No such thing as ghosts

Update 10 Sept 2011: this story is submitted as a contribution for CC:SG Festival 2011.

My submission for Writing the City, July 2011 theme, “Local Magic”. Submitted 31 Jul 2011.

About this piece: I started on this just one day before the deadline. Not so much for the contest but as a personal challenge. The deadline loomed. National Service, BMT, ghost story – those were the closest ideas that surfaced, to the themes of “being local”, “superstition” and “magic”.

No such thing as ghosts
July 31, 2011 By ivan chew in Competitions, Local Magic

Chan was lost.

Night exercise, Basic Military Training. Their platoon sergeant thought to bring them through a forest short-cut, back to camp. So they entered the Tekong foliage, single-file, bathed in patches of moonlight. Not long after, Chan found himself detached from the rest of his fellow recruits.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Chan assured himself yet again. He had an inherent fear of the dark. It did not help that his platoon sergeant chose to share a ghost story just yesterday evening. A supposedly true camp lore. About the lingering spirit of a recruit who died in training.

Using his torchlight did not help Chan one bit. The night forest looked absolutely alien. It did not occur to Chan to shout for attention. His mind spiraled between hopes of reaching the main walking trail, and sheer terror of not knowing where he was.

He stumbled, groped, tripped, crawled, scrambled. He was scratched, poked, choked by the unfriendly jumble. His spectacles was all fogged up. His panic reached a point that his legs gave way. He sat down heavily, sobbing.

“Eh, here.”

Chan turned in the direction of the voice. “Alan? Buddy, that you?”

“Here. Here lah.”

A gush of immense relief and gratitude soaked through Chan. Although he could not see very far with his fogged up spectacles, Chan could hear his buddy’s voice quite clearly. It seemed to take Chan only a few steps to be back on the main trail. He saw his platoon mates several meters ahead.

They all made it back to camp.

While washing their boots, Chan went up to his buddy. “Alan, thanks. Lucky you came back for me. I must have been walking in circles.”

His buddy looked puzzled. “Since when did I go back for you? You sure took your bloody time though. We were the last two.”

Chan involuntarily shivered.

It suddenly dawned on him that his buddy spoke only English. The voice he heard in the forest had spoken in Mandarin. ”这里.” Here.

“Chan, you OK not? Suddenly look so shocked. Seen a ghost or what?”

Chan stared past the camp perimeter, beyond the lights. The forest remained impenetrable.

He managed a croak. “No.”

After a longer pause, he said, “No such things as ghosts. I don’t believe in them.

But I think there are guardian angels.”

“The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog”

To my 13-year old eyes, it was a huge grey hulk of a machine.

Must have weighed at least 10 kilogrammes.

A typewriter.

Remington Typewriter. Originally uploaded by alonso_inostrosa. . CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Till then, I had never seen one up close before. Pa brought it home from his office. Said the office didn’t want it any more. He taught the three of us how to type on the QWERTY keyboard.

The proper way.

Left pinkie on ‘A’, the third finger on ‘S’, the middle for ‘D’, index finger for ‘F’ and ‘G’.

Rather unnatural at first. But my father said it was necessary to learn the proper fingering. If we wanted to type without looking at the keys.

I spent hours typing on that machine.

Became proficient with “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog“. That was the first sentence Pa taught us to type. Said the phrase contains all of the letters of the alphabet (the very idea blew me away!)

For practice, I copied chunks of text right out of books (upon hindsight, I should have copied from my school text books).

Sometimes I invented my own stories.

One time I liked a short SciFi story so much that I reproduced the entire text on the typewriter. My very first act of copyright violation, I think.

One day Pa remarked that my typing speed had improved. He observed that I could type fairly quickly and error-free without looking at the keys. But he noticed I didn’t quite follow the standard fingering.

Still, Pa said: “As long as you get the same results, it doesn’t matter”.


Lear-Siegler ADM5 video display terminal

Lear-Siegler ADM5 video display terminal. Originally uploaded by LevitateMe. . CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

When I discovered OPAC terminals at my public library, I found one more reason to visit the library on a regular basis. I would queue to use the terminal. Just to type on its keys.

The OPAC was a big clunky machine (in those days, it seemed everything was big and clunky). Old-style “dumb-terminal”. The keyboard produced a distinctive ‘whispery clacky’ sound. I just found it fun to type on it.

Library Geek.

Mazovia 1016, Polish PC XT clone, pt. 3. Originally uploaded by Marcin Wichary. CC-BY 2.0.

At 17, after I enrolled in a polytechnic, I started using computers on a regular basis. For my Business Studies course.

Top-of-the-line machines back then: XTs and 386s.

Students had free use of equipment if there were no classes scheduled in the lab. First-come-first-use. No time limit. Free use of the printers too. Dot-matrix. Noisy buggers.

I would pop into the computer lab between classes. Switched on the computer, fire up the Word processor (heard of Wordstar?) and just typed stories for practice.

The lab was usually unoccupied (I suppose it was because the Internet was not available in those days). But one day, after I had been in the lab for about half an hour, I found the lab fully occupied. Maybe there was a deadline for assignments.

A girl was waiting behind me, looking over my shoulder.

I continued typing my story, but felt increasingly self-conscious. So I got up and left.

She must have seen what I was writing (a science fiction story). Because as I left, she remarked loudly enough: “Students who are not from this course should not use the computers here”.

I didn’t want an argument. Though in my mind, I thought there was no rule against using the computers for purposes beyond coding Dbase programs or whacking out class assignments.

20090823-Typewriter-3. Originally uploaded by rahego. CC-BY 2.0.

No, I wasn’t obsessed with the keyboard.

I think it was because I liked to get ideas out of my head fast. Writing by hand was rather tedious. It always reached a point where my writing speed slowed but the thinking process increased. Then the quality of my handwriting deteriorated.

Typing became a more productive exercise in creation. Taking less effort in transforming formless ideas in my head onto something more tangible, magically appear on paper or on a screen.

But yeah, I do admit that at some level I like the feel of the keys. The sound that the keys made.

It just adds to the “writing” experience.

Stuff that matters

It’s New Year’s Eve today. At work, everyone was in a good mood.

What made the eves of holidays such good cheer, I wondered.

Because it’s a once-a-year event? When everyone spontaneously decide to breath a little easier?

Then why can’t everyday be New Year’s Eve or the equivalent? The irony might be that if everyday was New Year’s Eve, we will inevitably take it for granted. Like Sundays, and our dread of Mondays.

What is it about the rest of the year that makes us forget how to relax?

“Our day is how we make it to be”. I believe that. I’m aware that our moods and actions affect others, as theirs on ours.

But I’ve not always been able to stay upbeat.

And there are times the moods and actions of others just overwhelms…

As my thoughts reach this juncture, I’m reminded of this book. About the power of losing control.


And oddly empowering.

Maybe the key is realising we have more control over how we affect others, than they on us.

Thinking back on the year, I’m sure on the days that I thought things weren’t going right for me, I might have unconsciously made things worse for others.

So, some New Year’s Resolutions of sorts:

I won’t aim to stay happy every single day (only drugs can do that).

Instead, I’ll strive to be aware. And for conscious practice.

To be mindful of my own reactions, and actions. Of things that are within my control.

To learn to take myself less seriously.

To genuinely think the better of others.

To be grateful for family, friends and companions. Without expectations.

To remind myself that come what may, the world still tilts and spins like yesterday. And tomorrow.

The Little Things…
Originally uploaded by Ev0luti0nary

Happy New Year, all.

My Fender Stratocaster

Two weeks ago, I bought a pre-owned (OK, call it “used”) Fender Stratocaster. From Guitar77 (basement of Peninsula Excelsior Shopping).

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

I checked the Fender website serial numbers (mine’s a Mexican model). Must be something built in 1996 or 1997 (more pictures below).

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster

Why did I buy this?

Part indulgence, and part curiosity. Now that I’ve tried a Les Paul and also a bass, I thought it was time to try out a Strat. Meaning, it would be something I would use (rather than buy on a whim and then be an expensive dust collector).

I didn’t want to spend too much on one though. A friend told me they might have used models at Peninsular. I dropped by one day with the intention to try rather than buy. The Guitar77 outlet was the second shop I visited that had used Strats. Asked if I could try a few on display. Decided this one was it. Somehow the sound was more mellow than the new model. And cheaper too.

It’s got some superficial blemishes — cracked paint job, scratches, rust spots.

But the neck feels really RIGHT and the body just resonates. I guess this is a sign of old age/ maturity. I no longer go for looks that much. It’s the feel and sound that matters.

[note: The photos are licensed under a CC-BY license, and can be found as a set here.]

Family, Friends, Food

My impressions of Croatia, when I was there for seven days (back in 2008 for a speaking engagement):

The Croatian language sounds, to my ears, a mix between Italian and Russian. My hosts were excellent. My hotel arrangements, travel, dining, were all efficiently organised.

The last war was still on people’s minds. It remained a sensitive topic. Somewhat taboo. Complicated history.

Graffiti everywhere. In Pula, Rjeika, Zagreb.

Values seemed very “Asian” to me. I was told that might be due to their Slavic roots.

Their service staff were warm and personable, which I found surprising. I had expected them to be like Europeans — more ‘cold’ and ‘business-like’. I remembered Vienna’s waiters seemed to tell you things by rote. And only when you asked. In Croatia, the service staff proactively approached you to ask if you needed anything. It’s also in their tone and body language.

Croatia’s city roads were generally clean but I also noticed enough litter and trash.

Felt quite safe.

Food tasted familiar, if you’ve eaten in restaurants in Singapore that served Italian/ European food – meat, potatoes, bread.

Second-hand cigarette smoke in enclosed places (it seems from 2009 January, there would be a ban on indoor smoking).

In speaking with the Croatian librarians, I had the impression that they were like familiar friends. Even though I’ve only met them over seven days. They didn’t come across as ‘brimstone and fire’, like how I tended to see the Italians and Greeks. I sensed that Croatians tended to be rational and resilient.

Hospitable people.

Warm but not loud.

I asked the three Croatian librarians at my table to name three things that Croatians view as ‘Most Important’.

They unanimously agreed: “Family, Friends, Food.”

Sounded like home.

Zagreb, Pleso – 30mins bus trip to Zagreb central bus station.
4 hour ride to Pula.
Pula to Rjeika in 2hrs 15mins
Rjeika to Zagreb in 3 hours

Border lines

As related to me by a Croatian librarian, when they hosted me in 2008 as part of a speaking engagement:

She was holidaying at her hometown. She began thinking about her long-lost childhood friend. To her immense surprise, the bus she took stopped in front of a house, which she recognised as her friend’s home. She said her jaw dropped. That’s how unexpected it was.

She walked up to the house, which she’d only visited only once — so many, many years ago.

Knocked on the door.

It opened. A man she recognised as her friend’s eldest brother.

She introduced herself and explained who she was. And who she was looking for.

The man also recognised her. Said her his sister (a Croat) had married a Serb and was now residing in Serbia. He provided his sister’s address and phone number in Serbia.

She, the Croatian librarian who was telling me her story, wrote a letter to her friend. No reply after three months.

She decided to call her friend, in Serbia.

Her friend picked up the call. Sounded shell-shocked, as the tale was told: the holiday, the bus ride, the serendipitous discovery, the recognition, the letter, the lack of response. And finally the phone call.

Her friend said she didn’t receive the letter. Even made a trip to the post office to look for it. Suspected that the post office staff might
have thrown the letter away. Said that tended to happen.

Because she was Croatian, living among the Serbs.

I wondered: did the letter get through? Maybe it was discarded or confiscated before it was ever sent. Or maybe the post office staff in the Serbian village still harbored ill-feelings from the war.

Whatever the cause, the fact was that the war was still a sensitive topic.

When the above story was told to me, Croatia is preparing to enter the EU. The Hague was pursuing the 1991 war crimes. Some Croats felt there was a bias; that the Croats were persecuted more than the Serbs when both sides were guilty of war crimes.

It may not be truly resolved for a long, long time.

Yet one can hope.

One must.

April’s Dawn (part 2)

[From Part 1]

Dawn's Sky 3

From the quiet park, I walk into a slumbering HDB estate. I am in a carpark, larger than most. Instead of the usual family-sized cars and SUVs, I’m towered by buses and trucks. Hundreds of residents were still asleep on this Sunday morning. There is/ was no clattering of pans and plates. No blares of Sunday morning cartoon channels.

My stomach signaled for food. I am at a coffee shop under a HDB block. I’m in an unfamilar part of my neighbourhood but in a familar setting. Only a handful of customers having breakfast of prata and coffee, or tea. My breakfast was noodles and Teh-c.

Like most hawkers and proprietors nowadays, they were cordial and prompt. But this coffee shop seemed to be a bit friendlier than most. Not exactly bright chirpy faces but there were no dour expressions despite the early hour. The stern looking, short skinny mustachioed man took my order and served me my tea. I asked, in Hokkien, if it was 90 cents. He said yes accepted my payment with a thank you, in Singaporean-accented Mandarin.

In between mouthfuls, i glanced at the customers. At the far corner, the proprietess of the drink stall was having a quiet joke with some customers. An elderly woman sat directly ahead of me, five tables away. She had a pao and coffee, reading her morning news.

The short and skinny mustachioed drink stall assistant was clearing the tables of empty cups, serving the desired beverages, taking more orders. He shouting the orders out loud as he walked back to the stall. The desired beverages appeared like magic on the drink stall counter.

A table of four were on my left, probably a family — with a two aged men a woman, and a teenage boy. They were soon joined by a young mother carrying her infant. The mother cooed her baby with a tibit, who gurgled but ignored the treat.

The prata man was busy with his flipping and frying. The man who sold me my breakfast was now sitting down to eat his own. He bought his from the prata man. I wondered what the prata man would eat.

My plate and cup was empty. My watch told me it was a quarter past 7. It’d been under an hour from my short jaunt at the park to my finishing breakfast. The sky had brightened without my notice. The ground was wet but the rain has since stopped. The neighbourhood has awoken. There are more customers buying their breakfast. Some still in pajamas. Some in their Sunday finery.

On a whim, I decided to write all this down. Maybe it was the still quiet morning and warm food in my belly. As I come to the end of this note, an hour and half has passed — longer than my walk. The coffee shop is filled with customers but not quite full. I’m undisturbed and largely ignored. The coffee shop lady comes over. She clears my table. She doesn’t look at me or speak. But she has a friendly smile. I’m not surprised why there’s a neighbourly charm to this place.

I stand up and walked home, contented.

April’s Dawn (part 1)

Dawn's Sky 1

Flashes in the distant sky. Would it rain?

Shouldn’t matter. The email said rain or shine, the brisk walking party would be there. My concern was whether I’d reach the meeting point on time.They said they would start their walk on the dot.

My handphone buzzed.

“Heavy rain everywhere. Walk is canceled.”

Looking out of the bus, I noticed a reservoir ahead. I’d often passed over the years but never had a reason to stop. I looked up from where I was seated. The sky was still dark in the way dawn is. Since I was out already, I might as well make a reason for myself.

Pressed the bus bell. The driver let me out. Stepped from the artificial cool of the air-con bus onto the snappy breeze of dawn. The rumble of the bus trailed away.

The rustle of the dew-laden trees filled the silence.

There was a pier in the distance. Further back was a golf green lit in harsh halogen white. A gentle breeze caressed the water’s surface. Small ripples breaking the reflection of the man-made lights on obsidian waves.

The park was deserted, save for two or three individuals resting under small shelters along the foot path. I stepped from stoney path to wooden board, and walked till the end of the pier. There was only the sound of water and wind. I positioned myself to take a few pictures of the distant lights. I was surprised to find that there were more colours captured on camera than my eye could see.

It started to rain, droplets growing into pelting water bombs. I hurried to a sheltered part of the pier. A man got off his bicycle and sought shelter as well. Probably came here to fish. There was plenty of room. He was my silent company while I waited out the rain.

When the showers slowed to a light drizzle, I left the pier and walked along the path to explore the rest of the park. There wasn’t much to see, partly because it was still dark, and because there wasn’t much to the park. I’d quickly reached the end of the path. I walked to the main road with a promise to be back.

Dawn's Sky 2

Defining love

Met a buddy of mine, from my NS days.

Seventeen years ago, we were in the same platoon for our Basic Military Training.

He was an extrovert, loud and brash, full of bluster. I was the soft-spoken introvert. He had only O-levels while I had a diploma in Business Studies.

But what he lacked in educational qualifications, he more than made up for it with street-smart confidence. I was definitely the more naive one.

My army buddy would be married in a few months time. We didn’t go into the typical “good old army days” talk, as NSmen tended to do.

We talked mostly about relationships.

We talked about love.

And he said something like this:

To explain what is love, it is not enough to say “It is a husband’s love for his wife”. Or “A son’s love for his father”.

Love is about a father getting up at 3am to feed his crying infant. It is about slogging hard and saving hard to send his child to school.

Those are acts of love. And that is the ordinary things people do in life.

I have concluded that Love is Life itself.

He said all that in less than perfect grammar.

Yet, as I write this, my own words seem less eloquent. And incomplete.

My army buddy.

He earned himself a diploma after his full-time NS. Today he has his own successful career.

He’s still loud. Still brash.

But I’m no longer surprised that beneath that bluster lies a sensitive soul.


[Bus Station. Originally uploaded by gennie catastrophe.]

Monday, 12 November 2007.


I planned to take a bus to Vienna Woods.

“Schwedenplatz to Hutteldorf (U4 green line). Take Bus 147 all the way till the end, before the bus loops back (you’ll know ‘cos that’s when everyone gets off)”.

And so said the Frommers travel guide.

“Take bus 174,” said the lady behind the counter, at the bus station.

No extra charge, as I had a weekly pass.

But where is Bus 174?

I wandered from stop to stop, between bus sign posts spaced a few metres apart.

There was one bus with a driver in it. I went up the bus and asked the driver if it went to Huttelburg. He pointed and gestured and replied in German.

I had absolutely no idea what he just said. Thanked him anyway, in German, and got off the bus.

So I decided to approach a man who was waiting for his bus. A tall man, serious-looking. Dressed in a business suit, with a heavy coat over it.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I asked.

A little, he replied with a smile.

“Do you know where I could take bus 174?”

He apologetically said he didn’t know as he wasn’t from around here. Immediately, he went to take a look at the posters on the bus stop post. He stared at it for a while.

Where do you wish to go, he asked.

Huttleburg, I said. I didn’t trust my German pronunciation so I showed him what I had written down earlier. He said it out loud, more for his benefit than mine it seems. Good thing I wrote the words, for my German pronunciation was off.

He walked over to ask an old lady. They conversed in German.

Apparently she didn’t know how to get there either, for she walked over to a cab driver (who was in his cab). She knocked on the window. The driver wound it down. She was too far away for me to catch what she said. Not that I would’ve understood her.

I turned to the man whom I had asked for assistance.

Sorry to have bothered you, I said.

“Oh it’s OK,” he replied. With a smile.

I turned to look at the old lady. She was still conversing with the cabbie. By now, a few other people had noticed our little drama of sorts. I was starting to feel embarrassed, to have troubled no less than three strangers.

The cab driver pointed to a bus stop. The old lady thanked the cabbie (that much German, I understood). She walked a few steps repeated his instructions to the man in the suit.

The man thanked her.

“Danke,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said to the old lady (I still didn’t trust my pronunciation).

“Bitte,” she responded in kind.

The man walked me over to a stop.

Bus 147, he pointed.

Ah! I had gotten the bus number wrong. It wasn’t 174.

Thanks for your help, I said.

“You’re welcome.”

With a quick smile.

And then he walked off so quickly that I thought I had missed something. A handshake. A longer grasp of hands even.

But no, it was as if he helped total strangers routinely and didn’t think much about the whole episode.

In my mind, I thought: I doubt if I would ever meet you again, Sir. Or you, Madam.

But Danke.

The few German words I truly understand.