Saturday, October 29, 2005

Work @ Suzhou (Part 2)

I woke up at around 5.30am the following morning. The TV was still on, but the channel has already ceased transmission. I lazed for a while before freshening up and had my breakfast at the hotel restaurant.

My original plan was to call up my client and arrange for us to go to her factory together. However she told me that she would not be leaving that early, hence I decided to go on my own by taxi. The ride there was smooth despite the morning peak hour jam. According to the taxi driver, almost 90% of the vehicles on the road are heading into the Industrial Park, so there’s no way you can avoid that jam.

I had originally given myself 1 to 2 hours to finish all my work at the factory, and spend the rest of the day visiting one or two of the more famous gardens, as well as the Taoist temple which I missed out the previous day. However, things just did not go as planned. I spent about 4 hours in total, and it was close to 2.30pm by the time I got back to my hotel. With much lesser time in hand now, I had no choice but to drop one garden off my list.

My first destination was the Taoist temple, Xuan Miao Guan. It was particularly crowded, even though it was a weekday afternoon. Many people were sitting around the courtyard of the temple, and it looked more like a regular park for people to gather around and socialise. Admission to the temple is payable, and with the ticket, I visited the main temple hall San Qing Hall, God of Wealth Hall, Wenchang God Hall and Goddess of Mercy Hall. This temple wasn’t particularly interesting and I did not snap many photographs inside. I left only barely less than half an hour, feeling a bit disappointed.

My next intended destination was supposed to be Xi Yuan Garden, but it was rather far away, so I changed my mind and decided to go to Zhuo Zheng Yuan Garden instead, which was just nearby. However, I needed to get fresh batteries as my camera’s battery power was already running low. It took me quite a long time before I could find this big store selling electronics and electrical components. I got my batteries, but quite a bit of time was wasted as the cashier refused to let me pay for my battery without an issued invoice by their sales promoter. I tried explaining to her that there wasn’t any sales promoter at the batteries section. However she kept insisting that I must get an invoice first, instead of just taking from the rack and pay like that. So I had to go hunt for one sales promoter to help issue one for me. What inflexible service! Luckily I would not be returning to Suzhou in the near future, but even if I would, I’d not patronise this store again!

Outside this store was a bus-stop, and there was a bus service at this bus-stop that would take me to Zhuo Zheng Yuan Garden. I decided to take the bus to save money, but ended up I wasted more time as I had to figure out how to walk to Zhuo Zheng Yuan Garden after I alight. By the time I came to the entrance of the garden, it was already past the admission time. Dismayed, I could only stroll along the streets outside the garden, which was quite an eyeful as well, with classic-styled buildings lining along both sides of the streets.

It was soon dinner time again, and I took the bus back to the city centre. I hunted around for quite some time, but settled down for one restaurant selling Shanghainese dim sum. This was unlike typical Cantonese dim sum restaurants whereby the customer just sits at your table and waiters with push-carts will come forward with baskets of dishes for him to choose from. In this restaurant, the customer would be given a blank order sheet and he then proceeds to the ordering area, pick what he wants and the chef will cook on the spot for him. I ordered only 3 dishes, smelly beancurd, “ji tou mi” soup and small wanton in chicken stock. The smelly beancurd has got the smell, but it tasted just like any other fried beancurd, nothing really special. “Ji tou mi” soup is a dessert which you couldn’t find elsewhere as the main ingredient, the “Ji tou mi” seed, is only available in Suzhou only. “Ji tou mi” seeds are small and round, and resembled half-sized lotus seeds. I was lucky to be able to taste it as it happened to be the season for it’s harvest. The soup tasted sweet, but not overpowering, a definite must-try for Suzhou visitors during the late autumn period. As for the last dish, small wanton in chicken stock, I was rather disappointed. The soup base was tasty, but I could not taste any meat in the wanton, as the fillings were too little! Their definition of “small” is indeed very, very small! Nevertheless this meal was still not so bad, after all it cost only 20RMB.

Now it was getting dark and there was nothing much to do other than to shop around or visit the nightspots. I weren’t too interested, so decided to just head back to my hotel room and watch TV. I realised that it was actually not that bad to be in China, because you can get to watch Chinese opera for almost 18 hours daily on CCTV-11. The channel’s shows were mainly Peking opera. Not really my cup of tea, but then I was lucky, for I managed to catch Yueju and Huangmei opera for these 2 nights, as well as a documentary on how Xiju opera was formed. This would be one thing which I would miss very much when I head back home the following day.

Suzhou, a charming city where new and old are fused together cohesively. It’s a pity I do not get to visit their famed tourist attractions this time round. Hope I can do so on my next visit, perhaps next year!

Work @ Suzhou (Part 1)

I flew to Shanghai on Wednesday morning for some installation work in a company in Suzhou. This is my first time in Suzhou and really looking forward to the trip. Suzhou has been famous for her Chinese classical gardens, and hoping that I’d have ample time to visit some of these gardens.

I stepped out of Shanghai Pudong airport at 2pm, after a 5-hour flight from Singapore. The transportation arranged by my client’s company was already waiting for me at the gate. He told me the journey to Suzhou was only 2 hours, instead of 4 hours as said by my colleague. I was delighted. That meant I’d have more time to walk around!

The moment I stepped into Suzhou, I was surprised by what I saw. The car was driving along Xian Dai Avenue, a major road within Suzhou Industrial Park that leads to the city centre, and on both sides of the road were artificial greeneries that somehow reminded me of Marine South and Esplanade Drive. On one look I knew this must be the work of a Singaporean, and indeed it was! I was told later that this Industrial Park is actually modelled after Singapore. But this Industrial Park was much bigger than our local one. Although the road’s somehow a straight one with not much traffic lights and light traffic volume, it still took me 20 minutes or so to get to the city.

The hotel I stayed in was right in the heart of Suzhou city, not very far from the shopping and dining zones (Suzhou’s city centre isn’t too big anyway). After checking in, I unpacked some of my things and out I go to explore the city. Without a map with me, the first thing on my mind was to find a decent bookshop and buy one local guidebook. It took me quite a while to find a bookshop, but it was selling old vintage books. Nevertheless I decided to just give it a try. I did not find any maps or guidebooks to my liking. Inside the shop, a Caucasian lady looking for Chinese paintings approached one of the sales staff for help. She was looking for paintings of the Longevity Deity, but she did not know his name, hence she tried describing how he looked like, but apparently the sales staff did not understand her. I knew what she wanted, and told him what she wanted in Chinese. She got what she wanted and was very happy. How great it feels to be a bilingual Singaporean!

It was dinner time, but I did not know what to eat. I chanced upon this Chinese fast-food restaurant near my hotel and decided to try it out. Such Chinese fast-food restaurants are not uncommon in China, but to me it is something unique as there isn’t any such restaurant in Singapore. I think this is a good concept to serve Chinese food in the style of western fast-food restaurant style, instead of just restricting it to just high-class restaurants or the hawker centres and kopi-tiams. Anyway, my dinner cost me only 15RMB. That’s quite cheap, as it comes complete with a main dish, an egg dessert, 2 small chicken wings and free flow of drinks.

After dinner I decided to take a stroll in the shopping district. I got myself some Yueju, Xiju and Kunqu VCDs. I was very happy that I managed to find the Xiju “The Pearl Pagoda” (Zhen Zhu Ta), which was one of the best traditional shows of Xiju genre. I also passed by some snacks stall selling Guihua and Haitang cakes. I decided to try them, as I’ve long heard about how delicious these cakes are. However to my disappointment, they are not as nice as described.

I walked around for a while more, and came to this Taoist temple called “Xuan Miao Guan”. This is a very old Taoist temple, but it was closed for the day already. The courtyard however was still open, with shops selling things like Suzhou embroideries to collectibles still operating for business. None of these shops interested me, so I left after a while, planning to return again tomorrow in the afternoon to visit the main temple.

I was tired after walking about aimlessly, so decided to head back to hotel to rest. I watched some Chinese opera programmes on CCTV-11 until I eventually fell asleep…

Friday, October 21, 2005

A Night At Liyuan Opera and Nanyin Music

It was the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, also known as the day Goddess of Mercy (Guan Yin) entered Nirvana. A local Liyuan Opera and Nanyin Music association was scheduled to perform at Thian Hock Kheng temple tonight. The association had been performing here for many years during the Guan Yin festivals, which includes the Goddess' birthday, enlightenment day as well as the day she entered Nirvana.

Although I've known that this association performs on every of these occasions, this was the first time I attend their performance. Some of my friends were there to help out too. The settings was very simple: The area behind the threshold of the main door acted as the musicians' area, while a small platform was placed in the courtyard to act as a stage. Although it lacked the sophistiaction of a standard theatre, it was afterall unique and personal.

The shows put up tonight included 2 opera excerpts, 1 nanyin music piece and 4 nanyin songs. The show started from with one of the excerpts, "Ball Kicking". This excerpt is one of the main highlights of the show "Zheng Yuanhe and Li Yaxian", as it featured an unique folk dance called "Gong Qiu" (Ball Kicking) which was only found in central Fujian Province and all other opera versions do not have this scene. The story of this excerpt goes like this: Zheng Yuanhe was a honest scholar who fell in love with courtesan Li Yaxian and decided to look for her the brothel. The brothel's owner, Li Ma, saw this as a chance to extort him of all his money, hence she got all her ladies to put on their best to entertain him and make him stay for long. In this excerpt, the main focus is on the 4 ball kicking ladies. However, as only 1 of the actress is a regular dan actress (1 was a nanyin teacher who had never acted, 1 was a cross-over from san hua genre and another one was roped in just for this show only), so the coordination between them were a bit lacking. This was obvious as at times they could not hit the ball as according to the pre-recorded music. Zheng Yuanhe and Li Yaxian were played by Quanzhou borned and trained actors Lin Shaoling and Hong Ruwang, who were real-life husband and wife too.

The second item on the show list was nanyin music "Chu Ting Qian" from the nanyin group. It was a very fine piece of music, but the percussion section seemed a bit unstable. Some of the percussionist could not get the tempo right initially, but it was overcomed as they played along

Following next was a song titled "Chong Jiu" (Day of the "Double Nine"). One of the ball kicking actress in the first item was featured here as the main soloist-cum-vocalist. She is a nanyin musician by profession, and she performed much better here, accompanied by two other helpers with bells from the opera group. One of my friends who was in this item too did not performed well as she was suffering from sore throat. It was nevertheless a good effort from her.

The fourth show was another nanyin song titled "Zhu Lian" (Beaded Curtain). Lin Shaoling, who is also an instructor in the association, was the solo vocalist in this segment. This song, although is a new composition, sounded very traditional still as the melody retained the musical structure of one of their nanyin tunes.

After "Zhu Lian" was "Guan Yin Festival", a choir piece. The music for this piece was richer, as more instruments like Yang Qin and cello joined in. However, the singing wasn't too good, as the lead singer did carry the Quanzhou accent, which is one major characteristic of nanyin. It was after this piece, where according to the association's culture, that everyone present where to stand up and face the inner hall and pay respect to the Goddess of Mercy. However, there was one thing on my mind: This is a temple worshipping Goddess Tian Hou (Ma Zu), so where was Goddess of Mercy? My eyes were scanning around the hall, but I did not see any Goddess of Mercy statue!

The second last segment was a small-group ricital titled "Xing Fa" (The Punishment), which is extracted from nanyin sing-show "Chen San Wu Niang" (Legend of Chen San and Huang Wuniang). The background of the song was like this: Chen San and Huang Wuniang eloped from Chaozhou to Quanzhou, and was caught by the constables. The magistrate wanted to seperate the couple, so he tortured Wuniang's maid Yi Chun, hoping that she would confess everything under pain and accuse Chen San of kidnapping. Something interesting about this song is that one of the singers assuming the role of the magistrate was singing in Mandarin (with a strong minnan accent). The reason behind this was that government officials were to use "official language" (Mandarin) instead of local language (quanzhou dialect) because of their status.

Another opera excerpt from "Zheng Yuanhe and Li Yaxian" titled "Lian Hua Lao" was the last item of the night. This excerpt tells the story of Zheng Yuanhe ended up in the streets together with some street artisans after Li Ma chased him out of the brothel when his all his money had been used up. Li Yaxian and her maid A-Gui had since left the brothel in search of Zheng. One one cold snowing day, A-Gui was out looking for him again when she bumped into this group of street artisans. She noticed that the head of the group resembled Zheng, and hence decided to test his identity by asking him to sing solo. Zheng Yuanhe started to sing about his family background, confirming his identity. A-Gui was happy that she founded him, but to be discreet, she decided to lead the group of street artisans back to Li Yaxian's residence so that both of them can meet in private. In this excerpt, the four street artisans (Lian Hua Lao performers) were the centre of attraction as they sang entertaining folk songs of various themes. Zheng Yuanhe here, was only a minor role, and hence the nanyin soloist in the second segment was asked to double-up this role as well. My friend who performed in the second segment also, assumed the role of the maid A-Gui. She did not have to sing in this show fortunately, so she did not have to strain her voice. I personally feel that Lin Shaoling acted better as one of the street artisans here than in "Ball Kicking".

The entire show ended by around 10pm. The duration was considered a bit short, but I think the selection of the programmes were good, as it somehow compensated for the length of the show. A good effort by the entire performance crew, I would say, but I hope to see more improvements in the actors and singers in future, as I feel that they were not really totally prepared for the show. But anyway, it'd be almost 5 months to their next show here again, so it should be not much of a problem!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

ITMA 2005

Today is my first day at the International Exhibition of Textiles and Machinery (ITMA) at the Singapore Expo. This is also my first time attending a commercial exhibition. Of course I am not attending as a businessman, but as an exhibitor to help promote my agent company's products.

Agents from other parts of Asia like Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia were also present at the show. Unlike them, I had no experience in doing such sales as I was trained mainly on servicing and technical support. Hence I was really lost at such events. I did not know how to approach potential customers, or give a demonstration on the products. Not that I know nothing about the products, but giving a detailed and informative presentation is what I am weak at. My first presentation was a flop, and the customer walked away disinterested. How I hate it when someone just throw the customer to you, and expect you to take control of everything as if you are already very well-versed with it!

Sales aside, I found some time to go walk around the exhibition hall during my meal and toilet breaks. It was indeed an eye-opener for me. This is the first time I've ever seen an automated embroidering machine and also how machine used to produce braided ropes. So perhaps I didn't manage to show any positive results in sales, but this exposure did increase my knowledge and awareness of the textile industry. It may not be directly related to my scope of work, but at least I'd be able to link with my customers in future.

The exhibition closed at 6pm, and I was already dead beat. It was tiring having to stand from 10am till 6pm, with occasional short breaks when there wasn't any people patronising our booth. But this is only the first day, and there're 3 more days to go! I hope I do not have to end up in clutches or wheelchair by the end of the last day!

Monday, October 17, 2005

First Attempt at Learning Khmer Language

Because of my previous experience in Cambodia, I've decided that I should take up some Khmer lessons. At first I thought Khmer might not be very difficult for the fact that it is not a tonal language like Burmese, Thai or even Chinese. But I was wrong. There are so many vowels, and each vowel has got two pronunciations, depending on which category of consonant it is used with. To make things worse, the pronunciation of these vowels and consonants are rather hard, and some even sounded alike! I'm not sure if I'd be able to make it at all learning it on my own like this!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Buggy Watermelons!

Looks like a juicy watermelon, but once you open it up, YIIEEKKS! There's a bug inside! Not just a bug, but a cute bug with wriggly legs! This is one cute wood-carved piece of art I've found in Siem Reap airport's art shop. It is very small, slightly smaller than a chicken egg. It cost US$1 each. Though it is not really very cheap, but I think it is unique. At least I've yet to seen a similar one before!

30 Hours in Cambodia (Part II)

I woke up at around 5.30 in the morning on the following day. I usually do not wake up so early when I travel. But since I have to visit another 2 factories, I feel that it’ll be better if I can go earlier, so that I would have more time to do my work. I went for my breakfast at this other restaurant in the hotel. The atmosphere was good, but the selection of food was rather limited. Just as well, I didn’t have much time to enjoy my food either!

It was drizzling slightly outside when I woke up, but it had stopped by the time I finished my breakfast. I went out of the hotel to look for taxis, and there were already tuk-tuks outside awaiting people to hire them. One driver came up to me, and I showed him the address which I wanted to go. He said he knew the place so I hired him. I was supposed to go to the second factory which I went to the previous night, and the staff there would arrange a transport to bring me to the third one. I expected the driver to take the same route as the other taxi driver the night before. However, this tuk-tuk driver went on another route. Initially I thought he was taking a shortcut to beat the peak hour jam, but later I realised that he has actually misinterpreted my address and had driven me to another quarter within the same district. By the time we reached the factory, I was thirty minutes late. The driver asked me if I need him to drive me back, but I declined as I wasn’t sure when and where I’d finish my job. He said he’d have to charge me double then, since he’d have to return to the hotel empty-carriage. That was a lame excuse I thought, but I had no time to reason with him (and I might not even win in argument), so I just paid him US$6 and left.

The third factory I went to was quite close to the second one, and I took about half an hour to finish my task. The factory got me a driver to send me to the last factory which was near the airport. My work there was rather fast too and I managed to complete my work at around 11am. The driver had left after dropping me off at the factory, so I had to go out onto the main road to take a taxi. As I had already checked out of the hotel, I was carrying my entire luggage with me. A few motorcycle-taxis tried to approach me, but I turned down their offer, as I did not think there would be enough space to put my luggage. I took about 3 minutes to get to the main road, but there wasn’t a single taxi in sight. It seemed that I had no choice but to hire one of those motodops (motorcycle-taxis). Hence I walked all the way back to the factory to look for one. Someone approached me asking me where I wanted to go. I told him I wanted to go to the airport, and he said it would be US$1. I immediately agreed. He went back to the factory and pushed his motorcycle out, and it was then I realised that he was a staff of the factory, and only working “part-time” as a motodop rider!

The journey to the airport was about 5 minutes. I have planned to just sit around at the departure hall of the airport, but I realised that there was basically nothing to do at all over there. Seemed to me that I had to go back to the city then! So off I went with another tuk-tuk back to Phnom Penh hotel. Before leaving, the driver offered to send me back to the airport. I agreed and arranged for him to come pick me up at 4pm.

I entered the lobby and asked for the receptionist to let me deposit my luggage temporarily with them. The staff that came to help me was the same bellboy who helped me check-in yesterday, what a coincidence! After depositing my bag, I decided to explore the surrounding of the hotel to see if there were any restaurants nearby where I could have my lunch. In fact, there were a few mobile food stalls outside the hotel (like those in Thailand and selling about the same things), but since I could not speak a word of Khmer, I decided not to patronise them. I found this small restaurant just by the side of my hotel serving Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food and decided to just dine there. While I was eating, a group of middle-aged men came and sit by the table next to me. Judging from the language and accent they speak, I believed they were Singaporeans. I didn’t quite like meeting my fellow countrymen in foreign land, because many of those I came across behaved so poorly that I felt ashamed to be a Singaporean. This group was no exception. No doubt they came to Phnom Penh as businessmen, but they should not put on an “I’m of a higher social status than you” kind of attitude towards the waiters. Shame on them! Being highly educated but behaved more like a street punk!

I left the restaurant after my lunch and walking back to the hotel when I saw the tuk-tuk driver who drove me to the factory in the morning. He asked me where I wanted to go, and suggested some places for me, including the National Museum, Royal Palace and the market. Since I still had time left, I thought I might as well go tour around. I chose two places only, the National Museum and the Russian Market. On the way to the museum, the tuk-tuk passed by Wat Phnom, a beautiful Cambodian temple on the slope of a small hill. The driver asked me if I wanted to take a look there, but before I could decide, it started to rain and hence the answer was now obvious: no! The rain came so sudden and the driver had to park his tuk-tuk by the side of the road to secure the canvas used to shield the passengers from rain before driving off to my destination. I suddenly felt that it wasn’t easy to be a tuk-tuk driver, because they weren’t shielded from the rain at all if the weather is bad. Thank goodness the rain stopped as quickly as it came.

As we came close to the National Museum, I was surprised to see that the structure resembled that of the Thai National Museum, and the Royal Palace was just next to the museum, just like in Bangkok. Maybe it was natural for the culture of these two kingdoms to be so similar since Thailand was part of the Khmer Kingdom back in the 12th century. The national museum was a bore. All it featured were Buddha statues, pottery and carvings from all ages. It was an eye-opener, but I personally felt that the variety of exhibits were too small. I finished touring the place within half an hour, feeling a bit disappointed.

The driver then drove me to the Russian Market, which was said to be a favourite shopping ground for the tourists. It resembled a smaller version of Chatuchak Market of Bangkok, a maze of small shops with dark and narrow corridors. I walked for a few minutes and decided to call it quits, as I did not have the patience (and time) to really explore the area. Maybe next time when I have more time!

As it was still early, the driver brought me to Sorya Shopping Centre, the only shopping centre which I’ve ever seen since I stepped foot onto Phnom Penh. This shopping centre was rather decent in size, selling a wide range of stuffs. I headed straight for the CD/ VCD shop, as I have the habit of buying local CDs or VCDs when in foreign land. And guess what? The CD/ VCD shop had a wide range of Chinese albums! That came as a surprised to me, and what’s more interesting was that I even saw Chinese opera VCDs there. The selection was even wider than those in Bangkok. I also saw a small section dedicated to Thai CDs and VCDs, but I couldn’t find any discs to my liking. In the end I settled for 3 VCDs: 1 Khmer karaoke VCD, 1 Teochew comedic drama VCD and 1 ASEAN cultural dance show VCD.

I didn’t have much time to shop around in the shopping centre as it was close to 4pm, and I had to go to the airport soon. The driver drove me back to the hotel and I headed straight back to the hotel to collect my luggage, bided farewell to the bellboy and the driver. By then the other driver was already waiting for me at the gate. So I hopped onto his tuk-tuk and headed for the airport.

Now on looking back, I found that I had spent a lot of money on just travelling around, and I could have cut down a lot of the money spent if I had done some research on the market price beforehand. After a 30 hour stay in Phnom Penh, I’ve learnt a very valuable lesson: always find out more information about the place you want to go first, especially the market rates for the most basic things like transportation and food. Nevertheless this will not deter me from going Cambodia again if I have the chance to, or if required by work. But I’d have to learn some Khmer first so that I can negotiate with their locals and minimise extortions!

30 Hours in Cambodia (Part I)

I arrived in Phnom Penh at around 12noon on Thursday, after 4 hours of flight. It would have been shorter, if the plane did not have to stop over at Siem Reap first. Earlier on before boarding the plane, some American-Cambodian came up to me and started rattling off in Khmer. Now how great! I have another entry in my list of ethnic group which I had been mistaken as before!

The moment I stepped out of Phnom Penh international airport, I noticed almost everyone staring at me. It was a very funny feeling, because I had never been stared like this before when I travelled to other places before. “Don’t stare at people, or you’ll invite trouble!” was the advice my colleague gave me before I left. So what now, now that it was the locals who stared at me! My colleague also told me to hold on to my luggage tightly, or else the locals will just “volunteer” to carry it for you (for a fee). However, that did not happen. Now I began to get the picture. They must have thought that I am a Cambodian Chinese and hence couldn’t be bothered with me!

The company which I had to visit had arranged the transportation and accommodation for me, and the driver was already there waiting. I quickly stepped onto his car and off we went to the factory which was located in another province. While travelling, my eyes were busy checking out the sights outside the window. Cambodia is actually very similar to Thailand in terms of culture and way of life. The only difference is perhaps the standard of living. Along the way I saw pagodas and shrines that resembled those in Thailand, and they also have their own versions of “tuk tuk” and “song teow” vehicles too. Now that I had a glimpse of what Cambodia is like, I thought I might be able to get used to life there just like Thailand, but I was wrong. The average Cambodian’s fluency in English is much lower than Thais, and I had a hard time trying to talk to them. If only I had learnt a few simple phrases of Khmer to make my life easier.

My original schedule was to visit 4 factories within the first day, but something cropped up at the first factory and hence I had to reschedule the other two on the following day. After I finished with the first factory, the driver drove me to Phnom Penh Hotel. He left after dropping me off and I proceed with my check-in. The bellboy helping me with the check-in was a very friendly guy. He told me that a typical taxi ride costs US$5 while a motor-taxi (Cambodian “tuk tuk”) costs US$3. Kind of expensive as compared to Singapore! After putting down my luggage, I quickly took a taxi to the second factory. The fare, just as the bellboy said, was US$5. So I believed that this is a standard fixed price for taxi rides (up to a certain distance). That is good, because you don’t have to worry if the driver would purposely make detours just to earn your money (if going by the meter), or quoting you extortive prices.

I did not encounter much problem at this second factory and managed to finish my job within an hour. It was already 7.30pm by the time I walked out of the factory. With no transport now, I had to try my luck to wait for a taxi. After a long wait, a motorcycle taxi finally stopped to offer service. Better than nothing, I thought! So I accepted his offer and got onto his bike. The ride was somewhat uncomfortable as I had to sit sideways so that I could put my heavy bag on my laps. I think I must have looked weird, because from what I observed since I stepped out of the airport, only female pillion riders sit sideways! And indeed I received quite a number of stares from other road commuters, but I didn’t really care much.

We reached the hotel at around 8pm. After a quick shower, I unpacked my stuffs and went for my dinner long overdue. I intended to go out of the hotel for dinner, but later decided to just dine within the hotel premises instead. It was a wrong choice, as the food served in the hotel’s restaurant is rather expensive. One consolation though, was that the servings weren’t too small, so I didn’t really lose out! Anyway the ambience of the restaurant was good, but a bit too quiet. There was only one other diner besides me at that time, and I felt a bit weird having to eat with the waiter always watching me!

After my meal, I decided to take a stroll around the area. There wasn’t anything interesting nearby, so I decided to just go back to my hotel room and watch television instead. There were a lot of channels for me to choose, from Cambodia’s own TV stations to Spanish and German channels. There’s also Singapore’s channel 8 too, but something wasn’t quite right. It was about 9.30pm, and by right it should be airing “A Promise for Tomorrow”, but what I saw was “Beyond the Axis of Truth II”! This show has ended for over a week already, so how come I was still watching it? I kept browsing through the channels but nothing seemed interesting. I fell asleep soon after while watching Cambodian news…

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sudden Trip To Cambodia

Yesterday afternoon, my boss gave me a shock by telling me that I'll have to fly to Cambodia today for work. Although he had already hinted that I might have to go within these 2 days, it still came as a surprise. Afterall, I wasn't quite prepared as many things have yet to be sorted out for the Cambodia side.

After the call, my colleagues have to rush to get all my travel itenaries ready: air tickets, visa enquiries, hotel accomodations and other miscelleneous issues. One of my colleague had worked in Cambodia before, and told me lots of things, mostly negative, about Cambodia. Things like do not walk on the streets for fear of stepping onto landmines, how violent that country was and things like that. That really freaked me out, but I reserve my doubts. I don't think Cambodia would be that bad, or else why would so many Singaporeans flock to Combodia and set up businesses there?

Now I am at Changi Airport terminal 2, waiting for boarding. I hope Cambodia will not disappoint me, although I'm not quite a fussy traveller. And I hope my work in Cambodia will be a smooth one as well. I don't want to come back to Cambodia again to solve the same problems that I am supposed to work on today!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Justice Has Been Done!

I heard from my ex-colleague on MSN that my ex-company, a tour agency in Golden Mile Complex, will exist no more with effect from this month as it has been bought over by another tour company. The HR manager, sales manager and managing director had all been sacked too. I was suprised initially at the news, but subsequently I was kind of happy that justice has been done, finally!

I joined that company in October last year, after failing to apply for graphic designing or similar jobs in other places. The HR manager recruited me immediately after the interview, and I thought I was very lucky, but only to realise that they were in urgent need of manpower as many of their staff members had left, or intending to cross over to other agencies. Soon more new crew came and within 3 months, I became one of the senior counter staff. It was a tiring job, as sometimes customers just came one after another, leaving me no time to catch a breath or have a proper meal. Nevertheless it was still challenging and fulfilling, and I even intended to make this my permanent job.

However, things changed soon after. Just 3 days before New Year, we were told that the company's going to retrench half of it's crew in order to cut-cost. One particular branch was hit the worst, as all it's staff were asked to go, and with effect from 1st of January! This affected everyone a lot, for those who were retrenched had no time to find a new job, and for those who managed to stay behind, it would mean heavier workload in future. But the worst was far from over. Even after the retrenchment, many people were still leaving, making the counter staff even harder to cope with their workload.

I had actually thought of leaving by then, but I decided to stay on. What would happen to the remaining crew, now all very junior, if I were to leave? Luckily another senior stood by me and we both worked very hard, trying to save the situation. But still things did not turn for the better. I was later transferred to another desserted branch, and it was there my manager and managing director accused me of stealing money, something which they were unable to proof and had to use lame reasonings to make their stand sound logical. I refused to pay the money, and even reported to the police. Till now nothing has been heard from the police nor the company. But anyway, this string of incident has made me demoralised completely and hence was pointless for me to serve for the company any further. Even the most loyal senior of mine had already left for greener pastures, so why should I press on? I finally tendered my resignation in May.

Now on thinking back, I still miss my previous job. I still miss the old crew, and the familiar sight, sound and smell of "Little Thailand". However there is no way I am going back to my old trade, for I've seen too much and heard too much about the industry. It will hence only live in my memories...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

“No-help” Help

I know I am weak at writing politically correct emails. Hence I’d usually get another person to vet through my email and see if there’s anything inappropriate or need to further elaborate on.

However, I hate it when people just take over the keyboard and change my email completely, especially so when the person behind the keyboard is someone whose not good at writing structurally or grammatically correct emails. Every so often I have to retype everything just because there are too many fragmented or repeated sentences here and there.

Thanks for the help, but no thanks! I hope in future these people just tell me what to include and what to omit will do!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Do I Not Look Like Chinese?

I walked back home after work as usual, and boarded the lift together with a resident of the same block. He spoke to me in Malay, something which I don't understand at all. Out of courtesy, I just smiled at him. Then he started to ask me questions in Malay, and I was dumbfounded. I just smiled at him embaressingly and shook my head. I think he mistook me for a Malay!

I am not sure if I have been exposed to too much sunlight lately and had become much darker, for I have been either mistaken for a Malay, Malaysian Chinese (some people said Malaysian Chinese are much darker than Singapore Chinese, although I think it should be the other way round) or a Thai. Just last week, my boss jokingly told my customer that I looked like a Burmese, and they replied that I really don't look local!

I'm somehow used to be mistaken as a foreigner, but it was only recently that I was mistaken to be someone of southeast asian ethnicity. In the past people always mistook me for a Taiwanese or someone from mainland China as my Chinese accent is rather different from local Chinese. Even when I travel overseas, there're people who would think that I came from Japan or Korea.

Do I not look like Chinese? I studied my facial features in the mirror many times, but I think I looked just as Chinese as anyone else. But anyway, since many people think elsewise, I'll just "play along" and pretend to be a Singapore PR at times!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Performance in JB (Part II)

I woke up at around 7.30am, but decided to toss around in bed as I was just too tired to get up. However I had to drag my body out of the bed at around 8am when someone rang the doorbell. It was Liping, another troupe member, who dropped by to return Teck Seng's towel. I went to brush my teeth and took a shower, and Teck Seng woke up shortly after. I waited for him to freshen up while I read the free newspaper delivered by the hotel staff.

We went for breakfast at this restaurant in the hotel, and was suprised that it was very packed. I've never seen so many people having breakfast in hotel restaurant before! We found an empty table just next to the window and we quickly sat down. The view outside the window is the sea and Senoko power station is just directly opposite. It looked much better than yesterday, probably due to the dark gloomy sky, hiding some ugly spots behind the shadows. Anyway, the food was just average, as the variety is limied. Teck Seng did not eat much as he was used to having Chinese-style breakfast like porridge and you tiao. After breakfast we decided to go window shopping for a while, but none of the shops were open yet. In the end we headed back to our hotel room and watch TV instead.

We checked out at 12 noon, and the transportation was scheduled to pick us up at 2.30pm. I actually wanted to leave straight after check-out, but nobody was keen in leaving early. Hence I stayed behind and followed my other troupe members for a short shopping-cum-lunch session.

The transportation arrived at 2pm sharp, and the person-in-charge came to bid us goodbye. It was really nice of him to run all over the place trying to take care of all our needs and we were really grateful to him. Though this trip was only a short 30-hour stay, it was really a memorable one, at least for me since it is my first time performing abroad. Selamat Jalan, Johor Bahru, for now!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Performance in JB

I had set my alarm clock to ring at 4.45am, but I only woke up at 6.30am, and had to quickly grab my luggage and leave the house. Today we were going to perform in Johor Bahru by invitation from Johor Bahru's Hokkien Huay Kuan for their 78th anniversary celebration. For a few of the members, going to Malaysia to perform is no longer new, but to me, this is the first time I was to perform outside Singapore. However, I would be taking only a small non-speaking and non-face-showing role - the tail of a lion dance's lion.

I was supposed to meet the rest of the group at Konghuay first and depart together for the causeway at 7am, but since I was late, I headed straight to the checkpoint and wait for them there. It was rather crowded even at 7 due to many Malaysian workers returning home for the weekend. I had only one bag to carry, but all other actors and dancers had bigger and bulkier luggages as they need to bring their makeup kits, costumes and hair/ head accessories. It may seemed exxagerating to bring so much things for just a 2D1N stay in Johor Bahru, but we had no choice! Performing overseas is that tedious!

We cleared the immigration checkpoints on both sides smoothly and headed straight for the City Square where the tour bus from Hokkien Huay Kuan was already waiting for us there. We went to the building of Hokkien Huay Kuan to witness their opening ceremony first, which was actually in conjunction with the official opening of their newly built building. Many balloons wagonere released into the air and it was a great sight. They even had a long dragon made of balloons to be released, but we never saw it rose into the sky. It was a disappointment for us, as we thought it could have been stuck at the rooftop.

After the opening ceremony, we went into the hall to listen to some of their representatives giving speech. Their hall, actually an entrance hall, was decorated with scrolls of paintings and caligraphy presented by the various Hokkien communities in Malaysia. Some troupe members and I felt that this idea of presenting scrolls are much better and sincere as compared to presenting flowers and cloth banners, which are commonly practiced in Singapore! Something peculiar I noticed was that many people were reading newspapers even when someone was giving a speech on the stage! And there were even people giving out free newspapers. I don't think such a culture exist in Singapore!

After the entire opening ceremony, which came with a lunch function, came to an end, we were driven back to our hotel to check-in. The hotel we stayed was Eden Hotel, which is inside the Duty Free Zone and facing the Johor Straits. The sea view was not bad, but too bad the area opposite us is the Senoko power station, and that view was not nice! Anyway, Eden hotel looked posh, and was given a 5-star rating. The rooms are big and comfortable, but some basic neccesities were not up to standard. Like they do not provide slippers and hairdryer, and each room has got only 1 toothbrush and comb, although the rooms we stayed are supposed to be twins or with additional beds. But there's nothing much we can complain. The accomodation was arranged by Hokkien Huay Kuan, and it was already nice of them to let us stay in such a hotel!

We started our rehearsal at around 3.45pm, 45 minutes behind our original schedule. We would be performing in this big function room during the dinner function to hundreds of VIPs at night, alongside the choir group from Hokkien Huay Kuan. The rehearsal didn't go quite smoothly as there was too much echoes bouncing around the hall and both musicians and actors could not hear each other properly. It was a bit worrying, as this was the first time we're performing with live music overseas since 1990, and we had to make sure we performed to us best.

We took a break after the rehearsal to get prepared for the real show. I didn't have chance to rest, as I was told that Hokkien Huay Kuan did not prepare a cai qiu (ball decorated with colourful ribbons, used in lion dance performances) and I had to go source for a replacement. That was a tough job! Though there is a shopping centre just next to our hotel, but where on earth can you find something like that in shopping centres, especially so in Malaysia! After much searching, I decided to get some colourful and shiny scarfs to make my own cai qiu. I borrowed a towel from Teck Seng, rolled it into a ball and wrapped it with the scarfs. It looked a bit small and plain, but that was what I could only do!

The real show started at 7.30pm, and other than the whole night's programme was almost booked totally by our troupe. We had a small dance segment, an opera exerpt as well as nanyin singing. The response from the audience was great, and many clan associations actually were interested in inviting us to perform for them. Looked like we would be busy travelling in and out of Malaysia for next year! Anyway, we already had a confirmed order from Klang's Hokkien Huay Kuan. They originally wanted us to go over somewhere near the Christmas period, but they could not give us a weekend slot, so we planned it on 01 January instead. The show has already been planned too, the opera we would be presenting is "San Jia Fu" (The Teacher, The Thief), together with a few dance segments by our dance group (tentatively "Rubber Tapping Dance") and Klang's Hokkien Huay Kuan's own singing group. I'm looking forward to that show, as I would be more involved in acting than this one.

The whole dinner ended at around 10.30pm, and everyone of us was very tired. We had originally planned to go to the beach for a stroll after the show, but I guessed it was cancelled. Rest was more important! So that's it; the last show for the year (at the moment), and end of performing season for us!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

One Day In Pontian

I had to go to Pontian today for work, and hence left office at 2pm to head for the causeway. I could not find out much about the journey to Pontian on the Internet, but based on the relative position of Pontian in most maps I've found, I assumed it to be rather near to Johor Bahru. But I was wrong. When I hopped onto a taxi and told the driver my destination, he replied me that the journey would take an hour! It was already 3pm then, and I wasn't sure if I would have enough time to finish my work. But I thought I might as well go, since I was already there!

I finally reached my destination at almost 4pm. I was hoping that everything would go smoothly so that I could finish my work within an hour and be able to reach home by 7pm. However, luck was not on my side. Something cropped up during the servicing and I had to do alot of troubleshooting. By 7pm I was totally worn out as I've done all I could but still could not solve the problem. I decided to just leave it as it is and come back again another day.

On my taxi ride back to Johor Bahru, what greeted me was section after section of dimly lit road, with occasional fruit stalls and small restaurants by the side. You can never find such sights in Singapore! The closest you can ever get is the sesonal pasar malams that are held all over Singapore, but they're all getting more and more dull as everything sold is so common and standardised. I was rather tempted to patronise them and have a feel of dining in these place, but I couldn't do so as it was already quite late. Somtimes I really wonder how these people make a living by setting up businesses by a small road, since these shops and stalls are usually in isolated clusters, with very few houses in the vicinity!

I finally reached the Johor Bahru customs at around 8pm. I was hungry, but being too tired to walk over to the City Square, I decided to just grab a Ramly burger just beside the taxi alighting point. I've long heard about this burger, but had never seen or tasted one before. It was a decent-looking burger. Though not very big, but it was rather tasty. At least I find it worth the 2RM which I've paid for; cheap and good!

It was a tiring day for me. I finally reached home at around 9.30pm, as I decided to take a bus back home instead of changing to MRT at Kranji MRT station. The journey was longer, but at least I could have more rest on the bus, and I did not have to go through the hassle of switching trains and buses as frequently. Hope my next trip to Pontian will not be as tedious as today!