Flea Powder

I’m recalling memories of my father by occasionally visiting places significant in his life. Every time I do, these places give up a little bit more about what made my father who he was.

I’m recalling memories of my father by occasionally visiting places significant in his life. Every time I do, these places give up a little bit more about what made my father who he was.

It was when I was maybe twenty two that my father and I started talking a little bit more.

We took a road trip up Malaysia, opting to drive up the old ‘trunk roads’ rather than the North-South Highway. We stopped at Muar, Port Dickson, Mantin, and finally Seremban, where the bulk of both my parents’ extended families lived.

En route, he told me in stops and starts, how he came to be in Singapore and Malaysia. Port Dickson was where his father had settled after escaping persecution in Hainan and Canton because he was a Communist agitator; Muar was where he accidentally stopped overnight because the bullock cart driver didn’t or couldn’t convey to him that his final destination was supposed to have been Port Dickson; Mantin was where he lived with his mother and uncle because they were estranged from his father.

But Singapore was where he first landed some time in 1936 or ’37, but his father, who was in Port Dickson at that time, didn’t make the journey south to receive him, and my father was instead put in the care of a Hainanese clan and put to work, at age 7, in a coffee shop on Seah Street for a year.

I didn’t get much more detail of his vocation on Seah Street, but I remember him telling me his first impression of Singapore, or rather, that of the quarantine station on St. John’s Island. This tiny, hilly island, a 20 minute ferry ride from Marina South, also happens to be where Raffles dropped anchor as he prepared to negotiate control over a sleepy fishing village with a view to turning it into the bustling metropolis it is today.

This sandfly-infested, and more recently, asbestos-riddled island wasn’t named for some Ang Moh called “St. John” either. The name is simply an anglicised corruption of the original Orang Laut name for the place, “Pulau Sekijang”.

But what matters more to me is what my father remembered of Pulau Sekijang or St John’s Island or whatever foreign destination it was to him at the time. I remember his voice going up in pitch as he said, “They throw the flea powder on me – just throw like that, all over”. This was the little snippet of his early life that he kept repeating to me over subsequent years.

It was only many years later, and only after I became a father myself that I realised how very terrified and traumatised the seven year old him must have been.

St John’s Island Quarantine Station: My father might have been in or around this building, some time in 1937
The view from the causeway connecting Pulau Sekijang Bendera (St. John’s) and Pulau Sekijang Pelepah (Lazarus)

Just Like Your Dad Did

I am the quieter parent, just like my Dad was, but my heart bursts with so many things I want to say to my son, hoping that these things help him become better than I am. I’m quite sure that’s what my father thought, because once when I asked him how come he never told me much about his childhood, he said plainly, “because I don’t want my children to know what poverty is like”.

A Year As An Ad Man

After spending a bit of time trying to explain it wasn’t my birthday, I thought – heck, it is a birthday after all. But I never thought a decade and a bit of freelancing would lead to a full-time job at an advertising company, and one that I would enjoy tremendously. Jeff obviously thought differently, because, like a persistent suitor, he finally wore me down and got me to say ‘I do’ to the question he’d been asking for seven years: “do you want a job doing something you love”?

Nicely photoshopped (Thank you CK) publicity shot for the hire announcement

So my boss Jeff Cheong thought it’d be funny to repost an article from last year announcing my hire at Tribal Worldwide, captioning it “Happy Birthday”.

After spending a bit of time trying to explain it wasn’t my birthday, I thought – heck, it is a birthday after all. But I never thought a decade and a bit of freelancing would lead to a full-time job at an advertising company, and one that I would enjoy tremendously. Jeff obviously thought differently, because, like a persistent suitor, he finally wore me down and got me to say ‘I do’ to the question he’d been asking for seven years: “do you want a job doing something you love”?

It has been an amazing year of blistering pace and longer hours. And while chasing work has been about the same as I’ve experienced freelancing, the advantage of having the scale of 350 of the brightest, most hardworking people turning your silly, vague ideas into something fabulous is tremendous.

If there are other things to hope for at work, it would be that I never lose the feeling of being a n00b – the excitability at every idea, new and old, and that I will forever vacillate between nagging doubt and infectious confidence.

Thank you clients, for accommodating my nonsense. And thank you colleagues at Tribal and DDB – please continue to let me know when I’m being an asshole.

Never least, I am eternally grateful for my long-suffering family, especially to my guiding star Naomi, who plays the adult in the family, allowing our son to play and learn, and allowing me to play and learn at work – facilitating us in being the best we can be.

Bring on Year Two!

Limestone Cowboy

Adios, Mr Campbell

When I was in kindergarten, I spoke little English, and communicated mostly in the Hokkien that my nanny and my family used with each other.

Aunty Jackie from Seremban lived with us while she attended secondary school here, and one of the little liberties she had living away from my grandparents was a transistor radio that seemed to be always on.

On it, Radio Singapore played the latest records, including this which became one of my favourites: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, the words to which I mangled as I sang my six year old lungs out and annoyed everyone at home.

Adios, Mr Campbell.

Planes I’ve Been On – Part 1

Because of our recent flurry of travel, and the accompanying explaining of trains, planes and other vehicles to our son, I’ve compiled a list of aircraft I’ve been on, and the airlines who flew the flights. Yes, it does show my age.

Because of our recent flurry of travel, and the accompanying explaining of trains, planes and other vehicles to our son, I’ve compiled a list of aircraft I’ve been on, and the airlines who flew the flights. Yes, it does show my age.

Boeing 737

Carriers: Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines System

B737
First Generation Boeing 737-112: I remember this plane as being my first ever flight – to KL from Singapore. I was about four or five, and I tried to run up the stairs and fell backwards and hit my head. I spent the 50 minute flight crying and nursing a giant baluku.

Boeing 707

Carriers: Singapore Airlines

Boeing 707-320B – Singapore Airlines used these for medium-haul flights. I remember being on one to Taipei.

McDonnell-Douglas DC-Super-8

Carriers: Japan Air Lines, Philippine Airlines

McDonnell-Douglas DC-8 in Japan Air Lines livery. I remember the family vacation in 1977 which featured this plane – and distinctly remember the windows having curtains instead of plastic window shades. The Philippine Airlines flight we were on was more memorable for the fact that it had to go around when attempting to land in Manila.

Boeing 747-200

Carriers: Qantas, Singapore Airlines, CP Air

Boeing 747-200: It was 1980 and my parents were taking us to Melbourne for the first time since they left in 1965. Changi Airport was still a year away from completion. So when I saw this plane from the bus that was taking us to it on the tarmac, I nearly peed myself in excitement. It was my first ‘jumbo-jet’ ride.

Boeing 747-SP

Carrier: Pan Am

The Boeing 747-SP was a shortened version of the 747-100, and ‘SP’ stood for ‘Special Performance’, because this plane was supposed to fly further and faster than other 747s. The flight I took from Los Angeles to Singapore however, took on epic proportions, as we stopped in Honolulu, then unscheduled in Okinawa to refuel, then Hong Kong before coming home. I remember that 23 hours on board, in an era where you weren’t asked to leave an aircraft in transit.

Boeing 727

Carriers: Singapore Airlines, Trans-Australia Airlines, Western Airlines

The Boeing 727 is a tri-jet, with a notable feature – a rear stair-door. This allowed a famous incident where an unknown hijacker opened it midair and parachuted off it to escape.

Lockheed L-1011 Tristar

Carrier: Cathay Pacific

Airbus A300

Carriers: Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways

The A300 was the world’s first wide-bodied commercial jet with only two engines. The most memorable flight for me was in 1989, when the SAF chartered three flights to get us to training in Thailand. We landed in an unknown (to us NSFs) airfield somewhere in Thailand, in the middle of the night. We de-planed with our baggage, and the plane powered up and took off into the night.

Airbus A310

Carrier: Singapore Airlines

Airbus A310 – this aircraft became the SIN-KUL shuttle in the years before low-cost carriers appeared. Both MAS and SIA operated this route which at the time was one of the world’s most lucrative sectors. A return flight could cost around S$300 – and this was in the 1990s.
Of course, one of the SIA A310s was famous for an unsavoury incident – the SQ117 hijack.