Recent Posts

Kolkata Kalling

1 minute read

12 years ago in Kolkata. At the time still much referred to as Calcutta. Now less so.

The city doesn’t change; but you do.

Every picture I have of it from 12 years ago still looks like it could have been from December, when I last visited. Perhaps even today. When I land at midnight later, there will not be the crisp, muddled air of the winters I love in that city, just the night time counterpart to the heat that I know will pound on my face, and the ground, sometime in the morning.

All that I know, all that I do, I owe it to this city, even if it will never know it.

When my school friends were road-tripping across European cities for ‘summer break’, or perhaps even the big cities of China and America for work and school, I found solace here. It can be hard to see, but Kolkata is a hard act to beat. It’s the ultimate summer. Followed by monsoon. And the sounds of….

It’s a monsoon and the rain lifts lids off cars

Spinning buses like toys, stripping them to chrome

Across the bay, the waves are turning into something else

Picking up fishing boats and spewing them on the shore — James, Sometimes (which somehow always comes to mind when I think of this place

How to beat it?

The start, really, of empire. The fall, or rather the fading away, of one. The majesty of India’s cricketing hopes and dreams, and occasionally the dashing of, projected unto Eden Gardens even when the matches aren’t in season. The death of Marxism, available for the world to see at every adda and every failing piece of infrastructure. Tagore’s poetry. Indian Coffee House. The children of Tollygunge, who taught me so much, 12 years ago. Sandesh.

On hot afternoons when the sun hits the ground and meets engine oil, the smell reminds me of my first love among the many other putrid Asian cities I have come to love:

“So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.” — Tagore, My Reminiscences

This foreigner is not done discovering.

In Small Rooms with Betawi Women

2 minute read

Not for the first time, I found myself in a tiny room on a hot day, the youngest among old women. Each with a different thing to say to me, also the only person not from around these parts. 

“You’re so old now! And unmarried!”

“Your hair is too white! Eat more soy beans!”

One woman rubbed my tattoos, making a screechy sound with her teeth, before announcing to all the other old women around her: “these are real.”

No judgement, no scorn – I was local enough to be in a place like that, but not local enough to be judged. 

“Can you bring me some white chocolate next time you come, girl? I had them once and only in your country (Singapore). I’ve never had them since.” She rubbed my back some more. 

At places like these old women collectively talk, soothe each other’s tired or injured muscles, and together not give a damn about anything outside of those doors. At least for an hour. 

I went often to places like these, my severe back pains often needing urgent attention from anything that would give them rest. In Jakarta, I am a frequent visitor to Haji Naim – a group of famed healers in the Betawi community. I figured that if it didn’t work there was at least delicious soto Betawi to be had next door. Now that I come here so often, a massage almost always precedes a lovely bowl of soup and beef. 

I’ve always been glad to have the ability and opportunity to bond with old women anywhere in the world – their wisdom and unlikely sorority is what I look forward to, whether in Yemen or India or Singapore. Here, the Betawi women took turns rubbing my tattoos, shrieking when they discovered (repeatedly) that they were real. 

Most of my time in this city has been about discovering, for the first time, scenes that played such a large part in my youth. Hot afternoons with old Indonesian women. Dusk on the street with teenagers singing with their guitars. Children begging. Families living under bridges. The Indonesian movies that used to play so often in my tiny, hot Singaporean shoebox apartment, now alive in parts of the city. 

And yet the other parts of it are real, too. Large gleaming buildings. New shiny things. Cocktails as expensive as Singapore’s. Malls full of only imported things. My feet in both worlds: one in the village and one in Pacific Place. One in meetings with fancy people, another under the firm thumbing of extremely old women. 

It’s a difficult balance to keep up, but I enjoy each moment. White chocolate in Betawi houses; going home to my $5 room after a day out in $5 coffee houses. Improbable things and inevitable places. As I chug along at work and in life, I’m relieved to have the opportunity to make things work again.

When I Was Young

3 minute read

I’m seated now by the side of an old vending machine in Jakarta airport, with power sockets so dirty and old I had to think twice about plugging my cables in. Yet in all of Terminal 1, one of the oldest airport terminals in a country not known for modern aviation facilities, there was only this one socket free. Confined to my fate of temporarily sharing power with a giant Teh Botol (not Coke!) machine with no seat within range of my Macbook charger, I am, obviously, on the floor yet again.

Sitting on floors: a practice cultivated in many countries across the world. Sometimes involuntary, most of the time because my inner hippie wants me to. The difference between now and then — I am now at the kind of age where you would, if you did not know me, expect some kind of manners from me. Wear proper clothes, wear proper shoes. Sit on proper surfaces. I imagined I would too! That one day, I would finally learn how to be proper. How wrong I was on that, and many other fronts! I am happy to still-sitting-on-dirty-floors. No — I am overjoyed. Overjoyed to be still a chapalang, anyhow and anyhowly chapalang person.

So much has happened since the last real post of any substance here. Mid, early 2014 perhaps. I started a company. It still lives. I have teams, collaborators, all across my different endeavours. The foundation I started in 2012 is still alive, too. I am relieved and grateful for all of the opportunities thrown my way, all of the paths revealed and then some.

Why did I not write? I did not write, because life overwhelmed me and kept me away and sometimes light-headed. I did not write, because I forgot how to. It isn’t like riding a bicycle — it’s more of riding a unicycle where you know eventually you’ll find your balance but only after falling flat on your face anyway, no matter how many times you’ve ridden one. In my pursuit of achievements, exceptional or otherwise, prizes, awards, Silicon Valley-style work yourself to the bone for some big undefined payoff (emotional or otherwise); I lost myself in the race. I lost myself, too, in the unclear idea of what it meant to be an adult.

An adult, I was told, lived in a proper house with a proper bed with a proper pillow (for all of the neck pains you’re bound to have). I have neck pains, indeed, but realise I can do without all of the rest. I haven’t sat on dirty airport floors for years. I haven’t gone somewhere with nothing in my bag other than the clothes currently on me, in years. I haven’t gone somewhere without a plan, without a place to stay, without any idea of what i was going to do. I don’t know how else to live, and forcing myself into being the opposite of those things brought me further and further away from who I really was.

Maybe this year, after learning to like myself again, I’ll finally get my groove back again. I’m proud to be an anyhowly person. I’m proud to extreme and spontaneous. I will no longer knead the image of who I truly am into the uninspiring ideas of what some people had wanted me to become. I don’t want to achieve things for the sake of doing that — I want to learn to be alive, again. Let’s see how we go on this journey, I’m excited but also shit-scared about it.

But as I once believed (when I was much younger) — if it doesn’t scare me like hell, it probably isn’t worth doing.

Said airport power sharing setup   

Is the Self-Hosted Blog Dead?

1 minute read

Fuck Medium. Seriously.

I have had enough of their terrible user interface, narrow writing experience, and the empty platitudes of ‘recs’ and comments from people looking to improve their lives by reading inspiring content from people they don’t care about. Worst of all? I hate people whining about Millennials more than Millennials themselves.

I started this site precisely so that I could tinker around under the hood, and that’s what I’ve missed — tinkering. Writing. Slapping together bits of random code you find on the internet (now forking random folks’ code on Github) and hoping it would work. I know a lot more about code and development processes now, but I still gain a huge amount of happiness from tinkering with things I don’t know.

My archives are in a mess. I stopped writing here some time circa 2010. I don’t know why. Life took over. I got lazy. I got fed up trying to do everything at once.

It might take some time to gather the things I posted on different parts of the web. But it should be worth it 🙂

Tan Boon Chye

2 minute read

When I came home (to Singapore) a couple of days ago, I instructed the taxi driver to go to the Caltex station at East Coast. Most cabbies know this place, but he didn’t. He’s 74 years old, so he only knew this spot as “Tan Boon Chye & Co” (brain GPS never update firmware). Tan Boon Chye & Co was the 3rd Caltex station in Singapore, and that was its original name — in 1961.

Growing up in Singapore and spending most of my childhood (and teen-hood) around grandparents who spoke mostly Teochew (and more Malay than Mandarin, really), I’d always felt intimately connected to their brain GPS. If I was to tell them where I had spent all my time (and money — they can’t believe anything costs more than 50 cents in Singapore), I’d have to cross-reference the 1940s street directory that exists only in our minds, among the people of a certain stripe.

If I went to the jazz club at SouthBridge (way back when there was a jazz club), I’d have to tell them I was in 大坡大马路 in Teochew, dua pou dua beh lou (or tua po tua beh lou depending on your romanization preference, or if you said it with a Hokkien inflection). If I had to change money for my travels, I’d have gone to “ang teng” reminiscent of the red lights that once lit up Collyer Quay from Johnston’s lighthouse. My fave — instead of going to Cecil Street to work in the CBD, I’ve have gone to the “opium company”, where opium dens once stood instead of buttoned up, stuffy suits. Because corporate life is a different kind of opiate of the masses. Years after the passing of the two people I’d spent so much time with, existing in a different language and setting, I find myself grasping at anything that lets me learn a little bit more about the lives of people I loved but did not know fully. In part because I never had the language of their lives in full — I could order food, talk to them, talk to old people, even give speeches in this language they bestowed on me, but I could never have had the tools to create legends for their maps, their history, their worlds filled with poverty, civil war and world war.

I’m learning as much of their language as I can. Instead of being merely conversational, wet market level conversant, I’ve started to learn how to write it, read it, romanize it, and exist in this other plane of my life I’ve always inhabited but never occupied.

The taxi driver took me to Tan Boon Chye. From the way he pronounced the Tan, the same one that is present in my own name (pretty much like a surprised sound effect), I switched to it for the rest of the ride.

“Where did you return from?”

I don’t say Jakarta, as in 雅加达 (ya jia da).

I say I’ve just returned from 巴斜, pah sia, and he knew it. I wonder what destinations my grand dad saw at the port. 巴斜 (Jakarta), 金塔 (ghim tahp, Phnom Penh), or 坤甸 (khun diang, Pontianak)? Yet somehow he ended up here, the land of red lights and big horse carriage roads and small ones, so that when I go off into the world I feel I’m merely following the same sense of adventure (and need) from more than 80 years ago.