Thursday, 26 December 2013

Findings in a valley

The Chua Village Temple at Jalan Kebaya, near Ghim Moh. By the way, if you'd watched the Ch 8 serial (9pm) on 16 Jan, you would have seen the wayang stage belonging to this temple, shown in a flashback featuring a puppeteer. You don't get to see such stages anymore in Singapore. 
SORRY, I borrowed this headline from a very old feature from Reader's Digest. But for me, this temple was indeed "findings in a valley".

Thanks to an article on the Chua Village Temple in "Historic Chinese Architecture in Singapore", I went in search of this temple in Pandan Valley on Christmas Day. According to the article, this temple was built in 1919, founded by a Chua Hu Fan who came to Singapore in 1904 from Anxi Province. The Chua clan built the small temple on a hill, worshiping the Tong Kong Zhen Ren deity. The Chua settlement was at Ulu Pandan, a swamp then known as Tua Kang Lai. But they turned the land into plantations and farms, making a living from the soil. The plots of land owned by the Chuas were eventually sold to developers in the 1970s. The temple however remained intact today at Jalan Kebaya (near Holland Grove and  Mt Sinai Road) surrounded by modern architecture. The Chuas had decided not to release the land the temple was sitting on.

The wooden wayang stage which has seen performances by Sin Sai Hong (oldest Hokkien opera troupe in Singapore) and  the Kim Eng Teochew Opera..
The peaceful temple nestles among modern condos and residential houses.

When I visited the temple on Christmas morning,  I found a spotlessly white Mercedes parked in its vicinity. There was soft chatter and laughter coming from the basement of the stage (one of the few surviving Chinese wayang stages in Singapore). Some laundry was hanging out to dry.  Maybe the caretaker lives there. A very good caretaker as the place was spic and span. Tiny roses and other plants decorated a very tidy row of flower bed.

I threw a dollar coin into a disused well in front of the stage before entering the main temple (encouraged by the many coins lying at the bottom). The  "pop, pop, pop" sound from a tennis game at the condominium next door seemed a bit incongruous -- not something one would usually hear near a temple. (But I like hearing the pop, pop, pop which reminded me of my own tennis days eons ago.)

I am not sure whether the altar featured the original deities brought over from Anxi. But it was said that besides the statue of Tong Kong Zhen Ren (which has healing power and powerful fengshui knowledge), there were four more deities -- Kuan Kong, Fan Hou Xian Shi, Fu Xi and Shen Nong. I think there is a dangki (temple medium)  this temple as I saw a trigram and other paraphernalia associated with one.

A bit of broken tile left behind in the garden of the temple.

Home for Christmas

Ho, ho, ho... let's go kai, kai!
WOOF! Hey, gate's open! Time for a roam old man, said the frisky black and white Shetland to the other -- an old "one-quarter" Alsatian -- totally black, half blind. They padded through the half-open gate which had just admitted an unwitting father-in-law. In a matter of seconds, they were out into the cool night air of Christmas. And were gone, as noiseless as a gentle breeze. (The Shetland is a regular visitor. The one-quarter Alsatian is a resident.)

So, after salad, after a heated squabble between the sister and brother, there was a little voice from the maid that went, "Sir, dogs missing."  The father-in-law (of the sister) had just finished saying grace, thanking God for the food, and the family reunion (but stopped short at praying for peace on earth and goodwill to all man as that would be alluding too much to the squabble which had just taken place).

Dad (of the squabbling sister and brother) was the first one to stand up and ran out. I was surprised at his speed and alacrity. The sister and her husband followed. The brother, who was still sulking, stayed behind with the mother and the father-in-law. I will keep the gates and door open for the dogs to come home, said the mother. They will come home, she assured us, as we also disappeared into the night.

Where could two dogs go? Lots of places. There was a dog run nearby, and another park frequented by joggers, brisk walkers and their dogs. But to get to these two places, they would have to cross roads, which they have not proven to be good at. Driving in two separate cars, we cruised around the area. No one seemed to have seen two dogs happily trotting with their tongues lolling out (which was my mental picture of them as I drove along, eyes peeled for black moving shadows.) The black one has been known for its escapades. But as he doesn't see very well these days, doesn't usually go very far -- usually to the junction where the lane meets the main road -- where he would just stand and sniff the air and then go home.

Dad said the young one must have goaded the elderly one on. Muttering "triple sian" (a Hokkien word he likes to use to describe a dire situation), we drove back to the canal where we had seen a group of workers gathered at the edge. It's the Shetland, he said, and hopped out of the car even before I could stop completely. Once again, I marvelled at his alacrity. I got down the car too, thinking the Shetland had fallen into the canal and the group of workers were trying to fish him out.

My brother returned, shaking his head. He had seen something white bobbing in the canal and thought it was the dog. The workers were doing some work at the canal, that's all.

We parked and started combing the park. I stopped to ask a jogger whether she had seen two dogs. Her eyes lighted up in hope for me -- she had seen two black dogs, just, she said. But we had also seen those two black knights -- one of them looked like our one-quarter Alsatian. But they were not our dogs. (The two black knights are actually quite well known in the area -- they are always together and trotting like they mean business -- the park patrol.) If the Shetland and the one-quarter Alsatian had met these two, they would be dead meat.

After speaking to the jogger, I lost sight of Dad. No use calling him as he has left his handphone at home. (Nobody brought their handphones along actually. Only me.)

A vast expanse of darkness in front -- and nobody in sight. The park had become deserted. Where could Dad have gone? We had a few missing dog episodes before. Each time he had rushed out to look, running too hard and getting himself all breathless and pale. Did he faint somewhere in the park?

Then I received another call from Mum, the harbinger of good news.. All have come home for Christmas, she said. Peace on earth, goodwill to all man... and dogs.

The Shetland had cleverly led the one-quarter Alsatian back to his own home (the sister and her husband's place) -- a little distance away actually -- quite a long walk for dogs. They had found him running around at their block, while the other dog was busy marking territory. They were asking the guard whether he had seen any dogs, but the guard said he hadn't. Just then, the sister caught a glimpse of something furry behind a pillar.

We had drove by twice, but each time we said no point going into the condo as the dogs couldn't be so clever. Well, never under estimate a Shetland.

The "one-quarter alsatian" moved on at the ripe old age of 16 on 5 Sept 2014. He will always be remembered by me as joyfully sniffing the air at the road junction.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Circus, anyone?

THESE days, I am not at all interested in the circus. I really can't see the great excitement in watching people doing all sorts of daredevil acts, or making animals perform.

As a kid, though the thought of running away to join a circus had never occurred to me, I was really excited to go to a circus with my family. A troupe from China came down rather often, those days when I was small -- around the 60s. I think one of the troupes was called 大天球 (Big Sky Globe). There were flying trapezes, tigers, etc too. But the "star" performance was that of motorcycles ascending a huge cage shaped like a globe, in a spiral manner. Three or four riders would be defying gravity and roaring round at such a speed-- enough to give the audience vertigo. I always feared that one of them would fall and knock off the others in their spiralling.

There was noise enough to beat the F1. But as a kid, I loved the deafening roar. There must have been a "tiger show" as well. I vaguely remember a poor tiger obeying its master to either sit on a stool or beg or its hind legs at the crack of the whip. My sympathy was for the tiger more than for the trainer who may be eaten alive any moment.

I do remember the flying trapezes. Of all the other circus acts besides the crazy motorcycles, it was the flying trapeze I loved most. It may not be by chance that I sewed myself a blouse with two long pointed ends that reminded one of my colleagues of the costume worn by the flyers. For a while, my nickname was "flying trapeze" as I "floated" around the office in my "trapeze" outfit.

In Cantonese, flying trapeze is known as "hoong joong fei yen" (person in mid air). There was a story being broadcast on the radio around the time called "Lai Gwai Juei Hoong" (Lady Ghost Pursues Murderer). Being still rather mesmerized  by the flying trapeze act, we nicknamed this programme "Lai Jun Fei Hoong" which translated into Cantonese means "Milk Bottle in Mid Air" -- which sounded more interesting than its original title.

Stories on the radio were Class Acts for the family in those days -- especially thrillers like Milk Bottle in Mid Air. Milk Bottle was aired around 11am I think, and I remember wishing it was broadcast in the night instead, so that I didn't have to worry about going to school later. Then there was the 6.30pm one when Lay Da Sor came on air with his renditions of Gu Long's sword fighting tales.

Between catching up with these stories and going to the circus, I would give the circus a miss.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The smallest and the best -- a trivial discussion

My friends celebrated my birthday recently with a large durian puree cake. I don't mind its size at all this time round as it was me who cooked lunch -- and one dish only. Everyone had stomach left for huge slices!
WHAT would it be for you -- the "smallest and the best" or "the biggest and the best"?

In terms of preference, how many "smallest and the best" things are there in this world as compared to "biggest and the best" things?

Well, not many. But there are some. For example, I know I would prefer the "smallest and the best" birthday cake. The cake is usually served only after a huge birthday meal. So, only the best will do (to entice everyone to eat it) -- and only the smallest will do (to prevent waste). Just taking a morsel of the best birthday cake in the world will suffice. I certainly don't want a huge slice after a 10-course meal -- no matter how great its reputation is. I will even reject a durian souffle, so there.

I would also love to own a piece of jade that is the "smallest and the best" -- how interesting it would be to wear it round your neck. Just a speck, but hey, it is the world's best jade.

I would also prefer the smallest and the best of pearls -- something you can keep in a pouch, to take out to admire now and then. I can imagine the headlines (if this pearl exists and gets into the news) -- Smallest in the world but most luminous... See the world in this grain of pearl.

(What can you do with a monstrosity of a pearl, even though it is the best?)

I would also prefer to own the world's smallest but best flower -- as compared to the world's biggest and best flower. How delicate, and being the world's best flower, it would have a unique scent that's powerful and subtle at the same time. (That's my definition of "best" anyway, for flowers.)

Actually, I can't think of any more "smallest but best" things. Smallest but best eyes? Not really -- though there are lots of appealing small eyes around, big eyes are considered more attractive. Anime characters all have saucer-like eyes. And consider the fashion trend now for "youthful" eyebags -- small eyes sporting such eyebags would be a bad combination.

OK, how about the smallest and the best mobile phone? That would work for me, because I don't do a lot of things on my handphone except to text and make calls. If I could own one that can be worn as a ring, that would be superb! If I could just speak and the message transformed into a text message by this little gadget. And if I could just tap it to receive or make calls (maybe tap once to make calls, and tap twice to receive). Perfect! But generally, people play games on them, do all sorts of things, including surfing, and finding directions. Guess they won't want a handphone that's the size of a speck.

TV screens -- the biggest and the best of course. And the biggest and the best view (say of a mountain, a beach, a river... The biggest and the best waterfall (best here meaning, the most splendid, most majestic).

Diamonds? The biggest and the best of course.

Hmm, but if only a birthday cake is served and nothing else, please give me the biggest slice. And the best, you know, the part with all goodies, where the durian puree cream is the thickest?

Idiot-proof recipe for chicken rice

I used chicken wings instead of drumsticks last Sunday.
No need to chop into smaller bits.
 THERE was a TV series on Robin Hood shown sometime in the 60s during my childhood. Little John and Robin Hood apparently eat nothing but wild fowls (shot with arrows of course) roasted  over a fire in the forest. When cooked, they would each tear a drumstick and eat heartily while making plans to rescue Miriam.

It would be good too, for the audience to be similarly engaged, not in rescuing Maid Miriam, but in partaking that drumstick while watching TV.

So, here's an idiot-proof recipe to cook chicken rice using chicken drumstick (or any parts of the chicken you like best) instead of a whole chicken which you would need to chop up after cooking (could be messy with a lot of bits splattering around -- besides, you need a cleaver).

Get two drumsticks (thawed frozen ones from Cold Storage should be fine). Once home, wash and dry them, then rub over with salt till the skin is smooth and clean. Cook them in a pot of water. Throw in spring onions (tied into a bundle), garlic cloves, and lots of ginger slices. Bring to boil, then simmer till the drumsticks are cooked. This will probably take about half to an hour. Remove drumsticks and place them into a basin filled with ice. Count up to 10 (moderate speed) and remove. Drizzle some sesame oil over the drumsticks.

Now, fry some shallots, ginger slices and garlics (smashed) in a bit of oil till fragrant. Add two cups (or more depending on the number of people willing to eat your chicken rice) of rice grains. Fry for a little while and then transfer into rice cooker. Add enough stock which you have used to poach the chicken, to cook the rice.

Serve with a dip -- chilli sauce. lime juice and grated ginger (available especially for chicken rice, packaged in small bottles). Add thick black soya sauce if you like.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Idiot-proof recipe for ginger milk curd

QUITE a few have blogged about this milk curd. I remember mum used to try making this as well and though it was a nice thick drink, we never quite achieved a "curd".

So, here's my recipe for a cup of ginger milk yogurt. Pour about a cup of milk into saucepan and bring to boil. Once you see it bubbling, reduce heat immediately. Keep stirring for a few seconds then remove from heat. Tilt saucepan from side to side and stir at the same time to cool milk down.

Before you boil the milk, you need to prepare ginger juice. One easy way to do this is to cut a knob of ginger into slices and then into small bits.  Place bits into a sieve. Put the sieve into a cup and use a spoon or grinder to press onto the ginger bits till juice is extracted. (Do not add any water).

Now, the interesting part. Pour the slightly cooled milk into the cup, through the sieve. Mash the ginger bits some more to extract the last drop of juice. Remove sieve, and let the milk cool a little. You will find that the milk have formed into a curd.

Sprinkle some brown sugar on top. Slurp.

Idiot-proof recipe for braised pork belly

NOT difficult, I swear. You can get it right the first time.

I got a recipe from the Internet. It sounded simple already -- but I have modified it and made it even more simple.

Go get 600 gms of pork belly meat (to serve about 3 to 4 persons).  Ask the butcher to cut them into thick slices for you.

Wash the meat, dry with napkins, and put them to steam. Once cooked (when the meat changed colour) take them out to cool. Cut them into smaller slices if you wish.

Then comes the very interesting part. Melt about three tablespoons of rock sugar in the pan. Stir till all the sugar has melted and syrup has turned a pale yellow. This means that it is about to caramelise. Throw in the pork slices. Continue to cook and stir till the liquid thickens and becomes really sticky. OK, stop!

That's how you smash a garlic to release its flavour.
Wash the pan. Heat oil and throw in a few garlic cloves. (No need to de-skin, but just slightly smash them so that the cloves release their flavour. You can use the pounder or bang the palm of your hand on the spatula over the garlics.)

Pour in black soya sauce -- about two tablespoons. Pour in light soya sauce, about three tablespoons. Add a teaspoon of Worcester sauce. Mix in 5 Spice Powder (just a sprinkle will do as only a subtle flavour is required.)

Next, pour in the meat in its syrup. Pour in a bit more water so that the meat is covered. Bring to boil, then lower heat and let the whole thing simmer. About two hours later, voila -- braised belly pork! As a final touch, place a sprig of Chinese parsley on the dish.

Serve meat with steamed buns instead of rice for a change.

Instead of pork belly, you can use chicken wings. I like to use the middle portions. No need to steam first. Just poach them in boiling water till they are slightly cooked before you do the rock sugar syrup part. Don't pour away the water after poaching, but add it later to the black sauce.

Next, I am going to try the lazy man's chicken rice.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

'Hare-ly" encounters

COME to think of it, my dad was an animal lover. Besides birds, he kept some hares in a wooden hatch in the garden. We were very small then, and he told us not to go near the hatch and most of all, not to put our hands into the hatch or we might get bitten.

Only my eldest brother was allowed to go near the hatch as it was his job to feed them. I remember vaguely that it was some scraps and vegetables on a metal plate which my brother pushed through the hatch door every evening. The door would then be latched back firmly and with much alacrity. I would watch this from a safe distance, in the darkness.

We often wondered why dad kept such fierce pets. How the hares came to be owned by us was a mystery. Since I wasn't allow to go near those wild things, I never really knew them. I think they gradually died from old age or sickness and dad decided to replace the hares with rabbits. We went to "Bird Street" again (which specialised in birds but also sold rabbits) -- sometimes to buy a white bunny with red eyes which the shopkeeper would put into a paper bag for us to bring home. And sometimes it would be a tiny brown bunny. We preferred bunnies as they were cuter than adults. But they were very fragile and had very short lifespan.

Dad thought it might be the damp from the soil in the garden, or could it be too many carrots in their diet? In the end, we gave up. No more rabbits.

I did try another time to keep a rabbit as pet. When I was a librarian with the Marine Parade Branch Library, there was a pet shop nearby and I decided to take home a brown bunny. Strangely enough, it grew quite wild in appearance -- and in behaviour. It would growl at me when I tried to stroke it. I thought it was because he didn't like being caged up. So he was given free roam of the house. My friend came one day and it ran under the bed. When he tried to attract it by drumming his finger against the bed's frame, the wild thing snapped his finger.

At my wits end, I took it to SPCA. "I think it is a hare, quite wild," I told SPCA. They were nice about it and accepted it along with my token of some money.

After note:
Two papaya trees were planted on the spot in the garden where the rabbit hatch once stood. They bore fruits frequently. My mum's explanation was that the hare's dung acted as good fertilizers.

All fluffed up, with one leg raised

MY dad was fond of birds. Maybe that's why I was named "swallow". Our old house at Serangoon Gardens always had a few birds around -- when Dad was around.

The garden itself was heavily visited by little brown sparrows. My dad would tell me why they were called "wor cheok jay" ('little field birds' in Cantonese) as back in China, these birds would be pecking at grains in the fields.

There were a few other species which visited us -- I don't know what they were but they had yellow backside. My second brother and I actually took care of a baby (of the yellow backside species) which we found lying on the grass in the garden. We put it in a shoe box and fed it strips of bread soaked in milk. My brother said the strips would look like worms and so they would go down well with the baby bird. We left it in the garden in the day -- but the mother bird did not come back for it. We took it into the house in the evenings for fear that stray cats might make a meal out of it.  It grew up quite strong and flew away happily one day.

My dad liked to shop for birds. We started with two budgies -- two green -- then one green and one blue -- then two yellow. He would bring me along when he went to this street that has a row of bird shops down one side of its length. It was a very noisy street -- as you can imagine. I have the impression that it was either Rochor Road or Sungei Road. My dad nicknamed the road "cheok jai gai" ("bird street" in Cantonese). I remember a river which flowed behind the row of shops. They sold all your needs for birds -- cages, containers for water and bird seeds, and cakes (these were small round cakes made of green beans which you stick on the side of the cage for the birds to peck at.)

The bird shop owners would suggest all kinds of birds for dad. We did try out one or two other colourful species besides the budgies. Their diet was fruit, the bird keeper told us, not seeds. But these fruit eaters had such big splatters of watery droppings that we eventually went back to budgies.

Budgies' droppings are manageable. Little greenish black and white things. And they are such darlings especially when they preen each other's head.  A few owners have told me how affectionate their budgies were. But those we had in our childhood were not particularly so.

I used to poke them gently with my pencil when they were all fluffed out in their sleep with one leg up. This would cause them to go all a-fluttered. Making grumpy noises, they would compose themselves and would gradually lift one leg up to sleep again.

One afternoon, perhaps they were all fluffed up as usual, someone came in through the gate and snatched them -- cage and all. My eldest brother gave chase on his bike. Pale and breathless, he returned triumphant with the bird cage.

The pair of love birds none the worse for their adventure but were excited for quite a while, their feathers tight around their bodies. It wasn't some time before they settled down and were all fluffed up again, with one leg raised.

How long does a memory remain in a bird brain, I wonder?

Tuesday, 22 October 2013


IT all started when I got a set of kitchen utensils from mum. There was a red pot with lid, made of metal. It was big in my eyes -- at least two inch in diameter. I can't really remember the other "crockery" that came with the set -- there was an accompanying ladle, I guess. I can still remember the smell of the metal pot when it was new. (I guess it may be the smell of the paint, but there was a distinct scent.)

But it was this red pot that stays in my memory. You can pack some clay into it, pretend to put the whole thing in the oven to bake -- and then turn it out -- and you have a great cake. Or you could put water in it, put some bits of grass in it, pound with a stick till the water turned a little greenish -- and your "soup" is ready.

At times, this mixture could be "wine" which you pour into vessels (tiny vase-like things made of china which were really for Dad's caged birds). You cover the opening of the vessels with a little piece of paper or cloth with a string tied round the neck so that they look like miniature vessels of wine that roadside inns always sold to thirsty swordsmen or swordswomen in Chinese movies.

You can sit the whole afternoon at the doorstep of the house, preparing all sorts of fine cuisine with this one little pot.  Occasionally, you may need to go up the mountains to look for herbs (again inspired by those Cantonese swordfighting movies). So you go to the garden and pluck various grass and weeds growing there. These transformed to ginseng or lingzhi that only grow on precarious mountain tops. Or that one precious flower that would only bloom on a snowy mountain. It could cure all ills.

When my friends came over, we even tried to boil a few grains of rice in the pot. Mum put a stop to that. One shouldn't waste rice, she said. (But once, she let us fill our five stones with rice grains mixed with green beans. Just this once, she said -- and if we ever run out of rice in the house we can unpick the five stones and cook those rice grains.)

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Pampered prisoners?

I am awake now, so where's my breakfast? Followers of the TV serial, Empresses in the Palace may agree that he looks somewhat like the Emperor. The eye expression, no?  起来吧, he will say to his subjects as they come and pay their respect.
Afternoon nap, after lunch.
THEY are given the world's best privileges, with carte blanche to go anywhere in the house.

They occupy the centre position of your bed, or the best soft spot on your favourite sofa. Anywhere their mood takes them -- the bathroom sink is a good idea, or by the kitchen sink (which incidentally have a good view of the neighbourhood), or on top of the washing machine, or it could even be deep in your closet, among clean towels.

They are served breakfast even before you brush your teeth. Home from work already? Please see to dinner. And it better be a good dinner.

Yet, the mad dash for freedom. That fur ball of a cat would squeeze through your legs the moment you open the door. For sure.

It's the same with dogs, I guess. At 18, he is on the doddering side. But like an arrow it is gone, the moment the gate is open a crack -- out onto the roads before you can say "Coalie" -- his name -- my brother's dog.

Morning nap, after breakfast.
Many a times, I drove by my brother's place and would find it nosing around at the road junction, occasionally sniffing the air.

The happiest of dogs.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The coffee boy, the foreman, and the showflat receptionist

AH Mong was the boy who served coffee at the worksite canteen when Hin Seng Garden was being built in the 70s. I was working temporarily as a receptionist with the show flat there, with another girl. Our job as receptionist was to take potential buyers round the house (that was when I learnt what a mezzanine floor was, conduits and cornices) and to take down their particulars if they were interested.

Off Ayer Rajah Road, it was a long way from where I was living in Serangoon Gardens. But as I started work at 10am, it wasn't too bad.

Ah Mong was very happy to have company. It probably was boring for him at the worksite. He would only be busy during breakfast and lunch when the workmen would trudge to the wooden shack for their breaks.
He was always delighted to see us. My co-worker was a very pretty girl. She was fair, slim and tall, her long hair tied into a neat bun. Ah Mong was infatuated with her.

So was the foreman.  Ever morning, the foreman would come to the show flat to pour over his plans and drawings, now and then speaking decisively into his walkie-talkie. He had this air of importance each time he came to the show flat. Sometimes Ah Mong would follow him, but usually, he would come on his own, leaving his muddy boots at the door.

I had this brilliant idea to tie up his bootlaces so that his two boots were inseparable. Muttering curses as he tried to separate his boots, he pretended to scold the innocent Ah Mong, though he knew that the culprit was us. When this happened too many times, he gave up all pretence of civility and scolded us. But I pushed my friend forward and said it was her idea. He smiled happily.

So that was how their friendship started. My friend left the worksite earlier as her course in business administration had started. Ah Mong was extremely sad, and made her a last cup of coffee.

I too left the show flat after a while, to take up a new "appointment". Not too long later, I received an invitation from my friend  to celebrate her birthday at her house. I went of course, and there, helping her to light up her birthday cake was the foreman.

The year after, I received an invitation to their wedding.

Friday, 4 October 2013

In and out the cherry blossoms or 'stream of consciousness'

HAVE you ever wondered why certain things just get stuck in your mind and refuse to go? Certain snatches of memory, rather inconsequential, would play in your mind for no rhyme of reason -- and then exit only to return again later.

Maybe if I share some with you, I'd be able to make them go into my archives, to be retrieved only at will, and not flash around at random, which can be quite irritating. Here goes:

  • The coloured twirls you see in glass marbles. They are among the most beautiful things in the world. The mustard yellow twirls in a glass marble about the diameter of a Singapore 50 cent coin. Or the red one in a 10 cent size.
  • Close-up of a Flame of the Forest bark growing in the compound of Zion Church along Tavistock Avenue -- I was on a bus to work and I zoomed into a portion of the trunk and obtained a good mental image of the tree bark.
  • Close-up of the top of a bus shelter as I passed by on a double decker -- strewn with dried leaves and twigs and rubbish like drink cartons -- along with an old rusty nail.
  • A girl carrying some grocery and walking along a narrow trail along the side of grass slope along Pasir Panjang Road, slightly after Haw Par Villa (towards Clementi Road) on a sunny afternoon. (That grass slope is no longer around. A new condo is being built there.)
  • I was bothered by my cold sore and thinking how ugly I must have looked (I was on the bus again, of course). Then I told myself to remember this girl standing in front of me, in her beige dress, holding on to the iron pole in the crowded bus -- because, I told myself, a few days later I would recall this mental image -- but my cold sore would be gone by then. This thought was comforting.
  • Once, when I was in primary school, I told my friend.that one can never escape anything by committing suicide because one would just enter the consciousness of someone else and start feeling all over again.
  • Again in primary school (primary 5, I think), Mr Gomez posed us this question: "What do plants do in the day?" When no one answered, he pressed his thumb on the blackboard, leaving wet marks... "Transpiration, transpiration, class..." he said. 
  • And my Pre-U teacher (Science teacher if I remember rightly) once told us how a woman always thought she had swallowed a snake. The doctor made her vomit into a pail and somehow managed to throw in a snake. The woman was cured of her obsession. (I think the teacher was trying to make a point about psychology.)
  • Strangely, after A-Levels, I wrote in to an architecture firm  for the position of a clerk. The boss replied that he thinks I would do better if I further my studies and perhaps do psychology. I have sent out numerous applications but he was the only one who replied. I am still wondering why he suggested psychology. Based on what I have written? My letter was a simple standard letter that started with "With reference to your advertisement..." Was it my photograph that I sent with the letter -- rather chubby faced then. But it was very kind of him to have bothered replying me, and with advice even.
  • Two mynahs talking to each other at the bus terminal of Serangoon Gardens and me thinking about what I have written to my English Lit lecturer in Australia -- that the question "So what?" takes the joy out of every (if not most) thing. Sometimes we should just... "Just do it!"
  • And one more for the road... there were seven orange stripes on my cat's head.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


Athens (1989) , a city I always wanted to visit.
SOLITAIRE.  This word puts the romance and glamour into doing things alone. Maybe it's the way Andy William sang it. Maybe it is associated with diamonds.

I have been playing Solitaire since I was a kid. There was a card game my mum taught me. It is a game of chance -- you win if you deal yourself the right cards and end up with 4 Aces. I would use this game as a kind of oracle. If I get 4 Aces, it would mean that I pass maths... Or I would get the doll I have been badgering Dad to buy.

I grew up enjoying doing things on my own -- going for shows, drives, bus rides, eating out, shopping. I am my own best company.

So it was that I set out to Athens one September (off peak season for tourists in Greece) in 1989 -- on my own. Always wanted to see those ruins and majestic columns, and those postcard white domes against a brilliant blue. There was a monastery I wanted to see at Thessaloniki -- so I took the night train from Athens in the south to northern Greece -- and missed some of the best Grecian scenery -- so I read when I returned to Singapore. (I have this habit of reading travel books only after each time I've returned from a country.)

But the trip to Greece was one of the best I ever had... I walked all the way from Delphi to Itea, a little sleepy seaside town that appeared suddenly after I have walked past rows after rows of olive trees. Before the olive plantations, hills kept me company -- foothills which shot up vertically from each side of the road. (They must have cut a road through the hills.) Occasionally a herd of goats would trot out from somewhere among the rocks, their bells tinkling, and their heads following me as I trudged on.

Visited the town called Drama of course -- I just had to, because of the very name. People there were friendly but not overly so as to ask you all sort of questions. Just a smile or two when you visited the shops, which was how I liked it (I hated the way salesgirls greet customers in a singsong manner in some chains in Singapore). As I walked along the streets in the afternoon, I thought I could well be back in Singapore -- now and then, some stray notes from the piano as a child practised, would drift out from among the bungalows. A very homely feel about this sleepy residential neighbourhood.

The hotels, no matter how cheap, would have marble for counters. Often, they were way too high for me -- I always had to stand on tiptoes to present my passport and sign whatever there was to sign. The cinemas seemed to always show RA stuff, so there went my hope of seeing a show on my own in Greece. Roadside stalls selling piping hot food seemed delicious as I walked along the chilly streets of Athens in the early dawn, just back from the night train ride. But I needed rest badly and trudged on to find a reasonably cheap hotel.

Solitaire -- flight to Delhi

It was this solo flight to Delhi which led me to think that travelling alone is not all that bad. This was in 1983. My friend had gone ahead of me to India and after my uni exams, I was to meet him in Delhi. Took a flight by Aeroflot. My friend had requested me to bring what appeared to me to be very strange things to sell in India. These items, he wrote with much confidence, would fetch good money. And what were these items? Watches (any brand) and Johnny Walker (must be black label). Got the watches from a shop at North Bridge Road. Got the whisky at the Duty Free Emporium at the airport. Thus armed, I went on my first flight and on Aeroflot, no less.

The Russian air hostesses were not exceedingly charming, but I liked their brisk and no nonsense attitude. The passenger next to me (who was also bound for India I presume, though the flight had a stop-over somewhere in Middle East, couldn't remember where) had begun to kick out a big fuss just when we were about to take off. He insisted that the two bottles of whisky that I had in a paper bag below my seat, was his. A burly air-hostess appeared and told him to shut up, and that the whiskies were mine.

I don't know to this day how she came to the right conclusion, but I am forever grateful. Anyway, after this uproar, I mentally congratulated my friend that he had hit upon the right ware to sell in India -- it being so coveted.

Reached Delhi airport in the middle of the night -- and no friend waiting at the airport as promised. What to do? Look for a public telephone. There they were, all lined up in a straight row. Strange, all the dials have missing bits -- so that certain numbers became 'undialable'.

I ran from booth to booth -- trailed by a long line of kids draped in long torn blankets that trailed behind them as they ran after me. I remembered what my friends told me -- don't give money to any of them or you will find yourself mobbed by beggars!

Then one of them signed that he will help me dial the number. I was desperate so I showed him the scrap of paper with the number of the tourist inn my friend was staying in. Magically, the boy managed to dial the number even when the dial was broken in many places. Mission Possible and I managed to speak to a very sleepy friend. He mumbled that I should take a cab to the inn and hung up. I was very grateful to the little boy and gave him some rupees. He smiled. They stood in a row and waved me goodbye as I went in search of a cab.

I then met another angel -- a Sikh and a fellow Singaporean.

"Looking for a cab?" a voice suddenly sounded in the darkness outside the airport. We hopped onto a tut-tut which sped to my destination. Both the tut-tut driver and my new found friend helped me make enough ruckus to wake the dead -- and the caretaker of the inn. The Sikh waited for me to go into the gate and onto this long path that led to the inn before speeding off in the tut-tut.

How can I forget such an exciting and heart- warming travelling experience?

After note: We managed to sell the two bottles of Johnny Walker to a tut-tut driver. But I had to bring home the two Titoni watches. No takers.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Dishes my mum cooked: A tribute

MY favourite was chicken wings stewed in black sauce. The sauce can be made in advance -- black soya sauce, dried orange peels, and I can't remember what else, went into the pot. The sauce could then be put into the fridge where it would gel into a kind of jelly. The next time mum wanted to stew chicken wings, the whole pot would come out from the fridge. Put in chicken wings and put to simmer. Add some chestnuts too if you wish. Hey presto -- TV dinner ready. Best thing in life? Watch Bugs Bunny Show on Saturday evenings while chewing and sucking chicken bones. Rice mixed with the black sauce would be good enough actually.

The sauce could be used for stewing belly pork too. Mum said the longer you keep the sauce, the tastier it would get -- after so many meat have left their flavours in it.

Another mum's specialty was simple but tasted great. Minced pork stir-fried with tomato cubes and spring onions. Yet another was sliced bean curds (toufu gan) stirred fried with pork slices, tomatoes and spring onions. In those days (60s & 70s), the toufu gan had bright orange coloured skin. But these days, they are just white. Green peas fried with minced pork, sometimes as an omelette, was another of my favourite.

Her pork chops were great too. You use the back of the knife to tenderise the meat slices. Then you coat each chop with bread crumbs before frying. Sometimes, she would make a sweet-sour sauce from tomato ketchup to pour over the pork chops.

Vegetables? They were mainly choi sum (we are Cantonese) or chye sim (Hokkien) stir-fried plain. Garlics were smashed and fried till fragrant with a slice of ginger or two. Then add the cut choi sum. (Pluck them into smaller bits instead of cutting with the knife would make them tastier, said Mum). Sprinkle salt. Pour in a bit of water. Cover pan with lid. Simmer for a while and the dish is ready.

Steamed minced meat with cuttle fish bits or tung choi (preserved vegetables) and salted fish. Ahhhh!

Steamed chicken with slices of ginger. Yummy.

Soups? Toufu cubes boiled with  tomatoes and salted vegetables, sometimes with meat balls added. Lotus roots with pork ribs. Loved biting into the lotus roots and seeing their silk strands pulled -- like spider webs. Also common were pork ribs boiled with "wai san gay zee" soup. Not sure what wai san ( a kind of white tree bark) is in English. But gay zee is wolfberries in English.

Once in a blue moon, there would be pig brain soup. I loved to prepare the brain -- you need to pick the veins out by using a satay stick.

When Christmas comes around, mum would roast a chicken. Very easy. Rub light soya sauce over whole chicken. A bit of dark soya sauce too. Add Chinese wine. Finally, glaze with honey. Leave it to roast in the oven. Heavenly!

The roast chicken made a re-appearance for Chinese New Year -- with more dishes added, like steamed prawns (with shells intact), sweet-sour pork, and a soup. If no roast chicken, the soup could be rather elaborate -- chicken stuffed with gingko nuts and lotus seeds, then stitched up before throwing into the pot of water with a few slices of ginger.

And steamed lap cheongs (Chinese sausage) of course! A bit of the oil mixed with white rice -- and just a slice of lap cheong. Awesome.


Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Conjuring: 3.07

At my rented room in Dairy Farm. The little clock
that went awry is next to the table lamp.
INDEED, it was rather a scary movie. But I think I was more scared by the reviews in the papers -- and by the accounts of the people making the movie -- than by the actual movie.

Anyway, the movie reminded me of the time when I was staying at a rented room at Dairy Farm. There was nothing eerie about the house at all. It was a bright, cheery house. My landlord was a very nice chap who had decorated it with pride -- giving it a contemporary feel. Nothing went slam in the night, or loud banging at the door... or anything. Least of all, a hidden cellar.

But one morning, I woke up to find that my little alarm clock had stopped. I couldn't remember the time it stopped, but definitely not at 3.07 (not that I could remember, and I do hope it wasn't 3.07!). I thought the battery had gone and reminded myself to get new ones. I came home only to remember that I haven't gotten new batteries.

But there wasn't any need for them after all. I looked in surprise at that tiny clock which showed precisely the same time as my watch. I held it against my ear, and I could hear its faint ticks. Certainly even if it decided to start ticking again (maybe its mechanism got jammed for a while) the time would be off.

I asked my landlord whether he did anything to my clock. He said he didn't know I had an alarm clock in the first place. Why should I need an alarm clock when his cat acted as one? (It would climb up the cupboard near my bed and then jumped onto my chest, at 6am everyday.)

When I told him how the clock had "righted" itself and with such precision, he said this gave him goose pimples. There was only my landlord, myself and a cat living in the house.

Anyway, the clock continued as though it had never stopped a moment. It didn't need a change of battery at all -- till some years later -- a clear case of flat batteries.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Parry Secondary School episodes

The "pirate" taxi that took us to school and back. As many as six (sometimes more) could pack into it as there
 would be a wooden bench placed on the back seat.
Wow, an old classmate just sent me this picture of her
report book. She kept all her report books right up till A levels!
The colour of the Parryan report book is the colour of our uniform.
THERE are so many thoughts (and effort) that parents put in these days, so that their children attend the school of their choice.

In my time, my mum had no time to work this out. She left it pretty much to me. So when I suggested to her that I would like to try for Methodist Girls' Secondary School (the one at Paya Lebar), she was fine. She heard that it was a good school. I thought it was a pretty good school myself, because it had a dash of difference -- a white belt! And the school building looked grand to me -- almost like the illustrations I saw in many of Enid Blyton's books -- those series on Malory Towers, Naughtiest Girl...

And think how near it was to Kok Wah Theatre! (The school used to be at Boundary Road, just behind the 5th Mile Market or the Lim Tua Tow Market).

But of course, I couldn't get in. My second choice was Parry Secondary School. I knew nothing about this school except that my best friend put it down as her second choice as well. It was a new school -- with a normal and technical stream. I had vision of myself going into technical stream, doing carpentry or working on machines or whatever. Sounded exciting! But mum wouldn't hear of it. So, I took the normal subjects -- Geography, Literature, Maths, General Science, Biology, Chinese... and Domestic Science. Come to think of it, there were music classes as well.

The uniform, by the way, was considered "smart" at the time. School tie was compulsory even if you were not a prefect. You then pin the school badge on the tie. White shirt, with light green skirt that had two inverted pleats in front. Also compulsory to wear a belt made from the same cloth as the skirt. They were made by a tailor who came down to the school. Each of us had to queue up to be measured. For some reason, my skirt was unbelievably big and long... Had to punch extra hole in the belt to hold up the skirt and had to hem up the skirt several folds before it became the right length.

By no means should you starch the skirt because the cloth was already so stiff. With starching, you would need to place the skirt on the floor, and then hop into it. In later years, I heard, they allowed the skirt to be made of lighter cotton that had a mix of rayon, so that ironing would be a breeze.

The school song started with: "We are Parryans young and strong! Onward and fo-or-ward, we will pro-o-ceed!...."

Domestic Science

Our paos were hard
as rock.
For some reason, everyone agreed that the fiercest teachers were found in DS (short for Domestic Science). They were snappy and impatient. I would have enjoyed the subject very much (especially the cooking sessions) if not for those fierce teachers.

We were paired up for cookery class. My most memorable session was making char siew pao (steamed buns with meat fillings). We had to put the finished products on the rack to show the teacher when the cooking time's up. Just as the teacher walked past our table, our two char siew paus fell from the tray and were hard enough to roll for a distance of two tables. The teacher wasn't impressed, but everyone was rolling over with laughter.

My partner wasn't pleased with me. Everybody's egg custard came out of the mould nicely and could be taken home in a lunch box. Ours needed to be poured into a flask. But I must say it didn't taste too bad as a drink.


There is a town in S America that is called Cheeky Tomato. Today, I can't remember its real name. But everyone in class knew where this town was on the map because of its catchy name. (OK, I just did a Google, and it is Chuiquicamata, the biggest open pit copper mine in the world, north of Chile.)

Gobi Desert was a really famous desert -- among our class -- as this was the nickname for a teacher whose balding head was shaped like this desert.

Sahara Desert was the nickname of another teacher who lived nearby to our school. Her garden was like a desert with only a few thorny shrubs.


Enjoyed lab sessions quite a bit because we can see colours changing in test tubes -- and yes, precipitation! And it was always exciting to light the Bunsen burner and use our platinum wire -- we felt so much like real scientists. But we did have some problem with our pendulum experiment as our bob attached to the spring seemed rather uncontrollable. It wasn't a bob for nothing as it kept bobbing. But wasn't it supposed to swing like a pendulum?

My experiment using blocks of glass to show refraction was pretty successful, I must say.

Then there was mention of cations in one of the lessons -- and my friend next to me on the work bench started asking me whether there were "poot onions" as well. There was a popular girl guide song called "Onion Poot" (I think). We giggled so much that the science teacher asked us "Why so happy?" Yes, he was a very mild-tempered man.


Our Chinese teacher was not particularly inspiring. But occasionally he would stray from making us read from the text book one by one -- and talked about other things like what one must do during job interviews. "Now, sometimes, the interviewer would put a fallen chair in your path as you walk into the interview room. Remember to pick up the chair and put it out of harm's way. This is a test that interviewers use to see your initiative, your reactions," he said during one lesson.

I always thought about this when I went for job interviews later in life. But so far, there have been no fallen chairs to pick up.

Music Classes

The lady teaching us music was a Mrs Chin, and she had only cheongsams in her wardrobe. She looked splendid in cheongsam as she was slim, but had an hour-glass shape. Besides teaching us rhythm and the value of each different music note, we were to sing our hearts out. Songs sung then included Dayong Sampan, Planting Rice, Bengawan Solo, and a Chinese song that went "Lu li, lu li, lu li wan shan pao..." Which translated, means, "Work hard, work hard, upwards we climb..." I really liked this song because it has lines like: "I will not even wipe my sweat as I climb... My toes cling to the rocks... My hands to the tendrils, step by step, I reach the top!" Nothing like barefoot climbing to reach the summit.

There were singing tests too. We had to go to the front of the class to sing a song of our choice. I chose "Bengawan Solo" because I liked its melody. But this was a mistake. "Then running onwards all surrounded..." can be rather high, if you'd started on a high note to begin with. So this line was hardly audible when I sang it. Fail! Should have sung "Planting Rice".

Siok Chew, leader of the Swimming and Dracula Gang

After school, to Dra's castle, hey!
Where are you, the irrepressible Siok Choo? She was the one said what's on her mind, irregardless of who was around. She's the one who would round us up to go for Dracula shows after school. So we sent our bags home through the pirate taxis (contracted by our parents, much like the school buses of today) -- while we gallivanted to town, usually Capitol, to watch Dracula movies. (Mum would be terribly upset to find only my bag arriving home, with a note from the driver to say that the owner of the bag had gone to town.)

She would be the gungho one who made sure we were at Farrer Park Swimming pool on Friday mornings for our swimming lessons -- even when it was raining. She would be the one to organise swimming sessions during public holiday. Although I always got a running nose after each session, I enjoyed them tremendously -- all of us slept on the bus after our swimming as we got very tired. Those were some of the best sleeps I ever had!

Romance in a pirate taxi

How many students and their school bags were able to squeeze into a pirate taxi? Many -- five at least. There would be an "upper" row -- a narrow wooden bench resting on the hind seat where the smaller kids would sit. School bags were stuffed into the boot. If not enough space, the softer bags (those made from cloth) would rest on our laps. Sometimes, the driver was committed to send more than five to school -- especially when one or two were missed out in his earlier rounds and ended up in our round. (There was when the wooden bench really came in useful).

Couldn't really remember the make of this car, but was it an Austin something? (Not a Mini for sure). The driver was a vegetable seller by morning and a driver by afternoon. He had a huge scar on his thigh due to his vegetable chopper accidentally slipping off his hand one day. But he drove with alacrity and precision, taking corners with such F1 skills that would have sent us flying around in the car if it wasn't so packed..

I was usually the first one to be picked up at Brockhampton Drive. The next one would be a boy from St Gabriel's at Tavistock Ave. Then, there would be a Convent girl (with long pigtails) from Huddington Ave. Then, my classmate from Farleigh Ave. The last one was a very big and tall girl (our senior, Sec 4) from Lichfield Ave.

The St Gabriel boy and the Convent girl were soon an item -- they had secret signals, smiles, for conversation in the car. He was a real gentlemanly boy and would jump down to open the door for her (only for her). He must be Sec One  then (as we were in Sec Two and he seemed smaller than us). Soon we found them holding hands and dating at Chomp Chomp! Hey, even in those days, they started young :)

On Saturdays, should we have CCA, there would be no pirate taxi. I would take Bus No. 72 and hopped dow after the junction of Serangoon Garden Way and Yio Chu Kang Road, and then took the long walk in through Philips Ave, past the Japanese Cemetery and then Parry Avenue. I was with the Girl Guides uniform group -- not much marching required unless near National Day.

Girl Guides

Reef knot (the teddy bear's bow)-- a lesson learnt\
 from being a Girl Guide at Parry Sec School
Girl Guides were not known for their marching (when I was a Girl Guide). Especially when you had to turned your head to respectfully look at the VIPs while continuing marching. Somehow, turning the head left or right while marching ahead set the rhythm off, as well as the ability to march straight.

The one who gave the command was Bridget Han. With a thick fringe, she's the daintiest of us, with beautiful bouncy long hair, usually tied up into a swinging pony tail at the back, but let loose when not in uniform).

Her Girl Guide uniform was a wee bit above the length limitation. Her lips when not giving marching commands, were curled up slightly at the corners, with a little pout in the middle. Needless to say, the boys from the other uniformed groups were very much attracted to her.

We had numerous camp fires where we tried to build fires. The fun part was being the torch bearer. There would be four such bearers. And when the campfire was declared open, each would come in from four directions -- North, South, East West -- to light the bonfire.

Besides chants (or rather 'raps' but we didn't have 'raps' back in those days) such as Flee Fly Mosquitoes, Onion Poot, we also sang songs such as On Top of Old Smokey, Tom Dooley... We also sang some pop songs of the era which included Patches (a very sad song of a girl who took her own life because of parental objection to her boyfriend... she was found floating down the river). And Top of the World by the Carpenters, of course!

We had all sorts of excursions to ulu parts of Singapore. Mrs Toh who was also our Biology teacher, was the Guide Mistress. She took us to kampungs at Punggol, Pasir Ris and Changi. Trudging through mangrove swamps, we eventually reached pockets of beach where we had to build a fire and cook. No one really dared to eat anything we cooked. The fire we started usually wasn't strong enough to cook anything. We would later eat sandwiches which we had the soundness of mind to bring (Be Prepared, so goes the motto).

One yucky incident I remembered very well was what greeted me when I poured into the sand, the rice water used for washing the grains. This excited some huge worms who reared their ugly heads from the sand. Some even popped up and showed their full length. I screamed for Mrs Toh who calmly told me "Huh? Just sand worms, Tien. Can be used for fishing. Very good."

Monday, 26 August 2013

Cats, I have a few...

CATS I have a few, perhaps too few to mention...compared to some of my friends. One owns 12 in her apartment... but I think it's 10 by now. I do understand the laden heart that comes with each departure. But like all my big time cat owner friends, I never regretted having those stubborn creatures lord over me.

I have about three cats spread out through my life. When I was a kid, I lured a shy, scaredy cat into the garden by using a toy cat. This toy cat meowed when you turn it upside down. The real cat got drawn to the toy cat and came closer and closer and soon it came through the gate, and I was able to stroke it. I was able to feed it scrap I hoarded from the table. One day, it brought along its kid. My parents agreed to keep them. But trouble started when the mother and child explored my neighbour's backyard, rather regularly. They were not fond of cats.

Dad was keen to have goodwill prevail and decided that mother and child should be sent to the SPCA. The washerwoman offered to help to catch the cats. The mother, wild with fright, fled -- to the neighbour's. I caught it, with tears in my eyes. It bit my thumb in its fright but I calmed her down. She trusted me. And I put it into the sack, along with the kitten. It was a very solemn and silent ride in the taxi to SPCA, with a moving sack at our feet.

Life moved on... The air was a little bit nippy as Christmas was round the corner. I was sitting at my usual favourite spot, at the doorstep of my house, doing nothing in particular, when I heard faint meowing. It came from the covered drain in front of our house. I peered in, and two bright eyes stared back. Bread soaked in milk were dangled into the drain. They were gone in an instant.

Needless to say, the kitten made its way into the house. It grew into a handsome cat who loved to roam the streets outside our house. (It wasn't interested in my neighbour's backyard, thank goodness. Anyway, by then, Dad had mended the gap in the backyard fence).

You could summon it back by just knocking its feeding bowl against the floor. Clink, clink, and in seconds, it would come dashing in, knocking its head against the window grills in its hurry to jump into the house.

One morning, just before going to school, I clinked the bowl. But no cat. I finally found it lying in the big drain outside our house. Its mouth was open, and it was drooling. I carried it back to the house, knowing that something was amiss.

There was no bleeding. But it must be injured internally. Mum insisted that I leave for school or I would be late. When I returned from school, mum told me that the cat had died and she had asked the garbage man to take away the carcass.

"But are you sure Meow Meow was dead? What happened if it wasn't really dead?" I kept asking.

Mum sounded impatient and told me not to ask anymore. I now understood that her heart was just as heavy, though then, I was very unhappy and thought she took the chance to get rid of the cat, the worst scenario being that it was dumped without given a fighting chance to live. But now, I knew for sure that mum wouldn't do a thing like that.

I didn't keep any more cat since then, till about 15 years ago. (My landlord's cat didn't count, though I was considered a part owner.) The little kitten was found by my colleague near the MRT station at Clementi. Again, it was around Christmas that I took it home. It was so small, I had to keep the toilet bowl cover down just in case it would clamber up, fall in and and drown.

It grew into a 7kg ball of fur and lived for a full 13 years. Many vets had some difficulty pulling it out of the laundry basket that I would keep it in when I took it for its jabs and checkup. Do you think he is overweight, and should I put him on a diet, I usually asked the vet in attendance. Hmmm, if it likes to eat, let it eat, replied this vet, who was a little on the stout side himself.

I love all vets. They are truly dedicated and really nice. But I am forever grateful to Dr Jean Paul Ly. Not only did he lift heavyweight Meow Meow the Second up with ease, he also kissed it on the forehead and called him Sweetie. Wow, I felt better already. Dr Ly also successfully removed the cancerous growth at his lower jaw.

After the operation, I was able to take Meow Meow home. He was in good spirit, ate and drank a bit, turned over on his back into his favourite position (tummy up) on my bed -- and purred.

But two days later, he was coughing and his nose was running badly.Back to the vet. Back home with a packet of medicine which MM  vomited all out. Food was refused. Called the vet. Dr Ly was back in Australia. The other vet told me to prepare for the worst but Dr Ly would be in the next morning and if I wanted, I could bring the cat in.

"If you and Meow Meow are not giving up, I will not either!" Dr Ly said in a very firm voice -- and swing into action. To me, that was the most consoling words I have ever heard from anyone.

I had to leave MM at the vet for a few days. I could almost drive to the vet on auto mode. When I last saw it, the nurse had made it a little hot water bottle from rubber gloves. MM was breathing normally, and seemed comfortable. So I felt better and made my way home.

But that night, my mobile rang at slightly over midnight. The good fight was over.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Happy times at the libraries

Me at Marine Parade Library, wearing a mask which I
taught the kids to make for Halloween.
PERHAPS I should have stayed on as a Library Officer. It wasn't too bad.

This was my second job after graduating from the university -- after a short spell with World Scientific. It wasn't my first choice. My first choice was to be an Archives Officer. I was disappointed. I had so wanted to interview people and record their history. I do so want to learn how to restore old documents... Nosing round old, crumbling buildings and doing paper rubbing on artifacts and sculptures. Why oh why, didn't the National Archives take me in?

Oh well. So I started work at the Ang Mo Kio (AMK) Library which was closest to where I was staying at Serangoon Gardens. When I bought my bike, I was even able to cycle to work (through Cheng San Road, then carry the bike up a flight of steps and hitting Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. )

I later got to work at Marine Parade Branch Library -- a happy time for me too as the library attendants there were a happy bunch and fun. Besides other things, I was in charge of the Christmas tree. I was rather proud of introducing the method of storing it in its entirety -- lights, baubles, cotton wool snow and all -- so that next Christmas, all you have to do is to shake it out from its plastic bag, and ta-rum!
Me hosting a quiz for the kids at MPBL.

On my first day at AMK, the senior librarian took me round the place and made me do a conducted tour for her immediately after that, saying that was the fastest way to familiarise myself. She gave a tight-lipped smile that was almost a sneer after I had stumbled through the tour. But she seemed satisfied.

She was very trendy -- usually in pointed high heels -- and usually red. Reed thin, she had long, permed hair.She carried herself really well, not at all your idea of a frumpy, frazzled librarian. But she wasn't one who would want to be chummy with you. She was rather officious and distant from everyone.

I was great pals with a fellow librarian. I liked him the moment I saw him gliding into the office on a skateboard. He passed me some really great tips on getting round the idiosyncrasies of our colleagues. He was going out with a Muslim library attendant whom he later married. We all went to the wedding. She was a real sweetie.

The Chief Librarian at AMK Library was Mrs Mavis Richards. She had a passion for books, with a great passion to share that passion with children and teenagers. She encouraged me to do reviews for children books and was always dumping books upon books on my table for me to read -- and review. I admired her spirit. She was a no-nonsense boss, but warm -- and fair.

Every library officer had to do story telling. For me, those sessions always turned out a shouting match. How do you read and make yourself heard above the din? I usually ended playing some kind of games with the kids in the closed room -- with parents pressing their noses onto the small glass panes at the door.

A token story would be read by me (with no one listening) and then it was game time! One of my favourite games (and the kids' too, it seemed) was "Two Little Black Birds". The kids would sing the song "Two little black birds sitting on the wall, one named Peter, one named Paul. Fly away Peter, fly away Paul... Come back Peter, come back Paul."

As the kids sitting on the floor sang, two of them would act the part of Peter and Paul. They perched on two chairs in front, flapping their wings wildly... and hopped down to fly away at the end of the song. Some flew back to the chairs and had to be chased away because there were others queuing up to be Peter and Paul.

Actually Mrs Richards wasn't very keen for games to be played during storytelling sessions. And strange enough, when she told stories, the kids were as silent as could be, listening attentively. Maybe I just did not have the demeanor...and the stature of a librarian.

We also took turns to sit at the duty desk, answering all sorts of queries -- from where the toilets were to where books on China were shelved. You always get a kick out of satisfying someone by giving him exactly what he needed.

However, for me, the evenings could stretch on rather too tediously sometimes, with no interesting requests. It would be a blah evening indeed when even the usual mad caller did not ring in to scold the librarian over some nonsensical issues.

So on such days, just about half an hour before closing time, I would have the library attendants collect "stray" books from the tables and putting them onto trolleys to be shelved -- and I think it was ok for them to do this with some noise too -- a subtle message for everyone to pack up. Some who were sleeping over their books would have to be nudged awake by whispering loudly "closing time!" into their ears.

The last book would return to its rightful shelf at 8.50pm. The lights would be off at 8.55pm. The 2nd last lock would click at 8.56pm. The last shutter and lock slipped into place exactly at 9pm -- and then HOME!

A taste of Estab after A-levels

For whom the bell tolls?
NEARLY everyone I knew, tried to get a job through the PSC (Public Service Commission) after they got their A Levels. That was in the 70's, the era of the "iron rice bowl". There was the bonus to look forward too, the annual increment, the annual leave. There would be courses to attend. There would be bars to cross in the salary scale and if crossed successfully, there would be increment. Everything very structured. That was what my sister-in-law told me. She had just become a "civil servant".

After my interviews at PSC and medical checkup, I was allotted the job as an Executive Officer (EO) with Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). I was EO for Admin & Estab (A&E). The office was a brick cum wooden bungalow next to the canteen (a Nissan hut) at the hospital. A wooden staircase led to all floors at the side of the building. The big boss of this office was the Medical Superintendent. My immediate boss was the HEO (Higher Executive Officer). And his boss was the SEO (Senior Executive Officer) who reported to the Superintendent.

The long office (with wooden floor) had an open-space concept. The HEO took supreme position at one extreme end of the office. He had a huge desk with a glass pane over it. By just glancing up from his work, he was able to get a complete view of the happenings at the office. Seated at one side of the office, one behind the other, were two clerical officers (CO) -- a Mr and Mrs Teo (they were not husband and wife) who were extremely nice to me. They had been working there for eons.

In fact, everybody there seemed to have worked there for eons. There was another lady there who served another department but was somehow parked at our office. Another lady who seemed to be doing some correspondence and communications for the Superintendent, was seated near me. I wasn't quite sure what her main work was but it must be something to do with medical records of airline staff. Huge X-ray films would be delivered to her by a man who apparently looked very much forward to seeing her and would linger around to talk to her after delivery.

This lady was a great communicator. I often heard her calling one Mr Rubello (in an American accent, though I imagined Rubello would be an Italian ) who seemed to be an airline pilot, about his X-Ray. "Hello, Mr R-rrrubello.... How a-rrrre you?" The Superintendent always used her as an example of one who could write good minutes and memos. She was indeed, an extremely efficient lady with great diplomatic skills. Meticulously dressed and made-up, she was my idol.

There were three typists -- two served the entire office and one only typed stuffs for the Superintendent and the one who went "R-rrrubello". This special typist's work station was at the veranda of the bungalow office. I always envied the location of her work station -- and for being so attractive -- she was dating a young doctor whom she met while having lunch at the canteen next door.

I went to work each day dreading my "in-tray". It was piled high with correspondence I could not understand.  Mr Teo with his huge spectacles, would help me clear the tray, explaining each letter and memo. He was so capable and  efficient, I wonder why they needed me. At the end of the day, I was supposed to be supervising him. The logic didn't sound quite right to me. I was only 18 then, and he must be in his 30s at least. How would he feel to be supervised by someone so much younger -- and one who knew nothing?

After some idea of what to do, thanks to Mr Teo, I had to draft replies to memos and letters which needed to be cleared by the HEO. The HEO summoned staff to his desk by pressing a bell and then calling the name.

"Miss Lo!" was called very often -- in a snappy tone that did not augur well for me.

Back to the in-tray. At the top right hand corner of some correspondence, "Action"  with a little arrow next to it, would be scribbled. I would go to Mr Teo for help and he would patiently try to decipher whose scribble it was -- and to figure out the "action" required.

There seemed to be a difference between memos and letters. For letters, you can start with "Dear so and so" But for memos, it would be "Attention (attn): So and so". I didn't quite get the hang of things. It was the first time I heard of "memos". The only officialese I knew then was "To Whom It May Concern" (I learnt this from the movie, 'The King and I'). But I didn't have the chance to use this at TTSH.

So the bell continued to ring intermittently in the office, and the call for "Miss Lo".

The office sprang into life at 8.30am, with the office attendant frantically straightening the cushions on the sofa at the staircase landing and then galloping down to await the arrival of the Superintendent. We would hold our breathe and bend low over our work as THE Superintendent arrived, chauffeured. He would run up the stairs to his office on the top floor, with fair amount of alacrity -- followed by the attendant carrying his briefcase.

Life was a little regimental in this little A&E office. But I did have a lot of fun attending the orientation camp for new civil servants and made some friends working in different ministries. I liked my SEO though, he was a warm-hearted and cheerful Indian who never failed to make me feel at ease each time I was called to his office. His office was a little further down the veranda, separated from the rest of us.

There was a short cut we used to go to Balestier Road to catch the bus home. This was a narrow path which passed a football field. One day, much to my delight, I saw our Superintendent playing football and watched one of his shoes flew into the goal as he kicked the ball. That really made my day!

When I requested for a transfer to RTS (Radio Television Singapore) a few months after I joined TTSH, the Superintendent saw me (guess it was an exit interview of sorts) in his office which was lined with book shelves.  Very seriously, he told me that the job at RTS would probably suit me better. He was right.

Writing memos and official letters is definitely not my cup of tea.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Lunch hour and its pleasures

Beef Rendang
THERE's nothing more pleasurable than lunchtime -- and after that, a spot of shopping. The other day, I had lunch at Jln Rumah Tinggi area, near ABC market. Wow. I thought the place I had lunch the other time at Teban Gardens has some of the most old fashioned shops. But here, at the neighbourhood of Rumah Tinggi, I can find the dimmest-lit shop -- unpolished cement floor and all. Displayed at its dusty glass case at the entrance, were one or two pieces of silver jewelry, three gold chains, earrings and some odd pieces of jade. I guess it is a junk shop, as in the dark interior, many things were stacked up. How absolutely interesting.

The owner was seated deep inside the shop, chatting with her old crony, and couldn't care two hoots what's happening outside. Browse as long as you like -- no one will bother you. My kind of shop.

Yesterday, I lunched at an old shopping centre, Bukit Timah Plaza. The Muslim food at B1 is my favourite. I also liked the Chinese "point-point" stall at the lowest basement, but it is so popular that you won't find seats there at peak lunch time. One of my favourite stalls is the one selling household items on B1 -- from floor mats, towels, bed sheets, brooms, mops, crockery to pyjamas. The clothes shop near the Muslim food stall is also good for bargains -- tank tops from $10 to $13. I will never miss the pet shop on B2. Rabbits seem to be a favourite pet -- because the turnover is always very good. Each time I visited, there are different rabbits.

Lunch hour at Maxwell Road

 Talking about lunch time... After my O levels, I was a temp (daily-rated) with the National Development Building or NDB as it was known then, at Maxwell Road. My job was to calculate floor areas of buildings on proposal plans, under the supervision of a straight-talking nice man with grey hair called Mr Khoo. He was a man of few words but if you could somehow get him talking, he could tell you interesting things -- like how he actually walked to work from Toa Payoh. And when he laughed, he would throw back his head and really laughed, loud and hearty.

Anyway, I was talking about lunch time. Those days, my lunch was a boiled egg I brought from home. But occasionally, I would follow my former school mate, Margaret (she came from a rich family) to lunch. She was also a temp there, but on the 2nd floor. I was on the 5th floor. She would take me to this Hakka (she's a Hakka) yong taufu stall at Cross Street.

Lunch hour at Orchard Road

Then, after my A levels, I was temping as a receptionist at Albert Photo. Mr Albert Lee, the boss, had a photo studio at the basement of Orchard Towers where Peyton Place was (and still is, I believe). He also had a department store upstairs where he sold cameras, lenses, photographic equipment and electronic goods.

I knew Mr Lee as a very kind man -- although he looked a bit stern, with big eyes and a formidable moustache. His hair was jet black, neatly combed back (rather like Mr Tony Tan's). Everyday, he would offer to tabao lunch and would ask me what I like. I would tell him "just an apple". He would always ask, "Are you sure? I buy you chicken rice, ok?" When I insisted on apple, he always brought me the reddest and sweetest of apples.

I will always remember him for his kindness. He would give me "job expansion" thinking I was bored sitting at the studio reception the whole day. Once, he asked me whether I would like to do stocks. Maths was my worst subject, but I didn't have the heart to turn him down. So I helped with stock checking. But the storekeeper was a political woman who didn't like me around. Mr Lee detected the chemistry between me and her wasn't quite right and asked me to help with sales instead. He told me to come up to the sales department anytime I like, if there wasn't anything happening at the studio. I translated it to mean "Come up and have some fun if you are bored downstairs...."

I had a great time at sales. Business was pretty good. Tourists trooped in all times of the day. The register rang non-stop. But alas, I didn't quite get the knack of clanging those registers.  Sometimes, Mr Lee's mother would also come down to the department store and her presence could be felt -- even many cash registers away where I was trying furiously to give the right change to customers.

I think Mr Lee subsequently also agreed that my maths wasn't so great. To continue alleviating my boredom, he sometimes sent me to deliver films to Tanglin Shopping Centre where they had a photo shop.  I certainly enjoyed those "outings".

It was with some sadness that I had to tell Mr Lee that I had a job offer as a reporter with The Citizen. He looked at me with his huge eyes (which I would like to think, showed a bit of disappointment) and said, "So you like to write? Hmmm, if you find you don't like writing after all, you are welcome to come back."

When I was a reporter, I persuaded my editor to let me interview Mr Lee as I knew he owns a rare, antique Hasselblad. It was my excuse for seeing Mr Lee again.  Mr Lee agreed to be interviewed -- after much persuasion.

I wonder how he is now... I certainly hope he is well -- and kept his trademark moustache. I understand he was a self-made man who made a name for himself taking photographs and then expanding to own a chain of photo shops all over Singapore.

Mr Lee, thanks so much for your kindness.