Monk + Money = Monkey Business?

23 07 2009

The coverage of Reverend Shi Ming Yi’s trial led to a small balcony discussion between me and my wife, and subsequently, a number of lengthy comments between me and a skeptic (with good reason) in – of all people and in all places – local celebrity Ken Tay’s Facebook profile.

For those not in the know, following the very messy and sensationalised NKF scandal comes a new high-tension drama series – “Ren Ci Hospital“, starring the Vulnerable Reverend Shi Ming Yi (I’ll explain the use of the term “vulnerable” later).

The synopsis: said Reverend was arrested in the middle of last year and put on trial a day later after a five-month probe into the hospital’s alleged misappropriation of funds, found in undeclared interest-free loans to individuals and businesses working with the organisation. Digging deeper into the dirt, the prosecution found additional discrepancies, not only of the Reverend’s very fat bank account, but also of his history in property investments here in Singapore and in Perth, Australia, his chauffeur and various cars of significant worth (we’re talking Beemers and Volvos; I drive a Nissan Sunny, and it isn’t even mine), not to mention his allegedly “doctored” philosphy PhD from a questionable educational institution.

Now, we’re talking about a big-time charity figure who’s been earning millions for the organisation(s) he represents, and is known throughout high society (middle and low as well, for that matter) as the foremost Buddhism advocate in Singapore, Johor (and some say Batam). My first real interest in this matter was piqued while I was in the midst of moping about my own finances, when I read a headline mentioning the Reverend’s bank account; my first thought (which I subsequently posted on Twitter because it was less than 140 characters long) was, “You know your life is truly crap when you find out on a newspaper that a monk has more money than you.”

I mulled over that statement with my wife, who had a different opinion of this whole debacle. Here we have the third-largest charitable organisation after the NKF and the Singapore Endowment Fund; the amount of money changing hands on the basis of Singaporean kindness makes charity work overwhelmingly profitable as an induistry. And, as some of us may have learnt from the NKF debacle, it is quite necessary (although not altogether the smartest thing to do) to have it run very much like a corporation, complete with administrative staff, personal assistants, auditors, a board of directors, and the most dangerous job of all, the CEO.

So the monk fucked up. So what? In the face of so much money coming at you like Spanish tomatoes during La Tomatina, the temptation is truly irresistible, regardless of whether you’re a monk, a yogi or the Pope. To be fair, the Hospital itself has flourished and its charges taken care of with the fullest utilisation of the benefits the organisation has earned. Lending a quote from The Straits Times, “The monk admitted that he was ‘easy with money’ but denied he was similarly so with Ren Ci’s money.” With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves, how many people have we helped, the way the Reverend has helped his patients, to be able to fuck up this big-time?

I’ve personally seen as many monks sharing a bouncy red 20-year-old Datsun hatchback as there are monks driving and being driven in Mercedes Benzes and BMWs (I won’t even talk about the airport encounters I’ve had with monks in first-class). Do they deserve to live their lives this way, whether it be in a hatchback or a luxury 2.4-litre German monster? Neither you nor I can say, for we know nothing of their backgrounds and the circumstances behind their gains (even the Datsun boys; at least the thing moves). This is where the benefit of the doubt comes in handy.

Let’s talk about the “loans”. If a truly venerable monk with $5 in his cloth bag were approached by a man who makes his case as a penniless chap in need of $5 to tapow 2 packets of chicken rice back for himself, his wife and 37 children, do you think the monk would say no? Similarly, if the Reverend, hapless as he is about the financial policies set forth by his own organisation as well as the legal boundaries of the Charities Act, were to be asked by the people under his employ, colleagues, or business partners to “help a brother out” after being presented with a convincing case, what do you think he would do? (Even though it is surplus revenue from after his organisation’s beneficiaries had been beneficiarised, a scheming mind might say, “Go ahead”, whereas a naive mind might ask, “Why not?” The outcome may be the same, but the intentions are vastly different.)

“(His PA) told Ming Yi that he needed the money because he had run into some financial difficulties, but did not tell him that it was to pay for the renovations.” [link]

As far as I can see, the misappropriation of funds was borne through a naive sense of doing good coupled with an ignorance of rules and regulations, made possible through the conniving of certain individuals who made their want of money look like a need for personal gain.

What of his property “investments” and bank account then? Supplemental income? Back-up plan for Ren Ci’s rainy days? Part of Mother Theresa’s estate to “all the kind people out there”? In search of the perfect place to meditate in? All my wife and I know is that it is not uncommon for heads of charities to have money on the side for whatever, whenever. Even the hospital’s management committee had this to say during the trial:

“When questioned later by Ming Yi’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Andre Yeap, Mrs Chan said the committee trusted Ming Yi would give himself a reasonable salary, pegged to that of other hospital CEOs and also based on the scope of work undertaken by him for the hospital.” [link]

Think of it this way; if our politicians are paid well over their deserved thresholds in salary so as to combat corruption, shouldn’t there be a need for this one guy who’s supposed to be the deciding factor to where all this public money goes to have a stash of his own to keep him from wandering into the communal pot? It sounds warped, especially since we’re talking about a monk here, but you can’t deny it makes sense; the government sure as hell don’t deny it.

But my biggest qualm in this debacle has nothing to do with Ren Ci, the Reverend, his minions or detractors. It’s the media, and the people who read into the media coverage. The one big thing that the media always stresses to address is the “lowest common denominator”; the base level of understanding that any storyteller, scriptwriter, production house, and whatever other media industry player (big or small) must target at. In news reporting of such a complex nature, I have found it to be near impossible for the true essence of a news story to get through, most of the time.

When a person reads a newspaper, 85% of the newspaper is completely ignored (I like the comics section), headlines are read and siphoned, and most articles, if not all, get all their eyeball glory in no more than their first line; the news lead.

When a high-profile figure in trouble appears on TV in the news, you see his face plastered over your 60-inch plasma walking either in or out of the courthouse with the big bold headline “Ming Yi Trial” scrolling across the bottom of the screen, half of what is actually being said throughout the report is lost in white noise because your eyes are taking away what your brain should be processing.

Radio news fares no better; passive listening may put in subliminal messages in your head over a long period of time, but the BBC for me is a wonderful treatment for insomnia. So what happens when you get a hapless voice speaking over a microphone with no background music? Remember Physics class when you fell asleep most of the hour and ended up almost failing your exam?

And then we have the Internet. The most important tool for any research-based project, the connected student’s bread and butter, the communication innovation for the business of the now, and what do we do with it? Porn.

Reading through all the articles in detail, I was frankly quite surprised at what the local newspeople are reporting about the Ming Yi trial; there actually seems to be a bias toward the Reverend in the content (in particular, the defence’s case makes it quite hard to point the blame at one obvious point). But the people’s interpretation of just the headlines and their lead lines (which look like they were written by a different writer on a different sensationalist agenda) speak very differently, thus twisting views in an altogether more negative direction.

A perfect example of having 3 sides to every story; the prosecution’s side, the defence’s side, and the media’s side. Each vastly different, and all filled with ulterior motive.

Factoids (courtesy of The Court Room @ STOMP:

  • Deputy Public Prosecutor Jaswant Singh said, the money was an unauthorised payment by Ming Yi, taken from Ren Ci’s coffers, for renovations to a Hong Kong flat belonging to Yeung’s friend. To cover up this fraudulent use of funds, he said, instructions were given to Ren Ci staff to prepare a payment voucher that stated the money was a loan. [link]
    (Someone commented that the loan was for purchasing branded goods; this should hopefully set the record straight.)
  • Both the Reverend and his PA are standing trial.
  • The Reverend is facing 10 charges:

    “Four – two counts of giving false information to the Commissioner of Charities, and one each of falsifying accounts and criminal breach of trust – form the basis of the trial. The other six have been stood down for now.” [link]

  • His PA, Raymond Yeung, faces 2 of the above charges as co-defendant.
  • Varying explanations had been given for the use of the aforementioned $50,000:

    “Mr Winston Ngan, an auditor who led a Ministry of Health review of the charity’s finances in 2007, said he had been given varying explanations of where the money went.” [link]

    (Different interpretations of a vague invoice, if you ask me. But I do know a lot of auditors cannot stand that kind of thing.)

  • Raymond Yeung is a Singapore Permanent Resident with a previous Australian citizenship. He did not hold a work permit while working for the Reverend, but was instead paid “by proxy” from Ren Ci through the Reverend. [link]
  • Based on his May 2001 salary, the Rev takes home $16,000 a month (makes me want to be a monk). According to his management, he stopped drawing salary sometime in 2005. In his bank account lies $570,000. If we do the sums based on this info, his total income (less CPF) to date would have been 736,800, which means he spent $166,800 of his own money in the past 8 years, or $1737.50 a month. I spend more than that the first 3 days of receiving my paycheck (which explains why I’m always broke).
  • The Reverend loaned $610,000 to the Ren Ci Hospital since its inception in 1994. Here we are today haggling over a $50,000 cheque.
  • Mandala, the shop mired in the $50,000 scandal (the illegal funds were extracted from the shop’s books), is operated under the Reverend’s name. Although there is an understanding between the Reverend and the Hospital that all proceeds will go to the charity, no documentation exists to support the agreement, so isn’t the shop technically a free agent?
  • Trial Day 5: The PA ‘fessed up that the $50,000 was indeed used for renovations in a friend’s flat in Hong Kong, and the Reverend took pains to cover said PA’s backside, as well as not to sully the name of the hospital.
  • Supplementary cards were given out to three people under the Reverend’s employ, including Raymond Yeung, who used it to buy “branded goods”. (I remember when my dad first gave me a sup card; he took it back the following month.) Today I have a company sup card, so I can understand why this was done. So anyone who says these two had a “special” relationship, please think about it for a moment before jumping the gun.

The rest of the trial is being covered closely in The Court Room, so anything else arising from there is open for discussion in comments.


Such a Fascinating Creature, This Bird

18 06 2009

I’ve been stuck on Twitter the last couple of days. Though I did register yonks before, and have a rudimentary understanding of how it came to be one of the hottest (and most inane) cultural phenomenons of this digital age, it didn’t hit me how useful it really could be until I decided to run It to find out when the iPhone OS update would be rolled out.

Yes, I have an Apple product. No, I am not a fanboy (I still very much love my Asus behemoth laptop running 64-bit Windows 7). let’s move on.

Forgive my lateness in entering the world of instant 140-character, to-the-second news updates. The biggest reason why I avoided using Twitter so long was only because of 2 main reasons; firstly, that I have a tendency to write long passages of pseudo-witty soliloquoys to no one in particular (as may be attested from the bulk of my blog entries), and secondly, I could not fathom an afternoon of updating myself with what some of my friends might consider activities that would interest the Internet world (tweeting “I’m at work” only serves to inform your employer that you are indeed worth your month’s salary, but if you’re a copywriter, it only gives the company more incentive to hand you the pink slip, doesn’t it?)

But in the interests of tracking when the hell Apple will allow me to start using MMS and type with my fingers more fluidly via a landscape keyboard on my severely overpriced, over-hyped, wonderfully intuitive communication device, I decided to run Twitter to see whether anyone else was wondering the same thing and if anyone knew any better.

As it turns out, tens of thousands of people were wondering the same thing (tweets ranged from querying, “Is it out yet?” to pleading, “Please, Apple, please…” to swearing “Why isn’t it f&$@ing out yet?!” to relenting, “Ah f&$@ it, I’m going to bed.”)

In the course of all this ruckus, the keywords iPhone, OS 3, and Singapore hit the top 10 trending topics on Twitter (Singapore having made the list because some twit posted a link on the iPhone OS release date from the singapore website, which caused a big hooha because everyone thought the US side pushed back the release date based on what they saw; cue a few hundred people who knew better furiously tweeting “No, that’s the Singapore site. It’s Singapore… no, Singapore, … Singapore lah!”).

I found the whole discourse utterly amusing, and in the span of 24 hours, I’ve managed to tweet more updates than I have posts on this blog, not to mention add follows to 25 people, 21 of whom I’ve never met, and get followed by another 20 or so people, 8 or 9 of whom keep wanting to show me their naked photos.

I must say, though, Twitter as a growing social networking application certainly deserves a more thorough looking into. As a means to getting a good feel on the biggest topics on the common man’s mind, as a volatile marketing tool, or as a place to get recognized at your workplace as being hard at work without even trying too hard, I’d say there’s a lot more I have to learn about how the world works, and I won’t be surprised if the lessons come in 140-character blurbs.

(By the way, I wrote all this on my post-update iPhone. My thumbs are now ready for competitive texting.)

Don’t You Just Love Them Womenfolk?

4 05 2009

Exciting weekend, wasn’t it?

With bated breath I waited for the AWARE EGM to happen, what with all the controversies and venue-changes and my dollhouse-punting feminist eldest sister circulating emails about what injustices had transpired. Then Saturday came and went. I sent Liza to Suntec in the evening for a drinking session with one of her old friends, conveniently forgetting THAT was where a couple thousand angry women were gathered (though I suspect some were there to try out some new red t-shirts they were given at church the weekend before, or they were aunties that saw a long queue and thought, “eh, got free gift?”).

The day after that, I woke up to the voice of a newscaster on the radio saying the new guard had been ousted and a new exco consisting of old guard members had been instated. While buying lunch, I decided to purchase a couple of newspapers detailing the events that unfolded. Can you imagine, The Sunday Times was already almost all sold out in the Jalan Kayu area? I only managed to get a copy because its headline page was torn and the provision shop owner, in a valiant yet half-hearted attempt to salvage the remains of that copy’s dignity, slapped on a large crumpled clear tape on the tear hoping no one would notice (and he still charged me full price for it, the bastard).

I won’t go further into it, since the entire island has talked the event to shreds over the last 48 hours. What I do wonder is, where will the news punters go from here? I am definitely curious about the fates and futures of certain individuals and organisations that were behind/involved in/indiscriminately pulled into the fracas.

Josie Lau: What’s gonna happen to her? The new now-ex President of AWARE should have known that first step into the AWARE ex-co was going to be fraught with problems when her full-time employers started publicly complaining about her unannounced extra-curricular activities. For those of you still wondering why DBS was being so harsh on this woman when other DBS board members were happily frolicking around with their side projects outside of the Bank, I beseech you to please wake up, put on your glasses and read between the lines behind DBS’s statement. Very likely DBS, knowing the full extent of Ms Lau’s character, took the first step in denouncing her actions so appropriate action could be taken should she fail in her endeavour at AWARE. We shall see (cue snide evil laughter here).

Dr Thio Su Mien: Boy, is she going to lose business. Here we have a legal practitioner unable to talk her way out of a situation she created herself (and she did admit to creating this whole thing herself, didn’t she?). “I am a … very charmed… feminist mentor… on page 73.” Aiyoh, auntie (sorry, should be Lokler Auntie). People give you accolade, you dun rub in people’s face mah. Very chao kuan you know. That aside, it would be very interesting to know what becomes of her, seeing as this little debacle may permanently discredit her standing as a high-standing member of society. “Lokler ah? So?”

The Thio family: To a large extent, the local blogdom, and the media both contributed in bringing in an entire family into the fray of this saga. It was weird enough that Josie Lau got to where she was in the AWARE ex-co, then bad enough that her auntie-in-law came forward admitting to having orchestrated the new ex-co’s coming together. Then happy happy the husband also kena as an “I’m so angry, I’m going to write a letter” homo-basher, then Dr Thio’s daughter NMP Thio Li-Ann also got involved, and there are not-so-discrete whispers in the background of how the family’s now-blown-wide-open agenda is linked to the that previous rainbow-love saga involving Section 377A of the Penal Code. This whole thing has just made their entire family look like fish bait for queer sharks (and I use the term “sharks” in the nicest possible way).

Section 377A: Might the family’s involvement in the AWARE saga bring about a relook at the treatment of our rather dormant section of that age-old Penal Code? Many parallels can be drawn from AWARE’s EGM no-confidence voting, compared and contrasted to the much larger, yet somewhat quieter fight for and against the keeping of the Section in our law books back in 2007. I’m not trying to stir up AWARE’s involvement in the gay rights issue again, but the Dr Thio’s introducing her anti-homosexuality into the agenda of the new ex-exco does bring back some fond memories, doesn’t it?

The Church of Our Saviour: Oooh, this one’s a very unfortunate victim, and another fine example of what getting religion tied up in secular activities, whether on purpose or by accident, will get you. I won’t go so far as to say they might get dissolved, though. I believe the faith of the Church’s members will very likely keep that from happening. But in the eyes of the public, the unforeseen errors of its members’ actions have reflected the underlying agendas that build the foundations of its pulpit. As much as this is a case of its people doing injustice to its cause, we ALL know the line between church-goers and the church itself is a very very fine blurry line indeed.

DBS: Oh yes, the people’s bank. A few weeks ago, a column on Today sought to question the motives of DBS as it openly rebuked Ms Lau for her seeking office as President of AWARE. While initially both my wife and I didn’t particularly appreciate the tone in which the article was written, editor-at-large Conrad Raj seems to have hit the nail right on the head when he ended his piece with the question, “Unless there are other factors at play here?” I have also mentioned earlier how they might have had the foresight to voice their opinion about this whole Josie Lau debacle before the whole debacle even began. The recent turn of events against Ms Lau’s favour may have created a ripple effect involving the fate of her career, but as of right now, even I haven’t a clue how her company is going to handle this. Ooh, a cliffhanger! Who’da thunk it?

The war against alternative lifestyles on an inadequate platform has now turned into a fight of survival in maintaining reputations after a flurry of mistakes by seemingly respectable individuals. I have to admit, though I understand the nobility of this fight of making AWARE aware, now that the old guard is back home, I am a lot more interested in the high entertainment value of what’s about to happen to the ones that have been caught and kicked outside with their skirts down and are now walking around outside, forgetting their skirts are still inside.

Chasing Memories

25 08 2008

This is the last blog to expect successful promotion of any product, but I felt the need to do this, if only for the things that it has done to me, for me.

It’s called The Resident Tourist ( Created by one Troy Chin (I-S calls him the Underground Maverick, which cannot be more true), it’s a comic strip drawn and written by someone who isn’t into the comic book genre in the first place.

He was born in the same year I was, and pretty much the same period many of you are. He’s lived the same era we did, and pretty much thinks the same way a lot of us do. I do, anyway. If his comic books are anywhere close to accurate, he’s not currently in any paying job, so I’m heading out to buy his graphic novels, not so much to feed him, but to firstly let him know I share his vision for making this happen, and secondly to keep a part of the memories I’ve had as a child growing up in Singapore in print, for myself, and hopefully the generation ahead of me (that happens to be popping out in another 4 months).

It’s uncanny, to say the least, when I clicked on page after page of Troy’s site, immediately recognising the images he accurately rendered of the places I’ve been, past and present. What’s even more uncanny is the fact that he lives in my area, and seeing the images of the surroundings I see every day depicted with such accuracy in a graphic novel gives me goosebumps.

More importantly, though, is how his stories, whether they form the crux of the novels themselves or stray from it as an aside, are so closely reminiscent of my own childhood and current disposition. To say he is a voice for the fat lot of us 80s’ children in Singapore may be stretching it a bit, but at the very least he has seen the things I have seen, and felt the things I felt. (Crikey, I even look like him right now, but then only because I’ve been too broke to get myself a haircut.)

I’ve since been asking my secondary school friends about our past, particularly about some of the things we experienced in our childhood that Troy has detailed in his books. Not to reminisce, though; to remember, because I had flat out forgot everything until Troy came along.

Perhaps I always wanted to forget. The one thing I do remember is wanting to forget. I didn’t think my childhood was that much of a stunningly good time to begin with. I had my fair share of suffering, school bullies (who travelled in packs), government-employed schoolteachers who put you down like you were nothing, and parents who expected too much of their children, and thought too little of their children’s friends.

I just about succeeded too. I did too good a job of it though. It wasn’t until I hooked up with Terence and Eddie again a year or so back that I started remembering again. And even then when we met up for beer every now and again, I would get lost in their memories of our childhood, because I had already largely forgotten everything, the pretty girls and their names and cup sizes, the good teachers and their lessons that no textbook covered, the friends that taught you everything else, the good times.

Troy Chin gave me a reason to remember. I remember Nintendo and Delta Force, arcades and shooters like G Darius and 1942, bo-tak-cheh gangs, and secret shops that rent Nintendo playing time at $1.50 an hour. I remember the one schoolteacher that made a difference that 100 other schoolteachers combined could never hope to impact on a child’s mind, and primary school boys who stuck together and called each other “friend” because no one else would bother with them. Most importantly, I remember being a Singaporean child fighting for (or against) conformity to the society this country has built around him, fighting against the loneliness of being different, fighting with adulthood, and fighting with the idea that despite everything that this country has represented in the past or in the present, I don’t hate the place.

Thanks to you, I remember everything now. And I never want to forget it again.

Winning 4D – The Parental Edition

22 08 2008

Those of you patriotic enough to have followed our Prime Minister’s National Day Rally Speech would have noted with interest the announcement of enhanced maternity package that were to take effect 1st January 2009.

Xander’s supposed to be check out of his hotel 26th December 2008.

Those of you well-adjusted enough to follow the news last night may have also heard a report going along the lines of “maternity package backdated to August 17th 2008“.

It’s kind of like buying 4D, then realising the numbers you bought were the winning numbers for last week, and THEN after 2 days, realising your ticket was actually dated last week.

It must be an interesting time for 2nd-trimester parents-to-be around the island, as it was for us. As my wife and I were sitting in front of the TV in her parent’s home watching the first news report, her brother-in-law kept saying, “Oi, you must tell your baby, lun (忍) one week ok? You keep your legs crossed for one week, then you can get more money.”

To explain that the process of going into labour is a little more complicated than spreading your legs and popping the hood would just have diminished the humour of the moment, even though he’s already got a son of his own crawling all over my in-law’s maisonette like a smiling, drooling cichak. But I digress.

For the next couple of days after that, we were working on accepting our fates as not-as-rich-as-parents-who-are-going-to-have-slightly-younger-kids-than-us parents, because we both kind of agreed that Xander should be introduced to the world in the most natural way possible. If this meant he was going to miss the mark and pop his head out on Christmas day while our gynae’s skiing in Switzerland and our car is out of petrol and I have to be the midwife in a home birth of my own son, so be it. (Fortunately our gynae has confirmed she will be around to deliver the baby, and petrol prices have dropped).

Frankly the situation isn’t that hard to accept. The current maternity package already ensured a small amount of security for starting out Xander’s life (at least for the first few months). That plus the fact that our intention for having a kid in the first place was to have a kid; anyway, it never really crossed our minds that there was a maternity package to collect while Xander was being conceived.

And then last night, while I was tidying the study and my wife was in the living room half-listening to the TV and half-reading her Facebook, I heard the words “package” and “backdated” in a news trailer (the concept of a news trailer suddenly seems strange as I type it out; it’s like predicting what will be in the news). I came out of the study and asked her if she heard anything about a package being backdated. “No, not really,” was her reply.

I went back to my work in the study, but then about 30 minutes later, I heard it again. And then the news finally came on, and the full report had answered my question: “The Tays Win 4D with a Backdated Ticket”.

I came out to the living room again, and my wife was looking up at me from the sofa, wide-eyed and hands on her currently occupied serviced mini-apartment of a belly. “So what does that mean?” she asked, not fully aware of what had happened, and even less aware that her baby was slowly taking her brain cells for his own, rendering her slightly more blonde than usual.

I said, “That means we’re getting the enhanced package after all.” She looked at me with the same beautiful wide eyes, and smiled a little. “Oh,” she quipped, and continued smiling as she started patting her belly.


And you think we’re lucky. One of our colleagues just gave birth to a baby girl on August 18th. It’s almost like the government was backdating the new maternity package because of her.

Vampire Durian Puffs, Anyone?

26 06 2008

So the Balestier Food Centre has finally reopened to little fanfare. my wife and I went to check it out earlier this week, and we found it’s being run by the Banquet people (which largely means no pork anything there, though we have yet to verify that).

My first impression of the place was laid upon me when this stocky gruff-looking man in a slightly dirty white t-shirt comes up to my wife and I asking if we want to try the durian puffs he was selling (this happens to be the first stall you will encounter when walking into the new food centre, a branch of 717 Trading, specialising in durian confectionery and other cakes and pastries). He then goes on to say, “I call these durian puffs vampire puffs, you want to know why? Because on first bite, the puff will drool into your mouth like … mmmm …” and then he was cut off by my wife’s uncontrollable laughter.

No doubt this was good stuff, but before I got down to dessert, I wanted to get through lunch first. So I told the vampire puff man, “We’ll come back. It’s too bright for vampires to be around anyway.” Upon hearing my indiscriminate generalisation of the vampire species, Uncle Durian Puff went on to add, “No, no! I only cater to Daywalkers,” prompting another interruption by my wife’s uncontrollable laughter. We started walking away from the stall, bemused and bewildered, as Uncle Durian Puff called after us, “You come back and buy now, ya?” (almost reminiscent of our Chinatown incident, actually).

Okay, that was not the weird thing. THIS is the weird thing. During lunch, we were constantly reminded of Uncle Durian Puff’s existence in this food centre. After I started tucking into my carrot cake lunch, I almost spat out my first bite when I felt a slight brush of air behind me, turned around and saw Uncle Durian Puff’s face saying to me, “I know where you sit now…”

… and then halfway through our meal, he came back again, this time tapping me on my shoulder and shaking a finger at me with a smile…

… and then towards the end of our meal, he was behind me once again, this time apologising if he seemed to be disturbing us…

If not for the fact that I was genuinely interested in the durian puffs he had to offer, I would have bolted from lunch and ran back to office to pray for Buddha’s blessings. No, Uncle Durian Puff, I don’t think “disturbing us” is the correct phrase to use. “Stalking us” would be more appropriate.

At any rate, we decided to head back to the durian confectionery stall to see if the vampire puffs were really all that bloody good (pun intended). We bought a box, and tried to sneak off while uncle Durian Puff was out of sight, but as we turned around, there he was, staring up at us (he was a bit short), asking us if we wanted to try his vampire puffs.

We raised our plastic bag containing the 6 little puffs we had purchased to his eye level, signifying that we had purchased said durian puffs, thank you very much, please don’t follow us home. He then looked at the bag for an instant and said, “But I just want you to try, I never asked you to buy!”

To the benefit of Uncle Durian Puff, as creepy as his appearances were during the course of our lunch hour, his durian puffs really are quite fantastic. On our way back to office, we opened up the box of puffs and each popped one into our mouths. The moment the puffs started “drooling into our mouths”, we stopped dead in our tracks. It’s just one of those things that can only be described as an “oral orgasm”. I wouldn’t say they could be described as vampire puffs, though.

Note: After doing a search on the Balestier Food Centre  premises and finding this forum thread, I probably wouldn’t recommend the place to anyone either. To our experience, my carrot cake was so-so, my wife’s chicken rice was mediocre at best, and one of the thread contributors was right; my wife paid $4.80 for the 6 puffs that cost only $4.20 everywhere else. As good as the puffs were, and as nice as Auntie Durian Puff (the person who sold us the puffs while we thought Uncle Durian Puff wasn’t looking), I’ll probably be getting my “vampire puff” mix the next time I have a job to collect at Botak Sign, Highland Centre.

Christmas in Chinatown

24 06 2008

The other day, my wife and I went to Chinatown for dinner and a little walk. She had wanted to get some more inspiration for our wedding and I just wanted to get some dinner. So we went down to the good old hawker centre just off Pagoda Street, and we realised a little trend in Chinese small business trading.

We chose a table right in front of a dessert stall, presumably run by a rotund little middle-aged lady dressed like a silverfish with a weight problem. She had thinning, light brown hair tied into a ponytail, silver spectacles encrusted on the sides with glimmering plastic diamonds, silver tights (oh my god), a similarly glimmering plastic diamond bracelet, and yet another glimmering plastic diamond encrusted clam-shell phone hanging around her neck.

As we sat down, Tinkerbell Upsized came up to us and asked if we wanted to have any dessert. Looking at her stall signboard, and getting vaguely interested in the peanut paste they had, I told her we would order later, to which she replied, “All right, but order from us, here OK?”, all territorial-like.

Later, when I came back from buying my food, my wife, who had ordered a Coke form this woman’s stall through a stall worker, told me Big Fat Silver Bullet came up to her and questioned her over her drink, saying, “We have Coke here too!” When my wife annoyingly clarified this Coke was actually from this woman’s stall, the woman then tried to make amends by making small talk with her, something I have learned (and am still learning) over the years never to do with my wife.

Come on, gimme a break, Madam Swarovski with the big silver thighs. I actually wanted that peanut paste until I heard your story. You’re wearing so much glittering plastic diamonds, one would wonder how anyone could see the signboard with all that light in their eyes. For that matter, you really shouldn’t dress like your Silver Jubilee White Christmas in June; one would think you earn more than enough to warrant anyone’s patronage.

But such is life in Chinatown. I reflected to my wife this may well be the business culture here, because Blingbutt isn’t the only person we came across that was so greedy for customers to the point of making ridiculous requirements such as “you sit here, you must buy from me”. All along Pagoda Street, tailors, Chinese fan-sellers, tourist shop salespeople, and dare I say even the customers in many instances, are all less-than-subtle when it comes to attracting customers, offering deals, forcing sales and showing their displeasure when things do not go their way. It’s a small business, for crying out loud! Passer-by traffic is so high in Chinatown on a Sunday afternoon, just get over it and head on to the next sale already!

In any aspect of life, even when distracted with the smaller details, one should never forget the bigger picture. And whilst keeping sight of the bigger picture, don’t ever forget to manage the details well either. Oh yeah, and don’t lay crap on the people you serve too.