Short Stories

The home on the hill

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I moved into Normanton Park with my parents when I was 6 and had lived there for most of my life. Normanton Park was a sprawling housing estate situated atop a hill beside the Ayer Rajar Expressway that could only be entered and exited through one road.

I always imagined it to be some sort of fortress, which was rather apt given the fact that the place first started out as an exclusive living quarters for military officers.

My father used to be a captain in the army.

Beside my apartment block was a large field that kids used to play football on. I would at times see old men practising their golf strokes, and I could only imagine how difficult it was to retrieve their golf balls as the field was hardly maintained.

Up the slope on one side of the field was a quiet, mysterious road that was fenced off from the rest of the estate. Beside that road was a dense forest that the kids in the estate used to call The Twilight Zone. One of them told me that people who entered the forest would instantly go crazy. Another said that our eyeballs would burst out of their sockets if we raised our voices while in this area. Mr. Abdul, the friendly security guard who I would always greet with a high-five, said that residents living in the three-storey block nearest to the forest could at times hear a faint plodding noise coming from the road.

He said this was the sound of the spirits of Japanese soldiers marching along the road.

I reckoned what Mr. Abdul said was probably the closest to the truth, not because he was an adult but because of a history lesson. During one school excursion to Kent Ridge Park, which happened to be just beside my estate (again, this place was separated by a tall fence crowned with barbed wires) we were told that the park was where a fierce battle between the Malay Regiment and the invading Japanese forces was waged.

When I told my classmates that I lived in the estate beyond the fence, they threw me bewildered looks. They said that my home was where evil lurked. They told me to pray more often so that I don’t get possessed by the vengeful spirits of dead soldiers. They said I should always have the Bible with me. I went to a Methodist school.

Unlike Eunos Crescent, which was bustling till late in the night, Normanton Park was idyllic during the day but somewhat eerie in the evenings. It was never a problem for us kids because we would only play football on the basketball court or at the terribly maintained field till 6.30pm when we had to scurry home for dinner. The only times I had to walk around the estate after sunset was when a neighbour invited us to a barbecue by the small swimming complex, or when my mother took me to the charming little bookstore or supermarket. We never once went anywhere near the Twilight Zone or Kent Ridge Park.

But I always wished we did. Whenever I had to retrieve the football that landed near the slope facing the Twilight Zone, I would pause for a few seconds just to stare into the wilderness, hoping to see something stare back at me. Whenever I had the chance to be out in the estate at night, I’d always look toward this mysterious zone. But I never could see anything. There were no street lamps past that fence and the entire area was nothing more than a patch of blackness. I wondered if the Twilight Zone was indeed filled with such evil that no light can ever penetrate it. I was desperate to find out what the forest had within.

“You can’t go in there. It’s dangerous,” said my father when I asked him to accompany me into the Twilight Zone one evening.

“But if you follow me, it won’t be dangerous. You can protect me,” I retorted.

“Finish your homework and I’ll take you there,” he replied.

I excitedly ran to my room and poured all the books out from my back pack, spending the next 30 minutes solving algebra equations and writing Chinese characters. I was about to put on my socks and sports shoes (in case I needed to outrun the evil Japanese spirits) when my mother came home with bags of groceries.

“I bought ice cream. Do you want to have some while you watch your show?” she asked.

My favourite Chinese drama serial The Last Swordsman, was about to begin. I knew the hero was going to have his arm hacked off today. I needed to find out how on earth that could happen. And I always loved seeing the evil villain, some half-man, half-woman assassin with a whiny voice and long deadly nails, in action. Plus, ice cream.

Okay, forget it, the Twilight Zone can wait.

My first visit to the Twilight Zone took place a week later. It was an unplanned one. Joshua, the annoying kid from Block 4, had called me to meet him at the sheltered walkway near the guard house so that he could show me his new toy rifle. Needless to say, we ended up playing Police and Thief, and no surprises who got to play the latter.

The rules were simple – tag the thief with your hands or with the sponge bullets from the rifle and the policeman wins. As much as I loved playing with toy guns, I always preferred to be the thief. The idea of being hunted excited me, and I had pretty long legs that were great for running.

A head taller, a year older and a lot fatter than I was, Joshua always proclaimed himself as the leader of the bunch of kids we used to play with. He hated losing and never played by the rules. Sometimes he would even introduce stupid ones when he realised he was not going to win.

On this day, he knew he was never going to outrun me, so he pretended to be hurt. As I reached out to help him up, he spun around, accidentally striking me on the face with his arms. The impact sent my spectacles flying to the ground and left me with a bruised cheek.

“I win!” he yelled.

I wiped my tears away and realized they were laced with a thin layer of blood. My cheek was bleeding. I was in pain. But most of all, I was angry. Very angry. I knew he could pin me down and pinch and slap me like how he did to the other kids. I decided not to fight with him.

“You think you’re so great don’t you?” I said.

I could see my nose expand and contract as I heaved with rage. It looked one of those magic mushrooms in Mario Brothers doing a little dance.

“Of course I am. I never lose. I’m older than you. That means I’m better at everything.”

“But are you? I dare you to chase me into the Twilight Zone.”

Joshua squinted at me, contemplating the challenge I had just laid before him.

“Fine. Don’t beg me to save you when the evil spirits appear,” he said.

“I’ll see you there in 10 minutes. I need to use the toilet.”

“Liar. You’re just going to go home and cry yourself to sleep.”

“See you there, fucker,” I said before running home.

That was the first time I used the word “fucker”. It just came out of my mouth. I think it was my uncle who used it during the family gathering a few weeks ago. It felt good saying it. I felt as if a part of my anger had evaporated into thin air just as the word rolled off my tongue.

Upon reaching home, I quickly took off my shoes and headed to the toilet to wash my cheek. Then I darted into my room and grabbed the mini Bible from my bag, stuffing it into the back pocket of my shorts.

This was it, I was going to make Joshua pay.

*******

“You idiot! How are we going to get in?” yelled Joshua.

I never knew the gate to the Twilight Zone was locked. I yanked the rusty padlock, hoping that it would for some reason come apart. It didn’t. I plucked a handful of branches from a nearby bush and slid the slimmest one into the keyhole. I had watched people pick locks on television by jabbing long pins into it. I thought I’d give it a shot.

Maybe I’d get lucky. Maybe I’d just have to wait for another time to get my revenge.

“Seriously? You’re going to open the lock with a stupid branch?” said Joshua.

I ignored him and carried on twisting the branch, silently willing the lock to open, when I was suddenly shoved to the ground.

“That’s for wasting my time!” said Joshua, who was now standing over me with his toy rifle pointed at my face.

His menacing look soon gave way to a grin. Everything suddenly slowed down as I saw the finger on the trigger retract, like a stalk of rose suddenly going limp, making the gesture for death. I closed my eyes and cringed. So much for getting my revenge. I braced myself for pain.

What followed was a loud bang. But it wasn’t that of the rifle. It was too loud to be so.

The padlock had fallen to the ground.

As Joshua turned away from me and stared at the padlock in disbelief, I quickly got on my feet and pushed the gate open. The hinges emitted a nauseating shrill, like deranged witches cheering around a cauldron. I ran as fast as I could, skipping over a small gutter by the side of the road before setting foot into the forest.

When I turned around, all I saw were countless tree trunks, overhanging branches and spider webs. Joshua was nowhere in sight. I stood my ground and slowed my breathing so that I could better hear what was going on around me. I suspected that fat bastard was lurking around, waiting to ambush me. But the only sounds I heard were the leaves rustling in the wind, the mynas squawking and the faint rumble of traffic from the highway.

Satisfied that I wasn’t being followed, I went out in search of something I could bring back as proof of my expedition in The Twilight Zone. I knew my friends would be awed if found out I ventured into this area alone. I knew Joshua would be humiliated when everyone discovered he chickened out.

I spent the next hour exploring the forest, observing spiders weave their webs, centipedes crawling through the carpet of dead leaves and butterflies fluttering past the ethereal slivers of light that shone through the canopy. I even saw a squirrel and had chased it past a small slope when I realized that the light was quickly fading.

I looked at my watch. It was 6.45 pm. I was late for dinner. It was time to head back.

As I turned around to head back down the slope, I started to hear a continuous thud coming from a distance. The hairs at the back of my neck stood. I pulled out the bible from my pocket and clutched it close to my chest. Could this be the spirits of the Japanese soldiers?

The entire forest now was blanketed in a blue hue that seemed to get darker every minute. The noise became more audible as I ran toward home. I froze in my tracks, realising that the spirits might be waiting for me at the gate. I decided to make a dash for it. I might just beat them to it. I have a Bible.

Everything in front of me became a blur. I felt as if I was tossed around like clothes in a washing machine. My right ankle was swollen and I could not bring myself to walk. Each step I took send a jolt to my head and shivers down my spine. It was completely dark now, and the crickets and toads had already began the contest to see who was the loudest. I hated toads. They were slimy, ugly and disgusting. Their croaks always seemed to produce an ominous echo that made me grimace.

But on this today I welcomed the noise, because it seemed to drown out the stomping of the boots.

I tried to crawl but the thorny stems of the mimosa plants on the ground kept pricking me. Exasperated, exhausted, hungry and in pain, I started to sob. I almost let out a yell for help but I instinctively covered my mouth. I didn’t want my eyeballs to pop out. I didn’t know if that would’ve really happened but I didn’t want to take the chance. I couldn’t live without my favourite television shows.

As if things couldn’t get worse, the sound of shoes hitting the ground erupted once more. I held my hand to my mouth, desperate not to make a single sound. A black figure suddenly appeared in the distance. Based on the sound of its footsteps, I could tell it was coming toward me. I closed my eyes and prayed, hoping that this was for some reason all just a dream. The rustling of leaves got louder. The entity was almost upon me.

Will I go insane? Will I be possessed by some demonic force? Will my parents miss me?

“Boy!”

I never knew spirits could talk.

“Hey! Are you okay?”

Perhaps this was a benevolent spirit.

“Hey! I’m talking to you!”

Okay, maybe this wasn’t a spirit after all.

I opened my eyes and saw a pair of boots in front of me. They looked so real. Not spectral or supernatural. I slowly lifted my head and stared the figure in the face.

It was Mr. Abdul.

“What are you doing here?” he said.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I was doing my rounds and noticed that someone had entered this area so I came in to check. The next thing I know I see some stupid kid putting a bicycle lock on the gate!” he exclaimed.

“Can you call for help? You have a walkie talkie right?”

“I left it back at the guard house.”

Mr. Abdul was the skinniest of all the security guards in the estate but he was certainly stronger than he looked. After taking a deep breath, he swooped me up into his arms and carried me to the gate. He peered through the fence to see if anyone was around and sighed.

“Okay boy, I’m going to need you to shout with me. As loud as you can.”

It felt like eternity. I had to stop several times to catch my breath. But after about 10 minutes the other security guard on shift came to our rescue.

Abang! I was wondering where the hell you went!” said Mr. Yang.

“Long story, I’ll tell you later. Can you go get a wire cutter from the store room?” said Mr. Abdul.

Mr. Yang nodded his head a few times before running off.

Mr. Abdul turned to me and shook his head slightly.

“Okay, boy. Now you tell me everything.”

It was 8pm by the time I got home and my parents looked as if they were ready to paint my skin with the bamboo cane when Mr. Abdul showed them the bicycle lock and explained what had happened. But instead of calming down, my father’s eyes became even redder with rage.

“Abdul, where does this Joshua stay?”

As the two men left the house, my father turned around and hissed.

“Go shower. Eat your dinner. And go straight to bed. No TV for you tonight.”

I wasn’t about to argue with him.

The next afternoon, after I had alighted from the school bus, Mr. Abdul walked up to me and checked my bandaged ankle.

“Doesn’t look too serious. It should be good as new in no time,” he said.

I smiled and thanked him for saving me.

“Well your dad sure has got quite a temper. He made quite a scene last night,” said Mr. Abdul.

Apparently my father had confronted Joshua father’s rather politely, but the latter had vehemently denied that his son had anything to do with the incident, even after Mr. Abdul testified that it was indeed Joshua who shackled the gate. This sent my father into a rage and he crashed his palm so forcefully onto a cabinet that its top panel collapsed, sending the vase that was sitting on it crashing to the ground.

“Anyway, I’m sure Joshua is getting punished like he deserved. I would definitely rotan him until he mabok if he was my son!”

I nodded, with a grin.

“I cannot believe he actually punched your face and stomped on your ankle. Anyway you take this as a lesson as well. Assaulting people is a crime. The police can arrest you for such things!” said Mr. Abdul as he waved goodbye.

I did get my revenge after all.

And I didn’t even lift a finger to do so.

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Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Smoking kills

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The one thing from my childhood I remember the best is the smells.

In the mornings, the scent of freshly baked bread from the confectionery store across the road would assail my nose when I was waiting for the school bus. In the afternoons, it was the smell of food from the hawker center, in particular, the sweet scent of fried carrot cake, the kind doused with a saccharine black sauce.

At another corner of the neighbourhood it was the aroma of spices that came from a shop selling flaky, triangular curry puffs. In the evenings, the neighbourhood was always filled with the smell of home-cooked food and burning joss sticks.

Every day around the time my favourite Aksi Mat Yoyo variety show was screened, Grandpa would plant three joss sticks in this bronze container that hung outside the window of the living room. I was always fascinated with this container – it looked as if two mythical creatures were attempting to charge out on either ends before its heads were fossilised by a sudden downpour of rapidly cooling lava.

When Grandpa was done with this, he would plant more joss sticks into another container in the cabinet above the television that also housed some sort of deity. Then, without fail, I would hear him light up a cigarette in his room. Around this time, Grandma would be nearly done with her cooking. We would know because she always yelled for Grandpa to set the table.

The tantalising scent of sesame oil, the aromatic but pungent smell of sambal belachan, the dense and slightly acrid smell of incense and the strangely comforting odour of cigarette smoke would then begin their dance, each twirling around one another as they vied for my attention.

I learned to associate this smorgasbord of smells with happiness. It meant that the day was winding down. It meant that night was about to fall. And all the fun things usually happened at night, like the free mobile clinic that my Grandparents used to take me to all the time. I used to suffer from asthma.

I found great joy in stomping on the narrow metal steps that led up to the entrance of the white medical trailer, as if I was adding drum beats to the droning buzz of the nearby diesel generator. Inside, I revelled at the sight of the countless medication bottles that came in all sorts of colours.

I also found the smell of medication very calming. It made me feel safe. It made me feel that everything was going to be alright. Well, at least that was what Grandma kept telling me.

“Sir, are you still smoking in the house?” asked the doctor, a diminutive Chinese man who had spectacles so large and thick it seemed like he was wearing goggles.

“I know you are. I can smell it from here,” he continued, without looking at Grandpa.

The doctor’s eyes were magnified by the lenses, which reminded me of those weird mirrors I’d come across at the monthly fun fair in the open field. I giggled to myself but ended up in a coughing fit.

“Second-hand smoke is not good for your grandchild, especially since he has asthma,” said the doctor, who was busy scribbling words onto a small white card.

Grandpa did not say a word. He just nodded.

“And you should quit. Smoking kills, you know?”

Grandpa and I left the trailer shortly after with a small plastic bag containing a bottle of cough syrup and slender tubes of black liquid made from medicinal herbs. On the way home, we bumped into Grandma, who had just finished perming her hair at the salon two streets down. She looked like Ronald McDonald, though I never did dare to tell her that.

“So what did the doctor say?” asked Grandma.

“Take the medicine on time. Quit smoking.”

“Not like you’re ever going to quit.”

He just shrugged his shoulders.

Grandpa was a man of few words. My interactions with him were generally non-verbal. I liked it when he lifted me up from behind and placed my two feet onto his before walking around the house. I felt like I was character from Exosquad and he was my exo-skeleton. Together, we were invincible. He also liked to pass me phone cards that could be used at pay phones, knowing how I was utterly fascinated by his massive collection, stored on the shelves hidden behind the mirror at the dressing table.

Once every few days, I’d swing open this mirror and take these cards out to admire all the different designs. I would also pull a cigarette out from his golden packet of Dunhill Red and run it along my nose.

I loved the sweet seductive scent of tobacco. This was my favourite smell during my childhood.

“Can I try one, Grandpa?” I said.

“No. You’re too young.”

I hated the answer. I didn’t understand why people had to be of a certain age before they could do things. It was silly. I was desperate to grow up and be an adult.

“The doctor said that smoking kills, is that true?” I asked.

“I’m still alive, right?” he sniggered.

I guess that made sense. After all, things only died after they were hit on the head with a slipper, like cockroaches and wasps. No one in the Ninja Turtles ever died. Not the heroes in a hard shell. Not the bad guys like Shredder and Krang. It was the same for He-Man. And Tom and Jerry. And Mighty Mouse. I suppose people just get bruised. Only insects died. I’m not an insect. And neither is Grandpa.

One day when Grandpa went across the road to buy TOTO and 4D, I revisited his collection of phone cards. I laid them on the bed in a 10 by 10 square and stood back to admire the grandeur of the scene. I then took a cigarette and placed it between my lips. Then I struck the matchstick against the dark brown side of the box. Nothing happened. I struck it again, creating tiny sparks that looked like how the National Day fireworks would during the last few seconds of the show. The third strike produced a flame.

As the end of the cigarette started smouldering, I held the stick just like how Grandpa normally would, with the tips of his thumb and the “rude” finger, and sucked on it. The taste in my mouth was nothing like the smell I was used to. It made me cough and retch.

“Ah boy, why are you coughing again ah? I told you not to drink cold drinks, right?” said Grandma as she walked into the room

Yao mou kao chor ah?!” she shrieked.

I didn’t know if she was mad at me for messing up her bed or being topless (it was a really hot day). But I had never seen her so mad before.

She snatched the cigarette from me, left the room and returned within just a few seconds, with a cane in hand. That was the day I found out that smoking came with painful consequences.

But despite the searing sensation on my arms and legs, I lived. Just like all my favourite cartoon characters, I survived. Just like them, I had bruises to show for my exploits. I was still alive.

Grandpa was right. Smoking doesn’t kill.

But boy oh boy, I reckon Grandma could.

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Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Mr. Samy the barber

 

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Between the ages of one and five, I spent the weekdays at my grandparents’ public housing flat in Eunos Crescent.

There was a barber shop across the road called Bugs Bunny that grandma and grandpa would take me to once every few weeks. The place just smelled like talcum powder. Lots and lots of powder. I thought that must be the reason why most of my friends hated having their hair cut.

I didn’t really fancy Bugs Bunny. In fact, I hated carrots. But I enjoyed my haircuts.

Because the barber named Mr. Samy would always put up a show.

Near the end of every haircut, he would dip a small but stout brush into a cup of water before dabbing my sideburns with it. The experience was always somewhat unnerving. The water was always slightly cold. It always made my hair stand. It always made me cringe.

I hated that feeling. But I always told myself to bear with it because the performance was up next.

Mr. Samy would then swing the razor blade around like those villains from Hong Kong movies. He would do so exactly three times. The sound of the blade entering and exiting its sheath was like a drumroll indicating the imminent arrival of the pièce de résistance. I loved it. I lapped it all up.

His face bore no expression when he swept the blade across his palms. Left, right, left, right, left, left, right, right. It was always in this order. He would then plant the thumb of his left hand firmly onto the side of my head before the cool blade worked its way down. The noise of hair getting displaced sounded like trees growing, their branches slowly fanning out in all directions before the trunk suddenly shot toward the sky.

Mr. Samy never once bled from this outrageous feat. He reminded me of the triceratops, one of my favourite dinosaurs, which I learned from cartoons had incredibly tough skin. I wondered what type of skin I had.

One day, I decided to find out. While grandma was chatting with Mr. Samy, I got off the chair and sneakily opened the drawer in front of me. I turned around as I reached for the razor blade, checking to see if the two adults were looking. They weren’t. I remember grandma complaining about the new price of the haircut and how Mr. Samy just laughed.

I seized the opportunity and ran the cold blade down my palm, and it made me wonder if it was a magical blade that only Mr. Samy could wield. I watched with intrigue as the flesh parted and blood oozed out. It looked exactly like how the paste within my favourite red bean bun would flow out when I tore it in half.

By the time Mr. Samy and my grandma realised what had happened, the blood was already dripping onto the floor. One drop fell onto the pristine white school shoe on my left feet as the barber frantically stuck a wad of tissue paper over the wound. A dull ache echoed through my palm as he applied pressure. My grandma was now squatting on the pale green ceramic floor as she wiped the blood off the surface. When the bleeding stopped, Mr. Samy took a plaster out from the wooden cabinet at the back of shop and handed it to grandma.

Five minutes later, it was business as usual. Grandma stuck the huge plaster on my palm as I sucked on a grape-flavoured Hacks sweet that Mr. Samy had given me, probably in an attempt to prevent me from crying.

But I was never going to cry. I was jealous.

“Tell me, why do you not bleed?” I said.

“It’s a secret. You’ll understand when you’re older,” replied Mr. Samy.

 

The next day, I found grandpa outside the toilet in the kitchen, applying a layer of white paint to the stained school shoe. He patted my head as I stood beside him and took in the second hand smoke from his Dunhill Reds.

He was meticulous about the application of the white paint, rotating the shoe in every possible direction to ensure that every part was evenly coated. When he had used up the final drop of paint from the bottle, he carefully ran a shoelace through just two holes in each shoe and tied a knot with the two ends before hanging them on the laundry pole.

I wondered if a wind would blow the shoes twelve stories down. I wondered if the wet paint would drip and splatter on someone’s face, and how that someone might think he just got hit by bird poop. I giggled to myself.

“I heard from Mama you cut yourself with Mr. Samy’s razor last night,” he said, passing the empty bottle to me and pointing to the rubbish bin.

I nodded.

“Did it hurt?” said grandpa as he tapped the end of his cigarette into a tin can that used to contain luncheon meat.

“Just a little.”

“Well now you know not to do it again, right?”

I nodded. I looked at my palm. The plaster that was around it had already started to lose its grip. I cautiously peeled it off to see the wound. It tickled more than it hurt. Grandpa gently took my hand and examined the wound before sticking the plaster back on.

“Don’t take it off yet. Keep it covered. The plaster keeps bad things away,” he said.

I wanted to ask him what he meant exactly, but a sound from the living room interrupted my train of thought. I smiled and took off. The next episode of He-Man had started.

I loved that cartoon so much I always demanded for a new action figure whenever my parents brought me out during the weekends. The only one I didn’t get was Sheila.

Girls were just irritating. And she wore a snake over her head. I hated snakes and everything that resembled one. Lizards were gross too.

I would often act out scenes from the cartoon and pretend to be He-Man. My sword was a roll of cellophane paper and my uncle’s bolster would be Skeletor. I liked to pretend that I was losing the fight before yelling “By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!” and turning the tide of the battle.

Saying that line made me feel as if I was indestructible like He-Man, a hero that will never bleed.

And then it struck me, Mr. Samy was He-Man.

A few weeks later when it was time for my haircut again, I sprinted to the barbershop and left my grandpa trailing behind. I wanted to tell Mr. Samy that I didn’t need to grow that much older to discover his secret.

But Mr. Samy was not there. I wondered if he was out fighting Skeletor and saving the universe. Or was he on a date with Sheila? Why he would find her pretty was really beyond me.

I noticed that Grandpa looked distressed while talking to the other man in the shop, sighing and shaking his head every few seconds. He then carried me onto the barber chair.

“Mr. Yazid will cut your hair today, okay?” said Grandpa.

“But I only want Mr. Samy. Where is he?”

Grandpa and Mr. Yazid looked at me, then looked at each other.

“Something very bad has happened to Mr. Samy so he needs to see the doctor. I will cut your hair today, okay? I’ll make you very handsome,” said Mr. Yazid.

Dejected, I slunk back into my seat and let the barber do his work. There was no performance this time around. The water that he used to dab my sideburns felt icy cold and the blade he used felt coarse against my skin.

When grandpa was paying the barber, I opened the wooden cabinet at the back of the shop and grabbed a bunch of plasters. Before I left, I tugged at Mr. Yazid’s khaki pants and passed them to him.

“Oh. Thank you. But why do I need them?” said Mr. Yazid.

“It’s not for you. Can you give them to Mr. Samy? My grandfather said that plasters keep bad things away.”

I never saw Mr. Samy again.

I always thought He-Man could never be defeated.

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life, Singapore

Simi sai ma bo hiew liao (什么大便都不管了)

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Safety rope? Fuck that. And fuck this fucking stain on the fucking window.

 

I often think of time as a sandstorm, within which the countless grains of sand pelt us and slowly but surely pare the prevailing layer of beliefs.

It’s only been 2.5 years since I moved to Shanghai, but I reckon quite a few layers have already been exfoliated. I sometimes cringe when I look back at the Alywin of the past. It’s now hard to imagine how I used to have those beliefs and ambitions.

I’m in a happy place at the moment. And I’m not referring to the physical space.

Why am I happy? Because I’ve learnt, in the wise words of Mark Manson, the subtle art of not giving a fuck. I suppose the hokkien title to this blog post is a rough translation of that.

Before I left Singapore, I gave one too many fucks. About everything that had to do with money and success.

I was obsessed about drawing a five-figure salary as if my true self worth depended on it.

“Wah lan, zhun boh? 30 years old still drawing a pathetic $4,000 a month? Loser leh…Did you hear about our course mate from Ngee Ann who drew more than 10 grand when she was just 28?”

I was obsessed about holding a lofty title that would befit not my true abilities, but age.

“Hahaha! You haven’t even made managing editor by 32? What a sloth!”

I was obsessed with who I was in relation to my peers.

“Did you hear about our course mate from Ngee Ann who is already the managing director of her company? Geez I bet she had to suck a lot of cocks to get there!”

Looking back, that wasn’t healthy. Nope.

When you keep a constant tab on others, you lose sight of yourself.

The problem with me back then was that I couldn’t decipher between how much I desired versus how much I actually needed. Because, well, it was never really about the latter.

It was a case of self worth being pegged to my salary and to the salaries and achievements of people around me.

This was something I continued to struggle with during the acclimatisation phase in Shanghai, until I realised that I didn’t need all that much to be happy.

Because I stopped giving a fuck about everyone except myself.

I discovered that happiness had in a way stemmed from isolating oneself.

It was a fucking ironic twist. I used to be adamant that one needed to always be aware of the competition around him in order to excel in life. I despised hermits who lacked a world view. People who go about life with blinkers annoyed the shit outta me. And because of this I sought to stay ahead of the curve. Be in-tune with the latest trends. Maintain a constant high and enthusiasm for breaking new frontiers. If that hamster in the cage beside me was sprinting, I’d run so fast the fucking wheel would fall off.

This whole thing about money and success is contextual, and the thing with context is that you can choose to be in or out of the fucking box. I chose to step away from the maddening crowd and just disappear.

I chose to just fuck it all.

Earlier this year, I posted what some have described as “inflammatory” stuff about Singaporeans on this blog. I expressed my disgust with the myopia that’s seemingly gone pandemic on the island I used to call home. I got my fair share of criticism. I got flamed.

But that’s not why I haven’t blogged for some time.

It’s because I decided to fuck it all.

Fuck the trolls. Fuck those who are myopic. Fuck those who insist that you see things from their point of view.

Kanina, simi sai ma bo hiew liao.

Maybe it had to do with those trips to the remote recesses of China where I got a chance to experience how invigorating simplicity can be. Maybe it was all those features I wrote about inspiring people who had given up everything to help others. Or maybe it was just the result of the sands of time having scraped off that very last bit of beliefs from when I was still in Singapore. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things.

I realised that I was, by my own standards, writing some pretty solid stuff. I now have more time to spend doing things I love. I’m not constantly worried about not having enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills. I seriously enjoy just sitting next to my dog and watching it go crazy with her tennis ball.

Life is good. And I’m not even earning as much as before (well the fact that life in Shanghai is a little more affordable helps too). Evidently a big fat pay check has little to do with happiness.

I believe I’ve completely shed that old skin.

During dinner with one of my friends a couple of months ago, he told me about how his peers made him feel poor. Mind you, this is someone who’s drawing that coveted five-figure monthly salary and still complaining about feeling inferior. This is also someone who stands a chance of getting a SIX-FIGURE payout if he stays at his company for a certain period of time.

The Alywin of the past would’ve been envious and angry at the same time.

“Kanina lah! Earn so much still complain! You trying to rub it in right, you chao cheebai?”

Today, I find myself cringing and muttering under my breath:

“Siao, need so much money kum lan?” 

Just months ago I was fuming about how much KOLs stand to earn. And how undeserving they are of it.

“$30,000 for ONE SINGLE FUCKING SOCIAL MEDIA POST? JESUS CHRIST WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO? TALENTLESS FUCKERS!”

Right now, I say fuck it. Fuck them. Fuck envy. Just fucking concentrating on yourself.

So what if they can earn that much money? Think about it – so what? Does it actually affect you?

Admittedly, we can’t do without money. Everything in life requires money. I once wondered if we could live a day without spending a single cent. I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible. You might think this is achievable simply by cooping yourself at home and surviving on what you have, but no.

You see, the moment you turn on that tap, every drop of water costs. That toilet flush costs. Turning on the air-conditioner costs. Turning on the television costs. Having broadband costs. Yes, money’s not departing your wallet immediately, but you’re going to have to pay for all of this in a few weeks.

My favourite buzzword these days is balance.

We all need to find that equilibrium between our actual needs and our desires. I have over the past year figured out that I can comfortably save around xxxx every month (unless there are big purchases that need to be made) even with my current pay.

Fuck me, I don’t actually need a five-figure salary.

Sure, earning big money would result in a much fatter savings account, but if I have to sacrifice time with my dog or time doing things I really wanna be doing, then fuck that.

Because it’s just not a worthwhile trade-off. Because it means being less happy or perhaps even unhappy. What the fuck for?

However, it is also imperative that we maintain a balance when it comes to “fucking it all” and “giving a fuck”, too. It’s important to be worldly. But it’s also important to not give too many fucks.

As much as I don’t wanna give a fuck now, I also want to give a fuck. I know, it’s a fucking paradox.

I’ll be embarking on a fundraising project soon. Because I want to help someone lead a better life.

Because all this not giving a fuck has given me a clarity of mind about what I really wanna give a fuck about.

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Short Stories

Puff Daddy

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“This, is life,” said Ronald, pointing to the cigarette in his hand.

“You shouldn’t be smoking, papa,” replied Eli.

It was a rhetorical statement. The fact that this conversation was taking place on the hospital rooftop said it all.

Ronald took a long drag at a cigarette which had its filter peeled off before scratching his hand. The catheter was really beginning to annoy him.

“I don’t get why people smoke with filters.”

“I suppose it’s healthier?”

Ronald broke out in laughter.

“Doctor Ong is going to go mental when he finds out you’ve been smoking.”

“Oh come on. What harm can one cigarette do? Even if I survive this goddamn cancer I’m still going to die someday, no?”

As cryptic as that sounded, Eli simply nodded his head and smiled.

And then began the tirade.

“You see, son, like the fire within that never loses its single-minded focus to incinerate everything in its path, time doesn’t take a break and wait for you to finish whatever other business you have going on. It just keeps going, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Stub it out and relight the fag at your discretion, sure, whatever – it’s still going to end someday. So therein lies the question – what are you going to do? Are you going to put your lips to the filter and savour each puff before there’s nothing left? Or will you simply do nothing and watch as time devours everything?”

Eli said nothing, his eyes transfixed on the graceful ascent of the smoke into the night sky. He wondered if that was how a soul dissipated when one died.

“People like to say that smoking kills as if they’re immortals. They squeal when smoke comes their way. ‘Oh my god, you are going to fucking kill me with your second-hand smoke,’ say these fools, as if they were never going to die in the first place. They’re all deluded. Fucking deluded. This shit doesn’t kill, goddamnit. Being alive, kills. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re dying every single minute we’re alive. The countdown started that very moment we entered this world. Life itself is a death sentence. Oh, the fucking irony of it all. So make no mistake, my son, for the end is nigh. We were all born to die.”

“Is that the medication talking? I think we should head back down before the nurses find out you escaped the ward again,” said Eli.

“I’m sorry you’re here. I’m sorry this is what you have to hear. I shouldn’t have ejaculated in your mother’s vagina 28 years ago. Blame me.”

“Oh god, Papa. Stop it.”

Ronald stubbed his cigarette out and threw his arm over Eli.

“Fine, let’s go. I’m getting a little woozy.”

“I’m gonna miss you when you’re not around,” said Eli.

“And that’s why you should never have kids,” laughed Ronald.

“You should never have to put anyone through such misery. If I could, I would strangle your mother to death first so that she doesn’t have to see me go. Come think of it, I should’ve murdered that bitch a long time ago!”

Eli turned to his father’s gaunt face and the smell of tobacco suddenly rushed through his nostrils. He was no stranger to his father’s eccentric rants. But today it felt as if Ronald was trying to overcompensate for something. For a fear of his imminent demise.

He placed a reassuring arm around his father’s waist and the two made their way to the exit.

The pair managed to get back to the ward without rousing suspicion from the night shift nurses. Ronald fluffed his pillow before lying down and reached over the hand rails for his discman.

“I can’t believe you’re still using that antique,” said Eli.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” smiled Ronald.

“Alright son, I’m going to drift off now. You text me when you arrive in China. Don’t call, it’s expensive.”

“I’ll come back often to see you. Whenever I can. I promise.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m not going anywhere. Just be back for Christmas. I’ll see you then.”

Eli forced a smile and nodded. He reluctantly picked up his bag and waved Ronald goodbye.

As Eli’s shadow disappeared from the corridor, Ronald placed his favourite Teresa Teng CD into the player and hit the play button. But the only sound that came through was a constant wheezing from within.

He smacked the player twice and shook it gently for a few seconds before the sounds of Goodbye My Love streamed through the earphones.

The disc stopped spinning a minute later, but Ronald did not bother to rectify the problem.

He figured that some things were just not worth the effort anymore.

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life, travel, Writing

Glamping on the Tibetan grasslands

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Tucked away in the remote recesses of the Tibetan Plateau in Gansu province, Norden Camp exists in its own vacuum of serenity.

Apart from the occasional cooing of birds and the fluttering of their wings, the only constant sound that permeates this place is that of water sloshing in the small stream that runs through the compound.

From rolling hills to lush grasslands to the surreal canvas of resplendent stars above your head come nightfall, the scenes of what Mother Nature affords at this destination are, without question, spellbinding.

But the beauty of this so-called luxury resort lies not in the fact that it is an astonishingly picturesque getaway location.

Rather, the most poignant aspect of this sanctuary lies in something less visible and more visceral – the stories of the people within, which inherently help spawn new perspectives to life.

Opened in May 2014, Norden is the brainchild of Yidam Kyap, a former Tibetan nomad, and his wife Dechen Yeshi, a Tibetan-American, both of whom were eager to preserve the fast-fading nomadic culture and generate employment opportunities for local nomads via a travel destination that provides an authentic yet relatively luxurious travel experience.

The couple have certainly managed to achieve this, having conjured an immaculate blend where tradition meets modernity. Just like Tibetan nomads, guests can stay in yak hair tents, with the difference being that those in Norden are far more lavish – they come with coal heaters, wooden flooring, soft beds and yak wool blankets by Norlha, a textile brand helmed by Yeshi that has made its way to the shelves of luxury boutiques such as Hermes, Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent.

Alternatively, travellers can stay in cosy cabins that come with their own en suite dry toilets. Shower areas, on the other hand, are located in two locations within the camp. Other amenities include a sauna, a beautifully constructed area for yoga and meditation, as well as a small boutique selling Norlha products.

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In terms of activities, guests can choose to do archery, horseback riding, visit the nearby town of Labrang and its famous monastery, go on hikes to the nearby hills as well as have a meal with a nomadic family.

Nearly all the employees at Norden come from nomadic families in the area, and they only work from May to mid-October when the camp closes and becomes a winter grazing ground. During this break, some return to help their families with nomadic practices while others are transferred to Norden’s café in Labrang town and the Norlha textile workshop.

There seemed to be a hint of regret when Yidam said that he is still working toward providing year-round employment for all his employees, most of whom are in their early to mid-twenties.

“Young Tibetan nomads are kind of in a limbo these days,” said Yidam.

“Most of them don’t want to lead nomadic lifestyles anymore. These days they just want iPhones, computers and a cushy government job. But it’s hard for them to get good jobs because many aren’t fluent in Mandarin.”

When asked if he would ever turn Norden into more conventional luxury resort complete with all the bells and whistles, such as en suite shower areas and flush toilets for each room, Yidam simply shook his head.

“The whole point of Norden is about being eco-friendly so that we can preserve the original state and identity of the Tibetan Plateau. We don’t want to be digging up too much of the ground just so we can install pipes.”

This emphasis on the preservation of Tibetan nomad identity rings true in Norden’s kitchen as well. The specially designed menu by American chef Andrew Notte plays a huge role in introducing guests to local culture, with the predominant meat featured on your plate coming from the yak, an animal that far outnumbers the humans in this part of the world.

Apart from yak meat, Notte also utilises the animal’s milk as well as other ingredients typically used by nomads, such as lamb, tsampa, a roasted barley flour, as well as joma, a protein-rich root that’s available in the grasslands.

I was initially rather apprehensive about eating yak, expecting it to be a tough and gamey on the palate, but what I ate throughout the trip – yak burgers, yak momos (dumplings), yak steaks – were surprisingly tender and delectable. Of course, much of this had to do with Notte’s culinary prowess too – the American was formerly a chef at the upscale Aman Resorts in Bhutan.

Notte said that it was the camp’s passionate pursuit of the preservation of local nomadic culture that compelled him to be a part of the project.

“Yidam’s vision mirrors my passion and belief in using locally sourced ingredients to showcase local culture. That’s how things should be, as opposed to importing ingredients that are completely foreign to the local scene,” said Notte.

“Working with local ingredients also means freshness and quality assurance. Take yak for example – it’s the best meat I’ve ever worked with. Why? Because I know exactly where it comes from. I know exactly what the yaks are fed. I mean, I can literally see it walking on the grasslands,” he added with a laugh.

Notte is not the only American employee at the camp. Andrew Taylor and Willard Johnson, who hail from Los Angeles and Seattle respectively, said they were similarly drawn by the camp’s efforts in the local community, as well as the opportunity to gain new perspectives in this remote part of the world.

Taylor was initially supposed to home-school Norzin, the oldest daughter of Yidam and Dechen, but his background in yoga inadvertently led to him conducting wellness activities for Norden guests. As it turned out, Taylor is capable of whipping up a sumptuous meal too – he does so at the Norlha guesthouse, located a two-hour drive southeast of Norden – having taken a culinary course on holistic cooking back in the United States.

Johnson, a former basketballer who played for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several clubs in Europe and Latin America, arrived to coach the Tibetan nomads working at Norlha but somehow ended up becoming an athletics coach for guests at Norden.

During a hike up one of the neighbouring hills with Johnson, he revealed that he comes from a family of distinguished military personnel but had decided to go off tangent instead.

“My grandfather was the commander of a fleet of submarines. My dad was a fighter pilot. Me? I chose basketball,” he quipped.

“When I heard about the impact Norlha and Norden were having on the community I really wanted to come. When I found out that they played basketball here, I knew I just had to come.”

Taylor and Johnson are paid modest stipends for their efforts at Norden and Norlha. But though they could certainly own far fatter bank accounts by working back home in the US, the duo have had no regrets with their adventure in China so far.

“Back home in the US, I guess there’s an innate need to keep up with your peers. Many of my friends from MIT are successful engineers. Some are even rocket scientists. They’re all earning good money,” said Johnson.

“Still, I’m very happy here. Being here in the remote grasslands and seeing the locals go through what they do really changes your perspective to life. You realize that money isn’t all that important.”

— Willard Johnson

Forget the stunning scenery of the Tibetan Plateau. Forget the fact that you can get four seasons in a single day here (I suffered from some serious sunburn during the hike, only to wake up to snow the next morning). Forget the super fresh air here that makes megacities seem like toxic wastelands.

Such conversations were actually the highlight of my trip. And they were certainly in abundance.

Norden might be widely dubbed as a luxury “glamping” destination, but there are, perhaps fortunately, no televisions in the rooms. This means there is little to do after sunset when the entire area is blanketed in darkness. Guests either have an early night (those with children in tow always do) or participate in such discussions about life and current affairs at the cosy bar area.

I chatted with Notte about his culinary style, his favorite foods, the US presidential elections and his adventures on Bhutan’s treacherous mountain roads.

I chatted with Yidam about the current predicaments faced by the Tibetan nomads, if Dechen was love at first sight, his future plans for Norden and the feasibility of using solar power instead of coal to heat the rooms.

I chatted with a fellow guest from Shanghai named Alok Somani about the rise of American football in our adopted city and how this trip made us discover that we don’t actually need so many modern comforts to live well.

All these nightly conversations at the bar helped me gain new insights in a variety of matters. They also inadvertently taught me that it is probably wise to go easy on the tipple in the Tibetan Plateau.

At 3,200 meters above sea level, the alcohol gets to your head pretty quickly.

Most of all, they taught me that good vacations shouldn’t just leave you with a camera full of images or a wallet crammed with receipts – it should leave you emancipated by new perspectives.

This, is what luxury travel should truly be about.

 

 

 

This post is a reproduction of the original article here: 
http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/travel/2016-10/22/content_27140191.htm

 

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Singapore

Home di toh loh?

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Inca the furkid gave me her most disapproving stare when I was talking to the missus last night about when I should fly to Singapore for the Lunar New Year.

“Wah lao, but if I go back with you on Jan 21 that means I have one entire week of doing absolutely nothing,” I lamented (The missus is heading back a week earlier to work from the Singapore office).

Well, not exactly. I’ll probably be stuffing my face silly with hawker food around the island, contemplating about whether I should brave the queue to try that Michelin-starred soya sauce chicken and catching up with friends over lots of beers. Well, kopitiam beers, to be exact – the rest are too expensive.

“Do you want to use up so much of your leave?” replied the missus.

I only have 10 days of annual leave. Yes, I work for China company. I’m on local terms, not expat terms.

“Well, I just have to take 5 days I guess. That leaves me with another 5 till July,” I said.

Inca squinted at me menacingly, as if saying “You goddamn humans are leaving me behind again? And during winter??”

To be honest, I can’t bear to leave Inca behind.

To be honest, I’m not entirely looking forward to heading “home”.

I’ve got to buy an air ticket that’ll cost me close to a grand. I have to spend money to stay in a hotel because my home in Singapore is being rented out. I have to spend considerably more on food, drinks and transport (hello midnight surcharge!). I have to send my furkid for “boarding school” at the vet in Shanghai. And I have to give ang baos.

The kind of money I’ll be spending on this one trip along is enough to take me on a nice holiday somewhere else in the world.

But I told the missus that we are going back. For sure. No question about it.

Because I believe it is important for family to get together during Chinese New Year. If it’s one good thing I’ve learned from my time in China, it’s that tradition matters.

No, it’s not because Singapore is “home”.

I mean, what is home?

I’ve never considered the premise of home to be the place where one is born. Or where one grew up. Or where one spent most of his life in.

It irritates me when people judge me and say, “You better come back to Singapore at the end of the day hor. You are a Singaporean leh. Singapore is home.”

A fellow compatriot who left Shanghai earlier this year is hating life back in Singapore. Because of the same reasons that drove me to leave. He wants to migrate somewhere else. Probably London or Australia.

An Iraqi ex-colleague who now lives in the Netherlands shared with me that he’ll never return to Iraq even though he was born there.

A German friend who has been living in Sydney for many years still considers Germany home. Because his family and closest friends are there. Not because he was born there.

Physical space, evidently, has no bearing on the definition of home.

We recently came back from a week-long glamping trip to Norden Camp in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province. The camp we stayed at was manned almost entirely by Tibetan nomads.

I was very intrigued to find out more their lifestyle and what it meant to be on the move throughout the year. But what captivated me more were the foreign employees of the camp.

In a nutshell, local nomads move about the Tibetan Plateau every season in order to allow the pastures that their animals are currently grazing to regenerate. Most of them have never left the country, so i wouldn’t expect them to know any other place as home.

The foreigners, however, seem even more nomadic.

Bill, the American dude from Seattle who took us on a hike up the nearby hill (wah lan eh, hiking at 3,200m above sea level is sibei xiong) is one interesting character.

An MIT graduate who used to play pro basketball for a bunch of clubs in Europe and Latin America, he’s now helping out with the operations at Norden Camp and at Norlha, a textile workshop in Zorge Ritoma. He’s also helping train the team of basketballers from Norlha. He told us that he comes from a military family – his grandfather used to command a freaking fleet of nuclear subs and his father was a fighter jet pilot.

Why would he then want to travel the world to play and coach basketball?

New perspectives. An experience that money can’t buy.

Another American at the camp, chef Andy, has made his rounds around the globe as well. After working at Aman Resorts in Bhutan, he took a break and spent a few months in Vietnam before joining Norden in 2014.

He hardly ever has a permanent home. When he was working in Bhutan, he would stay in the hotel rooms. At Norden, he would at times stay in the cabins during low season. If the camp was full, he’d move to another camp site about 20 minutes away. When the camp closes during the winter, he returns to Florida to care for his ageing parents.

He appears to like this lifestyle.

I had a quick chat with him a day before he flew back to the States. I asked if he had much to pack and he simply went: “Well, just two bags. All clothes, actually. I’ve learned not to have too many things on hand.”

“You’re a nomad yourself,” I chuckled.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” he laughed.

It got me thinking. Are we born to be nomads?  After all, humans do have the proclivity to migrate. It’s survival instinct.

Of course, I didn’t leave Singapore for Shanghai because my life was in danger. It was my mind leading the way. It needed to feel alive. It needed to be free of the bubble. It needed to survive.

 

Two years ago, the plan was to return to Singapore after three, maybe four years in Shanghai. You know, grab some overseas working experience and GTFO of here. Shanghai was but a stepping stone to future career progression back in Singapore.

Now, it’s a completely different story. My wife and I have realized that we don’t need to return to Singapore.

Why? Because my furkid is here. Because we are both comfortable and happy here. Because most of our good friends from Singapore are here.

Home, to me, is a transient thing. It changes constantly, according to your ideals, your goals, your state of mind.

Will Shanghai still be home in a couple of years? Maybe not. I don’t know. She doesn’t know. Nobody knows.

For now, we’ll probably return to Singapore if we have a kid. For all the pragmatic reasons. Education. Safer milk powder. The ability to dump the kid at his or her grandparents’ homes.

Not because we were born in Singapore.

 

Of course, some would criticise us for biting the hand that fed us. Well, we didn’t ask to be born in Singapore. Don’t get me wrong, I am indeed grateful of my birth right. This is something that I discovered when interviewing a fellow Singaporean who gave up everything to work for an NGO in Cambodia where the living conditions aren’t great.

Like she said, we Singaporeans are privileged as compared to millions of others in the world, simply because of our birth right. The Singapore passport, as most people already know, is sibei tok kong. We get visa-free access to about 170 countries around the world.

Singapore is safe. It’s clean. It’s got good infrastructure (not referring to you MRT). It’s got a stable government. It’s got kickass hawker food.

But all these factors aren’t necessarily that important to everyone. Not everyone needs home to be clean, safe and well-tuned.

Yes, I was born in Singapore. Yes, I am a Singaporean. But no, Singapore is not necessarily my home.

Home is where the things that mean most to you are.

So, where is home for you?

 

 

 

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