nobody else, and hell just broke loose.

My mom was preparing lunch in the kitchen while Ah Hao slept in the baby cot in the living room. Suddenly, he woke up and cried. My mom rushed out to the living room and saw Alice holding Ah Hao, trying to calm him down with a pacifier. However the pacifier did not seem to work as Ah Hao only cried louder.

“Come, let me hold him,” my mom stretched out her hands to take over Ah Hao.
“No!” Alice shouted at her and held Ah Hao back. “Ah Hao is my son! Why should I give him to you?”
“What are you talking about? I’m not trying to take him away. I’m thinking of calming him down and stop him from crying!”
“I can stop him from crying! I’m his mother!”

My mom was stunted. But she was even more shocked when she heard the next sentence from Alice.

“Please leave my house. You’ve been too busybody and influencing Charlie too much. I want you to stay away from my husband and my son! I don’t want to see you anymore!”

And that was the last day that my mom had seen her son and grandson. Charlie had not been calling my parents, let alone visiting them. When my dad called him and asked him to come back with Ah Hao, he refused and said that he did not want to agitate Alice. When my dad suggested that my mom and he wait at the void deck below their flat and Charlie could take Ah Hao downstairs for them to take a look, Charlie refused and said that Alice might not like the idea. Since then, my parents had lost a son and a grandson.

Rose had another different sad story to tell. She met her husband in their university times back in India. Eventually they fell in love and he proposed to her. In India, both couples are required to have the same social and financial status before they could be married. Both families must be as rich, or as poor. In Rose’s case, the two families were as rich and well respected. Thus there was no opposition to the marriage and the both of them were married under the consent of both parents.

After they were married, as a traditional India wife, Rose stayed at home as a housewife. And because it was a traditional Indian family and her husband was the only son, her in-laws stayed with them. There was a honeymoon period when everybody appeared to be friendly towards each other and quarrels were unheard of. Then one day, Rose’s father in-law passed away, leaving her mother in-law behind. That was when Rose’s nightmare began.

Since her husband’s death, Rose’s mother in-law became cantankerous and thoroughly disagreeable to live with. While her husband was at work, Rose would prepare lunch for her mother in-law and herself, just like what she did when her father in-law was around. However, though her cooking skills had not changed, her mother in-law had.

“What is this?” Rose’s mother in-law asked as she stirred the bowl of red substances with her spoon.
“Vegetable masala, mom” Rose replied as she put the next dish on the table.

Her mother in-law took a sip of the vegetable masala then spited it out on the table. She then took a morsel of chicken from the chicken bemisal that Rose had just put on the table. After a few bites, she spited it out too.

“Your masala and bemisal taste so terrible! How do you expect me to eat these kinds of food?” she berated at Rose.
“But mom, you used to like these dishes!” said the shock Rose.
“No! I didn’t used to like these dishes. I just didn’t want to let you know.”

Rose’s mother in-law then left the house, probably to have her meal outside, and returned about an hour before her husband returned from work. During dinner, her mother in-law complained to her husband that Rose was so lazy that she did not cook lunch for her and did not do much housework as well.

The same drama repeated almost everyday, but luckily for Rose, her husband chose to believe her. Though he just nodded his head when his mother raged on and on, he apologized to Rose privately and told her to hang in there.

A few years later, Rose’s mother in-law passed away. Till the day that she died, she still disliked Rose and did not stop complaining about her to her son. Rose was glad that it was finally over, but she was also sad that her mother in-law still had not accepted her till the day she died.

On the other hand, Ju was a very fortunate woman. Because her husband was the eldest son, her mother in-law was staying with them. They had been living in harmony and arguments were few and easily forgiven. Though they had a maid to take care of the house work, her mother in-law would cook occasionally for the family. During Ju’s pregnancies, her mother in-law even brewed expensive bird’s nests and herbal soups for her. Similarly, Ju treated her mother in-law with respect and care. When her mother in-law was sick and weak after a surgery, Ju applied for a month’s leave to take care of her personally.

Once, Rose asked Ju how they managed to love each other.

“Hahaha… it’s actually very simple,” replied Ju. “The two of us treat each other as friends more than the relationship of mother in-law and daughter in-law. In this way, we are both more forgiving to each other’s mistakes, and we respect each other’s opinions.”

Just as Ju had proven, it is not impossible for a mother in-law and her daughter in-law to live in harmony. They just have to understand that one is not there to snatch away the son’s love and the other is not there to possess the husband’s time. Hopefully one day, Alice could understand this theory.

Chapter 27: Sorry, We Are Fully Booked

With our mind set on going to South Korea, the next step would be to book our air tickets. Nicky searched the Internet and noted down the telephone numbers of two major travel agencies. He picked up the phone and dialed the first number.

“Hello, SD Travel. How may I help you?”
“Hi, I would like to enquire on the flights to South Korea.”
“Hold on while I put you through to ticketing.”

Nicky was put on some call waiting advertisements and a few minutes later, a guy with a husky voice answered the phone.

“Hello, can I help you?”
“Hi, I would like to enquire on the flights to South Korea.”
“Which airline are you looking for?”
“Singapore Airlines.”
“How many people are going?”
“There are five of us.”
“Which day do you want to depart on?”
“On the twenty-second of December.”
“On which day do you want to return to Singapore?”
“On the third of January.”
“Okay, hold on a minute.”

Nicky was put on some more call waiting advertisements again and a few more minutes later, the guy with a husky voice returned to the phone.

“Sorry sir, the flights on Singapore Airlines are all fully booked for that period.”
“Erm… then how about Cathay Pacific?”
“Also fully booked.”
“Quantas?”
“We don’t have any Quantas flights going to Seoul.”
“Okay, so which are the airlines left with vacancies?”
“You can take GE Airlines. Anyway it is cheaper.”

It seemed like we were defeated by the quick Singaporeans again. Singaporeans’ favorite pastime for December is to travel with their friends and families. With the school holidays and Christmas season, it is a good time for the parents to bring their kids out to see the world. Tour packages to popular destinations like Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Hong Kong and of course, South Korea, can be easily snapped up pretty early. That means you have a higher chance to see a Singaporean than Mickey Mouse in Tokyo Disneyland in December.

I remembered that when I was a kid, my parents used to take me overseas for the holiday break as well. However those were simple and inexpensive bus trips to the various parts of the nearby Malaysia, like Genting Highlands, Cameron Highlands and Penang. Kids nowadays are so much more fortunate. Due to fierce competitions and opening of air routes, air tickets are getting cheaper and Singaporeans are traveling further. In the past, traveling to the United States of America was a privilege reserved only for the rich. In fact, if you could afford a trip to Bangkok, you must be earning quite a bit. Now, most kids would have already been to Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan and some even Europe. My little nephew was only nine years old, and he had already seen the snow in Toronto. But this kid had no idea where on earth was Cameron Highlands.

When Choi finished his conference call and walked over, Nicky told him that we had managed to book our flight on GE Airlines. Choi’s eyes opened real wide. His look definitely did not bode well for the airline.

“Why are we flying on GE Airlines?” Choi asked. “Can’t we take other airlines?”
“Nope, the rest are already fully booked,” Nicky replied.
“All fully booked? Even Singapore Airlines?”
“What’s wrong with GE Airlines?”
“My friend had been on Korean Airlines before. Their seats are freaking small! And you won’t have your personal television panel! You’ve to watch your in-flight movies on the shared projector screen with the other passengers and you can’t switch channels!”
“What? No personal television?” Sally hollered.
“Nicky, are you sure that all flights on Singapore Airlines are fully booked?” Choi asked Nicky again.
“Yeh, that’s what the travel agency guy told me!”
“Maybe it is because of the vast number of tour packages going to South Korea? I heard that most tour packages have been fully booked,” Kah Leng suggested.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Choi. “Our travel agencies are not that generous. I don’t suppose they will allow their customers on those tour packages to travel on Singapore Airlines. That will eat too much into their margins.”

Choi closed his eyes, lowered his head, and folded his arms. A minute later, he looked up at us and said: “Maybe we should try our luck on the Singapore Airlines website directly.”

With a few typing on the keyboard and a few clicks on the mouse, Nicky launched the Singapore Airlines website. He keyed in our traveling dates, the number of passengers and clicked on search. About a minute later, a table appeared with several dates, timing and prices on it. There were vacancies on the Singapore Airlines flights.

“Geez, that travel agency guy lied to me!” Nicky was miffed.
“I don’t think he lied to you though,” I said. “I believe that Singapore Airlines has allocated certain number of seats to the different travel agencies in the country and saved some for its direct sales on the Internet.”

With the website, we were glad that we could choose our departing and returning dates and times comfortably, without having the travel agency staff to put us on hold while he did the checking.

“Let’s take this one that departs Singapore at 11:45p.m. on the previous night and arrives at Seoul at 6:55p.m.,” Kah Leng suggested. “In that case, we won’t waste our day time flying.”
“But that’s the most expensive flight!” Nicky objected. “Look! If we were to take this night flight, it’ll amount to S$1,200 per person. However, if we were to take the morning eight o’clock flight instead, it’ll only cost us S$750!”
“Wow, that’s a five hundred dollars difference!” Choi exclaimed.
“Yah, I think it is not worth it as well,” I commented. “I could give up the five hours lead time to save five hundred dollars. And anyway, the problem about night flight is that, even if you could reach the destination earlier, you’ll most probably be too exhausted from the night flight to enjoy yourself in the morning.”
“Oh… I thought we could save some time,” Kah Leng mused.
“Hey girl, relax! We’re not on the Amazing Race! We’re there to rest and relax! Why push yourself so hard?” Nicky patted Kah Leng’s shoulder.
“Okay, let’s take the eight o’clock morning flight then,” Kah Leng gave in.

“Then how about the returning flight? Which timing should we take?” Nicky asked.
“Take the latest one!” Kah Leng insisted. “If I can’t reach there early, I want to leave there late!”
“Hahaha… Okay, I’ll tick the latest one at 16:20pm,” said Nicky as he continued to book the tickets.

Finally, we had booked our air tickets to Seoul successfully. It was then the time to talk about accommodation.

“Hey guys, let me tell you this before you book our hotels,” said Kah Leng. “I don’t like small hotel rooms. There was this once when I was given this free hotel stay in Hong Kong when I booked a flight that had a stopover in Hong Kong. That hotel was so small that I could not breathe in it! Just a few steps from the room door, my feet could touch the bed! There was no wardrobe to put my luggage and there was only this fourteen inches television that was built into the wall! And that’s not the worst part. The bathroom was so small that I could barely turn when I showered! Choi, I think you’ll be stuck in that bathroom cum toilet for sure!”
“And I assume that you checked out of the hotel immediately by the next morning?” I asked.
“Of course! I gave up the one more night free stay in that hotel and checked into Ritz Carlton!” said the exasperated Kah Leng.

Kah Leng had this obsession over Ritz Carlton hotels. Her preferred hotel to stay in every city was Ritz Carlton. She had stayed at the Ritz Carlton hotels at Philadelphia, Dubai, Hong Kong, Bali, Kuala Lumpur and of course Singapore. When she was in London for holidays last year, she wanted to stay at The Ritz. However she was forced to give it up because the room cost four hundred pounds, which is equivalent to over a thousand Singapore dollars.

“By the way, I heard that there’s a Ritz Carlton hotel in Seoul,” said Kah Leng.
“Yah, there is. And my friend had stayed there previously,” said Choi. “But the room rate is rather expensive. It’s about four hundred Singapore dollars for a night.”
“That sounds reasonable to me,” said Kah Leng.

The other four of us stared at Kah Leng with our eyes wide opened.

“Erm… Kah Leng, we’re not really thinking of a luxurious tour in South Korea,” I said.
“Oh…”
“We’re actually thinking of staying in some three or at most, four stars hotels,” Nicky added.
“Oh…”
“But don’t worry though. We’ll try to get those whose rooms are not as small as the one that freaked you out in Hong Kong, okay?” I tried to console her.

Kah Leng pondered upon our words for a while, and then smiled and said: “It is okay, guys. I’ll stay in Ritz Carlton Seoul when I tour Seoul again with my boy friend in the future.”

Nicky picked up the phone again and dialed the number of the second travel agency on the list. That agency was known to have pretty good deals for accommodations.

“Welcome to CZ Travel. Please press one for packaged tours, two for free and easy and three for ticketing.”

Since there was no option for hotels booking, Nicky pressed three.

“Please press one for U.S., two for Europe, three for China and four for South East Asia.”

Nicky pressed four.

“Hello, how can I help you?”
“Hi, I would like to enquire on South Korea hotels, in Seoul.”
“Okay, hold on a minute.”

While on hold, Nicky heard some typing on the background noise, followed by the lady on the phone asking somebody about hotels in South Korea.

“Which day do you want to check in?”
“On the thirty-first of December.”
“On which day do you want to check out?”
“On the third of January.”
“How many rooms?”
“Two double occupancies”
“Okay, hold on a minute.”

A few minutes later, the lady returned to the phone and said: “Sorry but there’s no more vacancy at the Seoul hotels in that period.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chapter 26: Good Feng Shui for Offices

I was having a very bad morning. Some critical issues with a new FX fund had surfaced suddenly and its launch date was around the corner. I had been on four conference calls with the Singapore, Thailand, South Korea and China country managers respectively for the past four hours, repeating the same things over and over again.

Just when I put back my headset and took a first sip on my already cold coffee, my MSN Messenger popped out. I had got a message from Nicky.

“hey, ur product got prob? u sounded exasperated on ur conf calls”
“yeh, got surprises at the wrong timing.”
“do u think everybody has been rather unlucky lately?”
“is it?”
“ur product got prob, Choi’s report was handed up late”
“erm… Choi’s reports are always handed up late”
“ok, Dawn’s project got stuck”
“Nicky, Dawn’s project is never destined to be successful”
“Sally has been scolded by Ju for a few times in a row this month”
“it’s their event period. It’s normal”
“ok ,Rose has been falling sick”
“hmm… true. She has been having migraine quite frequently these days”
“and my shares has been dropping”
“so wat are u trying to tell me?”
“i think our office’s Feng Shui has got prob”
“are u sure it’s our office’s Feng Shui?”
“yeh. I tell u wat. I’ll bring my stuffs here tomoro”
“wat stuffs?”
“my Feng Shui tools. I need to take a look at our office’s Feng Shui and see wat’s wrong”

Geez, to Nicky, all misfortunes lead to Feng Shui. But he was not being too paranoid though. It was true that all of us had been down on our luck lately. Nothing seemed to work and anything that could go wrong went wrong. Maybe it was really the Feng Shui.

As promised, Nicky appeared with an ancient Chinese Feng Shui compass, a.k.a. Luo Pan, in the office on the following morning. It was a small compass embedded in a huge movable copper disc with lots of Chinese writings on it and this whole thing was then housed in a red square box. There was even a tiltmeter with a liquid bubble inside a chamber that indicated if the compass was tilted. The only time I had seen this kind of compass was in a Chinese movie about zombies and Taoists.

Nicky walked to our office door, turned and tilted his compass then noted down his reading on a piece of paper. He then did the same action at the other three corners and the center of the area that belonged to our department.

“Dude, I was right,” Nicky looked at me solemnly. “Our office has got bad Feng Shui.”
“Then why did it only affect us at the end of the year?” I was not convinced.
“Because then it was not time yet. But now, my friend, the bad luck has finally surfaced. We need to counter it or else more misfortune will be expected.”

If I was not standing in front of Nicky and looking at him, I would have thought that I heard those words from a Feng Shui master who was trying to tell me that we needed to buy some thousands dollars Feng Shui cures to end our bad luck.

“And what are we supposed to do, our dear Feng Shui Master?” I teased.
“Our office door is facing the West, which is where the Grand Duke Jupiter is situated this year. That is very bad because all the movements at the door have created too much noise.”
“Oh, so this Mr. Grand Duke Jupiter is a quiet guy like KZ, huh?”
“Beng! In Feng Shui, Grand Duke Jupiter is very well respected. And misfortunes will fall upon us if we create noises at where he is seated!”
“Okay, so what’s the cure?”
“We need to buy a Pi Xiu,” Nicky continued. “This Pi Xiu should be placed at our door and facing West where the Grand Duke Jupiter is. It’ll then get rid of the bad luck due to the conflict.”

Oh, so that guy with a horn, a face that looks like a mix between a lion and a dog, hoofs at its feet, two little wings and a tail would scare that cantankerous and sour old soul away.

“Will this Pi Xiu stops people from treating me as a receptionist as well?” asked Ju who sat at the desk nearest to the door. “I’m so sick of having delivery men and guests asking me where is who seated, where is the wash room and where is the exit.”
“Erm… I’m not sure about this part.” Nicky admitted. “But I know that it’s bad Feng Shui to sit facing the office door directly. It means that you’ll be out of the company soon.”
“Out of the company? Does it mean that some headhunters will look for me and some companies will offer me higher pay?”
“Err… I’m not sure if it can be translated to that.”

“Nicky! Maybe you should look at my Feng Shui problem as well!” shouted Sally.
“You’re not under any exposed overhead beam, and your facing direction seems okay. What’s wrong?” asked the puzzled Nicky.
“It is bad Feng Shui to face the copier machine right?”
“What?”
“You know, everybody who discovers that the copier machine is out of paper will turn around and ask me whether I have any papers,” Sally complained. “There was once, this guy even told me that the copier machine was spoilt and he just stood in front of me and expected me to do something about it! What did he expect? Do I look like I can repair a copier machine?”
“Erm… Sally, I’m afraid I can’t help you on this. The Feng Shui books did not mention anything about what to do when you sit facing a copier machine.”

Before Sally could ask him anything, Nicky hastily walked to the back of our department area. He looked at the vertical blinds covering the windows then turned to me and said: “I’ve found another problem.”

“What’s that?”
“The three of us, you, me and Choi, we are seated with our backs to the windows. That’s bad Feng Shui!”
“Because there’s another disagreeable guy situated there?”
“No! In Feng Shui, if you are seated with you back to a door or a window, it means you won’t have the support from your bosses and colleagues in work. No wonder Rose rejected my last analysis report!”
“Err… Nicky, I heard that she rejected that report because you made some mistakes in some of your charts.”
“Never mind, I know how to cure this,” Nicky ignored my comments and continued. “We can place a Dragon Tortoise here to give us the support that we lack of.”
“Dude, is it a dragon or a tortoise?”
“A Dragon Tortoise.”
“Yah, so which one? Dragon or tortoise?”
“A Dragon Tortoise! A Dragon Tortoise is a Feng Shui animal with the head of a dragon and the body of a tortoise!” explained Nicky, slightly miffed with me.

Nicky then turned and pushed away the vertical blinds as he opened one of the windows. He stuck his head out for a few minutes, looking up and down, left and right, then came back in and closed the window.

“I don’t really see any sharp corners or protruding parts outside our office windows.”
“Well, that’s great then.”
“But in order to play safe, I think we’d better increase the yang chi in our office.”

I had heard this from a television program before. People who believe in Feng Shui believe that our environment is consisted of yang chi, which is positive aura, and yin chi, which is negative aura. When the yang chi is weaker than the yin chi in an environment, the people staying in that environment will be very unlucky. And when the yin chi in an environment is too strong, that place could be haunted. I wondered if that was the reason for Sally’s spiritual experience.

“How are you going to increase the yang chi in the office?” I asked Nicky.
“There are these five-coin amulets that are made of five I-Ching coins tied together with a red string. I’ll get five of these amulets and we can hang four in the four corners and hang the fifth one in the center.”

“Hey bro! Since you’re at it, is there anything you can do to the Feng Shui here to make our wealth luck stronger so that we can win some lottery?” Choi asked.
“Hmm… actually there might be a way.”

Nicky walked back to his table and took out several Feng Shui books from his document bag. One by one, he flipped and read through some pages. A couple of minutes later, he put down a book and walked over to Choi’s desk.

“Choi, there is one way to enhance our wealth luck. But it’s a bit troublesome though.”
“Well, if I can win the first price for lottery, I don’t really mind doing something that is troublesome,” Choi grinned.
“We need to take a porcelain bowl, put in five I-Ching coins and fill it with water. Then we need to place this bowl of coins and water at the corner diagonally to our office door.”
“That doesn’t sound too troublesome.”
“We need to change the water every week.”
“That’s not a problem at all. I can do it,” Choi committed.
“And we can’t use normal tap water.”
“Then what? Use mineral water?”

Nicky took a breath, and then said: “We need water from the heaven, from the sky to be specific. We need to collect rain water to fill the bowl.”

Choi raised an eyebrow and said: “Forget it. It’s really too troublesome.”

During lunch time, I accompanied Nicky to the Feng Shui shop that he usually patron at The Bencoolen to get the Pi Xiu, Dragon Tortoise and five-coin amulets. After we left the shop, Nicky mentioned that we needed to bless our Feng Shui cures in the Kwan Im Tong Hood Che Temple.

“How do we bless these stuffs?” I asked.
“Oh, just circle the cures three times around the main joss-sticks urn in the temple and ask the Goddess of Mercy for her blessings,” Nicky explained.
“Okay, I presume that you’re doing that because you’re a Buddhist. But Dawn is a Christian. Will these animals and amulets protect her as well?”
“Err… I’m not sure. It’s not stated in the books.”

After we returned to the office, we could not place those Feng Shui cures yet. Nicky said that the only auspicious hour for that day was at five o’clock and we could only place those cures by then.

Finally at five minutes past five, Nicky placed the Pi Xiu and Dragon Tortoise at their respective places while Choi and I helped to hang the coin amulets on the lamp holders. Dawn watched in amaze as we hung the coin amulets.

“Hey, what are you guys doing?” Dawn finally could not control her curiosity and asked.
“We’re hanging some Feng Shui coin amulets,” I replied the obvious.
“What is that amulet for? What is it supposed to do?”
“Err… bring us good luck.”
“Okay… these coins look pretty eerie. Will it affect me negatively? I’m pregnant, you know?”
“Erm… I’m not very sure actually. Why don’t you ask Nicky? It’s his idea.”

Immediately, Dawn walked over to Nicky who had just finished adjusting the Pi Xiu’s position and asked him a series of questions. Nicky frowned as he tried to answer her questions and I could see that he needed to read more Feng Shui books.

Actually, maybe Nicky should find a Feng Shui cure that could stop Dawn from bothering him.

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

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 Caf√© 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 Torne√§lven 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.”
“Oh…”
“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.