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.

Danke


[Bus Station. Originally uploaded by gennie catastrophe.]

Monday, 12 November 2007.

Vienna.

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.

Random story: Coffeeshop scene – What was it like in the old days?

I’m sitting at a neighbourhood coffeeshop. There are about ten people. All above middle-age. Mostly male. Sitting around the mostly empty seats. The lunch time crowd has yet to break out of their offices and homes.

Two tables away, a man in polo shirt and Bermudas reads his papers with a cigarette in hand. Another table away, three men are engaged in conversation, sporadically staring out at the main road from their seat. Hi-Fi speakers suspended at the corner of a pillar blare out modern Chinese songs, alternating between Sentimental and Techno-Pop.

A coffeeshop lady, uniformed in an orange T-shirt, asks what I wanted for a drink.

“Teh-C,” I say.

My noodles is served. I pay the man $3. A consistent breeze wafts across where I sit. The steady noise from the busy main road serves as background noise.

The coffeeshop lady switches on the 26″ Toshiba flatscreen TV. I notice the screen size as being much bigger than what I have at home. The LCD screen comes to life with a Taiwanese soapbox. The coffeeshop lady adjusts the TV volume down. The Hi-Fi continues to blare the Chinese Techo-Pop. The cornucopia of sounds becomes a mishmash of noise that is surprisingly not unpleasant.

My Teh-C has long since been drunk. The cup and empty noodle bowl efficiently cleared by the coffeeshop’s hired cleaners. If not for the warm pleasant contents in my stomach, I would’ve thought I’d not eaten.

Subtly, the whole place seems to wake a notch. The noise increases slightly as more customers arrive.

And as I sit here listening and observing, I wonder how anyone would describe a coffeeshop scene 50 years from now.

Would there still be a coffee shop? What did a coffeeshop scene looked like 50 years ago?

I switch on my handphone and connect to wireless@SG (it is a no-brainer that they didn’t have WIFI at coffeeshops 50 years ago). Tried to Google for some archival images but the connection is too slow. Ah well… things may improve 50 years from now.


People in coffee shop” originally uploaded by Mr. Dew. Image licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0.

No more Char Kuay Teow at Armenian Street

This was the coffee shop at Armenian Street. I took these pictures around 7.10pm, from across the street at the SubStation.
Dusk on Armenian Street

Dusk casted a gray pallor. The amber glow from the street lamps were the only source of light.

A group of executives talked loudly from their alcohol high. A mix of Singaporean and Scottish accents.

A man dressed in polo-T and shorts, carrying a single golf club, joined their table. They shouted to the drink stall guy for an extra glass.

At another table, two Thai or Burmese blue-collar workers were enjoying a smoke.

Dusk on Armenian Street

Earlier, I overheard a conversation between the Char Kuay Teow man and a customer.

The Char Kuay Teow man said he’d been there since 1979. Rental used to be from a few hundred dollars, compared to $2,000 plus now.

Business had been worse since MPH moved out. And worsened after the National Library was relocated. The stall has had some business from SMU students on weekdays. The church nearby brought in business on weekends.

He didn’t say business was tough. He needn’t have to.

All that was about a year ago.

When I passed by the coffee shop recently, the place was boarded up.

Closed for good or just for renovation, I didn’t check.

The business of books.

It affects people in more ways than one. Definitely for that Char Kuay Teow man.

Letter to Singapore

[Originally submitted to Stories.sg, for its inaugural issue, Aug 2008]

Dear Singapore,

I hope you’re not offended when I say that you’re not the most beautiful person in the world.

I know what I’m talking about.

I’ve met others in the past 10 years: North America, China, Europe, South Africa, Japan…

But each time I venture out, I yearn to come back to you.

I can’t help it.

When I consider how expensive the taxi fares are in those foreign cities, I don’t mind giving you the occasional ERP charges.

When over there, walking from place to place is often not an option, physically or for reasons of personal safety.

When I’m hungry in the dead of night and realise there is no coffeeshop or convenience store to pop by on a whim.

I’m chicken when it comes to venturing out. In some ways, I blame you.

You are that familiar person I take for granted.

Because you allow me to.

Sometimes I wonder if you take me for granted as well. For two point five years my friends and I played the equivalent of modern day knights, in camouflaged uniforms, defending your honour.

We shed sweat, tears, a little blood, and a fair bit of curses.

For you.

And we did it proudly.

(Though most times we egoistical boys have to act cool and not acknowledge our pride in serving those two point five years).

I’ve been to places much more beautiful than you. But what is beauty if it only makes me feel more like a stranger in a strange land?

You’re not perfect.

But neither am I.

In fairness, we’ve managed to work on, rather than abandon, our relationship.

I’ve never written a love letter to another person other than my wife.

So this isn’t a one.

But it’s close enough.

Yours Sincerely,
Ivan

Gratitude

[First published at RamblingLibrarian, 29 Sept 2008]

I had to work a few hours overtime this evening.

The sky was pitch black by the time I left the office.

On my way home, I went past a school. Its canteen was lit. Students sitting on benches, peering down on textbooks.

Must be exam mugging session, I thought.

Instantly I was brought back to my O-level year. My school also opened up our canteen for students who chose to revise their work in school.

I remembered those nights, some 20 years ago.

My school opened up its school canteen to a group of us, mostly boys, so that we could revise for the exams. Our homes were too noisy and cramped.

Age and time changes one’s perspective.

Until tonight, it never entered my consciousness that teachers too had to work overtime for us back then. They could have been home watching TV. Being with their family.

As a student, I didn’t hear or consider any of that. We’d taken for granted that teachers had to be there.

It finally dawned on me about 20 years later.

So.

To my teachers who did their share of overtime for us then. And for teachers who continue to do so for students today.

Thank you.

It might take a long time.

A decade or two.

But eventually some of us kids will learn what is gratitude.