Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Ends

I’ve been around books my entire life. In fact, I can’t really remember a moment that I’ve not been within easy reach of a pile of them. Growing up, we had books everywhere, stacked on shelves, on the floor, on desks and tables, on benches by the toilet, and even in the car.
            To this day, it feels extremely odd to walk into someone’s home and not see a single book anywhere.
            My mother’s sister Wai-ling used to be horrified when she visited and had to go to the loo and found a stack of books in there. “I hope these are not the books you lend me, Mei-ling!” she would say firmly when she emerged from the guest bathroom. “I don’t even want to imagine the kind of germs that are on them!”
            “You only die once!” my mother once replied in a vaguely ominous tone. Later, over dinner, she complained that her sister should lighten up a little. “Maybe next time, I should tell her that we only read with our left hand!” The comment baffled us for months until the day my sister was sitting on the loo reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and she absent-mindedly reached for the toilet paper with her right hand.
            When we went out and our parents had to run errands, they’d deposit the three of us in a bookshop with strict instructions to behave and to stay put till we returned. And if we were good, they promised, we’d each get a book.
            The three of us would disperse, Michelle to the fantasy section, Jack to the travel books, while I dived into ancient history. Like the very well trained children we were who lived in daily fear of our mother, we sat quietly on the floor, cross-legged, gently flicking each page, utterly absorbed in our own world. Nobody bothered us, and back then, nobody blinked at the sight of three unattended children in a public space. Try doing that these days and you’d be on the evening news on your way to a court hearing for child neglect.  
            But that was the pattern of our lives. When we were low in spirits, books comforted us. When there was a special occasion to be celebrated, like a birthday or a good report card (which in those days meant anything above an F), nothing made us happier than to unwrap a package to find a book lying within. 
            Which is why when I say I grew up with books, I mean it literally. And, in an age of Kindles and iPads, it still gives me a thrill to walk into a bookshop, pick up a pristine volume and smell the fresh wood cut smell of its pages.
            Of course, the downside to books is that they take up a lot of space. Especially if you’re someone like me who can’t walk past a bookshop without sucking up at least three new books, which I will take home, put up on a shelf, stand back to admire the new arrangement, and then proceed to ignore it for years.
The other downside to books is that they’re incredibly dusty. I know this because our cleaning lady Ah Chuan is forever screaming that our flat is a health hazard. She waits till all three of us are away on holiday and then, armed with gloves, goggles and face-masks, she proceeds to dust and clean every single book around the house. But because she never puts the books back in their original spot, it’s a nightmare trying to find the volume you might suddenly want.
Like the time Saffy, on a hot fourth date, found herself needing our ancient copy of the Kamasutra. By the time she finally found it, she was so exhausted and sneezy, she told her date she had to have a disco nap first. “That killed the mood fast, lemme tell ya,” she said the next morning.
Recently, we decided it was time to cull our books. “Every time we move, we have to also move these stupid books,” Amanda said very reasonably. “And we never read any of it. We just buy and buy. And they sit on the shelves getting dust and mould.”
Amanda’s plan is to throw out all the books that we’ve read plus any book that hasn’t been read in the past year.
Saffy looked around the flat, a frown etched on her forehead and calculated we’d be throwing out about 85% of our collection.
“It needs to be done,” Amanda said firmly. “Chinese New Year is coming. We need to purge.”
She’s right, of course. Our book collection has gotten out of control. But it’s all too heartbreaking.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Reality Bites

It used to be that you were a success in life if you had the 5 Cs – career, car, condo, country club membership and cash. Of course, if you ask someone like my mother, she’ll tell you the 5 Cs are just a subset of the Big 4 Careers – doctor, lawyer, engineer, and chartered accountant. If you’re in one of these four professions, then the 5 C’s are natural consequences.
            “Chartered accountant,” Mother would tell us. “It has to be chartered, otherwise you’re just an ordinary bookkeeper!” she added in a tone that indicated that you might as well be sweeping the streets.
            “Is there a word for when you’re prejudiced against someone because of the job that they have?” my sister once wondered.
            “Yes, it’s ‘mother’!” my brother Jack piped up. The quip entertained us for a full week.
            These days, the whole idea of getting a job that will give you these 5 Cs is just so last century. Expectations have changed. And why not? When talentless nobodies from Kampong Ulu can pop up out of nowhere, without coming within sniffing distance of an actual performance arts school, and become celebrity artistes and earn pots of money hawking abalone and dieting pills to gullible housewives, you have to wonder if there’s any point in even graduating.
            If you really think about it, the people making the most money these days are the ones who, at school, you used to sniff at as odd balls and who couldn’t possibly amount to anything. Look at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. What are the odds that when they were kids, they spent all recess and lunchtime playing chess, or Dungeons and Dragons?
And when you read that even bankers in the UK are getting their bonuses cut, you can’t help but wonder just what kind of drugs your parents must have been mainlining when they insisted that you learnt your algebra and valence tables.
As Jack, who consistently got straight A’s in maths, pointed out recently, “I’ve literally never had to use a quadratic equation to solve anything in my entire life. That was a complete waste of three months of my life learning that crap, wasn’t it?”
And as you get older, the resentment about the wasted opportunities only grows.
            “I wish my parents had sent me to tennis camp,” Saffy said the other day as she watched the Australian Open.
“Who’s playing?” Amanda asked, sitting down on the sofa next to her.
“I have no idea. Some nobody from an Eastern European country with an unpronounceable name and someone with an equally unpronounceable name from who knows where.” Saffy sighed. “But can you believe that last year, they didn’t win a single tournament, and yet they each earned $500,000! It’s ridiculous!”
Amanda was impressed. “Really? God, we should have taken tennis lessons!”
Saffy’s bosom inflated. “That’s what I’m saying! It’s infuriating!”
They watched the match in silence, the air pregnant with possibilities and unrealisable dreams.
Eventually, Saffy said, “I was just thinking this morning that it would be so fabulous if somebody did a reality TV show about us! Don’t you think?”
Amanda blinked. “What’s so interesting about us? We lead such boring lives. Nothing happens!”
Saffy’s bosom thrust out in 3D. “Are you kidding me? With a bit of heavy editing and fast cuts, it would be a ratings blockbuster! I mean, look at us! I’m hot, you’re hot, Jason’s…not, but we’re hot!” Saffy sat up, her eyes shining. “Between your dating issues and my horrible boss, there’s already so much material. My God, my chronic constipation alone could take up an entire episode!”
When Sharyn heard about it, her glasses fogged up. “Ay, can I be in it too?”
“Sharyn,” Saffy said kindly, “nobody wants to watch the life of a married woman with two kids. Especially when she’s married to a man who walks around all day in shorts and a torn Crocodile singlet.”
“Where got?” Sharyn protested weakly.
“No,” Saffy said firmly. “Our show is all about the exciting lives of singletons living the high life in Singapore! With a supporting cast of gorgeous French and pan-Asian models!”
Sharyn looked doubtful. “We’re sitting at Chomp Chomp on a Friday night eating grill sting ray. This is consider high life, meh?”
“It’s amazing what they can do with editing, these days,” Saffy said with authority. “I really don’t see why those Kardashians should get all the limelight. My life is just as glamorous!”
Doubt still etched Sharyn’s forehead. “But they live in Hollywood, you live in Toa Payoh…”
“Oh shut up, Sharyn! Who died and made you Simon Cowell?”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Water Works

The other morning, our door-bell chimed.
            It was Lydia Kumarasamy, our nosy neighbour who’s always trying to fix Amanda up with one of her uncountable nephews.
            “Listen, Lydia,” Amanda began, uncomfortably aware that she had just answered the door in a very sheer silk and lace nightgown from Victoria’s Secret, “I really cannot go on another date with one of…”
            “Oh Amanda! How lovely to see you!” Lydia said smoothly with seasoned tact. “Listen, I’m going a-vay on a Mediterranean cruise with my sister, Sushila for two veeks and I need to ask you guys a favour. If I give you the key to my flat, can you water my plants? Just once a day vill do!” she said, her head bobbing gently. She held up a key and smiled brightly.
            Amanda blinked. “Oh. Uhm. Yeah. Sure. No problem.”
            Lydia beamed. “Oh, you are a treasure! Here’s the key. The watering can is next to the kitchen sink. See you when I get back. My nephew Cyrus is just back from Yale where he was studying engineering. You must meet him! Ok? If there are any problems, just SMS me!”
            With a cheery wave, she pivoted on her heels in a jangle of gold bangles and disappeared down the corridor back into her flat.
            Amanda shut the door and turned to us. “Yale? I graduated cum laude from Harvard! She expects me to date someone from Yale? That third rate Ivy League university?”
            Saffy looked up from her bowl of cereal. “Is she paying us for all this work?”
            That was five days ago. At last count, four of Lydia’s pot plants have died and one – a particularly lush pot of purple lilies – is showing distinct signs of accelerated aging. Meanwhile, a serious wave of recriminations between Saffy and Amanda as to whose fault it is has crested.
            “You over-watered them!” Amanda said firmly at breakfast this morning.
            Saffy’s impressive bosom inflated to maximum capacity. “I did not! If anything, you under-watered them. The soil was super dry, so I just added a bit more!”
            “Saffy, they’re cacti! They’re desert plants! Desert plants don’t need a lot of water! On account of them being desert plants!”
            Saffy hesitated in the face of such unrefutable horticultural evidence, but she rallied magnificently. “It’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard! If they’re desert plants, then what are they doing growing in the tropics?”
            Amanda’s forehead furrowed. A seasoned litigator, she could sense a treacherous slide ahead. Saffy’s logic, which never makes sense when you first hear it, always has a way of wearing you down to the stage you wonder if she actually doesn’t have a very valid point after all.
            So, Amanda shifted her line of defence and went on the offensive. “And what happened to those lilies?” she demanded.
            “I spritzed them like it said on Google!” Saffy replied hotly. “You can’t fault me on that!”
            Later, over afternoon tea, the girls were still bickering.
            “Aiyoh, you two, ah!” Sharyn moaned. “So simple thing to water plants, can still die, meh?”
            “Sharyn, you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Saffy snapped. “That flat is filled with wall to wall plants! The guest bedroom is a zoo! There are plants on every available surface! And each plant has its own watering requirements! Some need a lot of water, some need only a spray, some need to be rotated to face the light, and some don’t need watering at all! It’s all so confusing!”
            Amanda nodded. “It’s like dating ten men all at once! You have to remember what each one does and doesn’t like!”
            “Well, at least with men, there’s a pay-off after dinner,” Saffy said. “All these stupid plants do is sit there and grow. Or, in our case,” she added, “die!”
            Amanda pursed her lips and pouted. “It’s no wonder I’m still single! I can’t even look after a plant! What hope do I have of nurturing a relationship?”
            “Aiyoh, you seow, ah!” Sharyn said. “A plant is not like a man, ok? A man you have to wash his clothes. You must scold him because he leave toilet seat up or cannot aim properly. You must cook for him, udderwise, hor, he complain to his mudder that you are not like her. A plant, all you do is water water, finish! It don’t kachow you at night when you try to sleep. And one time a week, you add some fertilizer. Wah, so easy!”
            Later, Amanda said Sharyn married her first and only boyfriend. “Try dating a bunch of men for several years, then we’ll talk.”
            “Totally,” Saffy said. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Uptown Girl

In the little flat that I share with Saffy and Amanda, we watch a lot of TV. Some of you out there are probably saying, “Eh, doh-ne bluff!” But I swear on a pile of 8DAYS that we do. There probably isn’t a show out there that we’ve not watched. We’ll watch shows even though we’ve decided from the pilot episode that it’s stupid. We’ll even watch pilot episodes even though we know it never got picked up by the studios. That’s how dedicated we are.
As Saffy once pointed out as we diligently slogged through five seasons of Fringe, “Seriously, if we had jobs that required us to watch TV, I’d be the CEO by now.”
From the other corner of the couch, Amanda muttered, “I can’t believe we’re still watching this. This show is such crap!”
“It’s a really bad blend of X-Files and Alcatraz,” I said through a mouthful of popcorn.
“At least Alcatraz had hot bad guys,” said Saffy with the authority of someone who’s seen her fair share of shows with ugly bad guys.
“And Sam Neill,” Amanda added.
“And Sam Neill.”
But every so often, we come across a real gem and when we do, we become devoted to it the way some people are obsessed with their Singapore Airlines PPS membership. One of these shows is Downton Abbey.
It is, hands down, the best thing on TV right now. (Well, apart from Elementary, Scandal, Modern Family, Dallas redux and Revenge.)
“It’s a show about maids, right?” Sharyn said once, looking very doubtful.
“Oh my dear!” Saffy said, channeling Cousin Violet with uncanny precision. “What is a weekend?”
Sharyn looked confused. “What?”
Saffy said it’s just such a shame that we live in a tiny flat and not a big-assed mansion on Nassim Hill.
“I don’t think those houses have a basement section for the servants,” said Amanda, real estate agent specializing in Districts 9 and 10.
“You can’t call them servants,” Saffy said. “Or maids.”
Amanda said, “Well, what…”
Saffy steamed on. “All my Australian friends call their maids ‘domestic helpers’. It’s the PC thing to say.”
“Well, that doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? ‘Just leave the luggage, my Lady. I’ll have the domestic helper bring it up to your room.’ See? It doesn’t sound right!”
            “It’s so sad that we can only afford Ah Chuan,” Saffy went on, completely oblivious to the fact that she was taking part in a conversation involving another person. “But can you imagine if there was an Ah Chuan in Downton Abbey? It would be like Tekka Market every second of the day!”
            Sharyn finally succumbed to curiosity and said that she was going to watch an episode that evening. The next day, she met us for lunch, hollow eyed and twitching uncontrollably.
            “Aiyoh!” she moaned as she sat down. “I haven’t slept since 9pm! You, lah! Talk talk talk about Down Town Ah-bee, I watch one episode and doh-ne stop watching till one hour ago. I finish two season!”
            Even Saffy, no stranger herself to instantaneous obsessions, was impressed. “Isn’t it a great show?” she said.
            “Aiyoh! So good! Very cheem, hor, but so good! I love Cousin Matt-thew! Wah, so han-some! And the driver also!” Sharyn’s bloodshot eyes blinked rapidly.  “My maid, hor, she also stay up to watch with me. I told her I must get her a black and white uniform also. She say, ‘Yes, mum’, I say, ‘No, you must call me mee-ladee!’ We laugh laugh laugh, my husband think we both seow!”
            Which is how the other night, Sharyn and her maid came over for a marathon session of season 3.
            “There’s a bonus Christmas episode!” Amanda announced.
            Saffy shuffled out of the kitchen, burdened with popcorn, corn chips, salsa dip and several cans of Red Bull. “Oh my God. I am beyond excited! It’s so sad that watching a TV show is the highlight of my year so far, but I really don't care! OK, I’m ready, start!”
We finished the ten episodes at six in the morning, utterly exhausted and a little stunned. Outside the window, it was still dark, though the birds were already singing their hearts out and the traffic was picking up.
            After a while, Sharyn sniffed. “Ay, how like that?” she demanded.
            Her maid was still holding onto Saffy’s arm and sobbing. Saffy patted her head awkwardly. “It’s OK, Maria. It’s only a show!”
            Amanda looked defeated. “My God, I did not see that coming!”
            “It’s like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!” I said, adding, “But with better clothes and interior decor!”
            “I can’t wait for season four,” Saffy piped up. “Listen, seriously, can you stop crying?”