The Value of Eating Rubbish

My father’s best friend once told me a story about his formative years. He grew up in a neighbourhood with a bunch of kids from two distinct families; one was rich, and the other poor. The rich kids never got to go out and play, and they were extremely picky with their food (silver spoons, golden mouths). The poor ones though, they ran everywhere, played every time, and ate everything… most usually scraps from trash and leftovers from other people’s plates.

That was the first time I heard of the Hokkien term 垃圾吃, 垃圾大, or “rubbish eat, rubbish grow” (the saying that sparked the food blog of the same name) .

He told me the rich boys were frail and thin, and constantly fell sick. The poor kids, though, managed to live through eating their scraps, rotten fruit and vegetables from the market and basically lived like kampung chickens; all muscle, no fat, and seriously strong immune systems.

One of the rich kids died young. His brothers and sisters were never happy, and grew up bickering and estranged from their own families. The poor guys stayed loyal friends, eking out businesses for themselves and never hesitated to pool together for each other during hard times.

While there are important life lessons to learn no matter what walk of life one hails from, my dad’s best friend learnt about roughing it out no matter what the circumstances, loyalty and adaptability from the kids who lived off scrap. And he inspired my dad to do the same. People always ask how my father would manage to bring up 4 kids and put 3 of them through uni (he wanted me to go too, but my brain had other plans). Within our family, we all knew it was because my dad’s best friend pumped in money to supplement my sisters’ educations, which he had from his HDB shophouse furniture business. And because of the story he told me, I knew the friendship they built was learned from the 垃圾吃,垃圾大 kids.

Recently a friend of mine took offense to the phrase being used on her child, and I took the opportunity to tell this story, in part because my father’s best friend, who died years ago, has been on my mind quite a bit since my own father passed away. Many of us may have heard of – or even used – the phrase being used as a rude remark, but thanks to him and my father, the phrase holds a very different meaning for me.

We know what we want our own children to grow up to become. We care in the ways we know best, and only we know best. People will judge and that’s up to them. We really have only our own children to answer to, and as far as I’m concerned, whoever says that to be mean, doesn’t even know what it means. In fact, I’ve shut a few aunties up before when they use this line of talk with us, by explaining what I understand of the term.

So next time someone says this to you about your kid, maybe take it as a compliment. There’s a very high likelihood that your child is going to grow up blessed with good health and a great personality.

Blogging Under the Influence

I’m out of hiatus now. But this may not be business as usual for The Blogfather any more.

Since the nation is currently throwing a ridiculous hissy fit about “social influencers” – or let’s just refer to them in the original context they were raised in: bloggers – not explicitly declaring that they do sponsored posts when they do them, I’m going to put in a disclaimer of my own to The Blogfather right here.

DISCLAIMER: I am a public relations executive. And no, this is not a sponsored post.

Why is this significant? Because now that I’ve announced this, PR agencies will think twice about engaging me because I am a rival, and bloggers will be more wary of me because PR executives have a reputation in the media and marketing industry of being, um, agenda-drivers.

Now, the agencies shunning me, I can deal with. Honestly, my day job pays much better than my online superhero alter-ego. It’s what the declaration of my job title does to this online alter-ego of mine that concerns me.

Over the last decade or so, the modern media marketing mix has inducted social media as a de facto marketing tool, thanks to their ability to reach and command the attention of wide audiences through peer-to-peer interactions in ways traditional media was never able to. Blogs became media vehicles, bloggers became media owners and content creators and media owners, and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as well as major various search engines, became channels for both content distribution and audience engagement. Amongst the use of other social networks, blogging held the  greatest potential for side income, whether in cash or in kind; some of us were so good at it that it even turned into viable full-time work.

I, too, do sponsored posts.

Admittedly, I quite enjoyed the attention The Blogfather was showered with by PR agencies, in-house marketing executives and even business owners who would offer me and my family free products, complimentary services and experiences, and even cold hard cash to write them into my daily conversations. I would be selective who I accept offers from in order to suit what this blog is known for: no-nonsense, at times funny, at times surprising, always insightful family blogging.

Watching first-hand how marketers try to build rapport with bloggers, I started getting curious about how the social media marketing ecosystem really worked – curious enough to explore practically the entire relationship web through a string of full-time endeavours, first in content creation (as a writer), then subsequently advertising and marketing (as a copywriter and sometimes campaign strategist), and now as a public relations practitioner.

My job now consists of thinking up story angles that journalists, writers and bloggers can use to create content on their newspaper/magazine/TV programme/radio talkshow/website/Facebook/Twitter/table they use a packet of issue to chope seat with. In other words, consider me the influencer that influences the influencers to write the posts and articles that will influence the public to think of and talk about my clients.

This entire journey through the media/marketing industry started more than 2 years ago, and it hasn’t stopped since. It may not be that long, but it’s long enough for me to now take issue with the term “social influencer” being used on the lifestyle bloggers that have inadvertently been in the spotlight the last few weeks.

In the world of social media marketing, the bloggers, Facebook users, Tweetizens, Instagrammers, anyone online with a following, a drawer full of agency name cards, and an inbox littered with Dear Media Friends emails, bloggers hardly qualify as influencers.

Through my own time as a magazine feature writer and blogger, I had to be very conscious of the expectations of those that read me, and balance the knowledge against the marketing assignments I accepted; The Blogfather has previously rejected requests to talk about cheese slices, and once, cosmetics imported from Korea – and it all started with a post about cakes.

Delifrance_Blossom

So it goes, to maintain our popularity as online personalities over the various platforms we utilise, we have to submit to the influence of our followers to give them the stories, opinions and positions we take in our postings. And then we submit to the influence of marketers looking to get us to talk about their brand, product or service with our followers.

We are the influenced.

When I first joined the PR industry, a blogger friend messaged me saying I should declare my occupation, since there is a conflict of interest between the job and the (up until recently, very chatty) family blogger community. I found the notion slightly disturbing, since the whole point of public relations is to build relations, not conflict, especially with media, including bloggers. Nonetheless, I complied, so that disclaimer at the beginning of this post isn’t news to the blogger community.

But I’ve learnt that what seems sound in theory, sometimes doesn’t play out in reality.

I was invited to a small gathering of bloggers recently, during which the topic of blogger engagements came up. As the conversation went into specific examples, one blogger looked at me and said in jest, “Woop, better be careful what I say. Someone from the other side is in the same room.”

I laughed along, because it was the polite thing to do. As a blogger, I agreed, because I’ve had to deal with countless PR execs throughout my years as The Blogfather. With my current job as a PR practitioner, I now feel like a pariah in a community I have been so actively involved with over the last 3 years. I imagine this same feeling is coursing through everyone in Gushcloud, and perhaps many in our local lifestyle blogging community, with all this public scrutiny the last few weeks.

And as someone who’s now sitting on both sides of this influencer-influenced see-saw, I find myself pondering over a moral dilemma. This “social influencer” issue has affected the integrity of even those unaffiliated with the parties involved, and a number of us find ourselves addressing the allegations in our own terms, whether to ride on the wave of social commentary, or to maintain our integrity despite what has been said.

But I’m also conscious of a larger part of our audience, including a subset of bloggers that don’t actively participate in the marketing mix who are wondering why anyone should even take issue. And the PR exec in me agrees. What is wrong with influencing and being influenced in a fledgling media industry the way advertising and PR has done with the entire modern civilised world for more than a century? Why are there “other sides”?

Why am I torn?

Eulogy

Thank you all for being with us during this difficult time. Over the last few days, we are amazed to see so many people come to pay their last respects, from a side of him that we rarely hear or see. He had so many friends that we ran out of peanuts on our first day.

My dad also liked peanuts. A lot.

感谢大家和我们度过这艰难的时刻。这几天,我们遇到了我爸爸这么多朋友,不只是感到很感动,也感到有点惊讶。丧事的第一天,没有想到会有这么多人,还没到晚上,花生都吃完了。

我爸爸很喜欢吃花生。

We are proud of him for having lived his life so well, as a father, as a lover, as a brother, friend, colleague and mentor.

我们为我们爸爸很骄傲。他真的是活了70年的好命,一生做了一个好爸爸,好爱人,好兄弟,好朋友,好同事,好导师。

He was surrounded by love through his last days, and indeed, all his life. And we are assured through all of his friends, all of his family, all of you, that he remains alive in our hearts for a good long time to come.

他度过的最后几天,他的一生,都充满爱。我爸爸在我们脑海里的存在,心中的怀念,我们也有了他多数亲戚朋友的肯定。

A few years ago, I wrote a story about a Lao Hee Low that has helped me well through many hard times, and has also helped me through this one. For those of us grieving his passing, I want to share that lesson I learned from watching my dad live.

几年前,我写了一个老英雄的故事。这故事帮了我读过很多艰苦的时刻,也帮了我度过这个时刻。我要和当中为我爸爸悲悼的人,分享看我爸爸过生活所学到的一样东西。

Strength is measured in many forms, not least in physical attributes, and more intangibly, character. But while strength can be taken from the body in many ways, it is not easily diminished in a person’s character, so long as he has held on to that strength his entire life.

力量有很多方法测量,不只是用体状,更重要的是用心态。身体的力量虽然会很容易遗失,不过强壮的心态只要有一生的培养,那种力量是永恒的。

Time Out

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I thought I should explain this before I go for a while.

It’s been a tough year. 2 job changes, a health scare that required a drastic change in diet and lifestyle (a change I’m still struggling with), my first gout attack (one that lasted right through a car review, too) and of course, every parent can empathise with the technical aspects of welcoming a new addition to the family.

The past month, in particular, felt like a lifetime. Four weeks ago, my father started experiencing breathing problems, but resisted going to the hospital to check himself until a week later. When he finally did, doctors found his difficulty in breathing was caused by a “sizeable” heart attack. And because my father also had weak kidneys, an angiography (balloon stent) was risky because the iodine that would be injected into his system for the operation would wreak havoc with his kidneys and possibly tie him to dialysis for the rest of his life.

The family got together to deliberate. I initially, my father was resistant; he’d seen many of his peers suffer through failed kidneys, and he felt it better to protect his kidneys rather than his heart. Besides, he said, “I consider myself very lucky already. My father died at 62, my eldest brother at 68. I survived cancer and bargained myself another 24 years of life, and I’m 70 now. I’m ready to go.”

I respected his position, but my sisters doubted it. My dad is a fighter, an aggressive man that wouldn’t take any bulls hit from anyone or anything, even from cancer. A few one-on-ones and a family get-together at his ward later, he decided to do the angiography.

A day or two after the decision was made, 2 hours after he went in to do the procedure, I received a phone call while I was in the office. An angiogram was done, and the clogged arteries were too severe for ballooning to be done. He would need to do a triple bypass.

When I next see my father, he was in a sombre mood. It was a tedious process: the hospital he was currently in didn’t have the facilities to perform bypass surgeries, so he would have to be transferred. And the islandwide hospital bed crunch that the nation had by now grown quite accustomed to meant we had to wait more than a couple of days for it to happen.

He finally had his bypass last Wednesday. It was reduced to a double bypass because the surgeon determined that one of his arteries was open enough not to require one, and it was done in about 5 hours.

My father began the recovery process well. He was eating, moving, and his usual surly self, except he had constant high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. At one point the doctors thought he was well enough to be shifted from the high dependency ward to a general ward, but he only spent a few hours up in C-class before they had to shift him back to ICU in the middle of the night due to a dangerously low heart rate.

Then yesterday, he suffered a stroke – a blood clot on the left side of his brain.

It happened at 8.30am, when he suddenly passed out just after breakfast. Since then, he hasn’t gotten worse. That’s the only good news they can give us.

As of now, we aren’t even sure if he can understand what is going on. I think he knows we’re around him, but he can’t talk and he can’t move his right side. He’s also moving around involuntarily.

Doctors can’t say for certain how this will pan out. He can either get better or he can get worse fast, but they will only know after 3-4 days. Initially they were contemplating experimental procedures because he just came out of the bypass and his recovery process doesn’t allow for standard procedures to apply, but in his current state the best they can do for him now is to continue with current treatment and see if he gets better.

My sisters are taking turns keeping vigil at the hospital. My mother is bracing herself for the worst. I tried to remain strong, but my limit was breached when my mother quietly said to me in a shaking voice, “He doesn’t have a suit.”

I now find myself juggling a new job that I started not one month ago (which thankfully I now realise I fit very comfortably in), keeping track of my own father’s progress and grappling with all the possible outcomes being presented to us right now as a family, and my commitment as a husband to the Mother of Xander and father to the two kids, because as I try to remain a pillar to my wife and children, right now my wife and kids are my strongest pillar of emotional support.

I write this now because writing has always helped me process my thoughts and emotions in my times of need, and also I committed to keeping The Blogfather true in words to the person I am in real life. But now, the blogs have to take a hiatus, to be dusted off and revisited at a better time.

I’ll see you soon. Hopefully.

[Giveaway] 30 Years of Transforming Mindsets

The Blogfather and Son now act too.

We were invited by Hasbro to be featured in a short videoclip in celebration of Transformers’ 30th Anniversary.  Will there be mind-blowing Michael Bay explosions? Robot metal flying all over the city smashing into buildings and causing devastating chaos?

Nah. The boy and I opted for something a tad more subtle:

If you found that story familiar, it’s an abbreviated version of The Blogfather’s “The Reason We Buy Toys” post ending, with an extra nugget of Transformers trivia thrown in.

And just as they created The Blogfather’s Transformers memory in such a big way, Hasbro Singapore wants to help you create your own Transformers memories, with a Transformers toy hampers worth $100 each, for 3 lucky winners! It’s a pretty substantial prize, so you’ll need to work a little for it, yeah?

UPDATE: I got a little confused with the mechanics (big prizes tend to come with more complex mechanics, sorry), and thought this was a cross-platform giveaway, but The Blogfather has been corrected. Please note this giveaway is for Instagram only.

Here’s what you have to do: share your own story about how Transformers came to be a part of your life on Instagram only (people, your account needs to be public, otherwise I cannot see) with, or show us a photo of any Transformers experience you’ve had anywhere. Tag me (@blgfthr on Instagram) in the post so I know what’s going on (and can read your story, too), and include the hashtags #Thrilling30SG and #HasbroSingapore as well.

Take note: this giveaway wraps on 29th November 2014, after which The Blogfather will be picking the 3 winners (gimme something good ya?), and results will be announced on the Hasbro Singapore Facebook Page (not here hor, so you go like their Page first better) on 30 November 2014. I’ll update here when I can as well, but for all intents and purposes, all winners will be notified by Hasbro.

Mai tu liao!

The Blogfather Transformers 30th Anniversary Instagram Giveaway – Terms & Conditions:

  1. Contest is open to all Singaporean Citizens and permanent residents except employees of Hasbro Singapore.
  2. All entries must be submitted by 30 November 2014.
  3. All entries must tag the Blogfather (@blgfthr on Instagram), and also include the hashtags #Thrilling30SG#HasbroSingapore, and posted on a public account to qualify.
  4. Prizes are non-exchangeable and non-transferable.
  5. Contest participants agree to be bound by all terms and conditions, which are final and binding in all aspects and waive any right to claim ambiguity.
  6. Hasbro Singapore reserves the right to alter any terms and conditions without prior notice.

Wah, So Big Already Ah? – A Primary 1 Orientation Walkthrough

They grow up too fast.

We had Xander’s primary school orientation earlier this week. It was a bittersweet moment for the Mother of Xander; it is the passing of a milestone for our firstborn. I said to her, “That’s why we have a second child, so we can relive it all over again.”

It was a bittersweet moment for me as well; the notion that the textbooks and uniforms take a big chunk off my livelihood was taking a toll on my heart. And we have a second child, so we have to relive this all over again.

After arriving at the school, we got down to business at some makeshift tables lined along the corridor before the school hall entrance, each table serving as a registration counter for the Primary 1 classes. We were given a plastic folio containing brochures, pamphlets and a few forms we had to fill out and submit after the orientation talk was over. Different schools may have different set-ups and facilities, but ours came with:

  • a Pupil Data Form;
  • a GIRO form for school fees;
  • a consent form for in-school dental treatment;
  • a student daycare registration form; and
  • a National Library membership registration form.

As we made our way towards the school hall, we were instructed to leave our children in the care of the school, who filtered them off into a separate staircase to the gallery area.

P1-Orientation-Stairs

That was when the Mother of Xander felt her first pang of  primary school separation anxiety, but we next saw him in the school hall seated in the gallery stalls, so she calmed down somewhat (honestly, we both did) when she saw how well he was doing with his peers around him.

P1-Orientation-Hall

The talk proper started off with a brief introductory video of the Family Matters @ School programme, followed by a number of not-unwarranted chest-beating cultural performances, including a killer wushu performance and a contemporary dance number done with a Daft Punk/Lady Gaga remix mashup (yes, I was sold on the school’s nod to Daft Punk).

P1-Orientation-Performance

Midway through the programme, the emcee announced that the kids were to be moved off to their respective classes. Once again, pangs of separation anxiety. You could tell just about all the parents began tensing up as they momentarily drew their eyes to the back of the hall to see their children being whisked away class by class while the speaker of the moment tried to pry their attention back onto the stage.

P1-Orientation-Speaker

A little later, the vice-principal would take to the stage, outlining the school history, special projects and introducing the faculty heads, as well as alumni and parent support group chairpeople. The various heads would take to the mic to explain next year’s syllabus changes (the Chinese curriculum seemed to be in the most state of flux right now; the Chinese textbooks are still being finalised and printed at the time of the orientation, and couldn’t be pushed out on time for release before December).

Meanwhile, the not-yet Primary 1s were being shown where all the toilets were.

P1-Orientation-Toilet

For any of you thinking of skipping the dry, administrative part of the presentation at any school, don’t. Unless you already know the school start and end times, what the procedure is to fetch your kid for early departure, how much allowance you need to give your kid on any given day, what the drill is for fetching your children after work regardless of whether you walk, drive or put your kid on the school bus, or where to install the name tags for your kids’ uniforms, you’ll need to stick around and possibly take notes because most schools are not known for their stellar website FAQs.

And The Blogfather couldn’t tell you even if he wanted to because we skipped the dry, administrative part of the presentation, and decided to go take photos of kids cramming into toilets, then join the sneaky ha-ha-I-got-here-before-the-other-600-parents queue for the textbooks and uniforms instead.

I would expect the bookstore and uniform supplier to be pretty organised as well, in anticipation of the horde that would be greeting them once the school hall presentation was over. And they were. The bookstore had the primary school enrolment list on hand for 2015, and they had all the textbooks sorted out in Ta-Q-Bin boxes according to ethnicity (CL for students taking Chinese, ML for Malay and TL for Tamil Language). Once you got there, you checked off your kid’s name, run through the checklist and mark out the items that you need to come back for (remember the Chinese textbooks aren’t out yet), pay the woman handing you the box, cry a little at why textbooks are so expensive (we blew a little over $200 in a flash), and then move out of the little room.

P1-Orientation-Bookstore

The uniform supplier isn’t quite as straightforward. You’ll need your kid there to ensure you get the right sized garments, and once the crowd builds, they will pre-measure your child before you collect his or her uniforms. Pre-measuring is a bit risky, because you might end up getting a size too large or too small, but you are assured by the supplier that you can always go back for an exchange if you find the size too small when you try them on at home. But if you have the time to spare, just bring the uniforms and your kid to get a fitting away from the crowd and head back in if you need a size change. The uniform segment set us back a little under $90.

As I carted our son’s new academic life home over my shoulder, the Mother of Xander held her son’s hand a little tighter than usual. Our son was getting bigger now, and in another couple of months, he will be officially inducted into the first of his many years in the cold, hard, rigorous Singapore education system.

With all his books and stationery weighing heavily on my left, still good shoulder, I clutched my wallet with my free hand a little more tightly as usual, because in another couple of months, he will be a lot more expensive to maintain.

They grow up too fast.

Dyson – Making Life Suck Better

When the Mother of Xander and I first moved into our apartment as a newly married couple, we had one of those couple fights one night that left me absolutely livid. I can’t remember the context of the argument now, but I do remember I had to find a way to expel all that pent-up angst at the stroke of midnight, in our freshly-renovated family home.

So I got a bucket, and a rag, got down on all fours, and began mopping the floor, Oshin-style.

Oshin-mops-floor
After a while of this, you really forget what the argument was about.

I took 4 hours. And the floor of our home has never seen that level of cleanliness and shine ever since.

In the course of our 8 years’ stay at our humble apartment, we have gone through a total of 5 different vacuum cleaners, 2 of them handheld, and all of them sucked one way or another, and all not perfectly.

And each time we got a new vacuum cleaner from the appliances store, there would be a handful of models I would always look lingeringly at before my wife would whisk me away to the sub-$100 island counter. You might know the specific type of vacuum cleaners I’m referring to; they have a very specific look, kind of like this:

dyson-digital-motor

Then last week, I received an invitation to dodge work for an hour or so to attend a lunchtime launch event featuring a new Dyson product near my workplace.

I thought, “Cool, free lunch.” So I said yes.

It must be said that Dyson really do go above and beyond into just about everything they do – rigorous R&D processes, forward-thinking technology, aggressive aesthetics, sleek marketing … I mean, look at their machines and tell me they don’t look like they’d be right at home at the Avengers headquarters in between Captain America’s La-Z-Boy and Thor’s Asgardian Marble Throne of Lounging. The launch event no less impresses, as we get introduced to Dyson’s latest cordless handheld star…

Fluffy.

dyson-fluffy

I get it. It’s got a fluffy roller that, when coupled with its highly compact yet powerful digital motor, is capable of wiping clean and sucking up large grains to fine particles in floor crevices and tile grout. That’s what reminded me of my little episode with the rag and the floor all those years ago, but this is Dyson doing the Oshin thing with finesse. There was even a side table where they pitted the Fluffy against a competitor to such up talcum powder (used to simulate dust mites) on a mattress surface, through a bedsheet.

dyson-mattress-demo

But… Fluffy?

dyson-engineer
Will Postle stroking Fluffy lovingly.

I can more than buy into the idea that Dyson developed the fella through a whopping 406 prototypes before finally pairing their state-of-the-art digital vacuum motor with this adorably efficient wiping vacuum cleaner head that does feel like a nice, fluffy puppy dog when you stroke it lovingly. It also helped that their design manager not only knew what he was talking about when he ran through the entire unit from hand to floor, he was also pretty easy on the eyes, too. His name is Will, by the way. If you want his number, I will see what I can do.

But model number DC74, the standing version of the DC62 with the head that can otherwise clear a floor of dry gunk far better than any of the 4 other competing vacuums the Dyson team brought in to pit themselves against, surely deserves a better, stronger name. Like the Dyson Excalibur, or Dyson Oshin, or, uh, Dyson DC74.

dyson-race
The demo setup had pet food on carpet, oat spill on marble, fine dust in tile grout, and what I believe to be unicorn dandruff on wooden flooring.

But nooOOoo. They had to call it Fluffy.

At any rate, a launch event is still very much a controlled environment, despite all the objectivity the organiser will try to bring in. The Blogfather would like to see Fluffy pit itself against some real competition. That’s why I requested a review unit to take home to see how it would fare against the $3000 monster vacuum cleaner we have sitting at home.

Besides, the Mother of Xander likes puppy dogs.

To be continued (pending arrival of review unit).

The Grey Jogger – A Halloween Tale

It’s a week before Halloween, and following the very G-rated experience I had with the SEA Aquarium’s Spooky Seas tour last week, I thought it would be a good time to turn up the fear factor a big notch and share this little story that I usually tell around this time to see if I can make people pee in their pants a little.

This is a first-hand account I originally shared years ago in a community forum called Sengkang .com, so if you’re the kind that gets freaked out easily, check your pants after you’re done and let me know in comments if it worked.

***

I used to stay in a block of flats next to an underpass that leads straight into the landed residences that form Serangoon Gardens. To access this underpass, you have to go through a jogging track (it’s still there, though they’ve taken down a few of the HDB blocks nearby); nice place, but of course, deserted at night (unless you’re want to “catch monkeys”, because of the few lovebirds that like to hang around in the bushes and thereabouts).

Anyway, I was 16 at the time, studying for my ‘O’-levels, and I was hanging out at a void deck with a couple of my friends who were also slogging for their ‘N’-level exams. We met at about 10pm that night, wanting to go through our textbooks together till really late. At about 2am in the morning, we started to get hungry, and we had our bicycles with us, so we thought, okay, let’s go to the 7-Eleven at Serangoon Gardens (in those days, there weren’t as many 7-Elevens all over the place) to get some snacks to eat.

So 2 of us set off on our bikes down the jogging track and into the underpass. When I got to the underpass, I noticed a turn we made on the jogging track that was unusually cold. I thought, trees and carbon dioxide, should be normal lah. So I didn’t think much of it.

We got to the 7-Eleven, and then realised, nobody brought money. My stoopid friend thought I was going to pay for him, and I thought he brought his wallet. So we had to cycle back.

The route back was the same; at the turn, I felt the same cold air, maybe even colder. When we reached the stone tables again, I dug for my wallet and took out my ATM card. Then we headed back. The jogging track was starting to creep me out. And the cold was starting to bite.

We reached the 7-Eleven again, and surprise! My ATM card reached the maximum number of withdrawals for the day. And then my friend confesses to me that he has no money. Feeling like absolute idiots, we cycle back again to borrow money from my other friend.

During the third trip, I swear my neck hairs started pricking up like someone applied prickly heat powder on my neck. It was getting unnerving, so I thought to myself, this better be the bloody last trip.

We finally got our snacks and drinks, and we were cycling back to our home ground. After we exited the underpass and made the turn, I was once again greeted by the cold (which by now had reached non-Singaporean levels), and then I felt something else.

As I made the turn, I turned my head around a bit. I saw a man behind me – long, curly hair, grey t-shirt and shorts, pale and near colourless skin and no face. His right arm was stretched out towards me, his hand open wide and almost at my face. I freaked, turned back and pedalled for my dear life. Not wanting to freak my friend out too much, I called out to him softly, “Eh, can cycle faster or not?” Whether he heard me or not, I could see he was also pedalling hard, head down and not turning back, as though his life depended on it.

We sped back to the stone tables; I had cold sweat running down my everywhere, and my friend was a bit white. The other guy waiting for us looked a bit weirded out seeing us in this state and asked us what happened.

Before we answered him, I turned to the guy who was cycling in front of me and asked him “Did you see anything?”

He said, “No. But I felt a hand touch me on my right shoulder.”

The grey jogger was reaching out for him, not me.

***

There’s a part of this story that I leave untold most of the time. Whether it relates to what happened or not, I can’t say, but after the incident, the next I saw the guy that was cycling in front of me was a number of months later. He had bandages wrapped thick around his wrists. It was a little later that he  went into depression a few months later and tried to commit suicide.

He says it was over a girl. I can’t help but think otherwise.

Spooky Seas VIP Tour: Tales from the SEA Aquarium

I’ve always been fascinated by the paranormal. But I’m a family man now, so I’ve had to keep my horror movie fetish under wraps for fear of freaking out the son, the daughter and the Mother of Xander.

But once in a while, I get to indulge a little in a couple of *true* ghost stories. Sometimes I tell them, and sometimes I am told, like what I heard at the “Spooky Seas” themed SEA Aquarium VIP Tour we were invited to.

Spooky-1

This is what happens when the SEA Aquarium tries and matches Universal Studios Singapore’s Halloween Horror Nights to cater to primary schoolers so everyone along the age spectrum can have a piece of Halloween action. The seasonal dish in this case takes the form of an adventure trail complete with a treasure map for your kids to locate 12 “Trick or Treat” stations strewn around the aquarium, and kids who complete the map get showered with freebies for their whole family.

Spooky-2

Spooky-3My boy happens to celebrate Halloween at his preschool every year, so he’s quite familiar with the “Trick or Treat” concept. His father, though, was still looking for ghosts. And with a dedicated guide with extensive knowledge of the Aquarium’s inhabitants shadowing us for an hour or two, The Blogfather would advise you to feel free to make the most of the VIP tour (that costs $88 per adult and $68 per child) and test the limits of your guide’s knowledge. For example (and these are actual dialogues I had with the guide during the tour):

***

Guide: “You see those small little fish hanging around the bigger fish? Those are called ‘cleaning wrasses’. Many of our tanks contain these little fish to help us clean not only the tank but other fish as well.”
Me: “Cool. Which town council do they report to?”

***

Apparently his pits smelled so fishy, he died.
Apparently his pits smelled so fishy, he died.

***

Spooky-5

Guide: “Did you know sharks actually have 6 senses?”
Me: “They see dead people?”

***

Guide: “The largest ray we have in the Aquarium has a wingspan of 5 metres.”
Me: “Mmmm. How many portions of barbecued stingray does that make?”
Guide: “No, the ones you’re talking about are stingrays. The ray I’m referring to is a manta ray. We don’t eat manta rays, because they on the endangered species list.”
Me: (to Mother of Xander) “Phew. Your favourite dish not illegal.”
Mother of Xander: “What’s the difference between manta rays and stingrays?”
Guide: “Stingrays have thin tails, and (pointing to a huge manta ray swimming past us) manta rays have those two horn-like things sticking out of their front called cephalic fins.”
Mother of Xander: “I see. So one looks like a kite, the other looks like Batman.”

(This particular discussion happened back-of-house, so unfortunately we weren’t allowed a photo of that huge manta ray that swam past us; you’ll just have to take the Blogfather’s word for it when he says it was a spectacular sight).

Spooky-6
“Barbecued WHAT?!”

***

We all learned something that day. But for most of the Spooky Seas tour, we didn’t see much spooky, apart from the skeletons and skulls and jack-o-lanterns tactfully placed in key exhibit tanks, and this one walkway leading to the back-of-house.

If you stand and stare down the walkway long enough, security will come and ask you if you need any help.
If you stand and stare down this walkway long enough, someone will come and ask you if you are lost or something.

Eeyer.

And once again, that is where having a dedicated guide who’s spent an extensive amount of time in a large, dark enclosed environment built on a former World War 2 British military fortress comes in handy. And I reserved the most obvious question for the end of our tour.

Me: “So, do you have any spooky stories about this place?”
Guide: (sheepishly) “Are you going to write about this?”
Me: “Of course! This is supposed to be Spooky Seas, right?”

Our young, knowledgeable guide gave me a long look of uncertainty, took a deep breath, and caved. She didn’t go into detail (in fact she summarised it into just two sentences), but it was enough.

I leave it to you to ask your own guide more when you’re there (and if you dare), but I will say this: the story occurs at the beginning of the tour – old things have a tendency to carry their own spiritual baggage.

Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Spooky-8

SEA Aquarium Wonders: Spooky Seas Adventure Trail is open to all visitors from now till 16 November 2014.

The RWS S.E.A. Aquarium VIP Guided Tour costs S$88 per adult and S$68 per child between 4-12 years, with discounts available for annual pass holders. The tour package includes priority access to the Discovery Touch Pool and guided back-of-house access to the Open Ocean Habitat, an aquarist lab and Dolphin Island. The aquarium can hold tours for a maximum of 12 persons over 3 time slots, starting from 9am (touted as the best time for a VIP tour because you get exclusive access to the Aquarium before they open for the day).

Contact RWS at +65 65776077 or email rwstours@rwsentosa.com for enquiries and booking.

[Review] Celebrating 50 Years of Marriage with a Volvo

My mother always wanted me to drive a Volvo.

Mummy

I listed this as one of my parents’ 10 unfulfilled wishes way back in 2010, and something I never thought of pursuing further, given the Climate Of Extravagance (no, I did not apply caps arbitrarily) and all the Extra Rear-end Pain (yep, did that on purpose too) our nation’s leaders have so considerately set upon us (yes, I’m dripping the sarcasm very generously).

But as luck would have it, I was to receive an invitation that we in the very small but very chummy dad blogger community generally consider to be one of the Holy Grails of blogger engagement firsts (I count a total of 6 Holy Grails  –  milestones of first-time invitations in any dad blogger’s portfolio – indoor playground and major attraction reviews, toy company engagements, cash-paid blog posts, a staycation anywhere that isn’t your own house, a vacation anywhere that isn’t your own country, and car test drives like this one; you can see from the linked items how far I’ve gone.)

The timing was right, too: the weekend of the drive also happened to be the weekend of my parents’ wedding anniversary dinner, and so The Blogfather hatched a plan.

MG50-Invitation-Banner

Volvo P1800The impression my parents gave me of what makes a Volvo was one of old school status, a strong, regal European class of automobile not far from that of classic Bentleys, not overly opulent like the Mercedes Benzes favoured by old uncles with large gold Rolexes, and not brash like how BMWs like to present themselves as. No, a Volvo is a discrete car with just the right amount of stature to show both nobility and humility at the same time. A Volvo was a sure mark of respect in the eyes of my parents’ generation.

So we weren’t quite prepared to receive this:

Volvo-Big

The Mother of Xander calls this 7-seater Volvo XC90 the Big Black Monster, and if the Wife gives something or someone a term of endearment, it means she really likes/hates the fella (it all depends on whether she employs a snarl and a hiss while saying it; she didn’t in this case).

The XC90 design has been established for all of 12 years now (the Volvo rep jokingly said the car just finished its PSLEs, hur hur hummm), with the right amount of enhancements added in over the years, making it a very viable car with the right bells and whistles for the practical family man. True to my parents’ testimony, the interior felt regal to the touch, with the right amount of thoughtfulness for a very comfortable driving experience and just a notch more.

Volvo-details

Volvo-mind-the-railingsYou can see that the XC90 on its own is a behemoth of a machine, and not easy to climb into if you’re wearing  a long, tight skirt. That said, the high ground clearance the XC90 provides makes loading everything and everyone wonderfully non-strenuous (although you do get rather paranoid about parking backside-first into lots with low railings). We liked the Transformers-like middle seat that converts into a child booster seat, and the removable middle console that adds more leg room to an already well-spaced second row. And of course, there’s enough boot space after the third row seats are folded down for a very productive Ikea run (and if you don’t already know, Volvo and Ikea are both of Swedish origin, and as of right this very moment, the current batch of XC90s that the Blogfather is talking about here is still very much produced in Sweden).

Volvo-Space

The drive itself was smoother and easier than I anticipated; I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to properly gauge the size of the car, but the ample side views and the ease of manoeuvrability made for a very reassuring, stable drive. The stiff suspension is par for the course for this category of car, but I am a big fan of its cruise control function, while the kids were in awe of the sun roof it came with (“Daddy! Bird! The poop missed us! Yay!”)

We were given the T5 R-Design model, essentially a standard XC90 with a dashingly sporty body kit. But even though its commanding height gives you a good view of most of the other cars’ bird-poo stained roofs, it’s smouldering good looks still blends in well with the rest of the car population on the road. Rather too well for my liking, in fact, and this car had a dinner to attend, so The Blogfather decided to spruce it up into something fit to chauffeur a bride and groom in… somewhat.

Volvo-Featured

Good thing we kept our old wedding car decorations from 6 years back, although I must admit it was made for smaller cars. But for a married couple of 50 years, it was enough.

My mum and dad both gasped when they saw me greeting them with the car behind me (I think my mother squealed a little). Throughout the whole “wedding car”experience, there was only one hitch: my mother was wearing a long, tight skirt (hence my earlier comment about the XC90’s size). But once on board, both my parents kept beaming from ear to ear. During the car ride, I asked if my mother was comfortable. She replied in the brightest of voices, “Of course it’s comfortable. It’s a Volvo!” I felt emancipated that I could fulfil at least one of my parent’s unfulfilled wishes, if only for this one night.

Volvo-Mum-Dad

At $260,000 (price as at the publication of this post), the Volvo XC90 T5 R-Design is positioned up there with the big intercontinental boys. But The Blogfather would argue in favour of its cost; it is a Volvo, after all. And it fits a family of 4 very nicely, with room for more. But what the Wife and I really am going to miss about this car now that we’ve returned it, is how it magically kept our usually screaming baby quiet (at least, for the first couple of drives) and our young son stock-still from watching the sky fly by through the sun roof, or the smooth, sturdy ride they don’t get to experience with our usual ride. And even when the car’s magic wore off for Yvie (we enjoyed it while it lasted), the distance between the driver’s seat and the third row where we put her baby seat at one point ensured her banshee screams no longer implants that ring around our ears as we focus on the road ahead in the front.

And THAT’S what a family car should be like.

Volvo-Family