Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Parent Trap

It’s hard to believe it now, but once upon a time, my parents were party animals. They loved dancing and every Saturday, they’d put on their dancing shoes and head out for a bit of fox-trot and two-step. And if they were feeling particularly energetic, they’d round up some friends and have dinner at the Tropicana.

These days, their idea of an exciting evening out is to watch an R-rated movie at the cinema. Sometimes, this involves a bit of blood and guts – they loved “300” – but who knew that my mother would enjoy “Saw” so much that she’s recently came home with the DVD box-set? And there was an anxious moment when my father thought his pace-maker had stopped right in the middle of “Ring” in the scene where that girl with all that hair rises out of the water.

When Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” came out a few years ago, my mother said to my father, “Let’s go watch this. I hear it’s very art-house and nostalgic.”

Apparently, all went well with the first third of the movie when the handsome group of terrorists was trooping all over Shanghai and Hong Kong, but then when the first of the sex scenes came on, Mother actually screamed.

“And not in a good way either,” my father later said to my sister. Michelle replied that it was thoughtless comments like that which explained why all his children had grown up with severe emotional issues.

“Aiyoh!” Mother moaned the next afternoon to her mahjong group. “You could see everything! Even Tony Leung’s pee-gu!”

“Eeee!” said my Auntie Wai-ling. “Are you sure or not? Pong! Where got such thing?”

“Ay, I must go watch this movie then. Worth my movie ticket!” said Auntie Ming.

“I’m telling you, it was disgusting!” Mother said firmly, with a delicious shiver. “Young people today just have no shame! Can you imagine having sex with someone you’re not married to, in front of a director and his rolling camera?”

There was a brief embarrassed silence when Mother suddenly realized that Auntie Kwai at the table had divorced her husband for precisely that reason, except in his case, he and his trollop of a secretary had been using a hand-held Sony-Cam – and according to reliable eye-witnesses of the movie, ie the mahjong group, the shaky picture quality left a lot to be desired.

“I really need to join your mother’s mahjong sessions,” Saffy said the other day.

“It sounds like so much fun!”

I grunted. “It’s a vicious group,” I said. “They’ve been playing for years and they know every secret there is to know about each other. They’re all best friends but they’re scared to leave the table to pee because the minute they’re out of the room, the remaining three will start bitching!”

“They look like such sweet old ladies,” Saffy said.

“I’m telling you, I’m surprised they’ve not developed any urinary tract infections!”

Then, a few days ago, I got a call from my mother. “Jason, dear,” she began. “Your father and I are in Switzerland, and we’re about to jump off a mountain. I don’t want you to worry, but just in case, this is where we’ve hidden the jewels…”

As I later complained to everyone on Facebook, the way my mother started the whole conversation, it sounded that she and Father were about to put in motion a double-suicide pact in a glamorous location. “I have aged 10 years!” I posted.

It turned out that my parents had recently joined an over-60 leisure group that did exciting, life-threatening things like parachuting and abseiling. And now, the group had jetted off to Interlakken in Switzerland where they got to jump off a sheer cliff and hang-glide around the lake. Just the thing for a man on his second pace-maker, my sister observed when I told her. “I hope she told you where they kept the wills!”

“She said that you only die once!” I reported.

“So what, now she Jane bloody Bond?” my sister said. You could tell she was getting agitated.

Amanda thinks my parents are heroic. “They’re living life to the full! When was the last time any of us did something like that?” she demanded. “I wake up, go to work, come home. I have the occasional date, but I spend most of my time watching ‘American Idol’. Meanwhile, your parents are diving off mountains! It’s inspirational, I tell you! We’re the old people! We should learn from your parents!”

Saffy looked doubtful. “Can’t just start with some ballroom dancing first?”

Me, I've got bigger fish to fry. I'm going to go dig up some family jewels from our garden.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Career prospects

Not to sound like my mother, but kids these days have it easy when it comes to their careers. They can be almost anything they want. When I was growing up, there were only three acceptable professions: lawyer, banker or doctor. And by doctor, my mother meant a real doctor. Not a dentist. And by banker, she meant a vice-president, not the guy sitting behind the teller looking bored as he shuffled money through the machine. If you deviated from that holy trinity, Mother would walk around the house for months clutching her heart and grimacing in pain.

“After all we’ve sacrificed for you, this is how you repay us!” she told my brother Jack after he said that he wanted to be architect. “You could at least become an engineer!” In the end, Jack became an art teacher and on the day he graduated, Mother cancelled her week’s mahjong sessions and took to bed with a splitting migraine.

How the world has changed since then. Today, little Alice can come home and announce that she wants to become a musician and immediately the parents have images of her CD at the top of the charts. Or if little Meng says he likes cars, daddy will start fantasizing about a career in F1.

It’s fascinating to imagine how our lives would have turned out if we’d had the same choice of careers while growing up. And at a party the other day, the topic came up between the seventh margarita and the fifth vodka shot.

“I thhhink I would have been a fash…uhm…fashion model,” my flatmate Amanda slurred modestly while sprawled on the sofa. “I have amazing cheekbones!”

“And you also have such lovely long legs!” Saffy said, her face turning pink.

“Oh, that’s so sweet of you! You really think I have nice legs?” Amanda stretched her legs and peered down. You could see several guys shift uncomfortably in their seats.

“They’re fabulous!” Saffy insisted.

“What would you be if you had your life all over again, Saffy?” someone asked.

“I’d probably be a princess!”

In the gathering quiet, faces screwed up as brains tried to connect with ears and eyes tried to focus.

Eventually, someone else said, “That’s not a profession, surely? Don’t you have to be born into a royal family or something?”

Saffy’s formidable bosom shifted. “Oh, that’s too much hard work. I would have just married a prince. I think Prince William is a total fox!”

“Losing his hair though,” said Amanda, regular reader of the gossip magazines.

“OK, his hunky brother Harry, then!”

There was a general rumble of agreement on that point and everyone agreed that Saffy would have made a terrific princess, if only her ridiculously short-sighted parents hadn’t insisted that she enrolled in a management course at university, and now she was forever stuck as a lowly paid, unappreciated HR manager.

“But it could have been worse,” Saffy said, sniffling into her gin and tonic. “I could have been a…a…oooh…what do you call those people?”

“Astronauts?” Amanda hazarded.


“Uhm, a gardener?” someone else guessed, as Saffy gestured wildly.

“No! No! Those people! You know! Those people who do that thing with their fingers!” Saffy made pinching motions.

“Oh, I know! I know! Prostitutes!” I shouted. And got hit several times with a sofa cushion.

This went on for a while before finally someone said, “Do you mean beauty therapists?”

Saffy beamed with pleasure. “That’s it! Beauty therapish…therapist! Oh, I would hate to do their job!”

“Vile!”Amanda agreed.

“Listen, if there is a more vile job out there, I can’t think of it!” Saffy declared. “Imagine spending your whole day pressing crap out of people’s noses and chins!” Saffy’s fingers pinched and squeezed the air as everyone at the party turned their minds towards a lifetime of pore extraction.

The next morning, the three of us sat at the dining table, feeling very sorry for ourselves and passing around the bottle of Panadol.

“Someone please stop the world from spinning!” Amanda moaned.

“I’m never touching alcohol ever again,” Saffy swore. “What’s wrong with you, Jason?”

I gingerly touched my face. “My nose hurts.”

Amanda leaned forward and peered. “Hmm, it’s a bit red. Especially around the chin and…”

You could feel the world spin to a stop as the events of the previous night caught up with our hangovers. Suddenly, I got flashes of Saffy’s face looming large over me and people laughing and cheering. Amanda frowned as she thought. Meanwhile, Saffy stared at me and then down at her fingers. Snapshots of memory slid treacherously into place.

We started screaming at the same time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lo Tech

It’s a little known fact that while I have the memory of an elephant for song lyrics (who else on this planet can sing flawlessly the first two verses of the Ewok Celebration Song?*), when it comes to technology, I might as well still be beating a jungle drum. You could send me off to a one week boot-camp on how to download an iTune, but at the end of the week, I’ll be back to sticking a CD into the player.

Saffy, on the other hand, is a freak of nature. This is the girl who once got lost for half an hour in Raffles Place MRT station (“Why are there so many levels in this place!” she screamed at me on the handphone) but put her in front of a machine, and she’s Rain Man. When Amanda’s laptop suddenly went blank, Saffy tapped a few buttons, keyed in a string of code, rebooted and all was well again. If an alien space-ship ever crash landed on Earth, she could probably repair, and then fly it back home while filing her nails.

“I don’t know how I do it,” Saffy said recently when she fixed our aging desk top computer. “It must be sheer natural talent. Now if only I could apply those skills to finding me a husband!”

Meanwhile, I’ve got my eye on the iPhone. Everyone I know has one. Even Ah Chuan, our fierce, semi-literate cleaning lady has one. In between mopping our floors, she can be seen busy flipping screens with her callused fingers. For the longest time, we wondered what she was doing until one day Amanda plucked up the courage to ask her.

“Apparently, she’s checking the stock market!” she reported that night.

“She owns shares?” I asked.

“Seems that way. And she says she’s making a killing, especially on her pharmaceuticals.”

“We pay her enough to own shares?” Saffy asked, looking thoroughly dissatisfied at Life’s unequal distribution of wealth.

The point is, we seem to be the only ones on the planet without an iPhone. But for different reasons. Amanda just got a phone from Prada and is reluctant to, in her words, trade down. Saffy says she doesn’t have two cents to rub together, and I, of course, am afraid that I won’t even know how to open the box in which the phone comes.

And I just know that the minute I fork over a year’s salary to buy the phone and then spent literally weeks learning how to turn it on, a new model will come out on the market.

And now, of course, there’s the Kindle. Everyone is talking about it. I’ve seen a few people on the MRT reading on it. And I love that it can hold thousands of books. Imagine going on holiday and just packing that thin machine instead of my usual pile of magazines and novels.

A few days ago, I came home to find Ah Chuan sitting at the dining table surrounded by mops and buckets of detergent.

“I’m not slacking, I’m resting!” she screamed at me the minute I walked in. “It’s incredible how you young people are so untidy and dirty!”

“I think you’re talking about Saffy,” I replied coolly in a combination of fractured Cantonese, Mandarin and Hakka. “I’m very clean and tidy. It’s practically a sickness!”

“You three are my weirdest employers! It’s a good thing I like you!” Ah Chuan shouted. “Do you want me to fix you lunch? I was just playing with my new toy!”

Which was when I noticed that our $10 an hour cleaning lady was fiddling with the latest version of the Kindle.

“She’s got a Kindle?” Amanda asked incredulously that night.

“Apparently, she’s learning English on it.”

“My God, how much are we paying that woman?” Saffy huffed.

“It’s just so unfair,” I complained, “that I can walk into any room and immediately, the tech quotient in the room drops by 75 points!”

“These days when I walk into a room, men just turn away,” Saffy said morosely. “What’s that all about?”

Amanda thinks we should just buck up and confront our fears. “It’s a phone, not the Space Shuttle!” she said firmly to me. And to Saffy, she said, “Men are just animals with a dumb-stick between their legs!”

Saffy blinked. You could tell her brain was turning.

I said, “Huh.”

Yesterday, Saffy asked John from HR out on a date. Meanwhile, here I am standing in front of the Apple store. I’m trying to be brave. And very softly, I’m humming the Ewok Celebration Song.

* If anyone is interested, this is the link to the Ewok Celebration Song:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Idol Worship

I don't care what anyone says, but American Idol rocks! If you're having a bad day or feeling sorry for yourself, you just need to watch the auditions. I swear, there's nothing like a good laugh at other people's delusions to put your own problems into perspective.

Venus Trap

The other day, our friend Mavis threw a housewarming party in Holland Village and invited us along.

“Just bring a bottle of wine and nothing else!” she commanded. “I have too many things as it is. I don’t need more stuff.”

Saffy was perplexed, unable to conceive of anyone who would say ‘No’ to a free present. “I love stuff,” she said firmly. “If any of you ever feel the need to give me stuff, don’t hesitate. Now, Amanda, what are you wearing to this party?”

By the time we showed up on the day, the party was in full swing. The lighting was flatteringly low. The balcony doors were swung open to the cool evening. The guests were a glamorous mix of long haired beauties, cool looking nerds and buff models. Meanwhile, the dining table was laden with bottles of tequila, gin, wines and vast bowls of corn chips.

“This girl knows how to throw a party,” Amanda said approvingly, and immediately caught the eye of a guy on the far side of the room who looked like he’d just stepped off the runway.

Saffy clung to my arm. “Whatever you do, don’t let me near those corn chips!” she pleaded. “You know what I’m like. I can’t stop at just one!”

I pulled away. “You’re on your own. I just spotted booze.”

A few hours later, I found myself sitting on my own, one hand on a glass and the other clutching a bottle of gin. And at the other end of the table, Saffy was foraging around the bottom of a bowl of corn chips while moaning, “Oh my God. I can’t believe I just add this whole bowl! Oh my God!”

And that was when Amanda materialized out of the gloom. Saffy’s antennae for drama, never offline even when she was in a state of carb, fat and salt-induced shock, sat up. “What’s the matter? You look like you just watched the growing old scene in ‘Up’!”

“Nothing,” Amanda whispered as she looked helplessly around the table for a clean cup. And the tears started to flow in great fat drops. Saffy carefully pushed the bowl of corn chips aside and went to Amanda, gently pulling her outside the apartment where we sat on the stairs and waited for the tears to stop.

It turned out that some of the girls at the party had made rather disparaging comments about Amanda. Apparently, no one had bothered to be discrete. “SPG” and a word that rhymed with “switch” had been uttered.

Saffy’s formidable bosom inflated to a dangerous volume as she struggled to get up. “Which ones? Show me! Those fat cows. Someone is going to be pushed off a balcony tonight! No, don’t try to stop me! Let go of me! Seriously, let go! My God, Amanda, how did you get to be so freakishly strong?”

As I later said to Karl over a beer at our local bar, if there’s one thing Saffy is really good at, it’s her uncanny ability to muscle her way into any good drama and seize the spotlight.

“But what did Amanda do though?” asked Karl who’s always had a crush on her.

“She’s beautiful,” I said flatly. “That’s all she did. This happens all the time. She just has to show up at a party and every woman in that room will immediately start to hate her just a little. And if they have a husband or a boyfriend, they’ll make sure she doesn’t get beyond ‘Hello’. And if she talks to a guy is single and unattached, they’ll hate her even more.”

Karl looked shocked. “But, but…that’s just like…”

“That’s just like high school,” I finished. “And the fact that she’s totally unaware of her own beauty makes other women hate her just that little bit more.”

“Huh.” Karl peered into his beer. “I had no idea. I’m just trying to think now what happens when a good looking guy walks into a room.”

“I think you’d just feel a little bit of envy and then drink some more beer. Guys aren’t very complicated that way. Or so I’m told.”

What I didn’t tell Karl was that after Saffy had calmed down at Mavis’s party, she’d gone back in and identified the mean girls. Then she went downstairs to a payphone and called the police and told them there were illegal prostitutes in Mavis’s flat. She gave very precise descriptions of the girls. We left the party just as the first police car pulled up.

Amanda says she hopes she never falls out with Saffy. I’m just glad I’m not a woman.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Name Dropping

When I was in school, I remember thinking that Americans gave their children strange names. “Whitney Houston?” I asked my best friend, Paul when we were browsing in HMV. “What kind of a name is that?”

“It’s an African-American name,” said Paul who, even at 15, knew everything in a way that, if it had been anyone else, would have made you look for the nearest bus to push him in front of. “They like unusual names, like Toni and Oprah, Maya, Tellulah, Dinah, Mariah and Aretha.”


I went home and told my mother. She sniffed that the Americans had nothing on the Chinese. “Your Auntie Mary just called her baby girl Precious Jade, and let me tell you that there’s nothing precious nor jade-like about that ugly child!” To which my horrified father said that this was not the sort of thing one said in front of impressionable children like his son.

“Well, it’s true!” my mother went on stubbornly. “Have you seen that baby? Well, I have and you’d have to be blind to name her Precious Jade!”

As it turned out, Precious Jade grew up to be juvenile delinquent and when she was hauled before the magistrate’s court for breaking and entering our local library, Mother was triumphant.

“Stupid Rock would have been a better name for her!” she said. “Who’d ever heard of anyone trying to rob a local council library? What, did she think there was a big black market for the 1994 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? Poor Auntie Mary, I must call to see how she’s coping with this scandal!”

And then, one day, after I was all grown up, I visited my brother Jack in Hong Kong, and that was when I found new champions in the category of “What Were Your Parents Thinking When They Named You That?”

At a party thrown by my brother, I was introduced to a pair of identical twin girls wearing matching Chanel boots and a Karl Lagerfeld dress. (I know they were Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld because my sister was with me, and she can spot a label from ten paces.)

“Jason, I want you to meet…” Jack paused and pursed his lip in an effort not to laugh, “…I want you to meet the lovely Yuan sisters, Million and Billion.”

I blinked. “Uh, hello?”

“You can call us Milly and Billy!” the girls sang in their melodic Hong Kong accent.

“Wait a minute,” my sister said. “Your names are Million and Billion?”


“Million and Billion Yuan?”


From across the room, Jack shouted, “And their surname is written just like the currency!”

Two days ago, my flatmate Saffy came back from her friend Jane’s baby shower. “Can I just say that it’s taken me an hour to get home from Jurong East? I feel like I should have brought my passport!” Her formidable bosom rose like shifting continental plates.

“How was the baby shower?” I asked.

Saffy paused. “I don’t want to be rude, but some people have some very strange ideas about what’s acceptable to call their children. Jane’s expecting twins, as you know, and guess what she’s going to call them?”

I waited.

Saffy stared at me. “Guess!” she said, finally.

“Oh, you weren’t being rhetorical! Uhm, Million and Billion?” I hazarded.

“Not even!” Saffy puffed. “Even those would have been acceptable names. No, she and that dolt husband of her’s are going for, wait for it, Messiah and Concept!”

You could practically see the italics hanging in the air.

It turned out that Jane is an editor at a magazine and two of the interns working there are called Messiah and Concept, and she’s so taken by the names she’s going to call her off-spring the same things.

It’s all Saffy has been able to talk about since then. “Messiah? Isn’t that a lot of pressure to place on a child?” she posted on Facebook.

“What if he grows up to be a bus driver?” she wondered aloud this morning at breakfast. “Or what if he has a lisp? A lisping Messiah! How uninspiring would that be? Or what if Concept turns out to have the IQ of a door-knob?”

What I wanted to know, I said, was what Jane thought the other kids at school would do to her children the minute their names were announced to the class.

“If they’d been in my class when I was growing up, they’d never have survived to recess,” Saffy said firmly. “Did I tell you when I was in the third grade, I made five boys in my class cry?”

Their crime: they were making fun of her name.