Kobo and other sparks

A friend jio-ed me for a steamboat dinner a few weeks ago at Thomson Plaza. I reached said Plaza in good time, but I might still be making my rounds of the first floor if not for the fact that, while I was on my second round, said friend whatsapped to remind me that the entrance to the steamboat place we were meeting at was outside of the mall itself. We ordered quite quickly, and the meal included the best sliced pig liver I ever cooked for myself – surprisingly, thinly sliced pig liver turns out quite well when poached in tomato stock.

Sometime during the dinner (to be honest, this could have been later during coffee, or even later when I drove her home – that is how my memory is these days), my friend talked about how she was no longer reading on her Kindle, she was in fact the proud owner of a Kobo, which wonder of wonders connects to the National Library’s catalogue of e-books and allows for convenient borrowing of said e-books.

I decided to get my own Kobo there and then.

I would say, about 4-5 years ago now (very probably longer), reading at least a book per month had been a part of my identity. Since then, it probably hasn’t even been a proper book or two in a year. I have often thought about exactly how that change happened, and reckon that the time I spent reading books was taken over by (a) reading shorter pieces on my computer and phone, liking the relative reduction in effort, devolving into laziness, (b) YouTube and Netflix binges – YouTube in particular does not stop suggesting stuff for you to watch, and I am not disciplined enough to not binge – and (c) listening to podcasts and people-watching during my commute to work, which used to be by MRT and afforded some time to have one’s face buried in a book, but then came to be by Grab (the much higher costs were guilt-inducing for a while, emphasis unfortunately on the “a while”), and therefore even more truncated. I’ve tried to “recover” by buying books now and then – guilting myself to read – but all that did was to add to the to-read pile.

I got my Kobo two days after, and in less than a week finished my first library e-book, a heart-wrenching crime novel with an impetuous, super-brave, foul-mouthed, prickly, vulnerable, defiant, fierce teenage heroine who will make you cry for her and call her stupid and want to hug her hurt away all at the same time, called “We Begin At The End”, written by Chris Whitaker. (Please please please go read it, and let me know you’ve read it, so we can talk about it.) (I would normally say I will go buy it, just so I can refer to it as we talk about it, but I am unlikely to forget that story soon. Though, with my memory the way it is these days…)

Then it was on to Tana French, who was on my list of authors whose books I need to borrow from the library, this particular author because an ex-colleague had recommended her. It’s interesting – I had searched for Tana French in the library’s Overdrive catalogue, and the first book that came up was the Chris Whitaker novel (probably because Tana French was one of those whose praise was quoted on the cover or within the book?), and since it had won some first crime novel of the year award and I am a sucker for such recognition, I had gone for it.

And then came the Tana French books, and I realised that some belonged to a Murder Squad series, so I chose the first of them, “In The Woods”. This also turned out to be such a satisfying read, but also sad, the kind of sad that stays with you for a while. With some distance from the book (am now on to the second in the series), I realise that the writer plays a trick on us, and the trick is actually telegraphed at the start, and the trick is that the protagonist, far from a good detective and therefore smart and together and reliable, is irresponsible and damaged, so damaged he irrevocably wrecks the best relationship he has, so that for the second freaking book in a row I’m lounging on my bed telling an imaginary person how stupid they are. Grr. (Also grr-inducing – ok, more like sigh-inducing – was French’s writing; for example, how in a few quick paragraphs she creates this fast platonic pal-dom between the protagonist and his colleague. Reading it made me realise I have never had and never will have the creativity or granular observation skills to write like that; this also made me a bit sad. Such good writing!)

The thing with e-book borrowing though is the library does not keep a record of the e-books you’ve borrowed, so I don’t know for sure today how long it took me to read those two books, but I know that the last books I’d physically borrowed from the library were travel guides. To Switzerland (went paragliding in Interlaken; they did not tell me that a pre-condition for soaring in the sky for a number of extremely unforgettable minutes was lugging 30kg of the contraption that would serve as your wings up a hill (the only time a walk up a hill was more interminable was in Indonesia, during a route march up some sort of dune, heavy radio set, heavy boots, sands shifting so that each step was so hard, and so futile, thighs burning but needing to double-time it because otherwise there was no getting out of that hell, sliding back was not an option because it would mean having to do the climb all over again), but oh the sky was so welcoming, and the terrain so laughably unrecognisable from all that way up), Taiwan, a different part of Taiwan, and most recently Hokkaido. (Darn you COVID!)

I shall have to stop borrowing after this Tana French novel – my to-read pile awaits!


A year of not reading

Well, it wasn’t really without any leisure reading. For example, one book which I did start on during a work trip to Auckland in early October 2019 – and finished last week – delightfully explores which animals also fart. (Thanks for the gift, Bryce!)

Being a reader used to be part of my identity. Books used to fill the interstices of my life. Now, those are stuffed full by bits and bytes from football websites and articles recommended by social media (I favour Reddit, but don’t participate except to upvote worthy items, such as many from r/NatureIsFuckingLit, pardon me). I still like reading, but I’ve not read a book that made me put off sleep – which used to be a not uncommon occurrence – since I read the Chinese web novel turned hit drama 琅琊榜, the second volume of which I had to finish before I took off my spectacles and turned over, tired from the sadness in the book. But although I did not read many books, there were experiences that still made me want to write about them, and so here they are.

A JJ Lin concert

2019 was a year in which, so impressed by JJ Lin’s performances on variety shows, which I caught on my many YouTube binges, I got my brother to join me for the second night of his concerts in Singapore, even though I was not by any measure a fan, being unfamiliar with probably 80% of his oeuvre, a fact which struck me several times while I was sitting on the very basic plastic chairs on the National Stadium pitch, buffeted from the ground by the deep vibrations of the thunderous sound system, so loud I wondered if the hearing of those in the front rows survived – I am surprised mine seemed to have, and in fact my tinnitus is gone, possibly because I am now deaf to my tinnitus even. Have plonked the set list for this particular night below:

  1. 曹操
  2. 新地球
  3. 圣所

[1st break. Every time I am at a concert, at the first break, I remember something that happened at a Sandy Lam concert I enjoyed. At a break – this was near the end of the concert, rather than at the start – the lead drummer played a little part of a song, like a chord or two, then stopped. It was a very familiar song, one of Sandy Lam’s big hits, a duet with Jonathan Lee, but the audience wasn’t expecting it, and drumming doesn’t necessarily convey the tune of the song easily, so there was no reaction. Then the drummer drummed out a longer part of it, then stopped. And a longer part, waving his hands, and we got the message – he wanted us to sing along. And sing along we did – the indoor stadium crowd gave a joyous, at times jumbled, but wholehearted version of 当爱已成往事, the love theme of Farewell My Concubine, until the drummer bashed out one final flourish to welcome back on stage the only person we would have preferred to be singing at that time, and we lapsed back into listening mode.]

  1. 地球毁灭了以后

[2nd break]

  1. 转动
  2. 无法克制
  3. 关键词
  4. Always online
  5. 那些你很冒险的梦
  6. 明天
  7. 黑暗騎士
  8. 可惜没如果

[3rd break]

  1. 黑夜问白天
  2. 背对背拥抱
  3. 第几个100天
  4. 我们很好
  5. 她说
  6. 只对你说
  7. (with 阿杜)坚持到底
  8. 记得 [I used to think JJ Lin depended too much on the way he arranged his music to make his songs sound good. As proof, I played my pal A Mei’s version of this song, and then JJ Lin’s version of this song, and my pal agreed that, come to think of it, played side by side like that, JJ Lin did emphasise the string instruments a tad. I thought this was enough to make the artifice too showy. At that time.]
  9. 输了你赢了世界又如何 [Then I heard JJ Lin’s version of this song. His own arrangement. His very own, rock-star version of a classic, the original version of which is immaculate but still standard fare placed beside this incandescence.]

[4th break]

  1. 对的时间点
  2. 进了门,开了灯,一家人
  3. White Christmas
  4. 我继续
  5. Show the world
  6. 因你而在
  7. 丹宁执着
  8. 伟大的渺小


  1. 进阶
  2. 江南
  3. 不为谁而作的歌

A card shop at the corner of Junction 8

Pictures of bears bring back memories…

I saw this composite picture, and immediately remembered a card shop at a corner of Junction 8, where there is now a restaurant, probably a fast food restaurant, and felt so sad about the time that had passed, and the paucity of stuff I buy cards for now, and the stuff I could have done in all that intervening time. Gosh that was a while ago.


I missed her birthday last year, the first time I ever had since I knew her. Then one ordinary Tuesday in October, she made an unexpected appearance in a dream. Even as I sobered up on hearing the alarm the details were sinking back into dream murk, but I remember I had bought three things for her, three, but I couldn’t remember what they were, though one was in an A4-sized box, like a stack of printer paper. The place was an almost deserted Jurong East bus interchange, from school days, sort of near where she used to live. I stopped by to talk to an acquaintance, and then suddenly she walked by; she also knew the acquaintance, and stopped; they were together. I said her name, and when she did not hear me – I was sure with dream certainty that she did not hear me – I said it again, and when she did not hear me again, I handed over what I had gotten for her. Writing this down, I realise that I did not hear her voice; she did not say anything, just looked mildly puzzled, and keen to go about her original business. And I as usual simply left.


I am a Liverpool fan, of the vintage that will always think John Barnes would keep even the currently en fuego Sadio Mane out of the team. Liverpool are as of this very moment doing extremely well. And the comms nut that I am, I cannot get over the clear difference between the highlights which the losing team showed, those which the winning team did.

What the losing team showed
What the winning team showed

Cinema Paradiso, and a poem

By happy accident, Facebook alerted me that my cousin-in-law and erstwhile classmate back in Primary School – fate is weird like that – had played the theme from Cinema Paradiso. I loved how it sounded, and got to searching YouTube for other performances of the theme, and came across this one of the theme’s composer Ennio Morricone conducting a bravura performance, accompanied by probably the most beautiful poem I’ve ever read.

Dreaming Water – Rhina Espaillat

I woke up this damp day

thinking of Venice:

how lapping water

smoothed into grace a garment

of old stones, put on

tangled reflections.

Bridges curved like the small of

the spine arched over

whispering water

that gilded their knees with quick

coins of shifting light.

My bones dreamt water;

and I thought of green-dappled

ceilings glimpsed from our

gondola, the sea

domestic in its stone gloves.

A moving rendition of the theme to Cinema Paradiso

Stef Sun

I think Stefanie Sun has the effect of enhancing any piece of music she lends her voice to. As an example, witness her collaboration with Mayday, courtesy of the magic that is YouTube recommendations:

Amid the craziness, a concert

Should have set out this setlist from a Kit Chan concert from more than half a year back some months ago, but with the laziness to read or write that has become my preoccupying affliction these days, doing so only now. (There was also the small matter of the culmination of a years-long work project, a scarce 10 days after this 10 Nov 2018 concert.) Dedicated to a friend who was not there.

  1. 天冷
  2. 喜欢你
  3. (粤)等了又等
  4. (粤)分享孤独
  5. 诺贝尔
  6. 心痛
  7. 担心
  8. (粤)麻醉 – The love theme from a Hong Kong series she was one of the leads in.
  9. 看月亮-拔河 medley
  10. 那些被风吹散的人
  11. 我是不是该安静地走开 – An affecting version of an Aaron Kwok standard
  12. 我会唱歌
  13. Flexible man
  14. Fever
  15. 走出黑暗的世界吧,朋友
  16. 我真的爱错
  17. 享受寂寞
  18. 最好的年纪
  19. 追-今生今世 medley – A pair of songs from the 1994 movie “He’s a woman, she’s a man” starring Leslie Cheung, Anita Yuen, Eric Tsang, Jordan Chan and Carina Lau. One of my favourites, and listening to these songs from the original soundtrack gets me reminiscing every time.
  20. 心动
  21. A time for everything


  1. Easy come easy go (?)
  2. 早去早回-家-Home medley

And among these, an excellent instrumental rendition of drama-filled ballad 入戏太深.


I like Kit Chan’s singing. I like it in its recorded state – polished, wonderfully controlled, evocative. I have found that I like it too in its raw state, the way she sings in concerts and on those shows where established singers sing “live” – beautifully emotional, dramatic, but at ease, very much in line with her stage persona.

An appreciation of the Piano Guys, via an annotated setlist from their Singapore concert of 25 September 2018

1. Batman series (A quick romp through the campy Adam West TV series, the Tim Burton-directed, Danny Elfman-scored 1989 hit and the Dark Knight trilogy. Setting the mood.)

2. (A familiar-sounding tune which I don’t know the title of. My first live experience of a cello as a percussion instrument.)

3. “Let it go” from Frozen + Vivaldi’s Winter (A modern hit studded with elements of a hit from yonks ago. See a version from the Piano Guys’ YouTube channel here.)

4. “Love story” + “Viva la vida” *

5. “With or without you” (Steve shows off his “loop pedal”, which enables him to record and play back snippets of sound from his cello, so that he can add in loops and improvise with them, live. Steve and Jon (the pianist) proceed with a bravura rendition of the U2 classic, with haunting cello bits. Note to self: Find out the technical term for cello bits.)

6. “Kung fu piano: Cello ascends” (A combo of the “Oogway ascends” theme from Kung Fu Panda – Steve explains that Kung Fu Panda was scored by Hans Zimmer, justifying the Guys’ decision to play this on the Great Wall of China – and one of Chopin’s preludes. A version here.)

7. “A million dreams” from The Greatest Showman (Jon’s solo. A version here.)

8. “The Cello Song” (Steve shows off his cellos. He has 29, he says. The carbon fibre one is French, he says, and is named “Car-born Fee-bray”. There is also an electric one which is basically the outline of a cello, with the strings intact.)

9. “It’s gonna be OKAY” (Al (as far as I can figure he does a lot of the mixing and arrangements) lends his vocals to this upbeat tune. A version here.)

10. (All four Piano Guys onstage. Use the piano as a percussion instrument, before which they warn those learning to play the piano that they should not try that at home.)**

11. Blues riff (Jon relates that, at a previous concert, he had invited someone from the audience to play jazz on the piano with him, and the audience at that concert had loved it, “blew the roof off”. Says he will try it here too, and asks for someone from the audience. Assures everyone this is not prearranged. Someone from the audience goes onstage. He is Ishan. Jon asks him where he is from. He says he is from Sri Lanka. Jon asks him about his experience with the piano. He says he plays a bit a jazz. Walks to the piano with Jon, tickles the ivory with a little flourish which gets the crowd ooh-ing. Steve jokes, “a bit of jazz”. The trio proceeds to perform a grandstanding barnstorming riff which gets even me moving – Ishan is apparently very good (I wouldn’t know, so asked my cello-playing friend who was with me; she said he was very good) – and after the end and an extended ovation, Ishan steps off the stage. Steve jokes that he forgot to get Ishan’s number in case his current pianist doesn’t work out. I still can’t figure out if there was any prearrangement. My friend is quite sure there was. I waver between agreeing wholeheartedly, and thinking the Piano Guys are too wholesome to engage in such subterfuge.)

12. “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission + “How great thou art” (Steve talks about the time they played at the Christ the Redeemer statue, and then at the Iguazu Falls, and how they felt more at the latter. He goes on to say that his own explanation is that Christ the Redeemer statue is man’s way of showing love for God, and the Falls God’s way of showing love for man. I’m not religious, but I like that explanation. There is inspiration that comes from something bigger than oneself, than what one can create. A version here.)***

13. “I want you Bach” (A mash-up of Bach and “I want you back” by the Jackson Five. Suitably funky. A version here.)****

14. “Rockelbel’s canon” (Jon says they are going to play Pachelbel’s canon. Steve laments that the cello part consists of just a few chords, repeated endlessly. Pretends to be so bored by the straight-ish part of the performance that he falls asleep. Jon wakes him up, and he embarks on a rock version. A cool music video here.)

15. “A thousand years” (Jon says it’s their last two songs. Announces that they will next play their most romantic piece. Notes that he is aware there are those who used the Piano Guys’ version of this song in their wedding. Finds out some of those are in the audience. Performs with Steve a beatific version of the Christina Perri tune.)*****

16. “This is your fight song” (An unforgettable combo of Rachel Platten’s “Fight song” and “Amazing grace”, infused with elements of Scottish march music. Gah. The version here conveys some of the spirit of resilience and unbreakable faith from the performance. Brilliant. Wipe my eyes a couple of times.)

17. Encore (All four Piano Guys onstage doing their thing e.g. using the piano as a percussion ^and^ string instrument. I can tell you more about this in person if you are interested.)

* After some Googling, I think this was a combo of the Taylor Swift song and the Coldplay song (which I confused with the Ricky Martin tune at the concert).

** I already don’t remember when the intermission was, but I think it came after this item.

*** Around here I start to realise this is a great concert experience. The music is superb, and the absence of lyrics frees my mind to free-associate and the more conscious part of my mind to pay attention to that. I remember that someone had gotten baptised in a swimming pool in her friend’s condo, and I really envied her friend. I notice that I hadn’t remembered that in a very long time.

**** My sort of pun. Cements my patronage of the Piano Guys for the foreseeable future.

***** My friend was surprised this is used at weddings – she thought it was sad. I personally think the song is about abiding love, and there is an optimistic note to it.

Revisiting Tuesdays with Morrie

Many years ago, I read Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. Before I read it, I had no idea I could sob so hard reading a book. So when I saw that a play based on the book was going to be staged in Singapore – a translated production by Godot Theatre Company from Taiwan was coming to the Esplanade – I asked a few of the regular folks I’d watch plays with if they’d like to watch it too, and when none of them did, I got a ticket for myself.

The play was largely faithful to the original text, which was satisfying, but the translation sapped it of some coherence – for example, the word “love” is more versatile in the English language than its equivalent in Chinese is, and so it was natural in the book that Mitch says to his wise coach Morrie “I love you”, but awkward onstage when he said the same in Chinese.

I enjoyed the chemistry between the two leads, which allowed some of the added humour in the adaptation – judiciously injected, I think, to lighten a weighty subject in a more visceral medium than print – to shine. Morrie has ALS, and accepts that he will one day lose the ability to wipe his own behind, and his mischievous threat to Mitch that he would have to help his old prof do that is played out with great timing and poignancy. In another part of the play, Morrie is having Mitch read out loud the many letters that he has received and dictating replies to them. There is a 21-page letter from a former student who had gone through a lot, and this is played out in a silent scene, with the lights down. Then the words “One hour later” flashed on the screens at the side of the stage, and the two ponder how to start the reply, until Morrie suggests: “Thank you for your long letter.” In the book, the volume of letters is clear from the author’s short summaries of different letters, and this last letter is given a summary lasting an entire paragraph of woe and misery, and it is Morrie’s son who suggests how to start the reply, and Morrie beams at him.

I also enjoyed how the play made me think back. When I first read the book, my bed was in a different place in my room, the headboard against the window. And I remember, in one of my first years of work in my current workplace, I had the opportunity to share my love of the book through giving it to a boss I admired via a Secret Santa gift exchange. We had a small festive celebration at Sentosa, and I remember Andrew playing the guitar. That was altogether a time of bigger possibilities.

Stuff which moved me recently

The MICappella concert in early November may have been the best concert I’ve ever been to. Juni, Kexin, Calin, Peter, Eugene and Mingwei performed with energy and joy – and maybe because they were doing a cappella, there was less between the audience and the group’s unvarnished stage presence. I’ve never been so glad to have been jioed by a friend to something. Their rendition of “One Night in Beijing” had jaded me just wowed and stunned in my seat.

See some YouTube clips of their work below, and go to their next concert!

A cover of JJ Lin’s 可惜没如果

(I enjoy both MICappella’s cover and the original, but I find the original (see here) too “produced”, with its instrumental flourishes almost literally tugging at the heartstrings. I believe the phrase in Chinese would be 匠心太重. I find that I have that feeling about many JJ Lin songs.)

A medley of covers of popular Chinese hits in 2016

A cover of “One Night in Beijing”


I reread this profile of Ted Williams’ last game for the Boston Red Sox, and found John Updike’s writing timeless and observant – his use of nameless fellow common people just so well done – and touching.

And I got reminded of another virtuoso piece of writing about a sportsman I have had the pleasure of watching. The writer himself is unfortunately no longer around, but David Foster Wallace’s profile of Roger Federer and his whip of a forehand – done more than 10 years ago and still fresh, a testament to Federer’s staying power and Wallace’s ability to convey a sense of what it must be like to see that talent in the flesh.


I resumed reading Charles Duhigg’s Smart Better Faster about a week ago. It was in my pile of books to read and I realised that I never finished it after opening it and finding a bookmark inside. It is a book that tries to break down what makes people productive, and does that well, partly through stories illustrating certain principles. An early one – about a chap who suffered brain damage which removed his motivation and how the chap’s wife helped him to regain it by persistently and patiently asking him question after question to make him make choices and take agency – gave me the chills.


I am moved by more things now, getting decidedly more maudlin as I get decisively older. The first book which made me bawl was Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie”, in my first year at work. Now the above books/articles/experiences, which I went through in the last two months, have all done that.


More 琅琊榜 thoughts I had while I wasn’t blogging

Looking through my diary of sorts – I use Google Keep to log stuff from my brain – I discovered some thoughts I had about 琅琊榜 Lang Ya Bang before I watched the TV adaptation.* This was in June, about a quarter of a year after I had read the books.

  • 琅琊榜 is still in my thoughts. When I read at the end of the book that the author first thought of 景禹’s (Jingyu’s) character** and then built the book around him, I totally got it – the stuff in the book happened because of who he was.
  • And also after thinking about it some more my conclusion is that after all that buildup – the protagonist prince Jingyan finally realised his buddy Lin Shu was alive and had been by his side, maligned and distrusted by him, for more than a year about 80% into the story – the two had too few conversations, too little time with each other :(
  • It is so strange that I’m still thinking about the book. Particularly memorable moments would just pop into my mind.*** Like this morning I just suddenly thought about how Lin Shu told Jingyan that his body would never recover (little wonder, since to completely purge his body of the poison which had penetrated deep into his marrow, he had to have his skin stripped and bones ground, and after that he had a different face, and would not live past 40 at the oldest****), and how Jingyan patted his shoulder and told Lin Shu it was OK, as long as Lin Shu was there, it was OK.*****
  • I can imagine a great TV adaptation would be even more memorable****** :)


*I went back to insert hanyu pinyin names for the 琅琊榜 Lang Ya Bang summary in my previous post, to help folks follow along. Heh.

**Recap: Jingyu was the eldest prince, seen in the books only in flashbacks and fond memories, granted death by poisoned wine by his father the king, who wrongly thought him treasonous.

***Update: There’s slightly less of that now.

****An incomplete purge of the poison, which another character in the story chose, involved some acupuncture. That’s it. He would live a normal lifespan, but the poison would mean he would have white hair all over his body and a stiff tongue, which would prevent him from speaking properly. Why didn’t Lin Shu choose this infinitely less painful way of dealing with the poison? Because he had to avenge his family and the Lin army, and to do that he had to be a normal person.

*****It just struck me: This exchange was different in the TV series. In the TV series, the scene was condensed. Lin Shu said that he would never recover, never be able to beat Jingyan. Jingyan retorted that Lin Shu actually had the advantage – even if Lin Shu were to hit him, Jingyan would not retaliate. Lin Shu had sort of the last word: Jingyan was the Crown Prince – to hit him would be suicide. And the two of them chuckled and sighed, I’d like to think because it was like old times, the banter, and not like old times at all. In the book, the exchange was longer, more layered. There were descriptions of how Jingyan had to gulp down his excitement when Lin Shu said his name instead of “Your Highness” for the first time since he knew Lin Shu was Lin Shu, details like that, which were portrayed in a wonderfully nuanced way by the TV actors.

******So true. So true.

Thoughts I had while not blogging

It’s been a while, so this is going to be a long one.

Once in a while, I would remember an especially embarrassing or awkward thing that happened to me. Usually, the memory is triggered by a sight or a thought, and I mentally wince.* A reliable one is the Chinese character for lone: 孤. Every time I see it, I am reminded of a secondary school Chinese teacher. I can’t remember how he taught**, but he was very popular, because he was a somewhat well-known lyricist and composer for the theme songs for Chinese TV serials. Once, he invited our class to his home, a condominium named Youngberg something, where I remember three things happened.

One, his wife was home too, and made us something to eat, and we were wondering how to greet her, and the head boy (for Chinese anyway), the teacher’s biggest fan, settled on 师母 – something like teacher-mother.

Two, we watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day – and spent a good 10 minutes discussing if the title was misspelled.

Three, the teacher offered to do some calligraphy for us, and asked us to pick a character. No one did – I remember being surprised that the head boy didn’t, and I also remember that I had reasoned at the time that it might be because it was already quite late – so I suggested 孤. I had always liked the character.

But the teacher said to choose another character, 孤 was too negative, calligraphy was for happy occasions. And, because I had always liked the character, and because I was sort of a loner at the time and did not think that being by oneself was necessarily a bad thing, and because it was unfair, he had not stipulated that negative characters were to be avoided, and because I couldn’t think of another character that I wanted to have drawn, I didn’t say anything, and probably sulked petulantly.*** Until the teacher very unwillingly – he wasn’t above being petulant himself – took up the brush, dipped it in that thick black ink, and drew the character.

I remember thinking it was very good, considering that it was not done willingly.

I also remember, more vaguely, throwing it out years after.

I like to think that I’m still that loner.

But I don’t like that character anymore.

*If you see me daydreaming and my face suddenly twists, well, sometimes the wince isn’t just mental.

**Funny – I can’t remember how he taught, but I can remember how another two secondary school Chinese teachers taught, or more specifically how they marked compositions. One was very proper, and would mark students down when they tried more creative phrases; another was very much the opposite, readily sprinkling “Good!” 好! and “Very good!” 很好! for the same.

***There probably wasn’t any “probably” about it.

In January this year, a momentous thing happened.

For the first time in absolutely ages – more than a decade, closing on two – I played bridge.

It was after work, with colleagues.

It took a while to remember how to play, but within a few tricks it was no longer a mystery, and I started to remember how I never played conservatively, because it was never for any stakes.

I enjoyed myself so much that evening, and probably laughed louder than I ever have in that building where I work.

Even more momentous, last year I was asked to help choose songs for my pal’s wedding. I am the proudest of these recommendations, all accepted:

  1. Beautiful in my eyes – Joshua Kadison. I loved almost every song in his first album “Painted Desert Serenade”, out when I was in secondary school, and I was very pleased to gift it to a work friend some years back. A friend opined that Joshua Kadison had a voice like Marc Cohn and Elton John. That’s quite accurate I think.
  2. Longer – Dan Fogelberg. The comparative lines – e.g. “stronger than any mountain cathedral / truer than any tree ever grew” – evoke familiarity and outlandish extreme at the same time, and I think those make the song timeless.
  3. I only want to be with you – Tina Arena. I got to know of this version only in the few months before my pal’s wedding, it feels like. It’s a slower, sweeter version of Dusty Springfield’s 1960s rock-and-roll original. Tina Arena is smitten singing the song.

Despite my not believing in marriage, I enjoyed myself at that wedding.

Yet another stupendous sign of how few physical books I’ve read recently: Reading an engrossing book, I went to the bathroom half-thinking the book might blink off on me.

Speaking of engrossing books, I must confess. I read 琅琊榜 (Lang Ya Bang, for some reason translated as “Nirvana in Fire“*) a few months back. I had accompanied a friend to the Bugis Kinokuniya to buy the set of three books, and she was raving about the TV series and how it made her want to read the books. So she did and very kindly offered to lend them to me a few months later, around March.

They were phenomenal. I couldn’t stop reading them. I couldn’t stop tearing at the lyrical depictions of a prince (his name is Jingyan) missing his childhood buddy, who was now his scheming advisor (calling himself Mei Changsu, but who used to be Lin Shu), unrecognisable because the prince had thought him dead for 13 years, but also (mostly) because, to purge the ultimate poison from his body and avenge his wronged family and the Lin army, he had to have his skin stripped and bones ground, the poison went that deep; of the scene where Jingyan realised Mei Changsu was his childhood buddy Lin Shu, alive but oh so changed, wronged but determined to push Jingyan to the throne; of the princess (Nihuang, literally Neon Phoenix, and she shone) who was betrothed to Lin Shu and who had to shoulder the weight of defending her country’s southern borders since her teens and who had to go without her betrothed for 13 years and who somehow still fathomed that Mei Changsu was him, different face and all; of the eldest prince Jingyu, seen in the book only in flashbacks and allusions to his virtue and bravery in pushing for progressive rule and ultimately his naivete – only when he was presented with a literal poisoned chalice from his father the king, who, suspicious to the point of paranoia, wrongly believed him treasonous, only then did he realise the father did not know the son, and the son did not know the father.

And then of course I had to watch the whole 54 episodes of the TV series, which I found a respectful and genuinely appreciative adaptation, which also effortlessly wrung tears from these eyes.

Wholeheartedly recommended. I bought a set of the books for myself.

*Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page is a rather messy read.

OK OK, this was funny – on 13 June I had the opportunity to use an eraser for the first time in ages, and it turned out I had almost forgotten how they worked. I rubbed it over the pencil marks – I remembered that much – and with a few strokes, off came some parts of the eraser, and off came the pencil marks. It was like magic.

29 May – I noticed that my colleague, a young one, had started forming jowls. Just started. But they are there. On her face.

3 July (a few days after my 40th birthday) – They are there on my face too.

Yup, I’ve been thinking more about mortality. It’s morbid. Almost fascinatingly so.

Lastly, and very importantly, I heard on 8 March that a new John le Carre book called “Legacy of Spies” was on its way. I am sedentary and not very demonstrative, but believe me, I wooted very loudly in my mind.



3 spoilery thoughts about Rogue One

I saw Rogue One today. It was a bloated appetiser of a movie, quite fun but substanceless.

  1. Given that the key part of the movie depicted a mission whose success gave hope to the entire free galaxy, the import of that mission was strangely downplayed. It came across as something the heroes did out of personal defiance, rather than out of commitment to some great cause. The reason some others later joined the mission was never convincing. At some point near the end, it became obvious that the mission was one of the suicide variety, but even that realisation was strangely devoid of feeling. The script did not give Felicity Jones and Diego Luna much to work with, and the silent looks and gestures which made up the bulk of their dialogue then emphasised what to me was a lack of chemistry.
  2. Cynical me thought Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen were in the movie purely to attract into cinemas people of a similar colour, of which there are hordes, the size of which guarantees heaps of profit no matter the quality of the film. Nothing I saw made me revise that thought. The two played guardians of a destroyed temple, Yen a staff-wielding blind man who seemed to retain an almost comical faith in the Force, Jiang his burly laser shotgun-toting buddy. There was chemistry between the two of them, but only between the two of them, there being no meaningful dialogue between them and the others on the mission, which could have been a concession to their lack of fluency in English, though I doubt it because (i) at least Yen spent considerable time in the US when he was in his teens and (ii) subtitles are a thing. The script simply left the audience to fill in their motivations.
  3. Apart from the poor script, I think two other things will stay with me. One is the new droid, used for both comic relief and emotion heft, and of course merchandise sales. Two is the cut-through-swathe-of-minions performance at the end by the imposingly helmeted one, voiced by James Earl Jones. It was a thrill to hear him.

P/S. The young Carrie Fisher – or maybe it was an older Carrie Fisher, with the appropriate digital enhancements – made a cameo appearance. I never knew her beyond the Star Wars movies. I did not know she was a writer, or known for being open about her mental illness and therefore bringing awareness to and banishing taboo from the same. She seems to have done good that will last beyond her time.

Five things I recently and not-so-recently read

We learn 25% from our teacher, 25% from experience, 25% from our friends, and 25% from time #WitchOfPortobello

– Text of a tweet by @paulocoelho, which I read to mean that the quote is from Paulo Coelho’s book The Witch of Portobello. I had come to know about Paulo Coelho through The Alchemist and Veronika Decides to Die. After I typed out the text of the quote, it struck me that saying that we learn 25% from experience and 25% from time was repetitive; but then I thought, was it? Learning from experience could learning from doing something or being affected by some event; learning from time, on the other hand, need not – the passing of time itself may convey some lessons…

In the frosty gloom of Dec. 30, as a hissing wind spun litter through the air, the Maltz company had among its cars a 2011 Mustang convertible, multiple Mercedes-Benzes, two cars that didn’t even run and George Bell’s 2005 Toyota.

– The start of a paragraph from N R Kornfeld’s The Lonely Death of George Bell, published in The New York Times on 17 October 2016. The story is about the leavings of a man who died alone, in New York City. You can hear the wind hiss and see the litter being spun.

China may not yet be a great power but it has already acquired great power autism.

– A sentence from the highlights of a conference organised by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service on China. To this layman, the metaphor of “great power autism” – autism being a condition characterised by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people – seems so apt.

Sharon sounded prepared to be bored.

– A line about a tone I could so readily imagine, from Ovidia Yu‘s Aunty Lee’s Deadly Delights, Aunty Lee being a latter-day counterpart to and hybrid of Miss Marple (her well-intentioned social interventions) and Nero Wolfe (her being a gourmand).

“What was truly surprising for me,” Donahue said, “was going into a space that was ancient, and to crawl around the ceiling and look at the walls and realize that they were looking at things acoustically. It wasn’t just about the architecture. They had these big jugs that were put up there to sip certain frequencies out of the air … They built diffusion, a way to break up the sound waves by putting striations in the walls. They were actively trying to tune the space.”

– A quote from Adrienne LaFrance’s Hearing the Lost Sounds of Antiquity, published in The Atlantic on 19 Feb 2016. The article is about researchers trying to understand the acoustics of ancient churches, and the person being quoted is one of the researchers who studied how the physical design of churches affected their acoustics. Another superbly evocative metaphor: jugs, which themselves are vessels of liquid, sipping frequencies out of the air. Wow. (P/S. People actually talk like that! PP/S. Although LaFrance could have interviewed Donahue over email. PPP/S. Still!)