Archive | December 2014

How It All Began: Conversations With A Busker

Where I first met Uncle Loh, outside the Isetan basement supermarket.

Where I first met Uncle Loh, outside the Isetan basement supermarket.

The first stranger whom I felt I had ever enjoyed talking to–and, in a way, the catalyst behind this blog–was an old man playing the harmonica outside the Isetan basement supermarket at the Orchard Road shopping district. I was on my way home one day when I noticed him, blowing away cheerfully at his instrument in the face of an oblivious tide of shoppers surging past him towards the escalators to Wheelock Place. Little had I expected him to stop what he was doing when he noticed me checking out the belongings he’d brought with him, greeting me with a “Hello little girl” and a warm twinkle in his eye. Thus began the first of my series of conversations with his amiable busker, who introduced himself to me as Uncle Loh.

I have not been able to visit him again lately, due to his having moved to another location along the same area in the Orchard Road shopping district, but his conviviality made a strong impression on me and as I was walking towards Ion Orchard, his honest smile and snippets of our lively conversations resurfaced in my mind. Not only had he changed my impression of those in the busking profession, but also sparked me in the thought to perhaps try to reach out to people in the same way he had reached out to me.

Uncle Loh (declined to have photograph posted)

“Why I decided to start busking…. I think it was more of an accident than anything. I didn’t go around looking for busking oppurtunities or whatever. I’m almost eighty and retired and I used to be an engineer. But I like music, and could play the harmonica since I was a boy. So I happened to find there’s busking and I went for the auditions and I passed, so I’m here. So I can’t really say there’s a reason I come here. It’s more for fun.

You receive an endorsement, and go to a specific place to busk. So I came here. The best ones are always sent to Orchard. Some of them busk outside their legal place and if you’re caught you receive warnings. One warning, two warnings, then you’re out. There’s also another lady playing the guitar who used to be at the other corner. She decided she wanted to come in the morning and I come in the afternoon so we share this place. Oh yes, we all know each other, through busking! I perform here for three hours until three o’clock. There are some who make busking their livelihood, but not many. Like the guitarist at Novena, he does busking for a living. Of course I earn money,” he said, grinning, “but it’s mostly to relax. It’s a nice way to spend time.

The important thing is to keep fit. I haven’t been exercising as much since I started busking. Oh no, standing for three hours is no problem for me, but when I go on the MRT I fall asleep.

You can’t worry, ‘Oh my music today is not good.’ You can’t have a disruptive place to play in. Even if you think you’re bad, if you play everyday you get better. I get to play here, I enjoy myself and also earn a bit of money. But yes, the most important thing is to enjoy yourself. If you don’t enjoy yourself, no one will enjoy your music. If they don’t give money the first time they might walk by and say, ‘Hey that music is good’ and give money the next time. I’m a retired engineer, I have savings packed away so I don’t need the money. And health, health is also important. You must learn to keep fit.

In those days, a thousand dollar salary was worth more than ten thousand dollars today. Ask your daddy, he should know. We used to call it the ‘four-figure sum’. Everyone on the street would know the one with the thousand-dollar salary. If you drove a rich car the hotels would ask you to park in front of them–if not they’d chase you out! Now I enjoy myself beyond material things. I’m a busker and people ask me if I earn more and I say, yes, I earn more, but the value of money is different, you see. You shouldn’t live by loans. You shouldn’t live by installment. Even credit cards are no good; I never believed in credit cards.

I have no children; I live with my wife. Ah, no children in Singapore. They’re all grown up. You see, I’m getting glaucoma in both eyes. So I need to take eyedrops–I did it in one eye and after four hours I do it in the other eye and after two weeks it will be okay. My wife and I had cataract operations before and for two years we went to Changi Hospital and the doctors told me, ‘No you don’t have glaucoma’ and so I went to Eagle Eye and in two weeks I had a surgery. Now I can see you perfectly!

I actually go on holiday with my wife two times a year. But you don’t necessarily have a vacation when you go overseas. When you go on tours it’s so tiring–wake up early in the morning, carry your luggage, eat breakfast, travel here and there, climb the mountains…. There are a lot of mountains to climb, especially in China. We go to the more out-of-the-way places, like Guizhou and Wuhan. It’s very tiring to hike up at first but once you get to the top of the mountain you see a waterfall and think it’s worth it. The attraction is at the top.”

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A Look Back

Children playing at a picnic in the Botanic Gardens on Christmas Eve.

Children playing at a picnic in the Botanic Gardens on Christmas Eve.

This holiday season, being also poised between the end of an old year and the beginning of a new year, was for me a time to reflect. To let myself unwind, bask in the fantastic company of family and friends, and look back on the experiences–both the good and not-so-good–that I’d been fortunate enough to have this year.

Starting this blog, and making an effort to explore new places and find new people to talk to, has let me learn so much. Initially I had many doubts: would I be able to keep this up for more than a week? What if people don’t want to talk to me? What if I can’t find anyone to talk to? These doubts still plague me from time to time. But, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. As I embarked on my own journey I’m glad to say that I feel many of my doubts were unfounded. In fact, I’ve even been startled by the generosity and warmth of some of the ordinary people I’ve come into contact with.

I feel like I’ve managed to learn a lot from my brief encounters with the people I’ve talked to–the people who have made me smile, laugh, ponder and cry at various points. I’ve learnt that the hopes, dreams, desires and fears of the people I’ve met are, at a base level, very similar and so very relatable. I’ve learnt more about what there really is to life beyond the environment and experiences I grew up with, through the nuggets of philosophy and wisdom I’ve been presented with strangers. And I’ve learnt from being able to snatch a deeper glimpse into humanity that, perhaps, there really is a common thread of humanity that runs through us all. Everyone, no matter how insignificant they may seem (or believe themselves to be), has a story to tell, some unique insight to offer, something profoundly touching or inspiring about the way they live.

I don’t know who I’ll meet, or where I’ll go next. After all, things never turn out exactly as planned. Yet I feel it’s the pleasant surprises I stumble upon when I let my feet guide me that give me the most joy. As this year moves on to the next, I hope that–someday, somehow–I’ll be able to spread to others, through this blog, the kindness I’ve received from all the lovely individuals I’ve crossed paths with.

To those who are reading this: thank you for lending your support and encouragement to this humble endeavour of mine. I hope I shall be able to continue to provide a satisfying reading experience for all of you out there. May everyone have a happy holiday season, and a splendid New Year!

Clementi West Street 2 Block 726 Market & Food Centre

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My feet had guided me in a somewhat unexpected direction on Friday–towards Clementi, which I’d felt I already knew seeing as I pass by the area every week. Nevertheless, I let my heart guide me to take a deeper look into what I’d felt was a relatively ordinary area. Somehow the things that are closest to you seem to be the most often un-noticed, and I was intrigued by what I found at the Clementi West Street Market and Food Centre when I arrived in the middle of a rainy afternoon. The bustle at the market had been dampened somewhat by the light shower, but the shopkeepers and vendors never seemed to let their pace slacken due to the diminished crowd, continuing to linger by their storefront advertising freshly-squeezed cups of fruit juice or standing vigilantly near the cooked food stalls ready to receive any customer’s order.

After I had ordered a plate of mee goreng and found a seat to tuck in slowly, the pace of life in the food centre seemed to stop and slow down gradually around me. Hawkers rolled down the metal shutters over the fronts of their stalls in preparation for an early rest, and the tables around me were slowly clearing out as visitors finished their food and left. Those who remained were staring into the distance, seeming not to be focusing on or waiting for anything in particular, as the clouds continued to erratically scatter rain over the roads outside. At the moment the whole food centre itself seemed to be reclining and taking a deep sigh, discomfited by the usual lack of activity.

The consternation of the hawkers at not receiving as many customers didn’t seem immediately obvious to me when I met the one of the attendants at the fruit juice stall next to me. She’d finished a hearty conversation with a friend and left her with a few good smacks to the upper arm when she turned to me and chuckled. Both of us then proceeded into a conversation of our own in Mandarin, our words pattering fast like the rain outside, seemingly with the mutual knowledge that both of us wanted some company in the miasma of idleness that felt like it was hovering around us.

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“She asked to be hit! She’s the lady doing spectacles over there, you know her? She likes to hit me so I hit her back! We’ve been friends for many years so we hit each other a lot.

When you look for a job, they won’t just look at your grades anymore. They want to see what’s in here,” where she placed her hand over her heart, “and your character. Even the students at NUS lament their degree is no use. I work at NUS sometimes so I hear them say this. So when you’re studying you shouldn’t feel pressured. Study as far as you can and it’s okay. As long as you can pull off your ‘A’ Levels it’s okay. i don’t force my kids. My son is doing Gym at ITE–they have a lot of courses, you know! As long as you have the interest you can do it. But of course when he studies Gym he needs to work out–you can’t have a skin-and-bones gym coach right! Auntie ponteng (Singlish for ‘playing truant’) Primary Three, but now I have a bit of literacy and can speak some English. All of us here can speak some English. You know why? Because we upgrade! We just learn and then we can do it. But today it depends on your skill-set. If you get good grades you can get a higher salary, so it’s good. I have some friends whose kids work and study at the same time. You just need to work five, six hours, enough to pay for your school fees. I have one friend whose daughter works part-time because she doesn’t want to be a burden to her mother.

Right now I have one kid. He’s going to serve NS soon so I’m worried. We girls don’t have to do it, but he needs to. Actually I also have one older girl, 25 this year, but at home it’s just my son. When he goes off to serve NS I’m going to be by myself. Don’t be angry when I tell you this, but since you’re so young the worst thing for you is to pick up vices. When you learn bad habits ‘A’ Levels, ‘O’ Levels, whatever levels will be no use anymore. So whatever you do, don’t pick up bad habits.

You know, Auntie also knows how to cook noodles and make coffee! I make noodles at NUS. No one taught me. I watched people and I learnt how to do it. You do, I watch. The hardest part about coffee is remembering what the customers want. All coffee tastes the same. But if I use a better brand and you use, say, one or two lesser brands then my coffee will taste better, because of the brand. You understand me?

You see that skinny lady, over there by the Western stall? She lives in Ghim Moh. I used to live there too. I pop in and out of NUS. Since my boss is here I just came here. I live just upstairs in the block of flats, so it takes me just around ten minutes to come down here. Late in the afternoon I’ll go upstairs for a rest, and come back down in the evening around six. Our boss will be here then. He’s a young fellow. Both of us are workers. If it weren’t raining I wouldn’t be sitting around talking to you like this. Yesterday we were so busy I thought I would collapse.

The way to be happy is not to go ‘this thing should be like that’, or be calculative over this and that. Don’t be petty and it’ll be okay. Study as far as you can, and don’t feel any pressure.”

As we were rounding up the conversation, a man in a wheelchair rolled by, singing in a baritone voice. I watched as he threaded his way between the tables, singing in Mandarin with a rich baritone voice to the accompaniment of a melody blaring from his portable speakers. As others reached over to place money into his collection box he’d give them broad smiles, shaking their hands and wishing them a Merry Christmas. I managed to catch up with him, and was entitled to a glimpse, behind his jolly exterior, of the narrative that had brought us both to this moment.

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“I used to be a vocal coach! 30 years ago I was the champion at singing competitions. They selected the champions from the competitions, and from among the champions I was the overall champion. I have a stage name, but I choose to cover up my name. I coached several artistes–I’m not going to tell you their names–and at one point I had 300 to 400 students, all of different levels. At Kuala Lumpur and Johor as well I was the champion. Now sometimes they call me to take part in singing competitions on the judging panel. Occassionally they invite me to sing as well, but I don’t accept any sponsors or handouts they give me. I usually sing in my wheelchair, but one day I crawled across the stage and the audience gave me lots of ang pow (Chinese red packets). I didn’t do it again.

People throw all sorts of things into my box besides money. I’ve had someone throw in a necklace and Buddha cards. The Buddha cards are still in my box right now. Someone also threw in a Christian cross! I don’t take out and pawn any of them, I just keep them. Someone would also take tissues he’d blown his nose on and throw them in! The man standing outside the clothes shop over there would do that to me every time I passed by. One day when I saw he was about to stuff his tissue paper into my box, I grabbed his hand and chopped down on it with my other hand. I explained it to his older sister. I told her, ‘Your younger brother is bullying me, please tell him not to do this to me anymore.’

I have four children; three girls and one boy. The eldest is working. The second is diao er lang dang (a Chinese proverb referring to someone with a lackadaisical attitude). Spends all his money on gambling. The third is not good at her studies so she works at NTUC. My youngest is studying at SIM. Her school fees are $60,000. So I go out everyday to collect enough money to pay for them. My eldest is very smart. She wanted to quit school and said to me, ‘Pa, don’t go out every day.’ I told her, ‘I need to do this to support your little sister. Her school fees aren’t $6. They’re not $60. They’re $60,000.

Sometimes when I see unfortunate people I give some of my earnings to them. There are the ah mms and the ah bet(generic Singlish terms referring to old women and old men respectively) who will come to the tables with leftover food on them. They will take the plates and scrape all the leftover food into a Tupperware container. Whatever bacteria or diseases there are on the food will go into them. I went up to one of them and told him, ‘Don’t do this, you will get sick. You need to get some proper food.’ He told me, ‘I can bring this home and heat it up for dinner.’ I gave him $10 from my earnings and said, ‘Use this to buy yourself something to eat.’ Sometimes people will give me food, and when I have food that I can’t finish I’ll give it to the uncles and aunties cleaning the tables. I tell them, jiak ah, jiak (‘jiak’ means ‘to eat’ in the Hokkien dialect).

The most important thing for you is to stay safe. There are many bad characters in society. Once when I was on my rounds I met a man who would sit at that table and scream and throw Hokkien vulgarities at me when I was singing. He grabbed the handles of my wheelchair and pushed me so I flew across the floor. My wheelchair went so fast! I went up to him and I told him, ‘Please don’t do this to me. If you want to me to apologise, I will. I won’t come and kacau (a Malay word meaning ‘to disturb’ in Singlish) you anymore. Just don’t do this.’ For a while it was okay. Then I was outside performing and he came over and shouted at me again! A passer-by went up to me and said, ‘You know the guy who just screamed at you? He also insulted my mother.’ There was an old man who grabbed a pair of scissors and was preparing to attack the guy who’d shouted at me! Then there were two young men who chased after him. He ran so fast! After that we never saw him again. Yes, there are all sorts of characters in society.

I guess you could call this being a street artist. But there are others who will say, ‘This is the life of a cripple.’ Since this seems to be God’s destiny for me, I just accept it.”

I reached into my wallet to give him some money to help with his cause. He pushed it away. “Are you working?” he asked. When I replied that I wasn’t, he told me solemnly, ‘Come back once you are. Maybe I’ll still be around here. I have a feeling we will meet again.”

And as I was walking home that day, I couldn’t help but think of how remarkable a father this gentleman was, and how noble a soul he had.

A Fateful Encounter at Tekka Market

The view of Kerbau Road from a stair landing at Tekka Market.

The view of Kerbau Road from a stair landing at Tekka Market.

My first ever visit to Little India bombarded me with a plethora of sights, smells and colours. A proliferation of fruit stalls clamoured for space right next to the exit of the MRT station, bursting with the fresh hues and sweet scents of ripe mangoes, bananas and pomegranates. The smell of fruit gave way to the strong aroma of garlands of jasmine flowers further down the road of shophouses, surrounded by eager bees, and then to the buzz of traffic and pedestrians as the lane opened out to Serangoon Road.

I let my feet guide me down the road towards the Tekka Market and Food Centre. It was high noon, and everyone around me seemed to be following a rhythmn of their own–striding purposefully down the pavement, negotiating with customers, oblivious to traffic signals in their hurry to cross the street as soon as there were no approaching cars in sight. The hive of activity in the area, though, was nestled right in the food centre itself. The lunchtime crowd had swelled down the narrow corridors between the cooked food stalls, causing me to have to thread my way carefully between groups of people in the snaking queues or lunch, or at the tables bantering over metal dishes of briyani and thosai. The signboards of the stalls themselves seemed to beam down at their customers like novas, advertising an array of food items from murtabak to different varieties of lassi. 

Noticing that I looked daunted by the sensual bombardment before me, a man approached me. We ended up sitting down and getting to know each other over a plate of plain prata soaked in curry and two cups of Milo Dinosaur topped with rainbow sprinkles (Milo is a chocolate malt beverage popular in the country, in this case the term refers to Milo served with an extra heaping of Milo powder on top) and teh halia (tea mixed with milk and ginger). Styling himself as an unofficial ‘tour guide’, he introduced himself as Thomas.

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Thomas

“I’ve been working here for three years. I live in Toa Payoh, but I have an office here. Today is my off-day, I have a half-day so I just come here to eat and take pictures. Sometimes I see tourists around and they look lost, so I’ll just guide them for about an hour.

I went down the polytechnic route and got a degree in Engineering–computers and all that. It’s not related to my current job. I’m freelance. I live with my parents and sister. I’m the only son, and it’s just the two of us. They tell me, better get married soon. I’m 43.” He grins. “Currently there are a lot of Singaporeans who are single or married without kids, but I think in your generation it will get…worse.

Am I happy…. I certainly think it could be better. I want to be able to travel, start a family. Sometimes I’ll go to the Botanic Gardens. One place I would like to go to again would be Pulau Ubin–I haven’t been there since my secondary school days.”

After I’d finished eating, he asked, to my surprise, if I’d like to be shown around the place. So I let him lead me across the road and down the chic avenues of the Little India Arcade, rife with goldsmiths and shops hawking colourful touristy knick-knacks. “90 percent of the shops here sell gold,” he chuckled, threading his way skilfully down the dimly-lit thoroughfares, “because the Indians like to wear jewelry.” Hardware shops and DVD stores humming with Bollywood tunes sat right next to traditional cafes serving staple Indian fare and tiny pastry shops, making me gawk at the sheer diversity to be found within one small alleyway alone. As the arcade once again widened out to the main road we saw the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, looking down below its intricately-carved roof over the passing vehicles like a sultan of old calmly observing his subjects. We couldn’t go in for it had closed for the moment, so we stood a while silently admiring the great black doors adorned with golden orbs.

Selections from a traditional sweets shop at Little India Arcade.

Selections from a traditional sweets shop at Little India Arcade.

The roof of the Sri Veerakaliamman Temple.

The roof of the Sri Veerakaliamman Temple.

After he learnt that I hadn’t been to the surrounding areas either, we left Little India in the direction of Arab Street. We wound down a zig-zagging alley where the bustle of the main road seemed to have been swallowed up by a lazy silence, picked our way past a thieves’ market where older men and woman reclined before second-hand items spread out in heaps over mats on the ground, and arrived at the rear courtyard of one of the largest mosques in Singapore. Shedding our footwear, we stepped past the entrance and beheld the prayer hall of Sultan Mosque. An air of quiet, solemn sanctity pervaded the open space, as men knelt down to pray over the massive, intricately-woven carpet facing a rearing alcove that signalled the direction of Mecca, pointing to the mosque’s role as a sanctuary for a soul to recharge from the stresses of life in a busy city-state. It seemed the only signs that we were connected to modern civilization was the digital interface above us displaying the times of prayer and the time ten minutes before the daily breaking of fast at Ramadan (“the orange light,” as the docent explained.)

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We then moved on to Albert Square, the site of the Kwan Im Tong Hood Cho Temple. In a contrast to the severity we wtinessed in the mosque, the temple seemed to thrum with the emotions of the streams of devotees that came in a steady trickle into the front courtyard, carrying their worries and wishes along trails of incense smoke, while inside the temple golden statues of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin, an arhat (an individual said to be far along the path of Enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition) and the Sakyamuni Buddha surveying them with gentle, benevolent gazes. Others knelt in the inner sanctum, shaking out yarrow sticks from cylindrical wooden containers to divine their fortunes according to the Yi Jing (the Book of Changes).

Thomas asked if I could give him a moment to pray. I stood aside and watched as he lit the tips of a thin bundle of joss sticks from a steel brazier at the side of the courtyard. He waved the bundle up and down three times with respectful deliberation before holding the bundle close to his forehead, engaged in a personal moment of reflection. For a moment I wondered what he was praying for, and whether many of those I had seen praying that day were actually connected by the same silent pleas, the same basic hopes and fears, that they wished to convey to their gods.

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After he was done, we went back into the slipstream of modern life. We parted at the Bugis MRT Station, but not before he had given me a range of experiences and feelings to ponder over.

Park Portraits: East Coast Park

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After trekking for an hour and a half from the Eunos MRT station, under a sweltering noontime sun and past arteries choked by the roar and smoke of motor vehicles, I was greeted by the sight of blue water and the smell of the sea at the end of the Siglap Park Connector. The sounds and smells of the road faded away, to be replaced by a sweeping sandy coast enveloped by a thick, drowsy heat under a startlingly blue sky. Unlike the East Coast Park I’d visited in my previous post, a languid air hovered over the park-goers present. Couples and families rolled down the cycling lanes on bikes and tricycles on the inner coast, and further towards the sea others were lying next to each other dipping their toes in the shallows, or trotting around revelling in the sand.

Under the palm trees were a couple of stone benches, for those who just wanted to sit down and soak in the sun and atmosphere. I met a young man sitting by himself on one of them, looking fairly mysterious with his dark shades. After I asked to sit next to him, I was led into a conversation by his soft droning voice. Our words would hover in the air for a short silence at times, before the wind blowing from our backs whisked it out towards the ocean.

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“This is actually the first time in 3 years I’ve been here. I live in Ang Mo Kio, but I have something to do in Changi so I decided to just come here. I was looking for a good place to have lunch, so I ate at Burger King and just decided to come down here to relax. I don’t usually do this, but today is my off-day. I’m self-employed so I have a lot of time.

I run an online business selling removable tattoos. We don’t really supply them to schools (for National Day), because I think they find suppliers with lower prices. My partners are some of my relatives. The thing about this business is that we cater to a niche market so we don’t have a lot of customers. But I don’t feel like expanding.

I’m single. It can be nice at times, but eventually you have to settle down. I’m getting old, haha. Do I like children… I have a young nephew who can be very, very, very naughty, but also very, very cute. And somehow the naughtier he is, the cuter he is.

There are things I wish I could have done; things I wish I could do. One of them is starting a family. But you can’t force it, lah.”

At A Typical Chinese Pharmacy

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I honestly couldn’t think of another way to describe this pharmacy beyond the way it possessed an air of humdrum plainness. The storefront, like its neighbours in the row of shops crouching at a corner of Commonwealth Crescent, seemed so inconspicuous as to nearly melt into the wall behind it, peering out at the courtyard like a sleepy cat. I was drawn in not by any curious thing dangling above the storefront, but the twinkle of a pair of eyes from the shady recesses of the shop’s interior.

My father had told me stories of how his family had run a pharmacy just like this in his youth, when his older sister would have to get up in the morning to grind antelope horns into powder to be dispensed over the counter. I wondered if they, too, had been like the pharmacy owners I saw that afternoon, going about their business with a quiet, slow deliberation while cocooned by the gloom inside the store from the proceedings of the outside world. The place, like all Chinese pharmacies here, seemed equal parts apothecary and personal care store, with a faint odour of herbs hovering above shelves packed with bottles of shampoo next to boxes of cordyceps.

I sat down next to a bespectacled man. He seemed intrigued that I was curious about an ordinary pharmacy. I was intrigued by the red dates he was grabbing in fistfuls and repackaging into smaller bags in a shallow woven basket. After some awkward attempts at talking to him in English we lapsed into Mandarin, talking softly almost as if we were afraid of breaking the stuffy silence that prevailed.

Chan Xin Ping (declined to have photograph taken)

“The shop has been around for 50 years. It was started by my father, and now my uncle and I work here. The shampoo products were always here, but we had to stock more of them because of a lack of business. We get customers, both old and young people. The area is a mature estate so it’s mostly the elderly who live here. I’ve lived here all my life, so I know the people around here. That woman who came in just now, I helped her top up her phone card. We stock animal parts whenever we can, but we don’t have a lot of them anymore because of the new laws.

I have one daughter, 15 this year.” His face glowed. “She’s very clever, she got 282 (out of a possible score of 300) for her PSLE and is studying at Raffles Girls’. She used to be in Nanyang Girls’ Primary, but she went into the gifted programme. Now she’s doing okay. She likes reading, so we let her study on her own–no tuition. I give her a prepaid phone card, $20, since she doesn’t use her phone to surf the Internet, just to call and receive messages. Every two years we get her a new phone, so she’ll get one at her ‘A’ Levels. She comes down to visit me occassionally, but most of the time when she comes back from school at 4, 5 p.m. she’s very tired so she’ll hit the bed and fall asleep. She spends some time with her mother–normally teenagers don’t like to hang around their parents, do they.”

He moved on to packaging preserved plums, and offered me one. We both placed one in our mouths and sucked on it. “Didn’t your mother ever warn you about taking food from strangers?” he asked coyly. “But this tastes better than sour plums doesn’t it?” He opened one of the smaller bags and passed me another.

“Am I happy? Well, I can say I’m used to it. Every job has its stress, but you just have to get used to it. You just have to be content with what you have.”

We sat in momentary silence, sucking on our plums. Then, he looked over his spectacles at me with a twinkling gaze.

“And what about you?”

The Boat Quay Ice-Cream Sellers’ Trail

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My little trip around Boat Quay began with a red bean-flavoured ice cream sandwich and ended with a bottle of water. It took me through an eclectic mix of seeming opposites, in the span of some minutes–tight lanes flanked by stirring eateries and wide grey vistas overlooking the Singapore River, white-collar workers and holiday-goers, ancient history represented by the Asian Civilisations Museum on one bank and the bustle of urbanisation from the modern high-rise buildings on the other.

The path was marked at points by carts where vendors were hawking the ubiquitous potong (‘cut’ in Malay) ice cream, which seemed, ironically enough, to be the one thing that has remained more or less unchanged over the course of decades. The thick rectangular blocks of coconut milk ice cream which would be deftly sliced and served between a pair of wafers, in a plastic cup or between pieces of psychedelic sliced bread only for a dollar has always been popular with the young and old, locals and tourists alike. The selection of flavours–a standard list including mango, raspberry ripple, red bean, peppermint, chocolate chip and durian among others–never changes no matter where you go, and neither do the appearance of the carts marked by their wide red Walls umbrellas.

So it was from sitting next to these ice cream carts that I got to have the best view of the diversity of the crowd frequenting Boat Quay. Red-faced Western holidaymakers toting maps and backpacks, eager Thai tourists brandishing selfie sticks and office workers in their suits and ties would flock to the same place for a bite of ice cream. And the ice cream sellers, as well as others who had also stopped by to watch the crowd, seemed to be in the best position to witness the tide of life that surges past the sleepy Singapore River. True enough, I was regaled by some interesting tidbits of wisdom from our conversations.

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Mr Tan

“I come here at 9 in the morning everyday. Then I stop work at 5–it’s tiring to be working for so long, isn’t it. I didn’t go to school, so I went to the construction industry. Then seven, eight years ago I began selling ice cream. I have kids, they’re all grown up already. I sell ice cream to pass the time, so I don’t get bored.

What’s stress? Stress is just made up. If you study hard and get good grades your parents won’t complain, so you don’t feel any pressure. But when you’re lazy and don’t do well your parents will nag–nah-nah-nah-nah–and so the lazy ones will say, ‘I feel so much pressure’. Those who feel pressure are just lazy. Be careful: from the ages of sixteen to nineteen it’s the easiest for one to be tricked. How? Sit down here and I’ll tell you.

If you mix with bad company, your friends will bring you to the bar, bring you to nightclubs, and you feel like it’s fun. Then you drink and drink until you become tipsy. Then they’ll take advantage of you. You won’t know what happened because you’ll be drunk, and when you wake up you’ll be in a daze until you see what they did to your body. This is why you should never drink at a nightclub.

Branded goods can be a danger. You see some girls who carry branded goods around, right? But their families may not have the money. They get them by selling their bodies. $200 for a girl who hasn’t been slept with before, $100 or $150 for the others. They can make $300 a night just by sleeping with someone twice. Some girls in Vietnam, China, Thailand; they do it for the money.

A rich boyfriend isn’t necessarily better. Those who are rich, they just want to play around with you. They bring you out for a drink, and you think they are good to you. They don’t actually like you, they just want to toy with you. Then when you’re drunk, you don’t know what they do to you, they’ll take advantage of you. They spend and spend, and then they go pok gai. Once you’re around someone long enough, you can see their character and know who to trust. So you should always choose someone who is dependable.

Girl, don’t think I’m trying to be rough with you. Ye-ye (‘grandpa’ in Mandarin) just wants to let you know, because you are still young.”

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“There’s a basket in front of the cart for people to throw their old cans. I just leave it there and people know what to do.” As I spoke to the old lady manning the cart an elderly man walked by with a handful of empty drink cans and dropped them with a loud ‘clang’ into the basket. “The chairs are mine; I leave them out for people to sit down. I come here in the morning and work until late at night.” I asked her if she would retire and she shook her head, a small smile crossing her lips. “What good is retiring? I’ll work as long as I can. Working is good, you have friends to talk to; can earn some money. My husband and I have six children. Sometimes they visit me, and invite me for meals on weekends.”

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Mr Fang

“I’m here for leisure. I met a friend earlier to deliver goods and now I come here to relax. There’s good scenery here. I’m Taiwanese, I got my PR status 15 years ago. I come here for business every two years and the rest of the time I’m in Taiwan. Sometimes my family comes here to visit, so when they’re around I help to look after the grandchildren.

My children are both grown up–one’s 37, the other is 35. My daughter got a government scholarship and went to a university in England, and after that she served a bond with the government. Now both of them are married and have children, so I can spend time doing light work. I’m a supplier to the supermarkets around here, Sheng Siong and others. I also supply to supermarkets in Malaysia and Thailand. Sometimes I’ll bring my family on holiday to Malaysia, and once we went to Australia.

You can tell what people are here for by their footsteps. See that girl? She’s walking slowly, you can tell she’s here for leisure. Maybe she’ll set up the tripod and take pictures. That man is here for work, because he has hurried footsteps. That young man on the scooter over there is delivering goods, in the black pack on his shoulders. You must be here just to walk around since you have time to talk to me, yes? Before I came here, I created the snow ice dessert. We opened branches in Japan and Singapore and sold off the rights to other companies. Mei Heong Yuen got the idea from us. This is why I wear the shirt. Got it for $15 from Japan. I spent my life being busy until I was 60, and now I have other people do my work for me while I stand aside and watch! In Singapore the retirement age is 65, so you have to work until then. No choice.

People who feel pressure are those who think too much. Those in white-collar jobs; their minds are full of thoughts. As long as you study hard, listen to what your teacher tells you, you’ll do okay. Once you leave university it’s that time of life where you have to work hard to save up money.

Here, I’m just an average person. All of us are average people. You and I are ordinary people having a relaxed conversation, aren’t we? This is called, living the good life. Creativity is important. Little children are the most creative. So I talk a lot to little people. Children who are 7, 8 years old always say strange things, and I tell them their ideas can all work. Study when you have to, work when you have to. This all in itself is a little bit of philosophy.”

Balik Kampung

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What better panacea for the maladies of urbanisation than spending the day making bricks, sawing wood and working the land? The Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) seeks to provide exactly that, one day at a time. Every weekend, bright-eyed volunteers from all walks of life–housewives, NSmen, students and directors among them–would gather at the modest premises that serves as the intitative’s headquarters to balik kampung–‘return to the village’ in Malay. Excited and heartened to learn of a community of nature-lovers in this dense urban jungle, I paid them a visit one Saturday morning to see what they were all about.

Going down Lorong Chencharu and stepping into the makeshift kampung felt, for me, almost like stepping into a different realm. In line with the organisation’s goal of being in step with the earth, the premises of their headquarters seemed to be intricately woven in with elements of Nature herself. The roof was crafted of woven straw, which also framed the clusters of lights that hung from the ceiling. The front of the building looked out over a thin stream, flanked by steep grassy banks, and sat adjacent a swathe of forest. Man-made materials such as disused glass bottles and old bicycle wheels had also been artfully incorporated into other parts of the building, adding to its rustic feel rather than detracting from it. Already at eight ‘o clock on a weekend morning the main team of long-term volunteers were getting down to business, discussing the schedule for the day with a lively energy and infectious congeniality.

Shortly after, other volunteers streamed in. The gotong royong (community spirit) that being in touch with the earth fosters soon set in as everyone got down to work after being assigned jobs for the day. Every person there pitched in, whether they were four or forty years old, and individuals who had been total strangers just a few minutes before began to swap friendly banter and ask on each other’s well-being. Such camaraderie was rare in the modernised, urbanised community I had grown up in, and it was then that I understood why some of the older generation here would muse about the kampung days gone by. For two hours everyone had been bonded by the menial work and immersed in a happy atmosphere of enthusiasm, whether they were washing toilets or preparing lunch.

After work for the day was done, everyone sat down in the ‘living room’ to a video on the origins of the Ground-Up Initiative, presented by none other but the founder Tay Lai Hock himself. Here I have endeavoured to render his narrative, coloured with anecdotes and steeled with a solid conviction, of the story behind the kampung as best as I remember it.

The Balik Kampung crew, with Lai Hock first from left in the front row.

The Balik Kampung crew, with Lai Hock first from left in the front row.

Tay Lai Hock

“I always love village life. I went backpacking for four years and for two months I stayed in a village in Thailand. There was very little lighting, lighting was very dim, and if you want hot water you have to go down to the stream and get the water yourself. People would say, ‘Wow Lai Hock you must really like village life,’ but I’d never lived in a village before then! The closest was that the street name was Kampong Aran. Then I met an Irish lady while hitchiking, who would go back to Ireland every six months to take care of her mother. She said, ‘I’m going to WWOOF in Spain!’ and at first I thought it was ‘woof’ as in the sound the dog makes, and she explained it was World Wide Oppurtunities on Organic Farms. Then I met another woman who said, ‘I’m going to WWOOF in Ecuador!’ So I helped out at an organic farm in Ecuador. There was no heater. The toilet we used was a composting toilet! We had to work with horse shit everyday. At first I thought it would only be old people on the farm, but there were actually two young men helping out. In Ecuador I held a photo exhibition to help the poor, and I went out on the streets, asking people to come see my photos. Some of them would ask me, ‘Are you Ecuadorian?’ and I told them, ‘No I’m a Singaporean’ and they replied, ‘Then why are you helping us?’ I told them, ‘I can’t just be a bystander, can I?’ We even decided to create a website–Internet speed was only 56 kb/s at the time–and mobilised people to help!

I went backpacking in New Zealand and stayed with a friend. She’s Malaysian; married a Kiwi. You see their children were playing, so carefree! Not like Singaporean kids; they’re so annoying–not all, of course! There I attended a lecture by a local professor on the bank of a river. There was no public transport so people had different ways of getting there. One guy came all the way down the river in a canoe! The professor told us, ‘You can lie down,’ so there were people just lying down on picnic mats listening to his lecture! We ate fresh fruit. Crushed our own apple juice–I never drank so much apple juice in my life. There was a guy who powered a washing machine using his bicycle. Can exercise and wash his clothes at the same time. A house built in a truck–would you like to live in one? I helped to build that house. And they made their own pizza and served it on cardboard. Wow, cardboard, who knew?

But then I went hitchiking again and they say, ‘When you go hitchiking in New Zealand 90 percent you will see Maori.’ One day a Maori driver in a cab pulled up next to me. I told him ‘I want to go this way.’ He said, ‘I’m going the other way, but I can take you to someone who’s going that way.’ We went to his house and he asked, ‘Have you eaten breakfast?’ I said ‘No’ and he replied ‘Well we have fish head freshly-caught this morning, would you like it smoked?’ And I love fish head; I’m a Singaporean! And what struck me was how they were willing to share what they have with others.

I met a professor who was very unhappy. Had a war with his neighbour for 20 years. You would think he’d be very healthy but he died of a brain tumour. His last words before he died were, ‘I should have focused on the right thing.’ That thing was happiness.

Then I realised that a lot of society’s vices are caused because there is no farming. Singapore is unhappy, because we are so heavily urbanised. Maybe that’s why the country is so rich, because we are so unhappy. I decided to return to Singapore while sitting in the Sahara Desert in 2002. When I came back I decided to reach out to the students by talks in the polytechnics. When I was at ITE I saw the students were very sleepy so I told them, ‘You can lie down’ and they were shocked. But after lying down for ten minutes all of them were sitting up. Later when I was volunteering in Malaysia I gathered a group of volunteers and I decided to call this the Ground-Up Initiative.

I started this project back in 2008. People would ask me, ‘Lai Hock, are you an architect? Do you have enough funds?’ But I have guts, and I have heart. In 2001 I approached the owners of Bottle Tree Park wanting to rent the land. The owner told me one sentence in Chinese ‘先做给我看.’ Let me see it first. We rented the land for two years, and there were more people coming to give their support. Now we managed to lease the land for another 6 years. 

There’s also a spiritual dimension to farming. We’re an open, multi-faith community. We want to nurture leaders by teaching them through farming. To have a sustainable community, you need to farm your heart first. Some days I feel like giving up, but it’s the people that keep me going.”

At noon, the communal plant-based lunch was ready. Ending the day by tucking into mixed rice and vegetable soup with new friends didn’t just hail the camaraderie we had forged over the span of a few hours. It was also a tribute to the inter-connectedness of man and the natural world.

Chia Chia (first from right) and the international kitchen team.

Chia Chia (first from right) and the international kitchen team.

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Sustainable living in progress.

Sustainable living in progress.

Park Portraits: Katong Park

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Katong Park felt like a lonely oasis of green fenced in by the wide, bleak lanes of tarmac that made up Fort and Meyer Road. I had the sense I was walking through an urban desert as I approached it, for the buildings and construction sites on both sides looked bone-dry under the glare of a late afternoon sun. As I stepped onto the stone path leading into the park I couldn’t pick up any trace of human presence at first, which unnerved me for a split second before I reckoned that this would be a nice place to move away from the fast lane in this otherwise heavily-urbanised island. There were signboards relating the history of the park as the former site of a British military fort and later a previously-popular leisure destination, but even those appeared forgotten and forlorn against the tide of urban life that swept past and away from the park.

I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with a gentleman that I met sitting under a pavilion in the middle of the park, after spending a few moments gesticulating at him from a distance to ask if I could take his photograph. I shan’t attempt to introduce him any further, but let his words speak for themselves about another dimension of the human experience in Singapore.

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“I come here to relax until 5, 6; then I go to work, I’m in the security line over at the Dhoby Ghaut side. I’m here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, but not Saturday and Sunday because I work the double shift. I just sleep here until work. It’s nice here–fresh air, quiet, no crowds. In the morning I go to the market down the road for a good breakfast of half-boiled eggs, then I come back here. Before work I’ll go to the swimming complex to shower, you have to pay 50 cents to go in. Sometimes I bring my laundry to the place where you put the coin in and watch it spin, wash it for $5. Sometimes tour buses come here to talk about the history of the area. They sometimes hold discussions here and they ask me, ‘Excuse me can you please move’ so I’ll move all the way to the other side. 

I used to live in one of the condos around the area; that was 25 years ago. I’m married, I have two sons. Eldest is 28 and working in the shipping industry. You don’t hear about people like us in the newspaper. They like to say ‘Singapore is number 1 at everything’ but you still have people living in hardship. At East Coast Park there is a free shower area, the homeless families go there to wash their clothes. On Nicoll Highway you can also see homeless family members sleeping. I don’t like Singapore. Singaporeans are like robots–go to work, come back, go to work, come back. And–sorry to say–but children in Singapore aren’t filial to their parents, they live very far from each other. Singapore is safe, but I think you should experience life in a foreign country.

I would move to Indonesia, Batam, Malaysia. Batam is a 45-minute ferry ride from Harbourfront. Batam is very nice; I used to go there. Many good places for diving, and shopping there is very cheap. Here in Singapore everything is expensive. Is there anything I would change… I just want a more comfortable life. I want to lead a simple life elsewhere.

I can’t say I ever feel happy. I can’t feel happy in Singapore. But I have friends who cheer up. I like to make other people cheer up. And I think as long as you have two hands, two legs, then you should continue working. Everyone needs to sustain themselves.”

Jin Seng Confectionery

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The row of storefronts flanking the old Ghim Moh Market had, for months, stirred only a passing interest as I was whisked along by my mother to complete our morning shopping. Earlier this year, though, I decided to let my feet guide me to this little nook one lazy afternoon. Jin Seng Confectionery is one of the few remaining bakeries left in Singapore that still sell some varieties of old-school local pastries which have long disappeared from the shelves of most.

The diversity of goods on sale surprised me–ranging from loaves filled with custard and classic favourites like cream puffs, sausage rolls and blackforest cake, to Swiss rolls and mounds of marble and chiffon cake and others I’d never seen before like the curiously-named ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ buns. Since the Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching at the time they also displayed a selection of special treats. Mooncakes, both the classic varieties with a thick crust filled with red bean and lotus paste, as well as the smaller snowskin varieties coming in flavours such as coffee and black sesame and durian, were proudly arranged at the front of the store. Facing them was a table laden with more traditional variations on the Mid-Autumn Festival delicacy: crispy-skinned red bean mooncakes packaged in long paper tubes, disc-shaped Teochew mooncakes with a diameter twice the width of my face; colourful plastic baskets bristling with miniature piglets and carp fashioned of brown dough. I was introduced to each of them in turn by a lady shop assistant who had seen me approach the shop.

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She introduced herself in Mandarin as the elder sister of the wife of the ‘big boss’ and told me the business was family-run.“They’re not really from Shanghai; our lao ban (‘boss’ in Mandarin) makes them himself!” she declared as I enquired about the ‘Shanghai buns’ on sale. I asked her if they would be moving out once the market closed for renovation. “No, we’ll be staying right here,” she replied firmly. “But there’ll be less people coming here because they’ll all cross the road to go the new market.”

I proceeded to the back of the shop, where the boss himself could be seen working away in the kitchen with his wife. When I motioned to them to ask if I could take a picture, I was led into the kitchen to meet the folks behind the establishment. The lady boss leaned in close and, with a twinkle of her eye, began in Mandarin to let me in on the background of their business.

Mr Chen, Mdm Dai and their nephew.

Mr Chen (centre), Mdm Dai (right) and their nephew

Mdm Dai: “The woman you saw outside is my elder sister; this boy is her son. Every morning we start work around 3 a.m.; we go home once most of the things are sold out. We started this shop on National Day, 1988–this means we’ve been working for 26 years! Most of our customers come over from Ghim Moh Market after their meals. There isn’t anything particularly popular; customers just buy what they like to eat. We’ve always been here, so we’ll stay here. If we can continue to dong (persevere), we will continue! Many modern bakeries don’t want to do this sort of thing anymore, and many young people don’t want to take up the business.”

I do hope that, as Mdm Dai said, Jin Seng Confectionery will continue to ‘dong‘ and continue being a bastion of traditional baking in Singapore. Without any upgrades or publicity they might, unfortunately, be swept away by the tides of time. Even if that happens, I hope their determination and warm spirit can persevere in the hearts of others like them, out there.

Some of the bakery's Mid-Autumn offers.

Some of the bakery’s Mid-Autumn offers.

A bushel of little piggies.

A bushel of little piggies.

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