Mid-life reflections on the MacRitchie trail

All images in this post by J.

It's like learning how to cycle when you all grown up. All you can think about is the falling down.

The last time J and I ran along a trail at the MacRitchie nature reserve was definitely more than a year ago. Maybe even two. Since then, I haven't even gone running much, having grown lazy with "the demands of work".

So when I stupidly suggested going for a run in MacRitchie, J's eyes lit up - mostly with disbelief.

Actually even I didn't believe it will happen. I was super dreading the painful, breathless trudge up the uphill sections (and there are many). Aiyoh, there would be the heavy 4pm air that clogged up the lungs. Oh and the humiliation of these retirees whizzing by, plus the distraction of aggressive monkeys...what about the potential cramps and headache...

After hours of such silent protest and whining in my head, we took a cab to MacRitchie. I survived to share these reflections, which are kind of like my mid-life (does 42 going on 43 still count as midlife?) reflections, if you will indulge the metaphors.

1. It is ok to walk when the uphill-going gets too tough...
It feels like you've given up - failed - lost it. It's not. As long as you keep moving, just keep moving - however slowly.  The uncle or two uncles will run by you in the meantime. Heck, even the auntie doing her briskier walk will outpace you - and that hyper 5 year-old will skip by. Some things are difficult. Be humble. Some things are gonna leave you breathless. But most times it's worthwhile to still keep at it, however slow.

2. Cos, hey, if you don't at least reach the top of the trail, you can't enjoy the downhill sprints.
The downhill sprints are worth it. Especially for lazy people like me. Little effort. Much reward! Even if the bare-chested sinewy runners who aren't breaking a sweat running in the opposite direction  uphill are taking even larger strides than you are, it's your moment of freedom.

3. Running downhill (ok, that sounds too ominous) - running downslope is better when it's fast.
And you've got to run like you are free. There is no time to think of falling. Trust your body and the momentum. I'm not smart enough to get behind the science of this. But running downslope actually feels more dangerous when you are slow and your landings are hesitant and heavy.

4. Feeling the hard, rocky ground is safer than being completely cushioned from the sharp edges.
There are some crazy rocky bits on the trail. Protecting your feet is important. But I've found myself more sure-footed when I can feel more of the ground on a minimal, flexible sole. Some friction keeps you grounded.

5. Listen.
Maybe it's because having more information helps your body to process, balance, and adjust against the terrain. And in the same way, if your body is saying slow down, slow down. Listen to your body.

Listen to the ones you love and trust. So when J said not to have any more excuses and just run - I'm glad I did that afternoon.

But even your body and loved ones are not always wise or right. For J & I, it's always a reminder to listen to God. No metaphors here.


8 Books for August the 9th

If watching the National Day Parade or listening to those National Day songs is "too much" for that skeptical you, but you know it doesn't make you any less of a citizen, I recommend any of these books by Singapore writers instead to spend your August with (in order of their appearance on the photo, from left to right, top to bottom). They are mostly written pre-2000... not because nothing good has been written since, but for me, these titles have stood the test of time.

Singapore the Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the politics of comfort and control 1990-2000, Cherian George (2000)
This is the first collection of essays on Singapore society/culture/politics that I've really enjoyed, for its incisiveness and insight, and the quality of its writing. I found it also an unabashedly "patriotic" book, a voice that cared about the society he lived in.

Frankie and Poo: What is Love, Incomplete & Abridged, Sonny Liew (1996)
Pre-Charlie Chan fame, Sonny Liew drew daily strips for The New Paper (or was it ST?) back when newspapers still had comic strips. I looked forward to the Calvin-and-Hobbes inspired comic strip,  the questions and wry humour about life in Singapore were easy to relate to. I think you can still find this book in the library.  It's got all the casual political critique you will find in Charlie Chan (and the book was published by SPH's Times!), but 1996 belonged to a different time... Then, the lo-fi feel of the drawings wouldn't embarrass anyone too. Below is an image taken from a random page.

A History of Amnesia, Alfian Sa'at (2001) but actually the poetry collection I really want to recommend is One Fierce Hour (1998) but I think I loaned that book to someone years ago and it never came back. I remember reading it, a year or so after I came back to Singapore from the UK, and feeling excited about the quality of writing. Sure there was lots of angst from the then 21 year-old poet, and there will continue to be that angst in our literature in this politically and sometimes even socially oppressive society, but I have never before heard a voice both "fierce" and lyrical. 

Fascist Rock, Claire Tham (1990)
Another angry-young-person book. I read this in JC1, was jealous of the writer. But after years of resisting the Singapore fiction that was Catherine Lim, Claire Tham's short stories were urban, current and energetic. And it had the words "Fascist" and "Rock" in it. Win liao. It will seem dated today. Pre-social media, the means and meaning of rebellion were perhaps more subtle and considered. 

The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole...and other plays, Kuo Pao Kun (1990)
These plays by Singapore's foremost playwright will survive re-stagings. I think every generation of audience - and not only in Singapore - will be able to empathise with the characters' encounters with bureaucracy, authority, loss and desire for home.

As Though the Gods Love Us, Goh Poh Seng (2000) and If We Dream Too Long, Goh (1972)
The former is a poetry collection and the latter is Goh Poh Seng's first novel (I have a photocopied version somewhere in a cupboard but you can probably find it in the library). Goh's biography Tall Tales of a Young Westernised Oriental Gentleman  is a great read. I don't know why If we dream left such an impression on me. The writing, particularly its dialogue, was a little stilted. Its premise of an idealistic young man battling his pragmatic environment is familiar with all coming-of-age stories.  If I have to use an adjective to describe what I've read, I think it'll be "honest".  Read it. Also Goh's poems. Maybe you'll discover his writing for yourself.

The Space of City Trees, Arthur Yap - this is an old selection, his collected poems are also now available under NUS Press.

My favourite Singapore poet to read aloud - or even if you read his poems silently to yourself, you will be drawn not only into his paintings, but the cadence of his brush strokes, the gentleness with which he seems to view the world. His poems are like an oasis whenever you feel our tropical island is too crude, the air too dense, the people too unkind. 

These Foolish Things & Other Stories, Yeo Wei Wei (2015)
And so we enter this decade! I may be biased because WW is a very dear friend. But these stories are damn well-written. They are measured, humorous, witty and strong. They also remind me that our arts and lives in Singapore are not only defined by politics, but they are rich for the relationships, feelings and thoughts that we have. And it is for this that our stories and lives are free. 


10 Books to survive this strange reality (Part 1)

Special guest appearance by HolyCrap's monster!

In an attempt to escape from a world that gets weirder by the day, I've been reading science fiction.

So far I'm halfway through a 10-title SciFi reading list. There's a trashy quality to SciFi (starting with the covers of these supermarket editions!), partly because it's been a very white-male genre concerned about survival and dominance, or at least of the titles I've read so far...but thanks to a friend CT who has introduced Chinese Sci-Fi, I've just added 2 to the remaining to-read list.  

So not surprisingly, 2 of the more interesting titles I've gotten through are not by white-male writers. Le Guin's (white female) 70s novel gets quite didactic about capitalist-socialist ideologies, but it is also feminist and a great defender of the arts, as she is of the theoretical sciences. Delany's (black male) novel in the trip 60s has the usual environmental disaster/terrorist troubles boiling, but he has cast a female poet-linguist with an Asian name saving the world through language. 

What makes Sci-Fi interesting is also how much their dys/utopian visions are grounded in the times they are written in, and like all good fiction, the ideals and evils behind God-like aliens, androids, "cat-people", greedy corporations, foolish academics/bureaucrats, and oppressed inter-stellar settlers persist today. 

Of course, all this means that SciFi is often no escape from today's world at all! But the stories help frame our realities, and sometimes, they point to some new perspectives, even hope. 

So friends, I welcome more recommendations. And when I am done  reading all the titles (Part 2 of this post?), this self-style literature module on SciFi will be up for adoption!

1. Cat Country (1932), Lao She...yes, he of the TeaHouse fame.
2. Childhood's End (1953), Arthur C Clarke
3. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Robert Heinlein
4. Dune (1965), Frank Herbert
5. Babel 17 (1966) and Empire Star (1966), Samuel Delany
6. Do androids dream of electric sheep (1968), Philip K. Dick
7. The Gods Themselves (1972), Isaac Asimov
8. The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula Le Guin
9. Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson
10. The Three-Body Problem (2008), Liu Cixin

Bonus give-aways:
*American Gods (2001), Neil Gaiman
**Six lEasy Pieces: Essentials of Physics (1963), Richard P. Feynman

*OK, this one is not sci-fi, but it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. I realise I am so not a fan of Neil Gaiman so this is a bonus in my eventual give-away pack. 
**If you are, like me, a complete idiot in physics, then the physics mambo-jambo in some of the Sci-fi will more than bewilder you. Reading these 6 lectures won't make any of that stuff less fantastical, but it will equip you for basic party conversation with 10 year-olds on atoms, molecules and space travel.



The folks ahead of me in the queue hesitated getting on the bus. And when I finally got up the bus, I smelled their dilemma. An old lady in an old oversized tee, disheveled and seated by the exit eating a carton of takeaway noodles, had pooed either in her clothes or had it staining her clothes. The whole bus stank. Where I sat at the back of the bus the smell mingled with someone's medicated oil. 
A grumpy lady seated at the front was urging the driver to persuade her to leave. An NS boy (a brash kid with a crooked neck I watched grow up in the neighbourhood) snapped at the old lady to get down the bus. She shouted back at him - "you army how to fight war like that". Caught, the driver didn't want to leave the bus terminal and radioed for help. I thought I heard him plead with her at one point that eating on the bus was not allowed. Poo, while inconvenient, was.
This went on for a couple of minutes. J and I looked at each other - should we speak up and ask the driver to please just move on, surely we'll all survive the stink. It was terrible, but so was this bullying. Soon as the radio comments grew, the lady got off the bus and we were told to do the same. Another empty bus had turned up.
For our bullying or complicit silence, for our bodies failing us, for our poverties and pity - it was a quiet shameful ride home.


a new day

Image by J

J wrote this on his FB:


This is a translation into English:

A few days ago, while having lunch at the hawker centre where I live, I bumped into the helper who works at the Western food stall. Let's call him Meng. In any case, since he's no stranger, I wished him a happy lunar new year in advance. He shrugged and replied, "it's easy for the new year to pass, after all, it's only a couple of days.  Nothing remarkable. What's difficult is trying to get by every single day for the rest of the year."

It got me thinking that whether it's the lunar new year or another festive occasion, perhaps one of its purposes is simply to break the monotony and grind of our daily life. And if we don't even pause and make some effort to observe these occasions, perhaps we will always be weighed down and never see pass the strains and stresses of our daily lives.

Photo: Pa J goes to visit Uncle Yeh to tailor two to three pairs of new trousers ahead of every lunar new year season. This year, J went along.


alone at Bras Basah

Bras Basah Complex is my favourite place for wandering alone. It is heaven for loners, a paean to the joys of spending time alone, a refuge for those still learning to do so, but also a reminder of how being alone is a necessary part of growing (up or old).

Which is why Bras Basah Complex is - at its heart - a Complex of bookstores. The old timers bear such heroic and hopeful names: union, friendship, youth and the younger Basheer. The newcomers speak a language naturally closer to today's desires: popular, Socrates, or rather, cat(s). You are alone but never lonely in the worlds that books contain, and in the knowledge - of self, others, the world - that you gain.

Surrounding the bookstores are other shops that promise self-improvement. Not of the financial kind, but of the spirit, mind and body. There are the old art supplies stores that smell of ink, paper and stone, hidden by the ever-expanding Art Friend. And stationary shops that supply not only the office but retail harmonicas, ukuleles and fountain pens. Because these are the tools you need to create your own worlds and champion your rebellions - resilience and resistance. 

Of course the function of commerce necessitates the presence of printing shops and event collateral suppliers today at the Complex. But even with these shops there is a sense of DIY. 

Then there are the opticians. Because the greatest hazard of reading is looking like a nerd.

The last kind of shops at Bras Basah Complex bear a similar fate as bookstores, battling the digital stare! On the Complex's ground floor are a handful of watch and clock shops. The watch, like the fountain pen, was the mark of the learned and accomplished man, and today, the wealthy man. Perhaps even more so today, time, like knowledge, is a commodity, a luxury, and a function of the economy. But Bras Basah Complex gives us other experiences of time. The cuckoo clocks and Casio alarm clocks allow the romance of time as memory; in music time as rhythm; and books the suspension of time. Still they are illusions all. As is my illusion of being alone in a crowded lunchtime Bras Basah.


Furrie & Shortie Pre-orders!

An amused reader. Image by J.

[UPDATE: See Neighbourhoods for details. Limited copies of the book are still available for sale at BooksActually, City Book Room, Basheer, Woods in the Books, Gallery&Co (National Gallery), Supermama (at Esplanade), Grassroots Book Room and Woods in the Books.]

Finally, Furrie and Shortie will be meeting you in Issue #1 of their comic this December!

Issue #1: To Be The Most Wonderful You/做最美好的自己.  Furrie and Shortie’s everyday adventures that make the most of society and each other’s idiosyncrasies will make you smile. 

Check out the special illustrations by some of our faves Holycrap, James Tan, MessyMsxi, Theseus Chan and Wu Yanrong* in the book! Together with those artists who are donating their fees, this project will adopt 2 needy families to receive monthly food packs for a year through the charity organisation Food from the Heart.  

Pre-order now for the early bird price $28 (usual $30). 1st 200 copies contain a free Furrie or Shortie temporary tattoo (usual $3.50). Email info@ampulets.com with your order. 

Us amps have been drawing this comic for the past year and J designed the book. It's not hard to guess the inspiration for this...but it slowly grew as a way for us to share our observations on friendship, family and the changing world around us.

Some early drawings we shared on FB are below. All text in Chinese will be translated in the book...and of course, J has made sure the book design will be sui


city of books, Taipei

At Gu Ling Street

Taipei has always struck me as a reading kind of city. Maybe it's because it is hard to ignore the Eslite bookstores that seem to be in every part of the city. Which city can boast of a 24hour bookstore in one of its most prime shopping districts? Or that its bookstore chain also operates a hotel in the estate of a fancy restored tobacco factory?

But Taipei is more than Eslite.

It has a lively publishing sector that translates many of the latest foreign titles within a year or so. And in some ways, although it is not immune from the general demise of reading and books, its domestic market is secure because the Taiwanese use the traditional script (fan ti) versus China's simplified script.  And like many enterprises in Taiwan, I think its books and publishing reflects its spirit of independence.

And so with bookstores. These are a few independent bookstores that we've discovered over the years through the recommendations of friends, websites and magazines.

Bleu & Books

青鳥(Bleu & Books) is in the HuaShan creative and cultural district, a cluster of warehouses restored to house eateries, exhibition spaces, Legacy Taipei (a music livehouse), arthouse cinema Spot, and various design and lifestyle shops. You get the idea. The bookstore is worth a visit if you are at HuaShan. It has an interesting selection of fiction and books on architecture, politics, Taiwan and just ideas. If you order a drink from the cafe, they don't seem to bother if you sit at a table for hours. 

Look out for this sign for Pon Ding!

朋丁(Pon Ding) - A book store with a small but good and current selection that includes zines, photography, design and art books. Level 2 is a gallery. They serve coffee on the ground floor, and the staff are friendly. It is appropriately located in the ZhongShan MRT area, which has all these trendy cafes.

下北沢世代 Shimokitazawa Books) - Another art and design book store, but with a bit more focus on independent magazine, illustration and art/literary publications from Taiwan. The bookstore is a tiny office unit on Level 2 of an old nondescript commercial building. It's quite a trek from the MRT station, with pet stores and old electrical stores lining the way. I think Shimokitzawa is one of the earliest independent art and design bookstores. I like how it's pared down, unfussy, lived-in and still managed by the owner. 

Entrance to Mr Zeng's kingdom

水準書局(Shui Jun Bookstore) is an institution, and its owner Mr Zeng is a legend. Located in the Shida university area, the bookstore is frequented by students and everyone who's been a student. It's a real book-lover and knowledge-seeker's bookstore. There's no hipsteresque furniture and knick knacks, only books. And the books are shelved from floor to ceiling. You can't see any bit of the wall surface, not even the counter.  If he could, Mr Zeng would have shelves on the ceiling. And the store stocks all the latest titles.

My Chinese isn't great, so I can't for the life of me figure out how the books are arranged. "Hmm. Most of the time, by publisher", J answered without blinking. "Which bookstore arranges books by publisher?! How do you find the books you want?!?" The wannabe librarian in me protested. J continued browsing a book he had picked out from a shelf which seemed to me to have mostly books by Japanese authors. "Why not? You see, more or less they are the same kind of books."

Mr Zeng gives our discounts as easily as does advice and conversation about life, world politics, philosophy. J and I witnessed the former in action. "This book is NTD420" he glanced at the price printed at the back cover, then adds, "let's go with NTD310." On the edge of a shelf, there are postcards from customers thanking him for being a part of their student lives. 

荒花 (Wildflower Bookstore) A really goodlooking store with an adventurous selection of art books and zines, It is not far from Pon Ding, so it's worth a visit if you are wandering around the ZhongShan area.

Whether Eslite, a university haunt or hip design stores, the book trade in Taipei began in 牯靈街 (Gu Ling Street). Gu Ling Street is always special in my mind because of Edward Yang's film! As in the film, Gu Ling Street was previously lined with bookstores, including rental bookstores. There are still a few of these left now, but they are curiosities. The old/second-hand books are magazines are bundled up, as if they are to be sold by weight. 

We spotted a tiny store on Gu Ling Street. It is no wider than a corridor and lined with shelves of old academic publications. I didn't dare pick any of them up because they look too fragile. Most of the spines are so faded you can no longer read their titles. But the owner has lovingly hand-written the title or topic. These treasures are named so that they are more than just a bunch of paper... more than a recording of knowledge, ideas, stories, love and time.



The 1st of a 7-panel long drawing I made almost 3 yeas ago after J and I started visiting MacRitchie regularly. 

On the last 1KM stretch of our usual route, though hidden from view, the cars on Lornie Road would break through the trees with the rumble of a waterfall. Today, this usual roar was accompanied by a rattle of metal. The vibrations were carried through the ground. 

"Did you feel that?" I asked J, wondering if the trees are ever stressed and imagining what having an MRT line run under the nature reserve would be like. 

It is frustrating that a reserve is not, as it is intended, "reserved" and protected. 

On that same stretch is a mature tree with massive buttress roots, a forest giant that demands you pause and raise your head. Its roots are covered in the most beautiful brilliant green I've seen. I don't think anything we build or make can mimic or come close to the beauty of this green.


ward 7D

In Ward 7D there were six broken male bodies. They were labeled by their fragility, inner rot and oral hygiene but not their names. Every few minutes or even seconds, they give up their breaths in moans and sighs. It is really depressing, this environment. The nurses work night and day looking after these men at their weakest and darkest. How much patience, goodness and strength the nurses must have to face and care for this messy mortality, every day. 
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