i was a blue collar kid

I was a blue collar kid
My brother and I piled into the back of my dad’s van when we went out for dinner as a family; we sat on wooden blocks built over the sides where the back wheels were, avoiding splinters and playing games so that I don’t get dizzy. Name me a song that starts with A. Guess which Britney Spears song I’m humming. When I was younger we all squeezed in the front, me on my mother’s lap, my brother next to me, dad at the wheel

We were close to our neighbours, a Malaysian family. I played with their daughters and every morning they said bye to their dad. Once I asked my mum: Why does their father wear long pants to work and why does my dad always wear shorts? Why doesn’t my father wear the same stuff as their dad, doesn’t it make him look smarter?

My brother is at a new school where the kids speak English and 60 per cent of them get ferried to school. I slumber in the van while my dad drops him off before sending me to school – the route is smoother that way. My brother is being bullied and suffering in silence. One day, someone laughs at the van and makes fun of the whisky ad emblazoned on its exterior – Wild Turkey. My brother tells me the story and my heart wrings on the inside. I learnt the meaning of class and shame.

But when I was in primary school and my dad had a loading trolley that he brought home for work, we were granted the rare treat of piling into it. He pushed us along the corridor, going at top speed – we were screaming in joy, hair flying back in glee. We were unadulterated, we didn’t care – nobody understood what it was like to be us.


I was going through my column which will likely be published on Sunday and thinking about language and my life and family and my personal history. I have such a complex relationship with my mother tongue but now that I am 25 I recognise that my bicultural lens has given me so much rich content to mine and so much more depth when it comes to how to connect with and understand humans. L the opinion editor was telling me how great it was that my parents come from this sort of background, how I should speak to them more as fodder for writing ; it made me contemplative because I realise despite how much I struggled with this tangled mess of culture that I have inherited from my parents, in a bittersweet way it has set me apart from so many of my peers and given me a unique voice, a unique lens – what I need to become the writer that I have wanted to be ever since I was young.

When I was in Primary 3 I remember my Chinese teacher asking us ‘Who wants to be a writer?’ and everyone in class casting their eyes at me while I shyly put my hand up. My teacher eyed me and said: Writer? They get paid little and you have to spend many hours writing into the night. You will lack sleep. This was a few weeks after I got my first ever piece of writing published – a short essay that I wrote about getting a face paint at an event, after Lianhe Zaobao editors saw a photograph that my mother took of me as an accompanying biographical photo and were so taken with that image that they asked for text to go with it. That was the first time I learnt how important visuals are in a publication.

I also remember getting angry with my mother when I was struggling with my Chinese homework. She started to give me pointers but I kept getting something wrong and in my frustration I yanked my pencil back and didn’t see her behind me; it stabbed her in the eye and she had to see the doctor after that, and had an eye patch on for days. I felt so guilty and wondered what will happen if I was the one who made her blind; that was the first time I learnt about how language, identity and trauma come together in very complicated ways.

I’m remembering my summer internships and thinking about how, in so many ways, life has its own mysterious ways of buffeting me to places that I have wanted to go. I remember being in Secondary 3 and having difficulties at school ; I remember how reading a column by Mui Hoong about how happiness lies in productive, meaningful activity encouraged me. When I was at TNP I learnt how to be street smart and chase breaking stories, hunt people down ; When I was at Life I learnt how to write compelling features and add colour to stories ; when I was at ST digital I learnt how to do research and trawl through historical articles and NewspapersSG became my friend. And ST news taught me how to be patient and resilient and never lose hope.

I know that everything happens for a reason and I am always surprised at life’s poetic uncanniness. Maybe it takes a year; maybe it takes 25 years; but if one pursues something single-mindedly it will make sense in the end, it will leave a mark. And all I ever wanted in this life was to leave something behind that can do good to society.


I remember many things – I can’t believe that 2016 has just passed me like that; how it has been a year in which I didn’t have to make any dramatic transitions, moving from locale to locale, settling into new places and people – I’ve joined a new beat at work, gotten a new boss, almost got transferred out, made new friends and met new colleagues. I’ve also made interesting acquaintances with people with wonderful stories to tell. And outside of work, I’ve gone to KL, I’ve met Arumy in Indonesia and then reunited with her here in Singapore, I ran that photography programme with Aidha, I became fast friends with Lilly, I’ve helped organise and market two photo exhibitions, and I caught up with other Lensational friends like Bonnie, Lucile and Carl/Magda. I also did pole, including a showcase; I’ve become braver and stronger, learnt to get used to the rhythms of work, reconciled myself with more things in the family…I’m proud of myself for learning fast, for proving the doubts that my past self had wrong.

I got a little angry at work today and I must remind myself not to get so agitated at work. It is not worth it and I must continue to take mark of where I have been based on my own efforts alone, not external structures. After all, haven’t I spent so much time in London wresting with the same thing? I was talking to L a few days ago and started thinking about D. For the longest time thinking about him made me feel unseated; it will dig up this curl of something that i never knew was inside. But now I just feel wistful, and am slowly letting go of whatever residual anger or pettiness I still harboured within me. I will never be the person that I was in that way again. And he will never be who he was. I see photographs of him now, with other people, and the facade has changed. The old softness of his cheeks, the petulant look. The slight swagger when I went out to meet him and the way he would approach from afar. The days when we spent stumbling around Little India and River Valley on the weekends. The times when I wanted so much to measure up to him I was prepared to transform myself wholly, because I’ve always felt that I was living in his shadow. He was the one who opened my eyes to how much I have the tendency to use with people I am with as mirrors of the recesses of myself – and I later learnt how that was unhealthy. I stacked every detail of myself up against his and never learnt to let go – the parental background, the types of friends we had, the schools we went to, the way we dealt with life’s injustices, the way we navigated difference. But from this naive posturing I also learnt good things from him: how to be strong, how to be different, how to grow on my own and become better at things I thought were impossible for me. I remember when he laughed at how I’ll mispronounce words and casually attribute it to my heartlander background. I remember how my parents seemed so unworldly compared to his. I remember how he always said I was smart but then seemed to unconsciously nitpick at my lack of sophistication when it came to new places and new things. I learnt. When he left me I met Jade who told me how I was the one who was ready for the world, not him. After that I slowly built myself up. I learnt to forgive myself and not be so harsh on myself. I learnt to celebrate what I had learnt from him and found people who brought out the best in me without making me feel small – my friends told me that for  the longest of times when I was with him, I did not seem happy with myself. And I knew it. Deep in my heart I knew I was unhappy, but I wanted to run away from it. And I grew further and further from people like A, who came to visit me in Europe last summer. And it was so bad. I remember how it was already June, but up on that bridge in Bosnia she started crying and we had a great fight. I faulted her for being needy; she told me she feared that I would end up like her sister (but worse) and become this wandering girl who loses herself to the world and succumbs to the darkness. I cried again, because I wish she had this capacity to understand the darkness in me; I cried because I felt helpless and like there was no way I could improve.

But I improved. I improved despite D who told me I was gone, I improved because of Jade who always told me I was good. I improved, somehow, and sometimes I succumb but here on this island I am surrounded by the good people who know how it is like to be me and I can now rationalize about why I am who I am and why I have come to be this way. And I invest all my effort and feelings in my words and my work, because I feel like it is teaching me about life – how to be a better artist, how to better tell stories. And if I make this my life’s work, not reporting, but just writing and understanding – I think I can be someone who can make some kind of mark in this world, no matter what happens to me, no matter where and who with I end up . But I know in my heart that there is a place for me, and maybe I have to seek it consciously, maybe I don’t; but I trust that time will unfurl and buoy me along to the place that is just right for me. Because things always happen with a reason, mysterious that this life is. I miss being able to be idealistic with such wild abandon; I want to continue to stay this way. Like I said last time in London, I will never be defeated by anything. And like what D told me, ages and ages ago, I am a wildflower, a rare breed of my own. I no longer have to prove anything to anyone – I just have to do it for myself.

Neil Road

I was at The Botanist along Neil Road yesterday, working on a story before moving on elsewhere. Neil Road will always be special to me – back in 2010, before I started on my internship, I was there almost every day working in a dimsum restaurant. I would take the bus back after a shift, get food from the now-closed Pearl’s Centre, the world was heady, small and uncertain.

It has been six years since and I feel like so much has changed but so much has stayed the same too. Sometimes it feels as if I have never been away from this place. But I’m so glad that I went away because it helped me to look at things in my life in a different light. I meet HT last week when I was on leave. It strikes me how we have gone through such similar experiences in childhood, and how they have left their mark on us in the same way. I wonder what are these invisible forces that bring people together, like moths drawn to a light – so many of my friends are like these moths, fragile wings and inquisitive hearts. I’ve become practiced at this – a day, a few days spent with a new person can easily replace others with years of acquaintanceship. Things that often bind us together: words, a love of the image and possibilities, excavating past experiences, understanding that the human soul is a mysterious thing, fraught with things both dark and light. A love for the world, of travelling, cultures and new languages. A respect for all things, wanting things to be equal.

I was at a school that day and it reminded me how much I love being around young people. I think the thing that draws me most to them is not just their innocence, but rather, I’m envious of the way in which they can toss around that sense of possibility and promise about the years they have ahead of them with such blase oblivion. To be young to the extent of not realising the incredible power of your desires and talents. To be young and still blind to how your youth will pass you by. Eating fast food at the mall near your school. Talking to your friends on the Internet. Sitting on the MRT train in your uniform, sweaty from a day’s activities, giggling with peers.

I finally watched Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day that day and I think I’m always interested in youth issues because of its innate sensuality yet violence, and will like to document or write about it in more ways next time. I’m still young, but I have already forged a sense of self-awareness about my youth…in that way that distances me from this kids who are ripe in their oblivion, not yet attuned to this slipping away of time, drawn so thin like a fading imprint of an ex-lover’s fingers…

It is almost Christmas and I am actually kind of relieved. I’m happy that this tumultuous year in international politics is almost gone. I’m ready to move on to a new chapter in my life. I’m also getting used to the idea that the year ends in December and starts in January – for the past four years it has always been summer that would get me contemplative.

hard hearts


I said, Ah Yao, your mother will never understand the wild, desolate world we inhabit, not as long as she lives. It’s not that she doesn’t want to, she can’t, she simply can’t. Most people can’t, because their ordered universe is just as fragile.

I need: more care for two people at home, more tolerance for one other person because sometimes the gulf between you is so wide despite you being so similar to each other that some things are better left unspoken

I am: really someone who hates having ideas and dogma forced down her throat



Changes are afoot, both externally and internally. I felt so burnt out and negative before last week trying to finish things for the Lens events but I’m so glad that we pulled it off together as a team and the sense of satisfaction after four days of walking back and forth in the sun around the Marina Bay area is really hard to describe. It was so lovely meeting Lilly and discovering we had so much in common despite never having met before this…there were so many late nights of oily hawker food, beer and sitting around slightly drunk on wine talking about culture and foreignness and narratives and visuals and what we’re struggling with at work and life; what we’re trying to do in work and life. It somehow feels uncanny to me…like this seems to be a very important transition period for some reason I can’t fathom

For a few days I felt like I was slipping back into the old skin that I had previously inhabited in another city, in another time of my life. But you know what? I’m still the same person, that old skin is still inside me – I feel it within my bones. Seeing Bonnie and doing all these stuff over the past days has only reaffirmed that. In the end what I need to do is simple and basic: stay true to who you are and what you want to do, and never compromise for the sake of others or what other people say or tell you to do. Thinking about the past and experiencing the present taught me that this formula will never get old no matter how much things around us change…


taxi talk

my friends always end up revealing who they are when we take a cab home together. it’s inevitable, careless, our days are so much conditioned by our shifts and professions and daily charges. we are two teachers, a doctor, a bank employee and a reporter. ‘cliched professions’, I sigh, something on a list of occupations a primary school child would draw up. but they speak of their jobs with quiet pride. we are same same but different. it is a privilege to have walked through the days with these people – it’s been more than a decade already