Allow me to burst your bubble. The life of a writer is about 63 percent less glamorous than you think. I seem to spend most of my time grasping for a particular word that will perfectly complete a sentence, often only finding it at 3am.
But perhaps one of the most interesting parts of my job is speaking to people from all walks of life. Conversations I’ve had range from the surreal to the real. How surreal, you ask? Well, my interviewees have included an alien hunter, a tie-dye wearing, hippie grandmother midwife, and a handful of Mars citizen hopefuls.
Whether it’s an occupational hazard or because I’ve yet to realise that I am a kaypoh (Singlish for ‘nosey’) person, my hunger for random conversation has left me with something. That something is a headful of stories; an archive of documentation I have nowhere but here to publish.
If This Cab’s a-Rockin’, Don’t Come Knockin’!
Albert Chan, 67, Singing Cabbie
When I boarded Albert Chan’s taxi at Marine Parade, headed for my office, I was pleasantly surprised when he asked if he could deliver a concert mid-cab ride. A quarter way through the journey, this self-professed singing cabbie asked if he could serenade me — because he likes singing, not because of other ahem, motives — with his favourite tunes.
Here’s how our conversation unfolded.
Uncle, tell me about yourself, can?
Me ah? I’m Peranakan and I can’t speak a word of Chinese. I was baptised in Trinity, and then I went into shipping. The office was at Hong Leong Building, and over 20 years, I slowly sailed away from God.
But now I’m with another church. My brother has been there for 11 and a half years; I’ve been there for one and a half. He was the one who brought me back. He said that he needed a spare guitarist, and if I was interested in re-joining [the church].
So did you say yes?
Back then I was cool lah, so I said, “Me? I play rock n’ roll man, how to play church songs?” But he handed me some score sheets and we played together anyway. You see, we used to be in a band together.
Phoa, what was the name of your group? Were you the leader of the band?
Falcon — that was the name of my band. I formed the group with my two younger brothers. We used to play at Ladyhill Hotel, which was opposite Shangri-La, Asia Hotel and Cairnhill Hotel. Those buildings, no more already. Now they build all those expensive condos for tycoons. We played for a couple of years, and then we stopped. Hard to make a living lah.
What kind of songs do you like?
I play instrumental songs on the guitar — aiya too many to tell you lah. Now I play for cell group, for church. Not that I shouldn’t or can’t, but I really like the secular stuff, haha. Japanese songs, Roy Orbison, rock n’ roll, but mostly slow ballads — slow ballads are the best.
[Suddenly he breaks into song.]
“Only the lonely… dum dum dum.” This is by Roy Orbison. I must learn [the lyrics] lah.
I just bought an electric guitar, and my brother tells me, “You siao [Hokkien for crazy] ah? Play so many guitars for what?” I have four, and I tell you, when I go to the guitar shop, I can even forget my name.
Passion and Prayer
Abdul, Volunteer at Masjid Abdul Gaffoor, Dunlop Street
I met Abdul when I was doing a feature on Little India and was out on the streets for a photo shoot. I didn’t think much about our chat, but when I returned to the office, I was surprised that he had not left my name card to rot at the dark and dank bottom of a bag. He followed up with an email almost instantly.
But Abdul was a cryptic guy. His first email left me trying to pick out onscreen clues as it went like this: “Hi, I’m Abdul.” Perhaps he was giving me time to warm up to his introduction, but his question finally came an hour after the first message: “When are you going to post articles? Can you please share the link?” And then another: “Please edit my photos with bright face before upload J he he he.”
In the end, an altered angle, a pressing deadline, and a word limit rupture meant that there was no way I could accommodate Abdul’s responses in the feature I was submitting. So I’m glad to be able to share his views in this space. There was passion in his eyes when he spoke about Islam, and there was kindness in his deeds when he provided the photographer and I with a much-needed ice-cold bottle of water on a scorching day.
Are you local?
No. I’m from India, Tamil Nadu. I’ve been here for two years, and I like it here so much. It’s very security [sic].
Why volunteer at Masjib Abdul Gaffoor?
I work in an IT company, but when I have free time, I will come. I stay nearby in Lavender. I’ve been a volunteer for nine months. Every day, we get around 25 to 40 visitors from all over the world in Europe, Asia, and I explain about Islam: why we do the prayers, what this person here does, and so on. It is nice.
Abdul teaches an American tourist how to put on a sarong
So what’s special about this mosque? It’s around 100 years old. From the outside, it’s nice; it’s different. But coming inside here, there’s something [more] beautiful, more to do with thinking. People who come here get peace. Around 100-120 people come for prayers every day. Only the people who work nearby can come here — convenience. The place for prayers should be clean and neat, but it can be anywhere. In your office also can.
If this mat here is for the imam, then who sits on the other mat in front of him?
The muezzin, the ‘crier’. He will do a big sound for people to come to prayers. The meaning is, “People, please come to the prayers, please come to the victory,” like that. He will call five times, every day.
The imam, sitting behind? He will guide the prayer. This imam can be anyone. It can be me. If I know the Quran verses, I can pray; I can lead. Why? Because in front of God, everyone is the same.
Every Friday, there will be a big crowd. This big thing [he points to the structure], that’s where the imam will be telling us about Islam, what’s going on in the world, almost 90 percent of Muslims go to prayers on Friday.
Abdul explains the prayer times and meaning behind those times
What does this mean? How do I read it?
Fajr. This is the time when the sun is rising, so if we bow our heads, it’ll be considered as praying the sun. So that’s why at this time, we are not praying.
Yah. This time will vary every day. This time is around one o’ clock, then this is evening time, this is after sunset, this is dinnertime. So five times a day we do the prayers, for around five to eight minutes.
Then what’s this room for?
This here is the girls’ prayer room. You may ask me, “Why we separate girls to another room?” So when we come for prayers, we hope to keep the peace and concentration, and it shouldn’t be about [the] world. If you put the guy and the girl in the same room, you know what happens right? It’s normal [for] human beings right? Hahaha. So when you come for prayer, you shouldn’t think about any world things. No world things.
Invite to the Divine City
Unnamed, Magazine Shopkeeper, Little India
It’s a pity that I didn’t manage to get his name, but when I approached this magazine shopkeeper, he neither shied away nor sneered at me the way many people do, as if I were out to expose secrets and destroy lives. Thanks to his openness, I was able to hear the story of a newly arrived economic immigrant seeking opportunity in Singapore.
How long have you been working in this shop?
Three days. I’m new to Singapore.
Wow! How do you find it so far?
Very good! It’s a new city, right? So obviously it’s been great and exciting so far.
Where did you come from?
I’m from Chennai, India. Have you been there?
No, I haven’t. Should I?
Of course! Always, with pleasure, we welcome visitors to Chennai.
What’s it like in Chennai?
Temples, beaches, there’s also lots of monuments — it’s a heritage city. If you want to feel the divine, then you must drop by Chennai.
What were you working as in Chennai before coming here to Singapore?
I was an operations manager doing supply chain logistics. I’m currently looking out for another job in Singapore, so I’m working here temporarily at this shop. Hopefully I can find something.
At this point, an elderly, grumpy man clad in a white lungi (the Indian equivalent of a sarong) grunts something in Tamil. His freshly hired employee turns around, the look in his eyes turns furtive. “Sorry. I got to go. This [is] boss,” he says, pointing.
Hungry for more Singapore stories? Check out our first round of Faces of Singapore (with more old-timer rockers) here.