Sure as Autumn Flame

Come home for dinner, my daughter
July 9, 2012, 2:34 am
Filed under: Food, L.ove, Woven Tales | Tags: , , , , ,


It is another Sunday evening, staring at my white plastic bowl, a black pair of chopsticks, and a spoon that looked like it has been through the dishwasher one too many times. The table is white, and I did not have my favourite placemat on it.

It is the usual Sunday evening, seated at a food court with my mother opposite me. Instead of a Channel 8 drama serial blaring in the background, I hear voices of the vendors repeating their patrons’ orders albeit too loudly, the tuneless stacking of plastic plates stacking on top of one another as a cleaner goes around the tables clearing up, and my mum’s complaints dimmed into the background. “It’s too salty…so expensive and they only give you three pieces of meat.”

I did a mental calculation in my head: it has been nine years since I ate regular home-cooked meals. Sure, there were the special occasions such as Chinese New Year reunion dinners, a get-together on Mother’s and Father’s Day…but too often they were seen as a rarity and I gorged…to remember the simple satisfaction I used to take for granted, and to grasp dismally at the memories pegged to them, not knowing when I would enjoy such meals again.

My dear mother, why do you not remember that the promise of a simple dinner by you brought me home faithfully every day? It wasn’t the curfew that you set for me, neither was the threat that there will be no food left if I came home late. It was the pleasure of sitting at the table to my own plate (Bodum, I remembered) of steaming white rice, stir-fry xiao bai cai and best of all, garlic steamed fish that I know I would never get in restaurants.

My dear mother, could you remember how it was a treat for me to find a slice of melted cheese stuck to the plate because you remembered my quirky love for cheese-“baked”-rice? How you complained it was hell to wash the dishes after that? The odd pairing of oyster sauce, cheese with rice lingers in my palate and my memories.

Nothing else comes quite close anymore.

It sickens me to know that the vegetables that those economic rice stalls sell have been deep-fried to preserve their rich green colour. There is no satisfaction in consuming the hardened rice because it was cooked in the morning and left till lunch. I sought pleasure in new dishes, raving reviews, fresh concepts and Peranakan kitchens in my food writing and restaurant-PR days, but nothing else could reach deep into my heart and fill the void that opened nine years ago.

Those who know me tease me about my obsession with Tangs, Muji and general designer kitchenware. Did you know that I would stroll down the aisles of tableware and cutlery sets, mentally picking out the ones I would love to use at home…if I cooked, or if you cooked. I paused at Muji’s new wooden tableware this afternoon, knowing how each plate would contain each type of dish you’d always cooked. I bought two wooden trays back from my last trip to Bangkok, knowing how perfect Sunday mornings will be if your toast was served on it, with cream cheese on the side.

Alas, we both too often came up with the excuse of having no time, too many things to wash, and simply being too lazy.

I sit at the round dining table in the mornings when you are still asleep in bed, eating out from a plastic bag. The cup of Nespresso was the only hint of a somewhat slow morning because only then I have time to make latte. Don’t you think it is funny that we have more coffee mugs than plates, two coffee machines and not a stove, and too many teaspoons but only two tablespoons?

And when I got ready to head out for the day, you stare listlessly at the stainless steel plate you picked out from, one that reminds me too much of canteen days. Where was the pride taken in choosing tableware that used to make us love setting the table and eating at home? Where was the thrill that used to pulsate through us when we insisted on a set of pots and pans? Why has it all been a convenient and cheap option of buying plates that remind me of the tuckshop days?

Perhaps I could say, “My dear mother, come home for dinner. Let me into your kitchen where you were the maestro of the meals that came out of it. Let me into your haven where your hands conducted the orchestra of ingredients and your soul sang to the fire. My dear mother, come home for dinner where I will attempt to replicate a recipe and laugh as you choke on perhaps curry fish made a tad too spicy. Come home to dinner where placemats and tableware matter the world to me, and put your obsession with a squeaky clean and spotless kitchen aside just for three hours tonight.”

My dear mother, dinner is home to me.


A Bowl Full of ICE CREAM to inspire
April 14, 2011, 8:40 pm
Filed under: Books, Woven Tales

A Bowl Full of ICE CREAM by TK Cheng

I have the honour of knowing a good friend who has inspired me through our coffee sessions and late night suppers. What made me very proud of him is his new status as an author of a children’s book. A Bowl Full of ICE CREAM was his gift to me, with “stories to inspire change and motivate excellence.”

Sure, it was written for children, employing the art of story-telling and favourite things such as ice-cream flavours to convey morals and values of life. I often found myself going back to the book to flip through a story, to relax and reflect, to enjoy a storytelling session, to discover the inner child within me again.

It can be almost as simple as “The Shortest Tree”, a story that tells of determination and managing failures, or “A Magical Forest” to help you learn about relaxation. Compare three seedlings who have each withered, got uprooted by strong winds, with only the shortest and tiniest of them all eventually growing into a large tree. You know, that sort of heart-warming happy stories. In the increasingly cynical environment we find ourselves battling through, A Bowl Full of Ice Cream reminds us how simple life was as a child, and how the values we learned carved the persons we are today.

There is something about lying in bed tucked under the comforter, reading a simple story book that does not threaten to question your progress in life nor sets you thinking, that becomes strangely peaceful. For once, you stop thinking about work, you slow down in your pace of thinking just for that rare five minutes, and you retire to bed calm and ready for the next day. This does not happen all the time, but I am just saying it helps.

Or pick up a colouring book and revive your crayon days.


My Affair with Mr Scissors-Hands
July 10, 2009, 12:54 am
Filed under: Beauty & Health, Lifestyle, Woven Tales | Tags: , , , ,

I love my new hair.

Each time I look in the mirror, each time my fingers grazed the styling clay, I thought of his teasing fingers shaping my bangs, and the image freezes there.

If the word “affair” is loosely termed, my affair with Mr Scissors-Hands begun last year. Like every relationship, I bolted away crying from my previous hairstylist, convinced that the love of my life has ruined the future ahead for me. Till I met Mr Scissors-Hands when I wandered through the corridors of dodgy Katong Shopping Centre – I entered haltingly, he beckoned gently. I stiffened a sigh, and plonked myself to an experience I could only hope for the best.

The first encounter. Like a first date, we did not know what to make of each other. I wondered how good his fingers were, while he wondered what baggage and scars I carried with me. Like a dance of lovers, we begun slowly, hesitant, a brief touch, his hand guiding the way. I tip-toed along those pages of flowing curls, I made my decision, and closed my eyes for his magic…

Why did I choose to leave the man who had toyed with my hair for the past six years? I confided in him, I wanted him to make me the prettiest girl in school, I begged for him to try new things on me. He was the dominant one in the relationship, he held the reins. He gave me what he liked, and I loved it because he liked it too. Eager to please, I modelled his dreams and he painted his desires on me. I cried my sorrows and life’s worries while he smoothed my hair, and somehow his words – though not many – managed to make me feel better. It might not have been his words but the magical tough he had on my hair, because I remember leaving his salon happy and feeling more beautiful than an hour earlier. Like a relationship facing the inevitable stagnant phase, where nothing exciting happens anymore, he was harsh with his words. “No matter what you want me to do with your hair, face it – you’ll still look the same blah girl.”

I did not need a man who saw no hope in making magic with me anymore.

Mr Scissors-Hands was a renewed hope, a refreshed vigour and a whiff of adventure. I felt assured and safe with him as we explored textures and colours, sharing an anticipation as the hair-dryer reveals the final product bit by bit. I was always stunned to awe by his skill with the scissors while he took pride in my adventurous nature. Curls, bob, the asymmetrical cut…it was like having snapshots of our memories, with stories woven behind them. The curls allowed us to discover our mutual friends, and each other’s likes and dislikes. The bob revealed a more intimate side of him – he had a daughter, but he is alone now. I hummed along a similar tune – single child, single mum – and we silently understood each other, the pain, the loneliness…and our courage to march through life. The asymmetrical was a fun excursion, him teasing, I was laughing. I am hooked to him, like another lover in my life.


In reality, chosing a hairstylist is almost like chosing a boyfriend. Women flock to men who seem to exist for the sole purpose of making them beautiful, and it is in our nature to find the perfect match who understands our hair, our roots, and our nature. I belong to the statistics – they do not call the hair a crowning glory without a reason. Hair changes our complex, our impression on others, and at times releases our alter-ego within us.

Three hours with a hairstylist is almost like going out on a date. Such close proximity, do we simply sit in silence? Conversations, laughter, the need to find similar interests to generate topics to chat…hairstylists have moved from a mere hair-transforming agent into a professional friend. Women seek that professional friend for a quick confidential outburst, for a confidence booster, and at times, a convenient coffee date when she is around the area.

In cases where some will take this friendship level to the next one that of lovers, a relationship that blossomed out from such stylist-customer origins are few and scattered wide. My told-story of “My Affair with Mr Scissors-Hands” will stay a purely fictional one, because the professional friendship is worth the next few good years (or more, I hope) of lovely hair.

These whispers of temptation
July 1, 2009, 12:06 am
Filed under: Woven Tales

They said there was a road you turn off past Holland Village, through the white metal sheets of a construction in progress – and you transcend into the mystical world of The Beautiful Land.

They said that The Beautiful Land is a strange place, where you see local bakeries with the usual bread aunties, speaking with that Singaporean tongue – juxtaposed with an army of charming men, and fairy-like ladies. Men of the smoothest complexion, of lean gaits, tall and dashingly well-dressed. Men of your dreams – the metrosexual, the pretty boy, the scruffy one, the boyish imp, and they mingle with the ladies of your desires. Those ladies, the men swear by their luscious locks, floating footsteps like they are dancing on water, soft lips and a voice of the wind.

Not many discovered that hidden passage way, and returned to their lives for more than a day. Strange vanishing incidences spoke of a day’s return, and never to be seen again. Those who have ventured through The Beautiful Land and came back alive, stared away with a dreamy look in their eyes…yet behind that misty haze you see a glimmer of impending fear and a hidden tale they refuse to speak of.

We crashed past those metal sheets – Jay, Chlo and I. They might very well call it A Moment of Flawed Temptation.

Jay found a fairy, so he called her. Green eyes she had, with fire in her hair, because it was so so red. She took his hand, led him away..laughing, dancing. I could not stop looking, there were just too many of them. We munched on sesame buns we purchased from the local bakery – just two dollars for six – like those you see on the ground floors of our HDB apartments. The aunty conversed with nobody in particular:

Jia lat lah, these people. So young, so tempted. Then they always disappear. Ah Girl! The bread okay already! They always leave something in those humans’ pockets, so that they are never fully returned to their land. No..they aren’t humans, too beautiful already. Those who play, must know the rules. If not, they disappear…then how to play? Ah, what you want? Kaya waffle ah? There you go, thank you xiao mei. Then you want to find them, almost impossible lah. Then how? Stuck loh. That’s it, just disappear..nobody knows.

Jay returned, triumphant. We went home…and I never saw him again.

Curiousity always kills the cat, they say. But I am a cat with nine lives, what’s one to me?

Through the white sheen I went again. This time I found my temptation, encased in a lean torso, clothed with a linen shirt…slacks..side swept hair that hid half his chestnut eyes…he spoke:

Come here. I took his hand and tried to stay alert, mentally marking my tracks so that I could trace him again, if I had to. He led me through the bustling stalls, through a series of twists and turns (3 lefts, 1 right and another left) and he pulled me through a wall.

And I fell, but he held me – through meadows of gold we flew, to a place he called home. Three other pixie-like creatures stared at me, their eyes the  colour of the deep blue sea, their cheeks…almost procelain-coated. I struggled to remember every moment. It was beautiful.

If we are not returned as a whole when the sun sets the next day, our owner from the previous night turns into dust. If the human does not return to his land when the sun sets, the same fate awaits him. Temptation lasts a night here – never more, never less.

Those three sisters. Their whispers blended into the wind.

He returned me home, not before a kiss of farewell. And I realised, with shock…the exchange of such fluids, meant that a part of him remains in me.

Look for me, you know where to find me. Renew this exchange, and you will not disappear. Let temptation be your addiction.

“No Money, No Honey” – Behind the Brothel Doors in the 1900s

adapted from “Ah Ku and Karayuki-San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940” by James Francis Warren

It was the year 1897. The surge of brothels springing up along Smith Street and Malay Street marked the area where ah kus and karayuki-sans gathered, where there were whispers by men of the beautiful ladies that sat in those rows of houses, staring at them with a hint of an invite to enter, beckoning them to temptation, to a temporary house of wonder.

“My name is Lee Mei Nyan, and I am 19 years old this year. I reside in a brothel along Hong Kong Street – 37 Hong Kong Street, to be exact. My mamasan (mother, I call her), whose name was Teng Ah Hee, is a 59-year old Cantonese woman who owned the brothel and took care of my sisters and I. Our clients and suppliers address her as kwai po, which translates into ‘keeper’. “

Kwai pos, known affectionately among prostitutes as mamasans, were often brothel-owners. Older women, often married to traffickers or local gang leaders, will have the brothel legally registered under her name, while her husband ran a day-business which can be of any form – tailor, restaurant, trading, supplies – but mainly supported by the brothel’s earnings once dusk has settled.

“I barely remembered the life that existed before I stepped into 37 Hong Kong Street. I recalled being hungry, lost, and being in a huge debt. I owed $327 to a man who smuggled me on board his ship which sailed from Hunan to Singapore, but there was no job awaiting me at the shores of the island. Desperate to be rid of this burden, I approached Teng Ah Hee, who promptly settled my debt with him, fed me, clothed me and sent me up to bed. Work began the moment I woke up, till I tell my story today.”

Treatment of ah-kus and karayuki-sans by the keepers did not appear to be as harsh, although it was in their interest to extract the maximum profit from their “daughter” during her working lease. In the lower-class brothels, stories of long hours, bad food, inadequate health-facilities, and the punishment suffered drove some ladies to suicide, death from tuberculosis, extended depression and mauled memories of their youth. It was often the case of ah-kus, who were bound to their brothel house and limited to interaction with men of similar race (in this case, the Chinese). The karayuki-sans, often the Japanese prostitutes, were allowed to go out freely, and solicit their own clients if they receive an invitation. Karayuki-sans were in men’s eyes, the exotic beauties, the upper-class, and an expensive getaway they could ill afford.

“I was fortunate to be blessed with a slim figure, porcelain-like skin and large doe eyes, rendering myself a favourite among certain clients. Freedom did not exist in my life. I spent the day in the brothel, keeping the rooms and stairwells spick and span, proceeding to prepare myself for the evening at about three in the afternoon. My mother’s traditional recipe of using powder ground from raw rice to cleanse myself gave me a youthful glow. Mamasan has picked my dress for the evening – it is this sheer blouse embroided with intricate flowers, billowing around my waist. My hair is up in a coiffure. The dinner bell rings and I drink a bowl of soup, determined to keep my waist trim for the rest of the evening. And I sit, like a doll, staring out through the open door, smiling at men who eyed me greedily, lustfully, while they mentally calculate whether they could afford me.”

Rivalries and jealousy were an inevitable part of an ah ku’s life. In general, if a male customer was seen to be rough with an ah ku, the ‘sisters’ will stand by one another. The kwai po had the authority to firmly usher the man out of the brothel. But if one were to stand up against her ‘sister’, she found that she was often alone.

“On good days, we went shopping – accompanied by our tai pang po (chaperone, guardian-servant) of course. Mamasan will never allow us out of her brothel house unaccompanied. We had beautiful in-house rickshaws to ferry us to a nearby opera should a client wish for our company, but even so…we were always under the watchful eye of tai tang po, in case we ever run away to become concubines.

Life was not a bed of roses, beautiful lingerie and social parties – like some people thought it would be. I watched Tan Lee Hua gave birth twice – she lost her curves, her breasts sagged, and she brought her daughter into prostitution as soon as the young girl turned 10. It was all for income, she said tearfully, I could almost see her heart breaking as she heard her daughter’s anguished screams on the night of her first customer.

And what was left for a woman when wrinkles, various bodily complaints and grey hair begin to take over? I dread the day I encounter these, for I have no skills to warrant me of a proper job out there, my family is too ashamed to take me back, and I do not know if I can control my spending after having gotten used to all these luxurious beauty items and silk fabrics. Will I waste away behind the alleys, or will I end up working as a servant in the brothel I used to hail glory in? Will I eventually become someone’s concubine, or will I succumb to poor nutrition once my value closes in to zero? Will I have chosen to end my life when men do not lay their eyes on me, or will I cast aside my pride and run the hawkers down these streets?”

Brothel districts major cities like Singapore were sanctioned by the colonial governments to cater to the sexual needs of migrant bachelor labourers. Prostitution in Singapore was directly linked to the economic and social problems faced by families in rural China and Japan, where patriarchy undervalued a female born into the family. A female child was seen to be of little value in over-populated regions, and they would often be forced to migrate or sold by their parents into prostitution. Females, or ah kus, found their worth in prostitution – mainly to assist in much-needed financial support for their parents or kin. Their stories continue in the depths of Singapore’s red-light district Geylang today, merely different people but in the same situation.

Written for

In the digital realm
June 13, 2009, 3:12 am
Filed under: Two Cents' Worth, Woven Tales | Tags: , , , ,

In our digitalised world, time never stops, reality goes unchecked, and we evolve as each second ticks by.

In the world of bytes, we become a persona – duly written by our own keyboard strokes, envisioned through our idealised minds, and enacted by the puppet-master in us. We become our own authors, we dream the impossible that we can achieve, we pen a world that revolves around us. In this world of bytes, all is good, the drama swells to a emotional high, but ends on a happy note. Just like how the princess meets her Prince Charming. Perhaps not – we may choose to end it in death, in loneliness, in a empty desolate shell. We think we might have had ventured into that state of emptiness and loneliness, but in reality – we live in quiet assurance that the worst will not cross paths with us.

In this timeless realm where the unreal trespasses the real, we blur the lines between our true Selves and the Other we present. Behind a facade of HTML codes, scripts, data and visionary creation – the Jester emerges, the Frog hides behind its lotus leaf. The dancing Tinkerbell flitters next to the one she secretly yearns; she teases, she giggles, she chatters, she is his dream come true. Behind the velvet curtain the Temptress lounges in seductive red, her eyes burning into her Lover, he gazes, he buckles, he moves with an agility of a leopard and they two melt into one. In this timeless realm, imagination knows no boundaries, and we move into a dance of decadence fueled by our desires and wanderlusts.

Through the vines of cable wires, satellite transmissions and an invisible cloak I wear – I write my piece, and my invitation to you to enter my woven pieces still stands every night. Will you, do you – trade your Self for your Other, to lose yourself in the freedom of your imagintion, thoughts and recklessness – for a story, spun out from keyboard strokes, backspaces and unbridled exchanges? Will you sit on the Aladdin’s carpet of fantasy that only your mind can steer; the magic carpet is your carriage, your pumpkin as you deem fit; it falls when you snap back; it flies in rhythm to your pulse.

And I write fervently, catching up with your thoughts on fire, your winged shoes soaring higher. I lose mySelf and it is the price I willingly pay, provided you shed your Self and let the Other take my hand;

…In this digital realm we write; lost in the real world divide.

My Affair with the Rickshaw Man
June 4, 2009, 11:49 pm
Filed under: Stories from Yesteryear, Woven Tales | Tags: , ,

…written for

“Lee Jin Xiang was his name, and I liked to call him Jin-ge, for short. They say its an affectionate nickname, but it was really an easier name to shout amidst the roaring din of chatter and aggressive bargaining as we raced through the streets of Chinatown at night. We were young, and bold, and together Jin-ge and I will explore the streets of Singapore, sneak into open-air movies…all the while with me seated by his side, him pulling the rickshaw like I was a bird’s feather.

Jin-ge’s physique was a tell-tale sign of his reputation, his chiselled face, his lean torso, his drenched tee-shirt. He doesn’t really like hanging the towel around his neck – for vanity’s sake – but he knew it would serve its purpose.

I would often find Jin-ge at the Jinrikisha (the original name for “rickshaw”) Station, right at the junction of Neil Road and Tanjong Pagar Road. He pulled a rickshaw, and you could tell it was hard work. He works from 7 in the morning till 7 in the evening, seizing opportunities to ferry those towkays to work, getting beautiful ladies to the markets and back, and finally we would see each other for dinner in the evenings.

He told me once, over a bowl of bak kut teh, that he spent his entire 15 years’ savings on his rickshaw, which cost him $25. That sum of money was what he could earn in a year, I thought. Jin-ge was 23 years old when we started dating. We planned for marriage, three children, and I could hopefully open a dessert stall I could call my own.

Jin-ge’s father was one of the first opportunists to purchase a rickshaw, back in 1880. Jin-ge bought his own rickshaw when he turned 16, back in 1935. He said his rickshaw came from Japan, and he fondly recalled the days he ferried lovely-smelling cheongsam clad ladies my age, and how the regulars used to call him, “Xiang”. How could I not feel a tinge of jealousy when I heard that? I resolved to be the only one to call him Jin-ge, while everybody else knew him by Xiang.

The war came and went, and the rickshaws disappeared one by one. I remember that year in 1947, I turned 22. I remembered walking to the Jinrikisha Station, but for the first evening, Jin-ge wasn’t there. I recalled the days I went back to wait, with home-made desserts I had packed in a paperbag dangling from my hand, but Jin-ge still wasn’t there. He had disappeared along with the rickshaws, and that closed the chapter on my affair with a rickshaw man.”