The Rise and Fall of Games Online, Part Two: 12/3/1995
Note: I reviewed this article on April 28 1996 and again in December. Revision are in parentheses and marked with a “rev.”
You know you are getting used to living in a country when you begin to take their money seriously. Americans, in my experience, almost always perceive other countries’ money as silly. This is not as nationally egocentric as it might seem at first, since money is essentially the single most important thing to most Americans, and is treated with the same reverence and awe that citizens of other nations often reserve for silly things like God, tradition, and their leaders.
There are several things that prevent Americans from taking foreign money seriously. It is oddly colored, and, often, multicolored, which instantly reminds Americans of play money. It comes in different sizes, a quirk guaranteed to drive Americans nuts. It features depictions of odd icons, and leaders that Americans have either never heard of or read about only in tabloids. Lastly, it often comes in denominations that Americans used to a stable currency have trouble taking seriously. A 5 million spingquat note might look impressive, but it loses a lot of luster when the only thing it buys in its native land is a bag of salted plums. It’s a very bad sign when you go into a bank to convert your foreign money back into reliable old dollars, and all they do is break open a roll of pennies.
Even I, the seasoned international traveler, am not immune to money skepticism. I have spent money in England, France, Italy, etc. I take English money very seriously, having grown up with it in the house. Also, the largest common English denomination is the thoroughly reasonable 100 pound note. Other currencies I have to get used to, however. It takes me a while to get over the fact that coins that are coffee-table novelties in the U.S. can be exchanged for goods and services in other countries.
I mean, what are they? Stupid? Where are the greenbacks?
Well, I have now been in Singapore long enough to take their money extremely seriously. I know and recognize all of the pastel colored, multi-sized bills quickly. The same coinage that once looked fit only for trying to spoof the soda machine at KSFO I now hoard jealously for bus fare (or, at least, I would, if Singaporean busses didn’t take a magnetic-stripe stored-value card). The hefty $1 Sing coins are solid, and richly golden in color, and sometimes I just fondle them like doubloons, and admire them, cackling softly to myself.
When I begin to take seriously money that features, variously, fish, palari boats, freeways, satellite dishes, and public housing, that can mean only one thing.
I have arrived.
It is Saturday afternoon, December 9, and I am sitting in my living room. I actually started this piece about a week ago when we were still in the hotel, but it has been a busy few days. It is about 5:00 PM, and the sun is dipping towards the ocean outside, heading for its utterly predictable 7:00 PM rendezvous with the horizon. I haven’t been outside today yet, but I can predict the weather. It is about 88 degrees, and near 100% humidity. There is a chance of showers.
How do I know this?
Because that’s the weather every day in Singapore. There is so little variation that it is scary. Weathermen here have the plushest jobs in broadcasting.
Rain in Singapore is an interesting thing. It is this threat that’s always looming, even on the sunniest of days. The clouds can scoot in with amazing speed, dump a barrel of water right on your head, and scoot off before you have wrung out your hair. We’ve learned to have umbrellas with us all the time, even when it looks very sunny out. Being caught in a Singaporean downpour is no fun at all. Unless your idea of fun is finding out exactly how much water a lightly clothed human body can absorb in a short period of time.
The rain adds very much to an element of Singapore that is, in fact, completely omnipresent. Dampness. Dampness is the official national condition of Singapore. There are several reasons for this. First, it is completely humid all the time. Almost all buildings in Singapore are air conditioned, which is nice, but it throws the humidity into sharp relief. Whenever you chill anything, in an air conditioned room for instance, and then expose it to warm, moisture saturated air, such as covers Singapore 100% of the time, water condenses all over it. This means that every time you step off of a bus, or out of a building, your glasses fog up, your skin becomes damp, and a film of moisture instantly coats everything that you are carrying. This can be serious if you are holding a camera. When Joe and I arrived in Singapore for our first visit, in September, we opened our suitcases in the air conditioned hotel room, and pulled out the presentation folders. Being cold from twenty-one hours in the cargo hold of an airplane, water immediately condensed all over them, and we had to take great pains to make sure they weren’t ruined.
You get the idea.
The result of this lovely situation is that nothing ever dries out. The ground is perpetually damp, your clothes are perpetually damp, sweat doesn’t evaporate, and Mildew is the national flower.
And you know what? None of this would bother me in the least if we weren’t still waiting for air conditioning to be installed in our damn apartments!
Frankly, I’m amazed the computer still works.
Well, I’m living in Singapore. All of the once transient feel of this adventure has evaporated. I am no longer living in an Hotel. I have an apartment, and it is even beginning to resemble a home now that I have unpacked, and we have shopped for some household goods and food. Mike MacDonald and Koji, having arrived two days ago, are asleep, succuming to jet lag after claiming to be over it. We’ll see who has the last laugh when they are staring at their ceilings at 5:30 AM tomorrow morning while I am still blissfully asleep, enjoying a lazy Sunday morning. Joe and I have been spending regular business hours at Sembawang Media at Boat Quay for over two weeks now, and we are known and accepted there, although I think they’ll breathe a sigh of relief when our permanent offices are finished and we move out at the end of January. We have explored the neighborhood we moved into two days ago, and found it to be quite nice, and very convenient. On the whole, things are going reasonably well.
That doesn’t stop from lying in my bed at night sometimes and asking myself “What the hell am I doing here?”
But I get ahead of the story. There is plenty of catching up to do.
Away Down South a Where the Cotton Grows…
I’m almost a month into this adventure now. It’s been a long time since I packed up and left the Bay Area. Oddly enough, things seem not to have disintegrated completely there. Guess I wasn’t as essential to the smooth running of the entire region as I thought I was.
I left on November 10, and it is now December 9, although it will probably be more like December 16 by the time anyone reads this. I’ve come a long way since that day when Christie brought me to the airport and I climbed on board a 21 year old TWA L-1011 bound for St. Louis, and then to Tennessee, where I spent a week with Joe before we flew to Singapore. (13,000 miles, to be exact.) I am essentially on the exact opposite side of the world from San Francisco. I still think of that flat on Liberty St. as “home,” which will probably cheese-off my ex-roommate José, since he is in charge now, and if I’m going to think of it as “home” I’d better pay some of the “rent.”
I went to Tennessee first so that Joe and I could do some preparation and strategizing before we left for Singapore. Joe lives in Sweetwater, which is a Suburb of Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee. Knoxville would be considered a suburb anywhere in California, which gives you an idea of how remote Sweetwater is. It’s a real, old-fashioned Deep South town, with the accents, racially segregated neighborhoods, and all. Joe told stories of the hillbillies coming down out of the Smokey mountains for big sales at the local K-Mart, etc. It is not unpleasant, however. One thing that is amazing to anyone from either coast is the cost of living. In Sweetwater, a huge house that would rent for over $1500 a month in the bay area is less than $500 a month.
Joe and I spent the week living in our socks and sweats, getting out of the house only for one drive to Knoxville and few shopping trips. In most respects it was a very pleasant week, with us living like slobs in Joe’s basement ordering magazines for GOL, getting credit information straight, handling tickets, and making sure that the other guys were prepared and ready to go. Joe kept horrendous hours, often hitting the sack at 4:00 AM and getting up after noon, but I managed to stay on a more even keel. In our spare time we binged on US television, raked up his yard (one of the tasks of Hercules, it turns out), and even enjoyed a spell of snow on Tuesday.
Finally, on the morning of November 17th, it was time to leave for Singapore. Akiko took us to the airport before dawn so we could catch our TWA flight to San Francisco, where we would meet my girlfirend, Christie and enjoy a final (albeit nasty) meal in the US before striking out for Singapore.
Sweetwater to Singapore
This could be, in fact, the most radical swing I have ever taken in my entire life. In the space of thirty hours we went from the uniquely and completely American semi-rural sticks of frozen outer Tennessee to one of the metropolitan jewels of tropical Asia. I still get disoriented just thinking about it. The journey is, as they say, half the fun however. And this was a trip well worth remembering.
We drove out to the Knoxville airport at six AM, and got on our TWA flight to San Francisco, via St. Louis. The first leg of the flight was pretty quick, taking only slightly over an hour. The second leg was a more substantial 3 ½ hours. The flight went well, except for a couple of things. First, and most important, it was TWA. Call me silly, but I have suspicions about flying airlines that have declared bankruptcy, or skirted the edge for several years. I always wonder where they are skimping to make ends meet. Use your imagination here, as you picture what happens to your car when you don’t maintain I adequately. Now picture and airplane with so many moving and articulated parts that it makes your BMW look like a wind-up toy. Now imagine skipping a few tune-ups. You get the idea. It doesn’t help when friends of mine tell me that their relatives who are pilots for TWA hate the airline.
My overall suspicions of TWA were only exacerbated when, on the trip out to Tennessee, I looked at the manufacture and inspection plate that is mounted inside the main passenger door frame of every commercial airliner. It did not make me feel good to see that the wheezy, oil-streaked L-1011 that I was climbing onto had been hauling passengers around the skies for over 21 years. Now think for a moment. A driveable 20 year old car is considered and official “classic” (with allowance for the fact that no classic cars were built in the 70s, the epoch widely considered the nadir of American manufacturing and culture). Consider now the list of adjectives you’d like assigned to the jet plane that you are flying.
Powerful, quiet, secure, impressive, complex, shiny, etc.
Chances are that “classic” isn’t one of them.
Ultimately, it’s all prejudice, however, and the airline did get Joe and me to San Francisco in one piece where we were greeted by Christie.
Christie seemed in pretty good spirits, although there was also a current of melancholy because she was not very happy to see me abandoning the United States (and, by extension, her) for possibly as long as a year and a half. Nonetheless, it was very pleasant to spend a couple of hours with her, and went a long way towards turning what would have otherwise been an extremely tedious layover into a pleasant visit. She had some things to pass on to me, including a couple of things I had asked for and some nice gifts that she had picked up. It was a nice way to be sent off, but she was not a happy camper when we left her at the security check and headed towards our gate.
Singapore Airlines flight SQ-015 takes you from San Francisco to Seoul to Singapore in a 21 hour marathon (see details in Report from Singapore installment 1). Last time we came to Singapore, in September, we flew coach. It was hell, even considering that Singapore is has nicer amenities and service than most US airlines. This time, however, we flew Raffles class, which is the SIA (Singapore Airlines) business class.
There is no way to compare SIA business class with TWA coach. It was like stepping out of hell. There are personal video screens at every seat, with a selection of movies and TV shows that you can choose from, There are foot-rests, and leg room galore, and the seats are spacious. There are drinks before takeoff, and the stewards and stewardesses remember your name. There is reasonably passable food served on china, and they keep you stuffed at all times. It was the first time that I ever turned down airline food simply because I was too full to eat any more, rather than because it was disturbing and gross. There were chocolates, little gifts for all of the passengers (leather wallets on our trip), and all the booze you could chug down in 21 hours.
So, did it make the flight pleasant? No. Did it make it more tolerable? Definitely. Was it worth three-times the price of a coach class ticket? Not a chance. Would I do it again and cheerfully bill the Sembawang Corporation for it? In a second.
If they don’t catch on, that is. A couple of days ago we were at the airport picking up Koji, Mike MacDonald, and Paul Deisinger, who we also had flown in on business class. At the airport, we remarked on the amenities, and Yu Min asked us if we had upgraded. Nope, said Joe, we booked ‘em that way. Well, so far, it doesn’t seem to have caused a scandal. Hopefully it won’t, because we don’t look forward to heading back to coach class.
We arrived at 2:00 AM, just as we had the first time we arrived. This time, however, we were disheartened to find no reception committee after picking up our bags. In increasing desperation, we prowled the huge greeting area at Changi Airport, looking for someone from PI or Sembawang. Joe and I became quite concerned because there had been some frantic activity to get the tickets through on time, and we were worried that Chris had our schedule wrong. We were getting desperate, and I was beginning to compute whether or not I had enough money on my credit cards to pay for a hotel, when Chris and Yu Min ran into the terminal. It turned out that they had gone to the wrong terminal, and spent some time before figuring it out.
We climbed into the cars and headed back into town, me in Yu Min’s car, and Joe with Chris. I was quite surprised when we pulled up to the Orchard Road Mandarin rather than at the apartment we had believed was ready for our arrival. Chris explained that they were still working on the apartment legalities, and it would just be a couple of days in the hotel. It would be three weeks before we moved out of the Mandarin, for reasons that shall become clear later.
We had arrived Saturday night, and spent Sunday resting, and goofing off on Orchard Road. On Monday, we headed to the Sembawang Media offices at Boat Quay, and go to work. We established a schedule for the next few days, and figured out exactly what needed to be done. The list was pretty comprehensive. We needed to create and place an ad for personnel, settle our office space lease at Science Park (we thought), check out our prospective apartment at the Normanton Park apartment complex, create a workspace at the crowded and hectic SembMedia headquarters, order computers, double check on the preparedness of the rest of the American team, and plan a contract discussion meeting. We were definitely feeling a bit out of the water at Boat Quay, even after being given some work space. It would take about two weeks before we would really begin to feel like we belonged there.
We also began to get some rumblings as to some of the problems we would begin to experience with the Sembawang Corporation bureaucracy over the next three weeks.
Tuesday was our first bona-fide disaster in Singapore. After spending the morning at Boat Quay, Joe and I took a cab down to Normanton Park, the apartment complex where Sembawang had retained an apartment for our use, and where we were planning on putting the whole American staff. There was a certain logic to using Normanton Park, as it was right next to the Science Park office complex, where Chris was hoping to lease office space for Games Online. Joe and I had seen photographs of the Normanton Park apartment, and they had looked great. We learned a valuable lesson from all of this: photographs do not tell the whole story.
Our first inkling of trouble came when we get out of the cab. The apartment towers themselves were unremarkable, but there were certainly no ang moh in evidence. (ang moh means “red hair” in Hokkien, one of the local Chinese dialects, and is slang for “white person”) We got some odd stares from some of the other residents who were relaxing around the ground floor of our tower.
We took the elevator up to our floor. It was a real E- ticket, lurching and grinding its way up 19 floors, where it stopped with a stomach-churning dip. We stepped out and used the key to open the apartment. Right away we began to sense trouble. There was a heavy mildew smell in the air. The air in the apartment was extremely hot and dank. As we explored, our amazement grew.
The refrigerator had been left off, but closed, and had surrendered itself to mildew. The smell when we opened it was unbelievable.
There were some nasty stains on the upholstery of the couches.
The beds and mattresses smelled thoroughly of mildew.
There were no overhangs for the windows, so direct sunlight had made all of the metal and glass extremely hot, contributing to the atmosphere.
There were two, tiny air conditioning units; one in each of two of the three bedrooms. With both of them switched on full, they managed to wheeze out enough cool air to provide vague relief to anyone standing right in front of them.
The noise from the nearby AYE (Ayer Rajah Expressway) highway was deafening in every room.
There were two fake crystal chandeliers in the living room so ugly as to beggar written description.
There had obviously been a yellow shag carpet on the floor at some point, which had been removed. Whoever had removed it had been to lazy to lift the wall-length home- entertainment center furniture (sans home entertainment center) along one living room wall, however. The rug had simply been cut around the base of the cabinets, resulting in a fringe of decaying shag.
There were four pieces of abstract “art” hung in the dining room that can only have been ordered from a mid-seventies edition of Omni magazine, having been originally ground out by some Franklin Mint reject clone attempting to reproduce his twisted vision of what art might look like in the FUTURE. That wouldn’t have been so bad had there not been a clause in the lease contract specifically prohibiting redecorating.
There was the electric pillow.
The electric pillow was a small pillow that we found on one of the couches that could only have been lifted from the nightmares of some dimestore dominatrix ploughing the nasty-bookstore circuit of Atlantic City sometime in the early sixties. It was black vinyl, about a foot on a side. On one side were six hard, red, plastic, semispherical protrusions apparently designed to cause maximum damage to your kidneys. Upon examining it , I felt something rigid inside. I unzipped it and found, nestled in the foam rubber stuffing, a battery cradle for four D-cell batteries. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t explain to Joe what I saw. I had to throw him the pillow and let him see for himself. To this day, I have no idea what the batteries were supposed to make the pillow do, nor do I want to know.
The dining room table, however, was fabulous.
The next day, we went to Boat Quay and told Yu Min that we could only move into the apartment if it was cleaned top to bottom, the mattresses were replaced, the furniture removed, the “art” expunged, the air conditioning upgraded, and the fridge sterilized. Yu Min was incredulous at first, but when we took him to the apartment the next day, he saw our point.
It turned out that the story was that no one at SM had seen the apartment. It had been located by a rental agency, who’s agent took the photos, and Sembawang had paid a $5000 deposit sight unseen.
Within two days, it became clear that we were not going to get office space at Science Park, since there was no vacant space. At that point, we told Chris and Yu Min to ditch Normanton altogether, as its only attraction was that it was near Science Park. There was no shopping or commerce of any kind nearby. That, coupled with the huge amount of work that the apartment would need, lead us to ditch the apartment entirely. Sembawang ate the deposit.
The whole incident came back to haunt us a couple of weeks later, when the landlord came to check the apartment and found, much to his alleged horror, the two air conditioning units on (which we were responsible for), the fridge door left open (which we were responsible for), the fridge powered on (which we were certainly not responsible for), and several windows left open (which we were also not responsible for). We made our case to Sembawang, which backed us up. Apparently one of the air conditioners had burned out. Hard to see how it would have done us much good.
The apartments that we are in now are quite nice, and we are perfectly pleased to see the entire Normanton Park fiasco put behind us.
God rest the electric pillow.
To The Zoo
On Thursday we finally had a free day, and our first chance to get a little good, old- fashioned tourism in. So we headed up north to the Singapore National Zoo, which is built on a peninsula that stretches into one of the island’s two big reservoirs. This was our first real public transportation adventure, as it took a subway and bus ride to get to the zoo. We’d been using the subway (called the MRT, or Mass Rapid Transit) quite a bit, but we had not yet had a chance to ride the bus. The MRT and busses both use the same stored-value card, like a slick BART ticket. Joe and I got on the bus, which has a machine that takes your card and lets you choose how much fare you are paying by pressing a button. But we couldn’t make the machine take our cards. So we didn’t pay. The machine was behind the driver’s point of view, so we quietly slunk into some seats and rode, half expecting the crack Singaporean Bus Police to bust us at any moment for freeloading. As we were riding, I carefully studied other people getting on to the bus, and saw what the problem was. You had to flip the card over for the bus’ fare machine to accept it. Now we can get on all right. Of course, we still have no idea what kind of fares we are supposed to be paying, so we might still be flirting with danger.
The Singaporean zoo is quite nice, very green with well camouflaged fences. They have a pretty good selection of animals, and Joe and I had a pleasant afternoon strolling about and taking in the sights.
Ngee Ann Polytechnic
On Saturday it was back to business as we headed to the campus of Ngee Ann Polytechnic school for a look at some other potential office space and apartments. The Polytechnic is kind of a junior college, serving students age 16 to 19 who weren’t quite hot enough to make it into the National University of Singapore. It has a very college-like atmosphere with some shops, and recreational and sports facilities, and a lot of backpack toting students wandering about.
Chris, Yu Min, Joe and I met with two architectural designers at an office space that was formerly used by the AT&T Advanced Technologies Division in Singapore. It was about 4000 square feet, and built for computers, with raised floors for network cable and abundant powerpoints. The space was subdivided into one large room and several smaller ones. It was in need of some work, but looked like it had a lot of potential. There were cheap cafeterias nearby, and access to the Polytechnic facilities if we leased the office space from them.
After a brief inspection tour, we retired to one of the outdoor campus hawker stands/canteens for some coffee and discussion with the designers on how the space could be improved. Our list of desired features was something like this: expand the size of the main room and consolidate the other smaller rooms into a computer room, large meeting room, small meeting room/visiting manager’s office, sound-proof room, and library, renovate the pantry/kitchen, and add private bathrooms as the nearest bathrooms were about 200 feet away, and exceedingly nasty. The designers came up with some spot ideas, and we agreed to meet again in a week or so to review a set of preliminary plans.
After working on the office space we drove around to the Ngee Ann Polytechnic staff apartments, to look at some living space for the American team. We would be eligible to rent apartments at the campus as long as we were leasing office space from them. The apartments we looked at were only a short walk from where the office would be, across a bridge spanning the PIE (Pan-Island Expressway) freeway. The apartments were much, much nicer than the one at Normanton, with shaded windows, better bathrooms, higher ceilings, and ceiling fans in the living rooms and all of the bedrooms. They would need air conditioning and laundry machines added, but, barring that, we told Yu Min that we could be happy living in them. Unlike Normanton, there was also a great deal of shopping nearby, including two supermarkets, and various local outfits including an extremely native wet market (outdoor butcher stalls and vegetable vendors; not to be shopped at by those disturbed by the sight of pig’s heads hanging from hooks) and hawker court.
As of now, we are living at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic staff apartments, and renovations of the office space should be starting soon, pending approval of our installation of bathrooms (rev: it actually took three months from this date to get construction started!).
The next day we continued our tourism with a trip to the famous Jurong Bird Park, which is a gigantic birds-only zoo. There are no birds at the Singaporean National Zoo; you have to go to the bird park to see them. We could see why. It is a huge collection. It took us longer to go through the entire bird park than it did the zoo. If the two were combined, you’d never get out with your arches intact. The bird park is big enough to have its own monorail.
The most curious moment came when we were looking at the parrots. We stopped by a cage with several individuals of a species of Indonesian parrot inside. Standing on top of the cage was one more parrot of the same species, gazing into the cage, untethered, and without any visible tags. The only thing we could figure was that the one parrot outside the cage must have flown up from Indonesia (not far from Singapore), and stopped when he found a cage full of his compatriots. Either that, or he was the Harry Houdini of parrots.
The second week in Singapore was quite a collection of events, setbacks, and adventures.
On Monday we had a contract meeting with Chris, and went over the contract page by page explaining what we wanted changed and why. We agreed on all of the changes and Chris forwarded the changes to the lawyers who drew up the contract. It has been two weeks since we did that, and so far we have heard nothing back. That means at least another two weeks or so before we sign, as we need to have our own lawyers in Singapore double check the contract before we commit to anything. I don’t know if we get a regular paycheck before we have signed, but I have considered myself to be “on the clock” since December 1, and expect to be paid accordingly (rev: we were, in fact, back paid to our arrival date, but we never signed a contract).
Also, during the second week, we began to feel more at home at the Sembawang Media offices at Boat Quay. In the first week people would sit at our places, and we didn’t really feel like we knew anyone beyond Chris, Yu Min, Earl, and Darius. By the end of the second week we were feeling much more at home, people were respecting our desk space more, and we had begun to acquaint ourselves with others in the office, including some expatriates whom we have become quite friendly with.
I kept up with the Forty-Niners on the world wide web, and we managed to start keeping in touch regularly with E-mail as our Pacific Internet corporate accounts came online. We were still living in the hotel, which was not great, but we made some interesting television discoveries including many of our favorite American shows, and a new local favorite that. Our local find is a show that refer to simply as “The Silly Hat Show” because we don’t know the real title (Rev: The Great General: Legend of the Yang Family.) and because almost everyone in it wears a silly hat, with the degree of silliness being more-or-less directly proportional to the character’s status within the show. It is a shot-on-video Hong Kong soap-opera cum kung-fu adventure set several hundred years ago. There is a good deal of intrigue, and some great cheese-ball kung-fu fights with flying and spinning and leaping. The whole thing is subtitled, although it’s really not necessary. Now that we have moved into our apartments, we are waiting until we can buy a TV so that we can introduce Mike, Koji and Paul to the Silly Hat Show. Our Wednesday evenings are set.
We have also made another couple of interesting discoveries, including a game show in English called the Pyramid Game, which is really a low wattage rip-off of the old 64,000 Dollar Pyramid, which just goes to show that, advanced as it is, Singapore is woefully behind the States in the critical Game Show Technologies sector. There is also a youth oriented variety show called Asia Bagus in which the polyglot hosts jump at random between Japanese, English, and Mandarin. Naturally, I understand about 33% of what is going on. We have also found a couple of good local soap operas in English and/or with subtitles that prove that you can successfully set police drama in a city with a zero crime rate…sort of.
For sheer entertainment pop though, nothing yet rivals the Silly Hat Show.
There were plenty of problems to go with our progress during the second week. First, Joe wanted to order several Gateway 2000 computers for the GOL office, since he has owned several and found them to be reliable and fast. At first, that was approved, but then the whole order was when the upper management became uncomfortable with the idea of dealing with a company without a Singaporean office. This was despite the fact that the Gateways were considerably cheaper for comparable features than any local brands or the Dells that Sembawang management wanted, the fact that Gateway fully guaranteed all servicing and shipping, promising us in writing to ship out any replacement part up to a complete 21” monitor immediately, via Fed Ex, at their cost, and the fact that they are establishing a manufacturing office in Malaysia next month, and will have a sales office in Singapore by the end of the second quarter of 1996.
We ended up with Dells, but we are planning on sneaking Gateways back into the mix later on. (Rev: a plan which was later trashed; Intergraph and DEC are in a bidding war for our order at this exact second, it turns out. Rev 2: It was all a giant disaster, detailed in reports 5 and 6.)
The second obstruction was with the relocation money that all of us had been promised by Sembawang. We were each in line for several thousand dollars to cover moving expenses and initial purchases and set-up in Singapore. Originally, that money was supposed to come before we even left the States. That didn’t happen, as Sembawang management became uptight about cutting us checks before we had signed the contract. (Rev2: Ironic that, two million dollars later, we still have no contract.) We explained, in delicate terms, that the money needed to be sent or our guys weren’t going to be able to afford to come out, and there was going to be no contract.
That point was accepted as valid, and we went through about three incidents where Sembawang said they were going to wire the money and nothing happened. This was when we started getting our first real taste of Sembawang corporate bureaucracy.
Finally, two days before the guys were scheduled to leave, the money went through. To everyone except Koji, who’s ABA routing number we had gotten wrong, or had been given to us wrong. After a panicky phone call, the money was re-transmitted, and Joe and I were cut checks and able to deposit some serious money into our Singaporean bank accounts. We had opened accounts at United Overseas Bank, one of the larger banks in Singapore. Up until we got paid, I had been keeping a bare minimum $100 Sing in that account, and living mostly off of my US account. This finally produced a chunk of change that allowed me to stop paying service charges for international ATM withdrawals.
This was when we learned something very important about the GOL budget. Although our budget had been approved, it did not kick in until January 1st, so every transaction that was made for GOL had to go clear up through Sembawang Media to Sembawang Corporate before it could be approved. That ground the pace of every purchase or financial transaction we made down to a crawl. Ultimately, Chris had to personally guarantee our relocation money to the accountants before they would release the funds. Things should ease up a bit when we are in control of our own budget starting in January, and we shouldn’t have to go any higher than Sembawang Media for spending authorization. (Rev: Another misconception on my part. All our expenditures were scrutinized super-closely by Sembawang Corporate until early May, when Chris’ personal spending power for budgeted items was extended. We fought a lot of wars to get equipment into our office, and to get the new office space constructed.)
We also got a special taste of Singaporean bureaucracy when we opened our bank accounts. We went to the bank with our passports, and were informed that, in order to open a bank account, one needed an “introduction” from a current account holder, or a letter from your employer vouching for your integrity. As no one we knew at SembMedia had UOB accounts, we got a form letter from the bank on which the Human Resources department signed off that we were employees in good standing.
Well that was fine, and we opened our accounts. But, it turned out that, since we hadn’t been introduced by current account holders, in order to be issued a checkbook for the account we also had to produce letters on company letterhead naming us as employees. Well, fine. We’ll produce those later, we figured.
Now even that wouldn’t have bothered us much, but when we went back to the bank to open accounts for Koji, Mike, and Paul after they arrived, we, as account holders, introduced them for their accounts. So they got checkbooks. Even though we could introduce them and they could get checkbooks, however, we still could not get checkbooks until we produced letters from the company. Paul suggested that we close our accounts and let them introduce us for new ones, but we figured that was more trouble than it was worth. (Rev: This is a small taste of the cultural inability of Singaporean businesses to go against the book, ever, or to ever take issue with what a computerized system tells them they should do. We have been bedeviled by this on a few occasions now.)
You don’t want to know what you have to go through to get a credit card here. Suffice to say, I won’t have one for about three months.
We ordered four laptops at the end of our first week here; two P-90 NECs and two P- 75s with CD players. The plan was that Joe and I would each have one, and the other two would act as floats, and be traded among the rest of the American staff as needed.
We ordered the laptops from a company called Wespro Peripherals, which is essentially a one woman operation, as near as we can tell. (SembMedia appropriations rules require you to get three quotes for any object you wish to buy that costs more than $2000, and buy from the vendor with the lowest price, even if there are intangibles that make that vendor undesirable.) We were assured that the two NECs could be delivered in two days, and the Toshibas in about a week. Fine. Yu Min made the decision to go this way because to order notebooks from, say, Dell, would require three weeks for shipping.
Well, that is now beginning to look like a shaky decision. It took five days for Wespro to deliver one NEC, and almost a week for the second one to come through. It has been two weeks, and the Toshibas are still only a pipe dream (rev: it took a month). “Theresse,” the woman who runs Wespro, has a habit of not returning pages and phone calls, which makes it very hard to track down any information. Unfortunately, due to her low prices, we might have to order several desktop systems from her (rev: not a chance). It makes me shudder to think what will happen if we need quick servicing.
At least the NECs are bitchin’ machines. I’m writing on one now, and it is almost as powerful as the $5000 US desktop system I left in the states. In fact, it is why I called my father and told him that he could use my desktop while I am away. Of course, it will be hopelessly obsolete by the time get back, and I’ll have to buy another one. And I only had it for 6 months. (Rev: one of the NECs developed memory problems, and Wespro has demonstrated an utter inability to fix the problem. rev2: And I did eventually have to ship my computer out.).
Internet for Everyone
On Thursday of the second week, we attended the Gala Opening of the Internet for Everyone Show at the Singapore National Convention and Exposition Centre. This was a public show that was to be held through the weekend, in an attempt to propel Singapore’s fledgling Internet and Online service businesses into the public eye. $2.00 Sing would buy you admission to the floor, where you could examine booths set up by various hardware and software vendors, the Polytechnic Schools (which teach computer courses), and the three Singaporean Internet access providers, two of which are now operational (including our sister, Pacific Internet).
Although the show was public the Thursday night gala was private, for staffs of the exhibiting companies and distinguished guests. There was to be a round of speeches and demonstrations, including a keynote address by Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hin, minister for the environment, who’s connection to the Internet I don’t fully understand. Also there was Philip Yeo, the Sembawang Corporation chairman, as Sembawang Media/Pacific Internet was one of the major sponsors of the show. Various other VIPs were also in attendance, and the line-up of speakers included the chief of Singapore Mastercard, a representative of our bank, UOB, which has a large (although totally useless) presence on the Internet, and two friends of ours from Pacific Internet, Business Development Director Gigi Wang, and Technical Director Jek Kian Jin.
Dressed in our finest livery of Dockers, white shirts, and ties (hopefully for the last time), we went to the exhibition. Yu Min suggested that we tour the exhibits first, to allow more time for working over the buffet later. Being gluttonous Amerikanskis, we agreed.
Well, it was not too stimulating to say the least. The development of Internet based services is definitely in its infancy in Singapore. Most of the exhibits were unremarkable displays from hardware vendors, or corporations showing off their home pages, none of which were particularly remarkable. The United Overseas Bank home pages were a perfect example of the problem: during the speeches, the UOB representative crowed proudly about how the UOB site had grown from 50 pages to over 350! Joe and I, being UOB customers, had scrutinized the UOB site at their booth before the speeches, and of those 350 pages, declared approximately 350 of them to be completely useless. That’s not a typo. It was all advertising. There were no interactive services available, such as balance checking, bill paying, or account management. Even Wells Fargo in the US lets you do that across the Web, if you have a secure browser. The other displays weren’t much better, ranging mildly interesting, to dull, to downright obnoxious in the case of the Singaporean Armed Services display, which blared the same piece of loud music over and over.
The speeches and presentations weren’t much better. Most of the speeches were dull, dull, dull, with the UOB and Master Card representatives being chief offenders. Only the most easily spellbound of people would have found anything interesting in what they said, and the capabilities of the Internet that they demonstrated were neither cutting edge, nor innovative.
There was also a disastrous technical demonstration in which poor Jek Kian Jin, a nice guy, but chiefly a technician, and poor public speaker under the best of circumstances, went to the podium to demonstrate a Web page from which you could order a pizza with your choice of toppings. Unfortunately, after filling out all the information necessary to order, the CGI script rejected his submission repeatedly. He had to bring the programmer up to hack the problem on the spot before he could successfully order his pizza.
Overall, the message was that you can be frustrated and bored silly on the Internet. Not the message that they were looking to send. If I was a journalist attending the opening, I would have savaged them ruthlessly.
Nonetheless, PI signed up 2000 new accounts at the show and considered it a roaring success. Boy, what Joe and I could have done with ten minutes at the podium, however.
Things didn’t get a whole lot easier the third week, but at least at this point we were beginning to see some concrete progress. We had a good response to the ad for personnel we placed in the Straights Times, Singapore’s big daily newspaper, and had begun interviewing people. We had apartments. We had two NEC notebook computers, we had our relocation money, and we were moving towards getting the office design finalized. There was still a fair share of hell left to come our way, however.
One of the first things we did at the beginning of the third week was meet again with the designers from Chez Studios, who were designing the interior of the office space. Taking our suggestions, they had come up with quite a nice plan for the office that gave us one large, main workspace, an artist’s area, a large conference room, small conference room, computer room, kitchen and bathrooms with shower, sound studio, and a combination entrance foyer/library that was extremely elegant and eye catching. We were all impressed with the design, although we specified a couple of more small changes, mostly aimed at increasing the number of workstations for future expansion. A few days later, the designers were back with the finished plan, which we approved.
Unfortunately, the office space won’t be completed until the 1st of February (Rev: end of April, actually), so we will be working at Sembawang Media and in temporary office space until then.
The Boys Arrive
On the evening of Thursday, the Eighth, Mike, Paul, and Koji finally arrived. It was possibly the most hectic day that we have had yet in Singapore. The guys were all feeling a little burned by the late relocation money. On top of that, there had been some bureaucratic problems which had lead to the money for the tickets ($10,000) being sent to the travel agents late. MacDonald and Koji didn’t get their tickets until they were at the airport! The combination of late tickets, late moving fees, and sparse contact Joe and myself had not filled them with confidence, and MacDonald told us when he arrived that some of his friends had suggested he ask for his old job back.
Because of all the stress and hassles we’d subjected the guys to, it was very important to Joe and me that they have livable apartments ready for them when they climbed off of the plane at 2:00 AM. Since we hadn’t moved into the apartment until that morning ourselves, this was a sticky proposition.
The apartments at Ngee Ann Poly are very nice, and they included furniture, beds, fridge, etc. What they didn’t include was bedding, food, cookware, plates, toilet paper, amenities, canister gas for the stoves (no central gas), etc. Consequently, Joe and I had one day to prep the apartments. In this day we also had a number of job interviews that we had to allow for. On top of that, the beds were nonstandard sizes, and we had no idea whether we would be able to find bedding for them or not.
Early in the day we checked out of the hotel (3 weeks, $10,000 Sing bill each), Yu Min picked us up, and we went over to the apartments and dropped our stuff off. Then we went to IMM, which is sort of like the Singaporean version of Price Club. You have to have a membership, and you can buy discount goods inside. The difference is that there are several distinct stores within IMM. At IMM, Joe and I bought a huge pile of basic food and kitchen items. We filled five shopping carts with canned goods, dried soup, beverages, Tupperware, saran wrap, paper plates, etc. While Joe worked on that Yu Min and I ran up to the linen store, only to discover that they didn’t carry anything that would fit the odd-size beds at Ngee Ann Poly. Frustrated, we helped Joe finish the shop. We paid almost $600 Sing (430 US) for the load. The supermarket at IMM was having a promotion where if you spent more than $20.00, you got a free box of cookies. They gave us three boxes. By our math, that left us 26 boxes short, but we weren’t complaining.
We were rushed at the IMM because Yu Min had to work on a presentation, so we loaded up the car, and he dropped us back at the apartments. We unpacked, and then took a cab (cheap cabs are one of the great saving graces of Singapore) back to Boat Quay where we arrived just in time to be completely late for our interviews. We did our interviews, never quite catching up on time, and then Yu Min drove us to the giant Ikea housewares store. Again, Yu Min had to run off and d something, so Joe and I fended for ourselves. We needed to be back at the apartments at 8:00 PM to meet the canister gas guy, so we only had 20 minutes to shop by the time we actually got to Ikea. In 20 minutes, we miraculously found enough correctly sized linen to make five beds, as well as towels and washcloths in case the guys hadn’t packed any. Loaded like polar bears with sheets, pillows, pillow cases, towels, bedspreads, etc., we arrived at the checkstand where the bill came to exactly $1002.67. I remember this number well because we had exactly $965 and miscellaneous change on us. A panicky run to the ATM later, we had enough money to pay for everything. We hailed a cab, jammed it full of linen, and rode back to the apartments where we arrived just in time to meet the gas canister man.
We then spent two hours unpacking everything and making everyone’s beds before we collapsed, totally exhausted at around 10:30 PM. The evening wasn’t over yet, though. We had to keep it together until Yu Min arrived at 12:30 AM so we could head for the airport. By the time we got to that stage, I was falling asleep in the car. I perked up somewhat at the airport, but, naturally, the plane was late. Finally, at nearly 3:00 AM, the guys emerged from the baggage claim area. I was never so glad for Singapore’s cursory customs check.
We took one car and two cabs back to the apartments. Fortunately, the guys were excited just to be here, and most of the stress leading up to their departure seemed to have been forgotten. Over the next couple of days, we did some more shopping for the apartment, and explored what the local neighborhood had to offer.
Things have been running pretty smoothly in the apartment ever since. We’re still waiting for air conditioning, and there have been a couple of other hitches (rev: we eventually got air conditioning, which was great). For instance, we bought an electric igniter for the stove, which works really well. Joe got incredibly frustrated, however, when, after trying for several minutes, he still couldn’t get it to light the oven. One of the other guys pointed out that it was probably because the oven was electric. After clearing that little hurdle, we found out that we couldn’t turn the electric oven in our apartment on for more than a minute without the circuit breaker going off. We still haven’t solved that little problem (rev: just this week actually; it only took us four months!). Bugs seem to be mercifully rare,although whne we get them they are colossal, and, on the whole, we are pleased.
We had to order phones for the apartment. Joe and I have pagers, and we have one cellular for the American staff, but it is obviously not enough. We had to get phones into the apartments as soon as possible. In Singapore, you can order phone service at the post office. Well, of course this should have been our first sign of trouble. As foreigners, we needed a letter from Sembawang confirming our employment and passport numbers, and we needed our actual passports. Armed with these forms, we went with the guys to the post office branch nearest Boat Quay. After finding it, we got in line, and were finally helped by a pleasant woman who, unfortunately, was completely out of touch with how her own system worked. She told us that, since we didn’t have employment passes yet, it would be a $500 deposit for each phone line. We were thunderstruck, but, needing phones, we said we’d pay it as long as it was just a deposit. We began filling out the paperwork. Then the woman asked us if we were here on a social visit permit. Joe and I had never heard of that, so we said no. “Oh,” she informed us brightly, “then it is a $1000 deposit per line.” If we were thunderstruck before, we were incinerated now. We threw up our hands in despair, and retreated from the post office. When the guys asked if we had ordered the phones we simply said, “too much paperwork, we’re going to have the company do it.” And left it at that.
We went back to Boat Quay and wailed at Yu Min, who informed us in no uncertain terms that the lady at the post office was daffy, and that the letter from the corporation was specifically to exempt us from paying the deposit. He suggested that we go down to the Singapore Telecom Comm Centre, near Summorset MRT station the following day, and try there.
We did that, and were pleasantly surprised to find that they had their heads on straight at the Comm Centre, and we got our paperwork done. Of course, it is a six business day wait until they activate the phones, which gives you a hint of how many layers of bureaucracy the paperwork has to go through before the switch is thrown (the lines are already installed, so it is literally a matter of telling the computer to turn on the line). Now you know how they keep unemployment close to 0% in Singapore. You can always get a job pushing paper.
Week three has been job interview week, and week four will be much more of the same. We were afraid that we would get only a few responses to our job advertisement in the Straits Times, but it hasn’t been a problem. We’ve had a huge pile of resumes to wade through, from people applying for our positions for programmers, 2D and 3D artists, writers, system administrator, etc. I now have genuine respect for people who have to sift through a bunch of resumes on a daily basis, looking for the gems. It is especially tedious in Singapore, where imagination in resumes and cover letters seems to be practically taboo. Any resume or letter that shows any spark of creativity gets an instant second look from us, even if the qualifications are not as high as some of the others.
It is a very strange sensation weeding through a pile of resumes, trying to decide from people’s encapsulated professional lives whether you will offer them even an interview, or dismiss them out of hand. It’s particularly fun in Singapore, where it is the custom to include a photograph with your resume, which adds a layer of humanity that I don’t particularly wish to deal with when I am relegating people’s lives to the circular file.
But that’s the job of an executive producer (Joe’s and my official title), so sort we must, for a better tomorrow. Part of the problem we are facing with the resumes we have is that Sembawang Corp., in its institutional paranoia, removed almost all references to games in our section of the advertisement. The only mention of the word games in the entire ad is in the heading for programmers, where we advertise for “game technology/tool programmers.” Now, if you are swift, and read between the lines in our ad, you can see from the kind of personnel we are hiring that we are doing games. But it should be more obvious. We should be trumpeting the idea that we are doing games, and trying to drum up interest specifically from people interested in games design. There is no other games design house to speak of in Singapore, however, and Sembawang doesn’t want anyone beating them to the punch. Consequently, no mention of games in the ad, except for that one oblique reference. Joe and I feel that the attitude we should be projecting is, “yeah, were doing games. And we’ll kick your ass if you try to do them better than us.” We realize that this doesn’t represent the height of Asian restraint, but we are producing games for a worldwide market, and if they are going to be successful, some attitude is going to have be infused. You can tell games designed by people who don’t have a passion for games, because they usually suck.
By the way, our tentative motto for Games Online is “We Don’t Suck.” Our mascot is a punk seahorse, which we chose because the Sembawang corporate logo is a stylized seahorse.
So, we have gotten several resumes from good looking candidates who are genuinely interested in games. We have also gotten plenty of resumes from people who are obviously shotgunning for jobs. This is particularly a problem with programmers. We have stacks of resumes from programmers who are obviously applying for every software engineering job in the newspaper. We are able to dismiss many of them out of hand simply because they obviously have no clue about games. We are a little hamstrung because, since we are the first games design house in Singapore, there is no one here with any actual games experience. It’s gonna be interesting. We have also been, at various times, warned off of hiring Indians, and Chinese from the People’s Republic. If we take that advice, we may be doomed because every experienced programmer on the island of Singapore comes from mainland China. The main reason why we punt most of them even before the interview stage is because they have backgrounds that just aren’t conducive to a game design studio that will be filled with 26 year-old punks shooting Nerf arrows at each other over cubicle walls. Most of them are academics, and many have backgrounds in such arcane areas as medical diagnostic design, and designing algorithms for missile testing (no shit). Usually, when we ask these people what games they like, we get a blank stare or an answer like “I never had time to play any games.”
Thank you. Next.
Frankly, we are looking for people who don’t fit quite into the classic Asian mold. We are looking for streaks of professional individuality, creativity in resumes and presentation, and humor. We have been encouraged because we have had a couple of successful finds, but it is going to be difficult. We could probably accurately call the fully staffed GOL “Asian Personality Reject Studios.” This is not stereotyped or racist in any way. Many of the characteristics we are looking for run directly counter to what is considered appropriate in Asian business behavior. We are helped by the fact that we are trying to recruit younger people who are fairly flexible.
We have gotten some doozys, though. We are interviewing a 40 year old Caucasian Ph.D., and have already spoken with a pleasant young lady who writes darkly macabre slasher fiction, and a couple of other characters.
One thing that has been interesting to see is the kind of information that people put on resumes here. It is absolutely standard to list your religion, state of health, and marital status right on the resume. Some of those things would be illegal in the United States. Plus, photographs are mandatory, which, you would think, leaves the selection process open to all sorts of visual prejudices. Another amazing thing is how little people get pad here, considering the not-inconsequential cost of living. Even experienced programmers and 3D artists, who would command in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year US in America, are asking for in the neighborhood of 28-35,000 a year, Sing ($20-25,000 US). In Singaporean terms, the American GOL staff is making scads of money.
More on the staffing of GOL as it develops. We are making offers to a couple of people, and we are very excited about some of the resumes and portfolios we have, but we are a long way from a full staff.
Here are some more of the interesting, amusing, or just-plain goofy events that have befallen us in the last three weeks.
We’ve seen two movies since we got here: Goldeneye, and Waterworld. We have plans to see the Santa Clause when it comes out this week. That should give you an idea of the range of motion pictures available here. The laser disk rental stores are a Hong Kong movie lover’s paradise, however, which pretty much makes up for it.
Singapore is a food-lovers paradise, too. You can get absolutely fabulous Indonesian, Thai, Chinese, Malay, and Japanese food here. Even the supermarkets are loaded with exotic delicacies such as sea cucumber. The adventurous gourmet is right at home in Singapore where a fine Lasagna and a cheap bowl of pork’s brain soup (no kidding) or curried fish head can be had within a leap of each other. There was one stretch in the second week where I had variations of curry for about five days straight, including one obscenely spicy mutton vindaloo (vindaloo is the hottest of the Indian sauces). I think I was in some degree of intestinal distress for about a week. I’m moderating now.
The best places to eat in Singapore are hawker centers. These are very common indoor or outdoor food courts where you can find many small stalls, each specializing in a different kind of cuisine. Almost every mall has a hawker center, and you can find them in the most surprising places. Some of the hawker stalls are very ang moh friendly, with English menus, some western style food, etc. Some of them, particularly the more out-of-the-way and hard to find centers are extremely native. There you have to be adventurous, and you are never quite sure what you are going to get. Most of the food is fabulous, however, and it is all rock-bottom cheap. At the Funan Centre hawker plaza, which is expensive as these places go, you can have kingly lunch of curried mutton, pork dumplings, vegetables, and fresh fruit desert for about $6 Sing, or in the neighborhood of $4.50 US. If you are frugal, you can get away with an entire lunch for about $3 Sing. We have an extremely native hawker center near our apartments, which we have yet to try out. Dish up those pork brains!
By the by, I have also become dangerously addicted to an evil Japanese concoction called Pokka Milk Coffee, which is essentially a Cappio style sweetened ice coffee. This stuff really provides that morning kick-start.
All material brought officially into Singapore is subject to censorship, and you will see inspection stickers on all rental movies, etc. Hollywood films are edited to remove any frontal nudity, and all material considered destabilizing to or critical of Singaporean government is banned.
And these are the people who just opened the door to the Internet? Boy are they in for some fun.
The nature of the beast has not escaped the notice of those responsible for bringing the Internet to Singapore. Having made a study of Internet censorship and free speech the centerpiece of my graduate academic career, I was particularly interested in how Singapore would deal with the anarchic content of the Internet.
They have made some hardware/software attempts to censor content. All the Singaporean Internet access providers run their own news servers, and can control which newsgroups are made available to the public. Of course, as I demonstrated at Pacific Internet, you can get around that by configuring your newsreader program to use any of dozens of uncensored, public news servers around the world. The World Wide Web is practically impossible to censor, unless they put a copy of Surf Watch on every client’s computer. That isn’t too likely. They could keep access to non-offensive material more convenient by putting up a proxy web server that keeps mirrors of popular sites available locally. Singapore’s main connection to the US, and thus to the rest of the Internet, is a single T-1 line that tends to bottleneck during high traffic periods, so people would avoid drawing data from the US just to avoid the interminable delays and download times. (The bandwidth situation has since improved.)
It looks like the main means of control will simply be a healthy dose of paternal admonition, coupled with a legal sledge-hammer. RAdm. Teo, in his address to the Internet for Everyone VIP audience, stressed that the responsibility would be incumbent upon the users of the Internet to bring the quality level of the content up by bypassing smut and political agitation in favor of more noble material. It’s a good sentiment, but it overlooks the fact that smut and political agitation are about the most fun you can have on the Internet, especially if you are having trouble with your pizza delivery form. Of course, there is always the clause in your ISP service contract that prohibits users from downloading or possessing on their computers any material deemed offensive by the government. And I guarantee you that the Singaporean government will not be above making examples of a few people to prove it means business. (Rev: There has since been one high-profile bust.)
Things Not to do With a Durian
It’s December now, and the height of the durian season in Singapore. Tra la la, etc. For those of you who do not know what durian is, gather ‘round, and I shall illuminate. A durian is a large, tropical fruit that grows throughout Southeast Asia. It is about the volume of a volleyball, oblong, with spiky green skin and a tough green hide. Slice a durian open, and you find several long, white seed pods that are the part you actually eat. The pods have a pleasing fibrous, custardy texture, and a mild, sweet flavor somewhat evocative of vanilla yogurt, but without the sour yogurt undertones.
So why isn’t the durian the most fabulously popular fruit in the world?
Because it smells like vomit. The smell of a durian is rank, putrid, and persistent. It has been described by various people I know as “a dumpster too long in the sun,” “sewage,” “vomit,” and, unscientifically but evocatively, as “crap.” Bear in mind that it tastes great. Although smell and taste are closely linked, the taste of a durian is not at all unpleasant. That smell is a killer, however, and must be similar to what it feels like to drown in a moist, tropical landfill.
So naturally I had to try it.
I was lucky enough to be at the Takashimaya Cold Storage supermarket with Joe on a day when hey were giving away free samples of fresh Durian (you can buy them whole, sliced and wrapped in cellophane, or concentrated and in a tube). The man cutting the samples offered me a piece about the size of a knackwurst. If you don’t know how big a knackwurst is, check in the sausage section next time you are at the supermarket.
I ate it.
I learned a couple of things.
First, eating durian could be a fraternity hazing ritual in the United States. You have to not breathe while you eat it, because the moment you breathe with durian in your mouth, your natural reaction will be to spit it out, as inevitably as you jerk your hand off of a hot stove. You could, in fact, be driven to gag if you are of delicate constitution.
Second, if you can tolerate the smell, eating a durian is not unrewarding. It does taste good, and Singaporeans view any gwai loh who can stomach durian with an extra measure of respect.
Unfortunately, after I ate the piece of durian, I made the worst mistake of my life.
I drank a Pepsi.
I was mount Vesuvius for well over two hours, belching up clouds of toxic vapor. That smell sure does travel. Unfortunately, Joe took the brunt of the following assault as I managed to inadvertently belch powerful durian smell in the supermarket, in the elegant Takashimaya department store, in the elevator up to our hotel room, and several times in the hotel room itself. Believe me, it was none too pleasant for yours truly either.
So my advice to those who dare to taste the devil fruit of the orient: stay away from the carbonated beverages as if your life depends on it. Because it probably does.
Did I mention that you can get durian ice cream here?
The Great Mustafa Adventure
Knowing that we needed to do a great deal of shopping, Yu Min took Joe and me to a giant discount store in little India called Mustafa. It was quite a place, with a huge range of toiletries, housewares, electronic equipment, etc. The first time we went, we were there only briefly. Yu Min drove us back to Lavender, the nearest MRT station, so that we could find our way back there again.
A couple of days later, Joe and I decided that we wanted to make a return trip, so we hopped on the MRT after work, and rode it to Lavender station, where we got off, and realized that we had absolutely no clue where we were relative to Mustafa. We couldn’t have found our way back to the store if our life depended on it. We debated taking a cab, but it was commute time, and the cabs were in short supply. We asked a group of women at the nearest bus stop if any of them knew how to get to Mustafa. They debated amongst themselves, and then suggested we take the MRT back to the Dhoby Ghaut station, and take a bus from there. Unwilling to go through that much transportation, and knowing that it was in the neighborhood, we asked a pair of Indian men. They said to take the #67 bus, and took us to the correct stop. So we caught the 67, and rode it for a while, before it became completely obvious that we had passed near to Mustafa, but missed it completely.
With no other real plan of action, we simply stayed on the bus, hoping to see an MRT station, or some kind of landmark. Eventually it became clear that we were totally lost, with absolutely no clue as to where we were. We figured we might as well just hop off the bus and try to flag a cab back to the hotel. Joe was also hungry, and we had just passed a huge hawker center, and a major intersection, so it looked like a good place to bail.
We jumped off of the bus, and were surprised to see an MRT sign. Followed the sign, and were amazed to find ourselves at Newton station on Scotts Road, just around the corner from Orchard Road. Just by the sheerest dumb luck, we had gotten off the bus just ten minutes walk away from the hotel.
The Incredible Shrinking Umbrella
The importance of bargaining in Singapore was underscored when Joe and I were walking in Lucky Plaza, a mall with a reputation for merchants who scam tourists. We were browsing through some umbrellas, and the clerk came up to us and said, “Twenty dollars,” We said no thanks, and he said, “seventeen dollars!” We started walking away and he yelled after us, “fifteen! Ten dollars!” On our way out, we passed him again, again, and he got all the way down to five dollars. We still didn’t buy. Joe wanted to see if we could get him to pay us. Although not every place bargains, it is important to know where you have to accept the first price, and where you never should.
(By the way, this is exactly what Intergraph is doing with our computer quote now, on which they are now ready to take a loss for the privelege of being our sole supplier, for marketing reasons.)
The Chirping Bag
While were still living in the hotel, my bag began to make noise one night. I was lying in bed with the light out when I heard a distinct chirp. I turned on the light and listened. No, I hadn’t imagined it. There it was again. I walked around the room trying to locate the source of the intermittent sound. It sounded like a cricket or some such.
Eventually, I realized that the sound was coming from my satchel. I opened it up, and removed everything I could get without fishing around blindly. This is, after all, Southeast Asia, and the thought of encountering a Malaysian death beetle or the like in my bag was not particularly appealing.
I brought it into Joe’s room and said, “What do you make of this?” We waited a few seconds, and the chirp appeared again. “You’ve picked up a guest,” said Joe. He thought it sounded like a small frog. We decided to dump the bag out in the bathtub, and see if we could catch the offending critter. At the first dump, noting fell out, even after we shook. Finally, Joe isolated the section from which the sound was coming, and shook vigorously. Out fell a bunch of ten sided dice and the Voice-It electronic memo taker that Pete Shaffer had given me, which I had packed in my carry-on bag, and then lost track of. Apparently, it had run low on batteries, and was chirping as a warning.
So much for bugs.
Pacific Internet is really experiencing some growing pains. They have taken on too many members, and are above their hardware capacity, resulting in a lot of busy signals. They also appear to have some PPP software problems that make it very difficult to keep a dial-up connection alive for more than a couple of minutes (rev: we have since learned that many of these problems are attributable to the USRobotics PCMCIA modems we were using at the time). They’d better sort these problems out soon, or they might as well send e-mail to all of their customers telling them to try SingNet (their biggest competitor).
The Look and Feel of Singapore
We’ve a chance on this trip (it’s not a trip, dammit!) to do some things that we couldn’t get to on the last visit. Namely, we have seen much more of the island and city of Singapore. Consequently, we can report that, although much of it is elegant and beautiful, much of it is also depressingly homogeneous. The public housing blocks are omnipresent, and very similar in construction. Often, they stretch as far as one can see, and more are under construction. Singapore is actively trying to foster population growth (primarily among Mandarins, judging from the commercials), and I guess they need somewhere to put everyone.
Construction is the other ubiquitous thing about Singapore. There is construction everywhere. It is not unusual to be able to see five or ten construction cranes from any given spot in Singapore, and at one place we counted twelve grouped closely together. Yu Min joked that the construction crane is the national bird of Singapore.
You can live in a duplex or bungalow here. Provided that you are a multimillionaire.
The American Club
If you are a depressed expatriate who misses all the things that make America special —being able to speak your mind directly, casual dating, wearing you emotions on your sleeve, etc.—then join the American club. Only $5000 per year for American citizens.
You think that’s bad? $61,000 per year for non-citizens.
I thought about it briefly until I figured out exactly how much other stuff I could buy with $5000 Sing. Of course, some American friends have invited us for drinks at the club, so I might yet be swayed. Now, if they get NFL football, I’m there.
Cost of Living
Singapore is very odd, as far as cost of living. As Joe said, everything here either costs a nickel, or a hundred thousand dollars. One thing that it underscores is the clear division between Singapore’s lower classes (generally non-Mandarins), who live in cheap, government subsidized housing, and live on salaries of a few hundred or a thousand Sing dollars a month, the middle class, which is large, and lives relatively well, and upper class, which, in Singapore, is fabulously wealthy. There doesn’t seem to be much of a continuum between these classes.
Example: You can really cheap subsidized housing, and if you go native, groceries and hawker food are very cheap.
But: You can also buy a lot of packaged, American, Japanese, and European style food at Supermarkets, and live in a private flat if you and your spouse have a combined income of about $5000 Sing or up. You will not live in a fabulous apartment, however, nor will you eat out often, except at hawker stands.
Or: You can be fabulously wealthy, drive a Mercedes, live in a penthouse, etc.
We, as expatriates, seem to be in the only hybrid class: upper middle. We make more money than most middle class Singaporeans, and have company supplied housing and car. Considering that our housing comes to over $10,000 each per year, and a basic Japanese sedan (Honda Accord, etc.) costs over $100,000 (not a typo), that is no mean consideration.
Until the next edition.