A realistic gaze at the romantic in me

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Found some photographs I took five years ago – I remember it was the first time I stepped into, or ‘explored’ as my bright-eyed and curious self would have called it back then, the neighbourhood estate of Ang Mo Kio.

Having been brought up in a relatively newer neighbourhood in the western part of Singapore, I remember having a fascination and love for older estates in Singapore such as Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh and Queenstown – ironically, two of which I would end up staying at in the next few years.

These were the mature estates I considered the ‘true heartlands’ of Singapore. After all, our country is known for its efficient public housing system, and its policies for assigning newly-wed couples to property of their own. The new mass-constructed flats, however, were mostly build with pared-down or more uniform design in order to cut production costs and speed up construction.

Hence I found myself drawn, increasingly over the years, to the tacky, mismatched paint facades and brick surfaces of older HDB flats.

Buildings then were shorter – the 16th floor rooftop level flat I lived in for most of my childhood in the then less-developed west area was already considered very high. Nowadays, a typical HDB flat would likely go above 30 storeys, and for more premium classes of public housing like the famous Pinnacle@Duxton (that note for my foreign readers, is not representative of the living conditions of average Singaporeans among the 80% who reside in public housing) would go as high as a dizzying fifty storeys – its rooftop turned into a local or tourist attraction for skyscraper viewing, even charging an admission fee.

Such is the way public housing has evolved over the years. I remember when I first went to the home of my current boyfriend, who is, ironically and perhaps with an amazing affinity, an Ang Mo Kio resident for the entire 20 odd years of his life. He was extremely amused by the way I admired all the old things that no one pays attention to, and things that are wearing, withering away – in the ordinary person’s eyes, nothing to be proud of.

I admired the old faded cream walls of the pillars at the void deck leading to the lifts, the long corridors with adjacent units (new generation flats nowadays are designed for more privacy and inevitably minimises the need for social interactions or small talk) looking out over a low barred banister, on which some neighbours draped and dried their laundry the old-school way, and the way everyone on the same floor seemed to know each other. While at my new generation house, my family only vaguely knew the Indian family opposite us, and thanked them with red packets when they gave us traditional Indian snacks during Deepavali.

I also admired the interior of his old, almost thirty year-old flat, the peeling paint, the cave-like kitchen with the back light against the laundry poles laden with clothes, with a blue mosaic tiled arc framing the kitchen doorway. I admired the pastel blue colour of the walls, which he told me was not always this colour but has weathered drastically with time. I told him I like how faded it looks, and also the way a Stephen Chow comedy/martial arts movie poster hung above a metal rack of clothes he shared with his elder brother.

Was I romanticising the old? Perhaps, in some ways, I have always tended to look at things through tinted glasses, although less so now as I aged myself. But this romantic streak in me was what led me to capture moments like the above photographs, and edit them the way it ended up – not a literal representation of what I saw, but what I actually felt in that moment, as I observed the scene in front of me.

Nowadays, I tend to edit my photos less, compared to maybe five years ago, when I would play with the colour tones, monochrome, and slightly faded/rosy vintage effect that I had taken to at that time. Compared to five years ago, I also write less poetry – which I produced prolifically, especially when I was falling in love.

I used to lament myself for writing romantic fiction only to realise that it’s not really fiction anymore, and unlike many good writers, my imagination and powers of creation are vastly limited. I could, after all, only write fiction from real life, so how fictitious is it really? But what is the point of fiction anyway? This leaves me with a whole new essay to write.

And there I’ve said it – now most of the time, I write essays. Essays about the world, thoughts about humanity, and reflections about my thoughts. My reading tastes have changed too, and I find myself reading only three fiction books out of ten, the rest being memoirs and essays on various topics, many of them by journalists. So what happened to me, the journalism major who resisted journalism, and turned obstinately to creative writing instead, only to find myself back to where I had started?

Honestly, I was incredibly upset for a time when I found that my poetry and photography inspiration seemed to have faded away together. The last poem I wrote, it seems, was two years ago. That was when my father passed away – but I too am not sure whether there is a correlation, whether grief has taken away my inspiration, and why now, after times have settled into normalcy, it is not being returned to me.

For much of my formative years, poetry and photography were a vital part of how I saw and made sense of the world. It is also worth noting that my late father and I bonded deeply through photography. After his diagnosis, I bought him a camera and he would take these spectacular shots of the sunrise – which he said, after so many years, he found the time to slow down and appreciate every single day. Not surprising coming from someone who is terminally ill, but then again, why do we always understand the truth of all cliches when our time is running out?

I’m not sure how these changes in self-expression reflects the change in my intrinsic nature. Now I find myself writing down more literally the things I think about, and have been told that it makes an impact on the reader. I focus more on thoughts than emotion, and ponder over the meaning of emotions more than describing the feelings themselves with flowery, ambiguous language.

Perhaps that is also the product of going through the rigorous self-questioning process of therapy, the result of teaching General Paper, a critical thinking and argumentative essay writing subject to junior college students. It could also be the process of growing up, of entering the working world, of witnessing the dominance of business over creativity, sales targets over the appeal to emotion, that made me more pragmatic. Or quite simply the task of paying the rent and bills by myself every month could have taken away the tinted lenses through which I viewed the world, recorded as evidence in the photographs above, from five years ago.

But I’m coming to terms with my new self. I appreciate honesty, vulnerability, and imperfections even more so now – and not because I think imperfections are ‘beautiful’.

I started this blog like no other before, not to showcase my perfect polished works of creativity and literature, but to document the incomplete reflections and endless questions of living life every day. There are no answers, no conclusions like a short story, no finale in a play or poem. Because isn’t life a long, arduous journey of writing our own non-fiction essay?

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comforting sounds

This is one of the rare occasions in which I feel the cover goes beyond the original song, giving it a whole new dimension and interpretation.

The harmonisation of piano keys and various strings, together with Birdy’s vocals at her best and most haunting, results in what I consider to be her best, although not most well-known cover performance. I’m not the biggest fan of Birdy, although I think she has a pretty decent and impressive voice. But this choice of song completely takes her vocals to a new level.

And that’s really saying a lot, considering how this original song by Danish band Mew is a composition I really revere and enjoy.

This particular song called Comforting Sounds, while not entirely accurate to simply label as my favourite song of all time, holds a very special meaning in my heart. It has been with me through a lot of key moments in my life. I believe we all have that one song in our lives.

Which is why this OOH campaign by Spotify (“Thanks 2016, it’s been weird.”) is one of my favourite examples of advertising. It is also a exemplary case of how useful insights can be extracted from numbers and data to create meaningful messages to connect with people:

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See the rest of the brilliant campaign here

The song Comforting Sounds begins with the lyrics “I don’t feel alright…despite all the comforting sounds that you make.” 

That’s the opening line that gives the title its name, but truth is, the entire track is an amazing hypnotic mixture of comforting sounds – both the original version and Birdy’s strings rendition.

This is my go-to therapy song whenever I need to feel that it’s ok not to be okay, just like last night when I was sitting at the bay of the Singapore River, staring at the golden glitter of light reflections in the rippling waters, until my vision became a blur of starlight.

Often it’s the moments we share with a song that gives it meaning, as though it were a person by our side, from which we gain solace and calm amidst anxiety, sorrow, and many other emotions language cannot find names for.

The most amazing thing about this song is how it’s a full nine-minute track, of which the later two-thirds have no vocals, only pure instrumental beauty. Yet it doesn’t feel that long, in fact, not long enough maybe, for I always get this feeling of lingering yearning at the end, as the cymbals come to a crash. It’s a feeling of knowing something inevitably has to end, and accepting and anticipating it, yet not without a wishful thinking for the moment to go on forever.

It’s also the song that first got me to encounter and fall in love with the genre of post-rock, because of the layers upon layers of instruments and sounds that build up gradually in a canon, as though painting on a canvas. Listening to songs like these feels like walking through a journey.

Leaving this post with a beautifully shot black and white film of their live performance in Beijing 2015, as I look forward to their concert in Singapore on Sunday. Thank you for coming to Singapore it is really an unexpected and joyful surprise :,)

Black, white & everything in between

“We are shaped by our past, but not defined by it.”

My close friends have told me that what they appreciate most about me is my empathy, combined with my uncanny ability to articulate very precisely what they are feeling or going through in different situations or moments in time. As such, they also mention how they are amazed at the way I somehow naturally get people to open up to me very easily and early on in a friendship, themselves included.

In the past few months, I’ve gotten close to a colleague at my workplace, and gained a precious friendship – precious because it is not always easy to make friends in a work setting.

It has been my personal wish to make one good friend that goes beyond working relations at every place I work, which I have succeeded at it twice, both of them designers. It’s strange how copywriters and designers always seem to attract each other, and with these two designers, I share a very satisfying and productive creative chemistry.

This new friend I have made at my workplace was initially someone I perceived as completely different in personality and nature. And I guess in a way, she still is. Where I am empathetic and forgiving, she imposes high expectations on herself, and as a result, others around her. Where she is methodical, efficient and super organised, I am laid back and less meticulous.

People around us were quite intimidated by her, for she was often very direct and straightforward, and was perceived as no-nonsense and quite unapproachable. But I went ahead and talked to her anyway – and I don’t always do this, because I am an introvert. It takes a lot to approach someone I don’t know.

I never imagined I would be able to connect with someone so different from myself, but somehow, she shared some personal stuff with me within weeks of knowing me, and both of us were equally surprised – for she told me I was the only person she shared those things with.

And then I realised both of us actually shared similar experiences in our families, and went through rough childhoods and family problems, although our upbringing was totally different – she spent her childhood and adolescent years in the States, and I grew up in a traditional Chinese family in Singapore.

As I knew her better over time, I realised that the family situations she went through from young, the racism and discrimination she faced as a young Asian in American high school, as well as the toxic environment of aristocratic, pretentious and manipulative “friends” she encountered during her days at a local art college – all led her to put up a self-preservation mechanism of distrust.

Because others judged her easily, she was quick to judge and less able to empathise. Because she was often criticised, she was also critical of others.

There was this conversation we had during lunch which left her in tears. I told her about the financial hardships I went through, and how it made me more sensitive to poverty, social homelessness, and inequality in societies. I told her about the hurt I received from the ones I considered closest to me, and my resolve to be completely different from them. I told her about the time I realised the people we loved or held in high regard were also very fallible, and their actions had the power to leave us jaded and disappointed.

I told her about how all this made me realise that there was no black and white division between good and evil, and a good person may sometimes also commit bad actions and hurt people. 

She admitted that she was very black and white in her judgements of morality. But I told her, this was because of what she went through. We are all shaped by our experiences, which can sometimes be pretty bad. Our experiences have the ability to make us into people we are not proud of, and it is often very difficult to fight against that, the instinct to protect ourselves from being hurt again.

But we have to try. Our experiences explain why we act, think or behave in a certain way today, or respond to certain situations. But it doesn’t define us as a person. Similarly, the people around us may have hurt us with their actions, but it also does not define them as a whole, and does not take away their ability to change in the future. Accepting that is crucial, although it doesn’t justify their wrongs. The process of acceptance within ourselves is the first step to healing ourselves.

Same for ourselves too – we are currently who we are, but we can change. We can decide to be better. We can decide to not be like the people who hurt us, and choose to believe in good, and be part of that good.

We cannot complete deny or disregard the impact of the past on a person’s present self, but what matters most is how we use our present to become who we want to be in the future.

So as she was listening to this sudden flow of thoughts from me through her tears, she said she felt as though she was listening to a TED talk. That is actually a pretty big compliment to me lol (and very funny too).

Despite, or because of the extraordinary turmoils I have gone through, I believe that the purpose of my life is to accept with grace everything that happens or has happened, and use the wisdom I have gained from it to uplift people, create good, and make meaningful and precious connections with people, throughout humanity.

 

Autumn’s end

Australia hit me hard. It was not just the going back to the monotony and doldrums of sitting, bound to the office desk, by an invisible chain. It was not just the relentless, densely clustered crowds – everywhere, from the roads to the malls to the side paths or a bench or any random space that could be inhabited by human bodies. It was not just because there was no space to break down and cry, no privacy to be vulnerable. It was not just the artificial tinned peaches and imported tomatoes in my lunch salad. And it was definitely not the square pieces of uniform, factory-manufactured enriched white bread.

But it was all of it in a way, because every single thing reminded me of all that it could be, instead. Things that were so easy there became impossible here. Many things, when looked at too closely, or broken down thoroughly, are reduced to pointlessness.

This is the hardest part, the first few days upon coming back, being thrown back into the grind of work and daily life. This is the hardest part, when your body is here but your soul is not. Some people call it post-vacation blues, but for me, it is deeper than that, hitting me hard at the core of my existence.

It’s as though I was split into two halves when I was born, a solitary rendition of the origin of our “other halves” in Plato’s Symposium – a copy of which I bought in a bookshop along King William Road outside the city of Adelaide, which I have not begun reading yet.

It is in these moments that I understand why books like The Catcher in the Rye are written. Something, deep inside me, has been detached. And I don’t know how to find it back, if I can, and most importantly when.

Don’t forget all this.

I’ve got a long day ahead with a mountain of work, so here I am, drinking Kopi-C Gao (coffee with evaporated milk, thick) and treating myself to my favourite Singapore breakfast – kaya toast. Found a nice little coffee shop near my office. It’s something I will inevitably miss when I’m away from home.

It’s Friday today, my first TGIF on this job. Although it’s only been a week, the work has been quite demanding. And draining – or maybe I just need time to get used to it.

I’m a copywriter, using my love for words for commercial purposes. Not exactly something I’m passionate about, but it’s okay, I don’t hate it and it’s the best thing I am capable of doing – writing. Putting my words to good use. But is it really good? Words are powerful, but there are so many ways of using it.

Our clients want profit, and yesterday as I was working on social media posts, I couldn’t help but think again, sometimes the sincerity shown by corporations seem ironically, insincere. Sincerity becomes a means to an end – winning over customers. So is that really sincere in itself?

When you’re caught in the grind, there’s no time or space for these thoughts. Which is why, I figured, people are able to go on despite being exhausted or drained by the routine.

But today, on the bus ride to work, caught in the traffic, I kept my eyes open and noticed the little things. The way I used to. As I was listening to this track, I remember who I have always been. Something I do not want to lose.

I saw many things – the reservoir, the people jogging or going for a stroll. The whole stretch of beach along East Coast Park, running parallel to the expressway. And then, as we were stuck in traffic, I saw two motorcyclists actually talking to each other and having a conversation, side by side. A precious little moment in this busy city.

There is so much to see, so much to feel, and so much to say. Yet we’re all reduced, subdued versions of ourselves.

What are your hobbies? What movies do you like? What is your favourite kind of music?

All this small talk, I wish I could ask, do you want the long or short answer? In other words, are you asking because you really care, or simply out of politeness or a dislike for awkward silence?

I like traveling, because I find it a pity that we are born into our selves at a specific time and space. Traveling allows me to live more than one life, to experience life in more than one way. That’s why I do not go for things and places tourists like. I try to observe the locals and live like them, seeing all the imperfections of each place.

For the same reason, I like world cinema, because I believe we should step out of the media and world narrative dominated by America. Sitting in a dark cinema with a story from another person from another part of the world makes me feel like I am traveling too, and for those hundred minutes or so I experience life from another person’s or people’s perspective.

Books, I guess it’s the same. I like non fiction prose, relating to culture or social issues. I just read this, this and this and loved all of it. And this too, written by a journalist with that penchant for minimal sharp prose.

Music? I can’t paper bag them into genres. But here’s a track that sort of sums up what I love:

Don’t forget all of this.

Work

Not everything in this world has a purpose. Some things are just mundane and superfluous.

I know that.

But at the core of what you are doing, it has to be purposeful, or at least done with a sense of purpose, no?

Not even meaningful, for meaning is subjective.

Is that really too much to ask?