The Rise and Fall of Games Online, Part 4: March 1996
Note: I reviewed this article on May 7 1996, and again in December. Revision are in parentheses and marked with a “rev.”
What I Dream About
Here in Singapore I have left many of the comforts of home behind. Pleasures that I have taken for granted for many years are now rare treats to be savored on the occasional visit back home. In the meantime, all I can do is dream about them. Here are a few of the things I dream about as I live in Singapore.
I dream of a giant, Round Table pizza with no surprises in the toppings. No corn. No hot dog labelled as “sausage.” No fish. I dream of a hamburger that tastes like a hamburger. I dream of good Mexican food prepared by actual Mexicans. I dream of a land where all of the MacDonald’s restaurants sell burgers and shakes (you can’t take that for granted here.) I dream of a can of beer that costs less than $2.50 at a supermarket, or $9.00 at a restaurant. I dream of anything barbecued.
I dream of a nation where the lane markings in the road serve some purpose other than as a loose guide for indicating the polarity of traffic. I dream making a right turn without seeing my life flash before my eyes. I dream of roads where many of the cars are more than ten years old (more on this later).
I dream of being able to misbehave. I dream of being able to touch a woman on the shoulder without it being construed as an amorous advance. I dream of being able to discuss politics loudly in public places. I dream of criticising governments, including the Singaporean government. I dream of shooting off my mouth. I dream of getting in someone’s face and telling them exactly what I think. I dream of a land where an oblique reference is considered ill-mannered. I dream of confrontation and lack of subtlety. I dream of administering a long round of head noogies, just to shake things up. I dream that people would say what they mean and stand by their words. I dream of accountability and clear lines of authority.
I dream of television. I dream of 50 channels of dreck pumped into my living room, 24 hours a day. I dream of televised sports. I dream of ESPN, and the cynical wit of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. I dream of CNN, and the starchy, super-marionation look of Prime News anchor Linden Soles. I dream of not being exposed to the Little Fingers, Little Toes commercial even one more damn time (yes, more below). I dream of morning newspapers and a cup of tea. I dream of a country where the media are beholden only to advertising, instead of to government censorship and advertising (an unholy combination if ever there was one). I also dream of radio, but that sucks in the states too, so I don’t dream of it much.
Finally, I dream of 68 degrees and dry. I dream of being able to walk down the street in broad daylight without having to change my shirt afterwards. I dream of a world where you can leave laundry in the washer overnight without surrendering it to the attack of the mildew from hell. I dream of t-shirts that don’t turn white at the armpits. I dream of being able to sleep in silence, without the roar of the fan and air conditioning.
On the other hand, I never dream of the presidential campaign.
Where do all the Old Cars Go?
Driving around Singapore is a remarkable experience for a couple of reasons. First, it is amazing that you see so few damaged cars considering that people do, in fact, often drive like maniacs, and that lane marking lines in Singapore are nothing more than loose suggestions. I, personally, have been in more than one near accident, but it seems to be the daily norm here. Jay-walking is the national hobby (after Karaoke, of course), and when people jay-walk here, they do it blithely, without taking more than a cursory look into traffic. I have nearly flattened about three people. I really must learn to use the horn more. I often see mothers with small children, or even babies in arm, walking down the middle of the street we live on, which is narrow, and has some blind corners.
But the other amazing things about driving in Singapore are: A) How many of the cars are Mercedes. B) There are no old cars anywhere on the road in Singapore. None. Zilch. No used car dealers. No jalopies. No old 70s boats. No classics. No nothing that isn’t less than ten years old, and most less than five.
Now the Mercedes issue is quite easy to solve. In Singapore, cars are amazingly expensive. A Honda Accord runs upwards of $100,000 to $120,000 Singapore ($75 to $100 K US). So, in Singapore, you essentially have to be rich to buy a car in the first place. Consequently, of the pool of people who can afford cars, the proportion that can go whole hog and buy a Mercedes is substantially larger than in the states. Now, I am told by my local friends that your average Singaporean is a creature of style and fashion, and the fashion is to own a Mercedes. Not a BMW, not a Cadillac, not a Porsche, a Mercedes. So it is amazing how many Mercedes (Mercedeses? Mercedi? Mercedesen?) you see on the road here. They are like Volkswagen Beetles on the Haight, or Volvos in Palo Alto. Often three or four in a row. Everyone and their sister drives a friggin’ Mercedes in this country. If you are rich and don’t drive a Mercedes, they brand you as a troublemaker. A rebel. A mountebank. Turn in your party ID card.
The mystery of the old cars took a little more detective work to solve. Which is to say that we eventually had to knuckle under and ask someone. That someone, as it happens, was Yu Min, recently exiled from Boat Quay to our office (naturally, more on this later). Our theory had been that people simply sold their old used cars up in Malaysia, or such. Wrong. Yu Min explained the reality. In Singapore, in addition to the outrageously high prices you must pay to actually buy a car, you have to purchase a license to own one. The license to own a car is called a COE, or Certificate of Entitlement. There are only a finite number available for private ownership of cars, and you have to bid on them when they come available. Consequently, it is not unusual to pay upwards of $30,000 Sing for your COE. This is on top of the $100,000 you are already paying for your Honda Accord.
A COE is valid for ten years, at which time it must be renewed. It is attached to the car, not the owner, by the way. The renewal fee for COE on an existing vehicle is double the original fee. Another ten years down the line, it is doubled again (hence, no classics)! Now, if you turn your old car in for recycling, you can get a 50% credit on your next COE. Considering that it is going to cost $60,000 just to keep an old car, most Singaporeans opt to donate their old cars for recycling and take the credit on their next COE and buy a new car. It really ends up being not much more expensive than keeping the old one. Cars turned in for recycling are destroyed. In the case of cars such as Mercedes and even well cared-for Hondas and such, these are often cars with another ten years of serviceable life. But it has been made economically unfeasible to keep them or to resell them.
Now the kicker is that the system keeps car sales artificially inflated, which allows the government of Singapore to paint a rosier economic picture than it might otherwise do, as durable goods sales numbers are always at a slightly higher level than they might otherwise be. The system allows the car trade to flourish at the same time as the total number of cars on the road is restricted. Fiendish, eh? Yu Min explained that some of the highest paid people in Singapore are the government bureaucrats who dream up systems like these. He was not kidding.
Little Fingers, Little Toes
Speaking of loony things that Singaporean government does, how about the national drive we in the Silkworm team have come to call the “make Mandarin babies campaign?”
It seems that the government of Singapore is concerned that the local birth rate is not as robust as it should be. Classic developed nation bugaboo, ironic in an Asian country surrounded by vastly overpopulated supernations like China and India.
The campaign includes television commercials and movie trailers, and also posters and print ads. The biggest offender is a mind-bogglingly saccharine television spot broadcast in both English and Mandarin version on the two main Singaporean TV stations, channels 5 (English) and 8 (Mandarin). The spot shows a young, and smoothly beautiful Chinese couple. At the beginning of the commercial they seem troubled. The magic has gone out of their brief marriage. Something is missing. There is stress as frowns crease their perfectly telegenic brows. Suddenly, they know what’s missing! Little ones! Mere seconds later (presumably it was an easy pregnancy), there is a newborn babe to be nuzzled, and the spark is back. Joy reigns once more in our serene and atypically affluent couple’s lives (and the woman’s figure looks astoundingly unmarred by the pregnancy and birth).
Now the truly offensive thing about this commercial isn’t the shallow message, or the implication that a troubled marriage can be saved by a child, or the preternatural beauty of all parties involved. It is the song that runs behind the entire commercial, which has no actual dialogue. The song is the “little fingers, little toes” song, which extols the magic of childbirth, true love, etc., etc. There are English and Mandarin versions of the song, and they are equally sugary and nasty. Now as if it wasn’t bad enough that you can catch this commercial at any time, without warning, the damn song is actually getting radio airplay. It boggles the mind. I’d like to believe that it is solely at government urging that the song is on the radio, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there is the occasional request for it.
The last interesting thing about this commercial is that there seems to be only one filmed version; the one with the Mandarin couple, although there are two language versions. My interpretation of this is that the Mandarin birth-rate is lower than the Malaysian or Indian birth-rates, and the largely Mandarin government of Singapore is concerned that the Mandarin population (about 77% of Singaporeans) might someday lose its dominance. Consequently, it is selectively encouraging families among Mandarins.
Mind you, it’s just a theory.
The Cab Ride of Confidence
Apparently, we are not without political allies in Singapore. Rob encountered this cabbie, and Joe wrote the following e-mail telling us about it.
From: email@example.com (Joseph John Pantuso) Subject: Cab driver
Date: Wed, 31 Jan 1996 09:43:16 +0800
This happened to Rob this morning, the cabbie talked about how expensive Singapore is etc. all the way here and then;
>The cabbie finished writing out the
>receipt on the back of another one, handed
>it to me, and said “Very nice to talk to
>you. But one thing also.” He tapped my arm
>to emphasise the point. “No talking about
>politics. Anyone start talking about
>politics, you just be quiet.” His voice
>had dropped to a whisper, and he looked
>around the cab, as if for hidden
>microphones. “You never know; there are
>spies everywhere, and if they hear you,
>BOOM, twenty four hours you are out
>of the country.”
Joe Pantuso 82 Boat Quay Exec. Producer
Singapore, Games Online 049870 (65)469-xxxx
Well, it has been an interesting six weeks since the last report from Singapore. Many things have happened, and, as always, we’ve had our share of progress and setbacks. Some of the basic bureaucratic things that got taken care of:
We finally got our paychecks, and we are on a regular pay schedule with the rest of theSembawang Media staff. This had become a big item of concern. Sembawang had originally balked at even paying us our moving money without a signed contract, and to this date, we still haven’t signed (which is exactly the way Joe and I want it now, as there are still some issues to be resolved). They finally relented and put us on payroll, however, and we got paid on the regular Jan 20 payday. This did a lot to gain Sembawang some good faith from our guys. It was also spectacular for Joe and Me, who had accumulated two and a half months worth of back pay. Both of us got substantial deposits to our local accounts. Sembawang seems to have got used to having us on payroll, which is good, because we are definitely doing a great deal of work.
I immediately took a chunk of my money and went down to the local electronics place to buy a TV and stereo so we wouldn’t have to go over to Joe’s every time we wanted to watch something. It did a lot for our apartment. I splurged on a 16:9 movie screen aspect ratio TV (first TV I ever bought new), having found a very nice one on sale. It complements my and Mike MacDonald’s letterboxed laser disc habits nicely. Don’t worry, mom, I’m saving plenty. More stuff for me to ship home when it is finally time to leave.
We also got our official Singapore employment passes (green cards). I can now legally live and work in Singapore for three years. I hope I am not here for longer than two, but at least it is insurance.
We all got three year passes except for Paul Deisinger, who, mysteriously, only got a one year pass. We called up the office that handles such matters and asked if they could tell us why that was. They explained that they knew, but could not tell us. We have no theories about why this is. Employment passes in Singapore are generally granted on educational and professional merit. Paul hasn’t got much glamorous work experience, but he does have a university degree which Mike MacDonald, for instance, does not.
I discovered when Christie and I went to Malaysia for a day during the lunar (Chinese) new year holiday that the green card is quite an expedient at the border check. They should be convenient when we travel to and from Singapore for our business trips.
Ultra Rain and the Eleven Dollar Folly
During our last couple of weeks at Boat Quay we had one of those stretches of weather that we get here sometimes where it thunderstorms every afternoon at two or three o’clock. This particular day it rained like none of us had ever seen it rain before. More water was falling from the sky than can be conceived of without having seen it. It really beggars description. It is impossible to imagine that so much water could have defied gravity, even through evaporation. The air became opaque, and saturation was complete. We all gathered around the window, awe-stricken at the sheer wetness. Now you know what they mean when they say that the gates of heaven have opened up.
We were all commenting on the rain when I joked that I would give someone, Mike or Joe I think, a shiny nickel to go stand in it for a minute. Whoever I was jibing at countered by saying that they would give me a dollar to go do it. I said it was going to take more than that, and suddenly Joe ponied up ten dollars if I would walk to the chairs piled by the riverside by the restaurant next door and then return. Added to Mike’s dollar, it made for a tidy $11 purse for a thirty second exposure to the rain. Foolishly, I agreed.
I headed downstairs to the door, so I was out of site of the window for a moment. Joe explained to me later that, as I walked down the stairs, the rain lulled for a second and he thought that he had got a raw deal. Much to his joy and my chagrin, however, at the moment I reached the big glass doors downstairs, the rain came back harder than ever, and the wind kicked up as well. I squinted up my eyes and stepped into the rain. It took literally two seconds for me to be soaked to the bone on both sides, and through the hair (and believe me, I have a lot of hair and it takes a lot of water to soak it through). I started forging my way towards the nearest chair which, to my horror and the amusement of my friends upstairs, started blowing away from me in the stiff wind. I chased it down, tagged it as per our deal, and then, more out pride than good sense, walked rather than ran back to PI. I guess it really wouldn’t have made much difference if I had run. I was already wet all the way through.
Back inside, with my hair and clothes matted down, and my white tee-shirt reduced to transparency, I plodded up the stairs leaving a large wet puddle behind me. I wrung my hair out into one of the trash cans and squeezed as much water as I could out of my shirt. I spent the next two hours freezing and miserable in the air conditioning, but, hey, at least it paid for my dinner.
As an interesting footnote, we discovered something about the Boat Quay office. It leaks. Badly. The entire wing where Chris used to sit with the Multimedia Studios staff is a sieve. Vast amounts of water come through the room there when it rains hard. Not a good thing for a computer office. Since the Corporate Internet staff relocated to the Suntec City office tower, that space has been abandoned and since reclaimed by Gerrie and Peter and their Web-site design crews, who have no idea what they are in for when it rains again, although we have warned them.
On Superbowl weekend, we decided that it was high time that we saw the ocean. We had been living on an island for several weeks, and had never really had any concrete proof that there was an ocean nearby. We booked ourselves tickets for a Sunday afternoon “high tea” cruise aboard a tourist boat called the Cheng Ho. That Sunday, we headed on down to the harbour and all boarded the Cheng Ho for, yes, a three hour tour.
Fortunately, we were not lost at sea. The cruise was generally very pleasant. We sailed out of the harbour and through the huge field of cargo ships that is moored most of the way around the island of Singapore. This ring of ships at anchor is really quite amazing. There are dozens and dozens of them visible; probably hundreds around the entire island. They range from giant, ultramodern container ships, to old, rusty tramps that look they have been moored outside Tanjong Pagar since the War, and ought to be captained by Humphrey Bogart.
We sailed through the anchored fleet, and around the spur of the giant, modern Tanjong Pagar container terminal. We passed the famous tourist and amusement island ofSentosa, off the southern end of Singapore. Then we continued on our leisurely tour through the cluster of small islands that hover around the southern side of Singapore. It is really a very nice area, with blue water, and a great many small islands averaging only a few acres each. If Singapore wasn’t sheltered from Pacific weather by Indonesia, all of these low-lying islands would have been washed flat by typhoons. As it is, some of them are very nice, with palm trees and small, sandy beaches. Many of the islands are artificial, created by landfill as is much of the southern rim of Singapore itself. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant area for a day of relaxation and beach-bumming. Many of the islands have recreational facilities. A few are industrial or military in nature. One is a drug rehab center. A few are completely deserted.
We made a brief stop on Kusa Island, which is the subject of a local legend. Kusa is allegedly vaguely turtle shaped (although I couldn’t see it upon examining a map). The story has it that two fishermen, a Chinese and a Malay, were cast out of their boats by a storm, and took refuge on the back of a giant turtle. To save the men, the turtle turned itself into an island. That is Kusa. There are two temples on Kusa, a Chinese one and a Malaysian one. The Chinese one is quite nice, although highly touristified. It is dedicated to turtles, and has several turtle ponds and tortoise pens, as well as two cages in which live the two most miserable Reticulated Pythons that I have ever had the displeasure of seeing in inadequate captivity. The building itself is rather pleasant though. The Malay temple is, on the other hand, supremely ugly. It is build out of cinder blocks, and painted a garish safety yellow. It was apparently painted by hose, as the colour washes down over the rocks and soil at the base of the temple, which sits at the peak of a low hill. The shrines are much less aesthetically pleasing than the ones at the Chinese temple. Still, religion is where you find it, I guess. Scattered about the island are signs imploring locals not to release turtles and tortoises into the tiny lagoon.
After our brief stop on Kusa we reboarded the Cheng Ho, itself a monument to tourist tackiness, and sailed circuitously back to the harbour. The trip was really quite pleasant, although the operators of the boat insisted on pumping some really distressing Muzak through the ship’s PA at high volume throughout the tour.
The next day, Monday, I arose at 7:00 AM to catch the live broadcast of the Superbowl on Premiere 12. I’d been very worried about being able to catch the game as our buildings were supposedly unable to receive Premier 12. In fact a new antenna system was being installed to make it possible for the residents of the Ngee Ann Polytechnic Staff apartments to pick up Premiere 12, but it was not active yet. I’d had a panicky spell trying to figure out some location where we could watch the game at that hour, and we had even briefly discussed renting a cheap hotel room.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover, however, that Mike, Koji and I live in the one building in which the main antenna does pick up Premiere 12, so the crisis was solved. I, being the master football addict, awake promptly for the game at 6:55 AM. The other guys drifted in over the next hour and a half, and we all got to experience the depression of watching Dallas win another Superbowl. It was a pleasant interlude of thoroughly American culture, however, and one which I sorely needed, having missed the entire second half of the football season.
On the last day in January, Joe and Rob and I went for a meeting with a law firm in Singapore. Arthur Loke and Associates had been recommended by Joe’s attorneys in the US as a good firm in Singapore. So we went for a preliminary meeting with the idea of handing the contract off to them for a revision under our control, and a potential danger spotting session. We met with Mr. Loke, the senior partner, and with one of the associates, and took a brief look through the contract. We discussed some of the issues that concerned us, and Mr. Loke made some suggestions concerning things that we hadn’t even thought of. His opinion was that, essentially, we were being treated like serfs by Sembawang, and if we could prove that we had some serious commercial potential, that we would be in a position to draw up a much more equitable agreement. We left the contract with the associate, and made plans for a future meeting pending some research on our end into the market. Currently we have a report on order that should help us and our lawyers. Unfortunately, the contract work won’t be cheap. Joe and I are expecting to have to make a large outlay to the lawyers, who charge quite dearly for their time. We have a second meeting today (now the 14th of March).
Temp Office Space
Finally Finally, after much hemming and hawing and heartbreak, we got temporary office space at Ngee Ann polytechnic, where our permanent office space will also eventually be. This deal had taken a staggeringly long time to arrange for reasons I don’t fully understand, other than to say that Ngee Ann Polytechnic may, in fact, be the most over bureaucratised, byzantine, sluggish organisation I have yet dealt with in my life. There is no issue that can be quickly addressed at Ngee Ann Poly. If you have to send anything through official channels, or request anything through official channels here, it is a three week minimum. Often, it takes longer.
So we finally got the keys to the office space, once the official co-operation agreement between Sembawang Media and NP was agreed upon and signed. Apparently the major delays had centered around two negotiating points. One was the teaching commitment that Sembawang Media would be liable for in return for rent free use of our permanent office space. Sembawang lost this one, ending up with a 16 hour per week commitment. The nature of this commitment is, as yet, unclear, but one thing is certain. GOL staff will, fortunately, not be obligated for more than a couple of hours per week of this material. All of Sembawang Media is contributing. The other sticking point was the length of the lease. NAP wanted to grant a one year lease, while Sembawang, who are paying $150,000 for renovations to the space wanted a three year deal. That was a concession that Sembawang got. All of this rigmarole was necessary despite the fact that Sembawang Media had already used this same space as temp office once before. (Rev: Apparently, they did some things that really honked the Poly off…)
With the agreement signed, the keys were turned over to us at last. As usual it was in the bare nick of time. We got the space on Friday, with our first staff joining on Monday. We spent the weekend writing introductory and orientation material for our new staff, and arranging our small office space as efficiently as possible.
We were given two rooms in the NAP computer centre. One was relatively large, and the other, which was not adjoining, or even next door, was about half the size of the large one. These rooms are comfortably large enough for about twelve people, total. Unfortunately, we have eighteen people, so we have four people sharing two large desks. We have achieved maximum density. It is a good thing that we don’t have any more staff coming on board for another month or so, because we have nowhere to put them. What makes it infuriating is that we are cramped to the limit while there is an unused room to connected to our large room by a folding partition. It is used once per semester, for data entry during the registration period. On the other side of our large room, also connected by a folding partition, is another large room used by three people roughly 50% of the time. But, we have been told, it is untouchable.
Another problem with the temporary space was that there were no active phone lines. We were told that we would have phone lines five days after we moved in. Naturally, that was a pipe dream. It took over a month to get NAP’s approval for us to install phone lines despite the fact that wires and jacks were already in place, and all we had to do was have the phone company switch them on. And, of course, it took the phone company two weeks to process our request, partly due to lunar new year. So we spent a month with only Joe’s hand phone, and no fax. That made it necessary for Koji, and later me to go down to Boat Quay every day to finish our purchasing work, as we needed fax and phone access. Fortunately now we can do everything at NAP.
Of course, we still have no network access. We have our own LAN set up, but NAP refused to let us use their network for Internet access, despite the fact that we are literally across the hall from their server and hub room. I am looking into it right now, as I type. A connection would be as simple as letting us run a UTP network cable from our hub to theirs, and assigning us ten or so IP numbers.
No dice. They offered us one dial-up Telnet account and a fistfull of lame excuses about their firewall. So Joe jury rigged a system with one of our computers and modems and one of our new phone lines. Our whole office of eighteen people is now connected to the Internet by one 28.8 kbps dialup connection. Well, it gets us e-mail at least. My esteem for our co-operation agreement with NAP is in the cellar. They are in for a very rude surprise if they ever ask for time on any of our high end machines, which I have a suspicion that they will do. I will have absolutely no regrets about politely explaining why we have not time available, or why it will take us six weeks to make a few hours available to them.
The rumor about the campus is that NAP is planning on doubling their student population, and one thing they are looking at people like us as is extra resources for the increased student load.
Well, I got news for you buddy, and it ain’t good.
On the other hand, having forged our way through many of the difficulties, I must say that it is much nicer working at NAP than at Boat Quay. We have our own space, small as it is, and we can access it any time, day or night or weekend. It also much nicer to be able to stroll to work in five minutes than to make the drive downtown and spend 20 bucks combined for a daily area license to drive in the business district and for parking. Plus, you can eat lunch at the Poly for three bucks, Singapore, or about two bucks US. All the food stands are government subsidised, so the prices are rock bottom.
The Polytechnic Love Fest
Perhaps the most absurd thing about the bureaucratic nightmare with the Poly, including the hassles over our temp and permanent offices, phone lines, network, etc., was what I call “the love fest.”
The love fest was a backslapping ceremony held at the polytechnic after the official signing of the SM/NAP co-operation agreement. Attendees included Chris Teo, SM CEO Wong Seng Hon, Yu Min, Joe and Myself, the NAP vice principal with whom we have dealing and several department heads as well as miscellaneous personnel from both SM and NAP. The first part consisted of many of us sitting around a large, square arrangement of tables while there were various speeches about how wonderful the agreement was, and how it would benefit both organisations, and how pleased everyone was, etc. Joe and I both spoke for a moment, and it took some serious willpower not to leap up on a table and give everyone a piece of my mind as to what I though of the co-operation agreement so far.
The session concluded with a tour of the NP broadcast and computer facilities, which, nominally we have access too. But considering how inefficiently any official request is dealt with by NP, and the fact that Joe and I don’t even have staff keys yet, or any other way of officially proving that we have business on campus, I am skeptical as to whether we will ever get to use any of their equipment. Joe and I are trying to make friends with the professors, many of whom are expats, so that we can get access to the facilities through the back door. Conversely, I am sure that we will be much more receptive if any of the NAP instructors approach us directly with requests to allow their students to use our resources. Time will tell.
Acquisitions Hell and Micron Misadventures
Another fabulous adventure that we have been having is acquisitions and procurement. Building a game company isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of equipment, including expensive computers, monitors, network equipment, printers, CD ROM burners, high end software, etc. It isn’t like buying the computers for your office. You have to have the tools to do software development, which is considerably more demanding than simply running software, especially where 3D applications are concerned.
One of the things we did soon after arriving was to put together a large spreadsheet listing every piece of equipment and software we would need to put together a functional computer game development studio. When we first arrived in Singapore, I did the acquisitions work. We later put Koji in charge of it, after I had to move onto other things like hiring. Koji dealt with acquisitions until two weeks after we moved into our temporary office space, at which point I took over again so that he could concentrate on writing, which is what he was hired for. Our long acquisitions nightmare is finally coming to an end, but it has produced some interesting stories.
First, some things that we learned. One: For all purchases over $2000 (which includes a great many of ours), Sembawang corporation requires three competing quotes from manufacturers. Unfortunately, much of our equipment is specialised, and often only one or two suppliers can be found in Singapore. For some things, we had to go to the states. If you can’t find three bids, you have to explain why on the paperwork. Now, customer oriented service does not exist in Singapore like it does in the US. It is not uncommon for it to take a week or more to wrestle a faxed quote out of a company here. Some companies simply never get around to them, including, we found out, many of the local computer companies.
Some other things we discovered. Companies will quote items they don’t have in stock, but won’t tell you they are not in stock. This happened with our Hewlett/Packard laser printer, which took forever to arrive after we sent the vendor a purchase order. It also happened with the Altec Lansing multimedia speakers we ordered. We sent a vendor an order for the Altecs as well as four modems, and one other item that I do not remember. Four weeks later, we got the modems and the other item. No speakers. Two weeks after that, we called the vendor and said, “Hey, where are the speakers?” They said, “Oh, we don’t carry those.” So we faxed them back their quote, upon which they listed us a price for those speakers. Allegedly, we will get them in 6-7 weeks. (Rev: Apparently they misquoted the price to us, and never made good.)
Another problem we have had is with the lack of communication. We wanted a CanonBubblejet printer in addition to our two laser printers. We wanted this machine because it prints on fanfold paper, which allows programmers to print out a continuous stream of code without having to staple pages together. Chris voided our purchase order because he thought the printer was redundant, but he never told us. We didn’t find out until we went on a tear to update the status of all of our POs. Once we explained to him what it was for, he reapproved it, but by then we’d lost over a month of time.
By far the most terrifying aspect of the acquisitions process was the computers. We need in the area of 25 machines, including high end Pentiums and P-6 machines for 3D work. Joe and I originally wanted to get Microns or Gateway 2000s because we’d both had good experiences with those companies, because their prices were significantly better than any in Singapore, and because no one in Singapore was building P-6 machines at the time we placed the order. Yu Min warned us that Sembawang Finance might not react well to us getting computers from the states because they would have concerns about servicing. But the savings were huge, so we wrote up a detailed justification, and sent up the order, along with a written statement from Micron, the vendor we chose, saying that they would Fed Ex out any replacement part at their cost immediately. By the time we cancelled the order, Micron was already building our computers, so needless to say, they were not happy.
Naturally, Sembawang rejected the purchase order and told us to go local. It took us three weeks to find three computer companies with offices in Singapore that would return quotes on our order. Four companies I contacted never returned quotes despite the order being well in excess of $400,000 Sing. Just didn’t want the business, I guess. Finally we got quotes back from Dell, Primefield (a Compaq dealer) and Intergraph. Intergraph was the only one that was building P-6 machines, and they cut their prices to 10% below US list. They gave us a 40% discount on Singapore list because they were desperate for our contract. Now Intergraphs are not shabby machines. They are high professional workstations, and the company has a Singapore service arm. (They are manufactured in Alabama, ironically.) So we got as good a price from Intergraph as we would have got from Dell or Compaq, for much higher quality machines. The problem is that the order, for the same machines, is $100,000 Sing more expensive than it would have been to get machines from Micron, even including shipping and import duty. That’s money off of our budget, and far more than we will ever save by having local service.
On top of that, Semb Finance may reject this PO ($515 K Sing) simply for being too expensive. If that happens, I don’t know what we will do. Gateway just opened a Singapore office, so we might go back to them. As it stands however, we are a computer game company with a staff of 18, and six desktop computers. Needless to say, this does not instil confidence in our staff, and Joe and I have had to work to keep them productive with a minimum of computers. The cost in lost productivity from the delay will be substantial.
(Rev: The computer order is once again in flux as Chris popped up suddenly suggesting that we buy our systems from his friend at DEC, so now DEC and Intergraph are in a huge bidding war for our contract. We are getting good prices, but the upshot is that there has still been no final computer PO issued.)
So, yes, we are an Internet computer games company with few computers, and the thinnest kind of Internet access.
We should know in a week or so how the new computer PO was received. I have my anxieties. Particularly, I feel that they may not buy the computers until we have a signed contract, which is still a month or so off. That would be a crushing delay as the order-to-delivery time is 4-8 weeks. I can understand Sembawang’s caution, but there is a point at which you get hit diminishing returns, and I am afraid that we have exceeded that point.
Another acquisitions nightmare, and another good example of the kinds of obstructions that we have had to deal with is the sound studio. I specified about $50,000 Sing worth of equipment for our audio production facilities; a pretty modest and reasonable studio for multimedia work. The purchase order and equipment were approved by our GM, Chris, and our CEO, Wong Seng Hon, and one copy was sent to the vendor, and one to the finance department. West LA Audio requires payment in full by wire transfer or international bank draft before international shipments can be made. I passed on the relevant information, including wire transfer specifics to Hwee Min, the woman in charge of the finance department at Boat Quay. She said that, since everything was signed off and approved, that there would be no problem putting through the wire transfer quickly. I expected that I would get my equipment within a week or to. Boy was I mistaken.
A week later Joe got a call from Hwee Min saying that Sembawang would rather do a letter of credit, but that if we could produce a fax from West LA stating that only a wire transfer was acceptable, that it shouldn’t be a problem.. Hwee Min told me that John Lau, the group finance offer, had said that payment had to be made by a letter of credit rather than a wire transfer, since Sembawang had never dealt with West LA Audio before, and it was a $50,000 order. Essentially, they didn’t trust West LA Audio. Hwee Min said that she would contact West LA right away and ask if L/C was acceptable.
I waited two days and then I called West LA myself. Naturally, Hwee Min had not contacted them yet. So I talked to our salesman, Steve Galloway, and asked if a letter of credit would be acceptable. He said that it was against policy because the money secured by the letter of credit could only be released when we saw the equipment, and if we claimed never to have received it, they would have no recourse. So he faxed me a note saying that only wire transfer was acceptable. That, I figured was the end of that.
I went back to Hwee Min with Galloway’s fax and said, “Look, wire transfer or nothing. It’s their policy for international shipments.” Hwee Min took the fax and said that she would re-submit the wire transfer. In the meantime, Pacific Internet CTO Jeck Kian Jin, a friend of mine, asked me what the status if the equipment was. Kian Jin and Gerrie Lim were producing an Internet RealAudio broadcast at Boat Quay, and had asked me to host a segment. I had also offered to let them use my audio equipment for production. Since it was late, it was holding up their schedule, although the subsequent death of the father of the performer scheduled for the inaugural broadcast later kibboshed the schedule anyway. Upon hearing of my miseries, Kian Jin asked Yu Min to speak to group F/C John Lau on my behalf. A week later Hwee Min e-mailed me and said that John Lau insisted on letter of credit. I suggested to her that we try to find a compromise such as 50% downpayment by wire and balance secured by L/C. Hwee Min said that should be acceptable to group F/C. She said that she would contact West LA with that proposal. Having been down that road before, I contacted Steve Galloway myself right away, and, hallelujah, they accepted (thereby breaking their own policy). I forwarded the details of the compromise to Hwee Min. Allegedly everything is cool. I am awaiting news of the wire transfer and subsequent shipment of my equipment.
(Rev: Oh, this became such an odyssey. Little did I know when I first wrote this that there would be another month of torture before the equipment finally shipped, May 6th. All the details in the next report, as soon as I get back from E3.)
Now all of this wouldn’t have been such pain if the combined:
- A) sluggishness of Sembawang Bureaucracy,
- B) 16 hr. time difference to California, where West LA Audio is located,
- C) schedule of Steve Galloway, who doesn’t work Mondays (making him functionally unavailable until my Wednesday each week), and
- D) lack of a fax machine at our Ngee Ann Poly offices until late in this process hadn’t all conspired together to make each round of contact take one week. The entire fiasco caused a one month delay in the audio equipment, setting my schedule and the Live@BoatQuay cybercast schedule back a month. And it never would have been done at all if I hadn’t negotiated a solution..
Meet the Staff
We have not been without our victories recently, I must point out. For one thing, renovation on our permanent office space is starting next week, at long last (see below). Also, one area we feel very positive about is our staff. We seem to have chosen people well, and Joe, Mike and I have been very pleased with the people who have come on board so far. We just launched another round of recruitment, but here is an introduction to the team so far.
Leisha (Breaking Glass Writer): A former magazine writer, Leisha was one of the first people to come on board. She is a pleasant woman who was the last writer candidate we hired. Friendly and chatty, Leisha is a social motivator in our little family. She was one of three talented women we were deciding on at the end, any one of which we thought might make a successful writer. When Leisha first came on board, we were afraid she might have been a poor choice. Her computer experience was fairly minimal, and, although she was a good writer, her exposure to computer games was almost nil. We spent the first few days having her do nothing but play old adventure games. It didn’t take Leisha long to connect with what we were doing, however, and when she suggested incorporating a story based on the Chinese practise of eating human fetuses to stay young looking, we knew we had made the right choice. (Rev: Leshia and Rob later became very close, so it was difficult for them when Rob moved back to the states in Dec. 96. To be detailed in installment 7.)
Melvin (Breaking Glass Writer): Melvin came on shortly after Leisha did, and is the other main writer Breaking Glass. Joe and I hired Melvin because he wrote and pushed into print a dark-future comic book. His writing was odd and original, and he definitely had the Cyberpunk feel down. Melvin and Leisha seem to have become quite friendly, which is good since they work together every day. Melvin is Leisha’s social opposite though, quiet and introverted, with a moody demeanor. He’s a pleasant guy though, and his comic book authoring background may come in handy for us.
Mun Ying (Year of the Rat Writer): If we have a class clown, it’s Mun Ying. The moment he came in for the interview, back in December, Joe and I knew we had a keeper. He had been a player in the local science fiction club, and had written a great deal of material on his own as a hobby. At the office he is something of a wit, always ready to mug or turn loose the pithy observation. He’s kind of like a giant, twisted Keebler elf. If you cut off his supply of The X Files, he’d be stone dead within a week. Despite his background and interest in science fiction, we assigned him to our period game, where he has been an invaluable source of research and historical material.
Mei Ching (Year of the Rat Writer): Mei Ching was a rather recent addition to our staff, although we actually hired her way back in December. We had to wait quite some time before we could actually start. Of all the people we hired as writers, Mei Ching was the closest to being overqualified for the job, and one of the few about whom Joe and I had no doubts whatsoever that we wanted to hire. Mei Ching had spent several years in the states, getting a Master’s in creative writing from the University of Washington. She actually had a couple of novels published in Singapore, and the samples she gave us, which were rooted in ethnic Chinese issues, were powerful enough to emotionally move Joe and me. Despite her moody writing, Mei Ching is a very cheerful and chatty person. Our office is way to cold for her, so she’s always bundled up like an Eskimo when she comes into work. This increases her size from amazingly tiny to merely tiny.
Ooi (iPower Visual C++ Programmer): Ooi is essentially our office geek mascot. He is everything you think a computer programmer should be; glasses, silly haircut, slightly wan, looks younger than he is, and would have 4-F’ed out of his national service obligation if he wasn’t Malaysian. He is, however, a pleasant and very bright guy. I have as much trouble imagining Ooi in a bad mood as I have imagining George Bush in a good one. He is an avid game player, current devouring with great relish his current assignment of playing Command and Conquer to death and gleaning as much information out of it as he can. And his face just lit up so much when our registered Microsoft Visual C++ packages arrived, you can’t not like the guy.
(Rev: I have since seen Ooi angry. The computer purchase and our incompetent vendor drove him to it.)
Paul Naylor (Minion Engine VB Programmer): Paul Naylor is our resident New Zealander, and the only white person we hired locally since our plan to hire Eric Nelson was thwarted (see below). Naylor was so eager to work for us he was ready to take a pay cut. We rescued Paul from dull work I the financial sector, and he has been suitably grateful. Paul has attacked his work with us with great zeal, and has become the first of the local staff to start keeping hours like we do, working until all hours. He is a very friendly guy, and is a fiend for the multi-player action. He is also a good source of local intel on the realities of being a white man living in Singapore.
As we have raided them for personnel, NCB/ITI have identified us as the enemy, as they are also moving into games development and looking for qualified people. We don’t really see games produced by a Singaporean government agency as posing a real threat, however. We also tried to hire Paul’s room mate, another programmer named Tom Spencer Smith. ITI foiled us there by making him a counter offer we couldn’t match, so we are in the interesting situation of having one of our programmers room with the competition. Paul knows to keep his mouth shut, though.
Vincent (Minion Unix C Programmer): Our hiring of Vincent is one of the main reasons that NCB sees us as a threat. We stole him bodily from NCB after he had been working for them for three days. As with Paul, he rapidly recognised that he’d have a lot more fun working for us than he would at NCB. Vincent was our first local employee to start work. He’s a kid straight out of college, and we are his first real gig. So far, he was worked out very well, although he could use a touch of mentoring. Vincent integrated into our little group very well, and he has been keen on socialising outside of the office and enjoys a good knockdown dragout game session inside it. He’s a very friendly guy who deals well with my repeated attempts to bean him from across the room with my foam volleyball.
Isaac (3D Artist): Isaac is one of the two 3D artists we have on staff now, with one more on the way. Joe and I were impressed with his portfolio, particularly with his design for some rooms and interiors. He is a very quiet guy, and seems a touch aloof because of it. He is a good artist though, and he dealt well with our initial scarcity of computers by doing up a large batch of concept sketches for iPower. Once we got him a computer (mine) he rapidly started paying dividends as he conjured up a good Games Online logo and animation in 3D Studio. Currently, Isaac is being trained by Michael in Softimage.
(Rev: Isaac is one of the most traditional Chinese men on our staff. That can make him difficult for us to work with sometimes as face and authority are very important to him. He is supremely talented, however.
Michael (3D Artist) Michael is our resident attitude. He is a pleasant guy, but he is a very good 3D artist, and he knows that gives him something of a mystical quality. Consequently he is a touch of the prima donna, but he should prove a good addition to the team. He is our resident Softimage guru, and is therefore currently in control of our most glamorous and expensive computer system, the SGI Indigo 2 with Softimage. I admire him for being able to use a program that comes with seven volumes of documentation, each about two inches thick (no shit). He is likely to be in charge of assembling our complex animation sequences, so we’ll see just how good his 3D juju really is. It had better be good, or we bought a $40,000 computer program (note: that doesn’t include the computer) for nothing.
(Rev: My initial impressions of Michael were not entirely accurate. Michael has proved to be not a prima donna at all, and in fact has been a pleasure to work with.
Shawn (2D Artist): Shawn is one of our two 2D artists, although we are planning on hiring four more. He is good with traditional media, and also with Photoshop and other computer based painting programs. Shawn is currently assigned to doing the art for our avatar face generating system. He is a very quiet guy who tends to keep to himself. He communicates readily with Honi (see below), with whom he shares a table, but he is unlikely to intrude on the rest of us unless he is offering us a hit from his black market chewing gum supply. He is a pleasant fellow, and has taken well to our requests that he work up some art-direction ideas for Year of the Rat as well as animation storyboards.
Honi (2D Artist and Graphic Designer): Honi is our second 2D artist so far. Her talents really lie much more in the direction of design and layout than in illustration, but we have had her working up Year of the Rat art ideas with Shawn, and she seems to be doing quite well. We’ll be sending her to a Chinese calligraphy class soon so that she do kanji character work for us as needed. I suspect that her real value will surface when we need to start designing promotional material and packaging. Honi is quite friendly and chatty. She is Singaporean, but spent the last ten years living in England before returning to Singapore a year ago. She is also the office beauty (and dresses like it), so we’ll probably take her along to conventions and trade shows where we exhibit and use her to attract geeks. Don’t laugh; this is a common and time honored tactic in the computer and paper-based game industries. Ask me about the slang for it next time you see me.
Eric Gets the Royal Shaft
Eric Nelson was an American academic (Ph.D.) and programmer that we wanted very badly to hire to lead the development of one of the engines for iPower. He was quite bright, and was very interested in what we were doing, and Joe and I both liked him. In a place where good programmers seemed to be scarce, we thought he would make a good resource. But he was expensive, as he was doing quite well for himself in the banking industry. We decided to hire him, and passed his paperwork on to Chris.
Several weeks later Chris finally came back to us and told us that he didn’t want to hire Eric. It wasn’t an expense issue, her explained, but a government one. He was applying for a large grant for Games Online from the EBD (Economic Development Board of Singapore), and according to their audit, we were on the verge of having to few locals, and too many expats. He said that “seven figures” were at stake here, but Joe and I still protested because we felt that we were being asked to forgo talented personnel for a nebulous grant that might not appear. Chris was insistent, however, even after we pointed out that delivery date and quality of the product might suffer. We told him that if the grant went through, that we expected all the resulting money to go directly to Games Online as supplemental funds, and not to be used so that part of our budget could be written off. We’ll see what happens.
Philip Yeo, the chairman of Sembawang Corporation, is also the chairman of the EDB, so it is essential for him to avoid conflict of interest, or the appearance of impropriety, so we understand the need for the audit to toe the line, but safe to say that, if no grant money comes through I will tear a warpath through the Boat Quay office. We are still in touch with Eric and hope to work out a deal with him in a few months.
Will Steals the Indigo
There was a bright side to the loss of Eric Nelson. I managed to squeeze a concession out of Chris. There was an Indigo2 workstation at boat quay, the latest version of Silicon Graphics workhorse graphical computer, that was nothing more than a $50,000 purple doorstop. Chris had ordered it for his boys allegedly for TV work, but really without any clear idea of what it would be used for. They had a demo version of the powerful 3D and animation software Alias/PowerAnimator, but no one at Boat Quay could use it and they had no other SGI based applications. That machine was being used for nothing more than e-mail and as a Telnet server.
Well we weren’t going to have that. There had been some rumbling when we first arrived that the Indigo2 might find a home with us, but then the word had changed and it was simply something that we would have access to. When Chris denied us Eric, he brought up the SGI in passing and explained how it wasn’t getting much use. I told him that I’d get some use out of it. “Let me take it to our offices and buy me Softimage for IRIX,” (another $40,000) I said, “and I’ll made that machine productive for you. Chris agreed with very little wheedling on my part, which surprised me a great deal. He did say that he would have to check with Jek Kian Jin to make sure that it was okay for us to move it out of Boat Quay. Well, at this point we were still very short of computers (as we are now), and the 3D guys were just making do with whatever, and I knew that the SGI would be a big morale booster. I went up to talk to Kian Jin myself, and was pleasantly surprised when, unprompted, he offered me that machine. Needless to say I immediately threw it in the back of the car and drove it over to Ngee Ann Poly before anyone could change their mind. There was much rejoicing among the 3D guys when I showed up with it, although it took us another week or two to get Softimage delivered and installed. I have no plans to ever return that computer to Boat Quay, although I will gladly let others book time on it as long as our production schedule permits.
The funny thing is that it is another perfect example of Sembawang weirdness. This computer would have never been used for anything if we hadn’t appropriated it. They’ll nickel and dime us over $250 a month for one of our artists, but they’ll have this fantastically expensive piece of equipment gathering dust, and not blink an eye when I tell them it will take another $50 K worth of outlay to make it productive. Really, the priorities are screwy. But we slowly build an office. Now if I could just steal 25 desktop machines for the rest of the staff.
And suddenly it was Chinese New Year (actually Lunar New Year, since it is celebrated by more peoples than just the Chinese). Christie, my then-girlfriend in the states, and I had long planned a possible visit for here sometime in May, but she decided to shoot for Chinese New Year instead, which was nice for me because I’d have most of the week off of work.
As usual, Christie took flight SQ015, the dreaded 230 AM arrival flight that connects through Seoul. She got to experience the bliss of an hour long layover in Seoul Airport, where Nothing Ever Happens, and the even greater bliss of arriving at Changi Airport in the middle of the night. Mike MacDonald was kind enough to drive out to the airport with me.
Christie seemed in pretty good shape when she got off the airplane. Not bad considering the astounding duration of the flight. As I expected, she was a bit wired to be here. I was also excited because it was my first chance to give someone a tour and show them around Singapore.
We spent a week being utter tourists, which was quite nice. We made a visit to the zooand had our photo taken with the orangutans, an experience marred only by the hideous quality of the resultant photograph. When I lightened up the orangutans enough so that you could see them against the dark background it looked like they had been pasted into the picture, but I swear they’re real. We also did a circuit of the Jurong Bird Park, which was quite a feat for Christie, who has a bit of a bird phobia. There was also my inaugural trip to the tourism island of Sentosa, right off of the Tanjong Pagar shipyards. Sentosa was actually much nicer than I thought it would be, with some nice, sandy artificial beaches (there are no real beaches in Singapore, and the water around the island is really kind of nasty due the vaaaast amount of shipping traffic. There was a groovy bug museum full of huge, gross, bloodsucking (not really) tropical insects, and a reasonably nice aquarium with a long tunnel that we rode through three times before we were happy. It was the first stretch of unbridled tourism that I had indulged in since arriving in Singapore, and it was quite nice. Our feet hurt like hell after three days of nonstop walking.
All in all the holidays were quite sedate. There is a Lunar New Year parade on Orchard Road, but Christie and I had been to Malaysia (see below) on that day, and were really tired. Joe and the other guys headed down there and phoned us up to tell us that we made the right move. Apparently the whole parade route was jammed solid and it was impossible to see anything. Still, I felt kind of shabby for letting the new year pass by without having seen one lion or dragon dance.
I have, by the way, a secret desire to own a lion-dancer’s lion head as a curio, but I am scared to ask how much they cost. Boy, what a thing to put on the mantlepiece, though.
One fascinating thing that Christie and I did was to make a day trip to Johor Bahru, in Malaysia. Johor Bahru is to Singapore exactly what Tijuana is to San Diego; a poor third-world city on the rump of a glittering international metropolis. Singapore and Malaysia are separated by a straight about a kilometer across. Johor Bahru is a medium sized city that occupies the bank opposite Singapore. You can see downtown JB, as it is called in Singapore, very clearly from the Singapore side of the straits.
The causeway between Singapore and JB supports a six-lane highway, a rail line, and a walkway, so there are a few ways that you can get across. By far the easiest way to do it is to take the bus. The Singapore Bus Service number 171, which stops on Bukit Timah road right near our apartments, runs through Jurong to the causeway, and across into downtown JB. The ride costs 80 cents. Cheapest international trip that you will ever make.
There tend to be big traffic jams on the causeway because of the customs check, so busses are very convenient because they have their own lane. There are some hassles, though. As you approach the causeway you have to debark the bus to pass through Singaporean outbound immigration. If you have a Singaporean passport this can mean a bit of a wait, although it is quite quick with a foreign passport as there are fewer foreigners passing across the causeway (especially by bus although it is a common commute for a lot of locals). If you are a tourist visiting Singapore, as Christie was, you have to surrender the entry card you filled out on the airplane when you flew to Singapore (and then fill out another one on your way back in). You also have to pick up and fill out a Malaysian entry card. Then you reboard the bus for the five minute drive across the causeway. Once on the Malaysian side you debark again to pass through Malaysian immigration and customs. There is no customs check however, as there is no smuggling of anything from prosperous, well regulated Singapore into slightly looser and poorer Malaysia. All the disreputable traffic is moving in the other direction.
Once you have cleared Malaysian customs you can either get back on the bus and ride all the way to the bus depot, which is in the middle of nowhere, or you can wander around downtown.
It rapidly becomes obvious that you are not in Kansas ..er…Singapore… anymore once you wander around for a few minutes. JB is much more like what you imagine Southeast Asia to be. There are open sewers, and the buildings are universally grunge coated. There is copious litter everywhere. The public housing developments look truly nasty and filthy. Most obviously different from Singapore, there are actual poor people sprawled about. It feels much more malevolent than Singapore does, and at the same time much more authentic and less Western. There are very few white people in evidence as JB is not a major international tourist attraction like Kuala Lumpur. It is, simply, a place where Singaporeans go “for a bit of sin,” or to buy pirate videocassettes of movies that haven’t been released yet. It is quite fascinating.
At the same time, JB is certainly not hopeless, and it doesn’t have that completely desperate border-town feel that permeates Tijuana. JB is the provincial capital of Johor, Malaysia’s southernmost province. There is a huge and quite spectacular palace that belongs to the local sultan, and which is open as a museum now. There is also a fairly shiny mall, and some reasonable shopping here and there. It is definitely not a place you’d choose over Singapore, however, and it throws Singapore’s prosperity into sharp relief.
Oh, and stay out of the public bathrooms unless you have a pair of waders that you want to throw away afterward.
So far I am the only one of the Silkworm crowd to have made the trip to JB, although Joe’s wife Akiko went on a day tour with a friend of hers. We all have vague plans to go up there again, and also to go up to Kuala Lumpur, but we’ve yet to act on them.
The trip back to Singapore was rather adventurous. We decided to walk back along the causeway, which was quite pleasant. The problem is that the only walkway is on the side of the causeway on which the traffic flows from Singapore to JB. That means that you have to do a little interesting jaywalking to get there on the Malaysia side. It also means that when you get back to the Singaporean side, you are on the embarkation side of the highway and customs office. Christie and I assumed that there would be some way to cross over (after all, what if you get through customs and suddenly change your mind?). We were wrong. There was no way across, and traffic was crazy across more than twelve lanes of cars full of people just getting to customs or just clearing customs. It was very frustrating and a little scary. After all, if there is one place that you don’t want to look suspicious it is at an Asian border crossing.
Christie was very hot and uncomfortable by this time, being unused to the brutal heat and humidity. It looked for a bit like the only option might be to get back on a bus and go through the whole process of entering and leaving Malaysia again. Eventually we solved the problem by walking back along the causeway a short ways and actually jay-walking the causeway, which was rather exciting. After that, everything went smoothly. But you can see why we passed on the parade, choosing to watch it at my next door neighbor’s apartment instead.
To the Gulag With Yu Min
After a pleasant eight days it was finally time for Christie to head back to the states and for me to get back to work. With the Chinese New Year holidays over, everyone was recharged and ready to hit the books, and some interesting things happened in quick succession. One interesting thing that happened was that Yu Min got exiled.
Yu Min returned from his new year holiday to find that his desk at Boat Quay had been assigned to someone else and that he was without an office. He was in an extremely bad mood when he showed up for our regular Tuesday meeting at Ngee Ann Polytechnic that week. “I’ve been attached full time to Games Online,” he explained. “I am to concentrate only on Games Online and nothing else.” Joe and I both told him that we were quite pleased. “I’m not,” said Yu Min. “Make no mistake, this is like exile.” It seems that Yu Min ended up on the short end of some kind of political fracas and got exiled to the provinces and, as Joe said, “We’re it.”
It wasn’t all over for Yu Min. He reclaimed himself a little spot at Boat Quay, and he developed a cynical and hard bitten “what the hell” attitude in the wake of his exile that, quite honestly, has not hurt his performance on our behalf one bit. And he’ll have himself a nice fully enclosed office all to himself in our permanent office space when it is done. Still, it was an indication of where we were on the political scale.
The political problems extend beyond Yu Min. A little dip into the Barrel O’ Scuttlebutt™ has revealed that Chris himself is skating on thin ice. Apparently he has called in one too many favors and stepped on one too many set of toes in the last year and his political capital in Sembawang Media has worn very thin. This makes it dangerous for us as we are entirely his bay; a pet project if you will. If Chris gets the big flush, we are high and dry, especially with our contract still under negotiation. We could be shut down in a heartbeat. Conversely, we hold Chris’ career in the balance. If we fold up our tents and go home, or fail spectacularly, we’ll cancel his career faster than you can say Macaulay Culkin.
Not a very good time to be submitting half-million dollar computer orders, but what can you do? We are trying to be sensitive to Chris’ situation because it entwines inextricably with our own fate. On the other hand, with construction begun on our permanent office (see below), the computer order is the last big ticket thing that we have to do. Once that goes through, we become silent and invisible and don’t bother anyone for a year. So we’ll see. If we can navigate through these turbulent times, we’ll be home free. Once the contract is signed, Sembawang is committed. And so are we.
Of course, the contract has come to play in this situation. Chris is under a great deal of pressure (allegedly) to get our deal inked and sealed. We have just had another meeting with our lawyers and received their input, and we will be submitting their recommendations in writing as non-negotiable contract amendments next week. That will either seal the deal or get us all shipped home. We’ll see. It will be an interesting return from CGDC (see below yet again). Word is that the approval of our computer PO is linked directly to the completion of the contract, which is a situation that I had been predicting for a while. We’ll know how it all shakes down in the next few weeks.
At last. One fabulously bright spot in recent developments has been the beginning of construction on our permanent offices. Hard to believe that there was a time when we actually thought that our permanent office might be completed by February 1st. It seems ludicrous now. But after four months of politics, all the “T’s” are dotted and the “I’s” crossed. Last Tuesday, the 18th of March, construction finally began on the permanent office. This has been another huge morale builder for our overcrowded staff. If everything adheres to schedule, that permanent office space that we have been dreaming about since we first arrived will be done. We all go outside every day and check on the progress of the construction (mostly demolition at this stage, actually). We’ll be posting photos as it all comes together.
In one week, on Friday, March 29th (rev: 1996!), Joe, Rob Mike, Paul Naylor, and I all climb back on the old 747 and head out to the San Francisco Bay Area for the annual Computer Game Developer’s conference in Santa Clara. I have never been to this conference, and I am really looking forward to it. I am scheduled for some very interesting sounding seminars on sound-design and sound effects, as well as some not-so-interesting ones on legal matters, business and hiring. It should be quite a blast, and quite a chance to mingle with other people in the industry.
And, of course, it will be my first visit back to the sates since moving to Singapore just a little over four months ago. Although time has seemed to pass by very quickly, when I look back on all the things that have passed by since I moved out here it seems a very long time since I last saw home. I am not sure how I am going to react to this trip, but I am sure that it will be a bit surreal. It will probably feel quite odd to get back on the airplane to come “home” to Singapore.
The Star of All Media
And now it is time for all those fun bits’n’pieces that I put at the end of every report from Singapore.
One thing that is interesting is that I am on TV.
Well, how the hell did that happen?
Sembawang Media, in co-operation with the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS), is producing a four-segment series on new technologies called (I am not responsible for this) “IT4U.” That’s Information Technology For You. Geddit!?
Yeah, yeah… I didn’t make up the title. (Rev: It was changed to Cybertime, which was vaguely less offensive.)
The show is being co-produced by a good friend of mine from Sembawang Media, Earl Tan. Yes, that’s the same Earl that you read about way back in the first installment, back in September. When they began interviewing and auditioning prospective hosts at Boat Quay in December, Earl asked me to try out for the gig because of my radio experience and overall yutz-like demeanor. Well, I certainly didn’t have time for a full time presenter’s gig, much as the natural ham (and ego) in me would love to be on TV. So we joked about it a bit, but I declined to audition.
About a month or so later, though, Earl came back to me and asked if I was interested in being the software and multimedia reviewer for the show, and doing two or three minutes per week. Now that sounded like fun, so Earl set up a meeting with him, me, and Chay, the executive producer from TCS. We all got along, so I was offered the gig.
Of course, this is Singapore, so the rules were screwy. Oh, yeah, I could keep my long hair (although they eventually pony-tailed it because it was wigging out the chroma- key), and dress casually, but I was not allowed to review anything badly for Singaporean cultural and political reasons. Apparently Sembawang and TCS were being loaned the review copies of the software by Challenger Superstore, a large CompUSA type computer store in the Funan Centre. Because of this we had to return all the review software, which sucks, and we couldn’t review anything badly because that would piss off Challenger. Unfortunately, at that point it was way to late to go straight to the source for software. The compromise was that every week I would be given ten pieces of software from which I could pick two or three that I liked to review. I have done two instalments so far, and generally managed to find enough software worth reviewing well. At least I can point out flaws.
I have taped two segments at the TCS studios on Upper Thomson Road. They are very much like any other large, commercialTV station. TCS also produces dramas and sitcoms, like a studio, so there are sets other than those for news there. It is quite a big operation.
They tape my segments in the studio used for the Mandarin language news-magazine. They use it because there is a bluescreen. Unfortunately, the studio is designed for short people sitting down, and my segments are taped standing. That requires me to lean against a rail at the back of the set and slouch a bit at the knees. They also have to un-gaff all of the microphone wires so that the Lavalier mic can reach me. The earpiece doesn’t reach at all, so someone has to cure me like a stage manager.
They shoot me against a bluescreen and key me into this 3D animated backdrop they had whipped up by some freelance people. It is very busy, and a bit disconcerting, but it beats the newsmagazine set. I feel like Max Headroom when I see myself in the monitor. I do the segments as a monologue, reading my own copy back from the TelePrompTer. Originally they were going to have one of the hosts talk to me each week, but they canned that idea. I was disappointed, because I always work better with a foil.
I really had to learn how to do television. All my experience as a performer has been in radio, so, naturally, the first time they shot me, I looked like a mannequin. I moved nothing but my mouth. So they told me to relax and make more gestures. When you watch TV you take the presenter’s hand and arm gestures for granted. But when you are doing them, you feel like a doofus. It is a TV only situation; you’d never move like that in real life. Lo and behold, though, it looks much better on TV. It really took me a couple of weeks to get the hang of it, and, in fact, I had improved enough by the second week that they retaped my first-week segment. (The premiere is not until at least April 7th.)
Another thing was that none of my shirts are TV friendly, so they had to wardrobe me. (They also put me through makeup, which was a first for me. In classic Singaporean style, at TCS you have to file a requisition to have makeup done on someone, even though my makeup job consists of pony-tailing my hair and giving me a quick slap of pancake.) So we went down to the wardrobe department, where, naturally, nothing fit. They finally found some shirts that belonged to the former host of the Pyramid Game, Singapore’s low rent answer to the $64,000 Pyramid. Apparently, that guy was quite, err… stocky… for a Singaporean.
So I’ll get a copy converted to NTSC when they finally broadcast the show, and send it home. The coolest thing of all, though, is that the show will be broadcast in both English and Mandarin. That means, yes, I get to be dubbed into Mandarin. I can’t wait to see it.
That isn’t the end of my media hijinks, though. I am also involved with this project called Live@BoatQuay, which is essentially an Internet variety radio show. Jek Kian Jin, the coolest guy at Sembawang Media, and Gerrie Lim and a few of the other rebels got this idea to do a full fledged radio show and broadcast the whole thing across the Internet using RealAudio. They are going to have interviews, live music, disc jockeys, talk, etc. There will be live and prerecorded material. It is quite an effort, really. They invited me on board because of my radio experience, so I will be hosting a show for them when I come back from CGDC. I think I’ll probably just shoot off my mouth and play some tunes. I’ll be anonymous, so I can turn my id loose a bit, although not too much because it is Singapore. I am also providing production facilities with my GOL audio studio, and I’ll whip them up a pile of bumpers and liners, and let them use the studio for recording interviews etc. It should be fun, and I’ll let everyone know when it is going to be on. Looks like I found my media niche. I just had to move to the other side of the planet. Shows what happens when you move to a tiny talent pool.
Sarong Party Girls
So Mike and Rob went out with Leshia and a friend of hers and picked up an interesting piece of intelligence while they were out. Apparently, there is a class of girls in Singapore referred to as Sarong Party Girls, or SPGs. (Sarongs are the wraps that women used to wear here in the old days, before they got Dolce and Gabbana miniskirts.) Sarong Party Girls are local girls who date white expatriates who generally make more money than locals. Apparently SPGs will date a white expat as long as the money and expensive gifts keep flowing. If and when that flow dries up, hasta baby. (Paul Naylor thinks that there may a prestige element at least as important as the financial one, but then, that may just be wishful thinking on his part.) There are, supposedly, several SPG bars where a white man who flashes a wad or buys a round of drinks will immediately be set upon by the minskirted hordes.
Now, you may think that this is all great. Want a girlfriend? Cough up some dough. Tired of the relationship? Get poor in a hurry. Unfortunately, as Rob and Mike explained wistfully, it also means that it is impossible to get into a wholesome relationship with a nice local girl because those girls who are not SPGs are afraid as being perceived as SPGs. So there it is. Celibacy or the brothel. Fire or ice.
There is apparently an entire book out about this phenomenon, although I have not located it yet. (Rev: I have now. There are three books, actually, all tongue-in-cheek.)
Joe found a kitten.
He was out wandering around the Ngee Ann Polytechnic staff apartments one evening, and he heard a mewling noise. When he went to investigate, he found a very small grey kitten. Upon finding it, he recalled having seen two small, distressed children a couple of days before asking if anyone had seen their kitten. Thinking (apparently correctly) that this was their kitten, Joe took it home, and we all came over to cluck and swoon over it.
Joe and Akiko fed the kitten milk and bits of fish, which it ate with relish, and we started thinking about what we would do with it. It was really fabulously cute, but it is the nature of kittens to change into cats, and Joe and Akiko have a baby on the way. So we took some video and photos of the cat and put a flyer up around the apartments. No one responded.
Two months later, we still have the cat. He is named “cat,” or “the cat,” depending on whom you ask. Only recently did it move into Rob and Paul’s flat, where it will be resident apparently until we move out of Singapore. We made no concerted effort to find someone to adopt the cat while it was still cute and harmless, and we have paid for our folly now.
The cat is a little flesh-eating hellion. Joe’s discipline in raising the kitten (now about 3 months old) was lax, and the kitten is, errr, frolicsome (my spellchecker already has the word frolicsome in it, I am surprised to see). It likes to attack feet and hands, and occasionally necks. Now, don’t get me wrong, the kitten is not mean or vicious. It is just very energetic and playful, and has not yet been taught not to scratch or bite. Consequently, any play session with the kitten is sure to end with a few scratches.
Any chance of finding the kitten a home has evaporated. It is now beyond the cute stage, and anyone who comes over to meet it will most likely flee in terror. On the other hand, it is a nice cat in most respects, and Rob and Paul’s program of discipline seems to be toning down its behavior a bit. At least the cat has learned the word “no.”
What we are going to do with it in two years, when we return to the Bay Area, I have no idea. If we bring it back to the states, it is in for six months of quarantine. On the other hand, we are told that there are pedigree kittens in the Singapore animal shelter that can not be placed, and have to be destroyed. And “cat” is a long way from being pedigreed. Hopefully, we can place him with someone on the GOL staff. (Rev: He is huge now, at nearly 1 year of age.)
Off the Ang Moh Path
Mike found the coolest store. It is called Eng Tiang Huat, and it is billed as an import/export and Chinese cultural products, musical equipment, martial arts equipment, and opera props and embroidery supply store.
We call it, simply the Silly Hat Store. Yes, you can get the same silly hats there that were featured on the Silly Hat Show (which we all miss tremendously now that it is over). It is jam-packed with all sorts of interesting theatrical, musical, and artistic curios. You can get stone chops (Chinese signature stamps; the red square stamps you se on Chinese art work) hand engraved with your name in Chinese characters (phonetic approximation) for $38. You can get a fan with your name in calligraphy for $12. You can get an er-hu (Chinese two-string violin) for $30, or a good one for $200. There are opera robes, fake weapons, other musical instruments, cymbals (I got a cool one that goes bwoop! in an ascending tone, hand pounded by impoverished peasants in China. There are also art works, and a lion- dancer’s lion head that I covet so bad I can taste it. There is also a painted wooden box that I am in love with, but at $1800, it is a little out of my range.
The cool thing is that this is not a tourist place. It is as far off from being a tourist place as you can imagine. There are very few white patrons, and the shop is tucked out of the way in an alley. It caters to the local musical and theatrical crowd. It is dusty, and disorganized, and looks exactly like what you would want the Chinese curio shop to look like in that movie that you’ve always wanted to direct. There is even an ancestral Chinese shrine tucked in one corner of the ceiling. (Rev: Pretty common in Chinese shops.)
The proprietor is a pleasant man names Jeremy Eng Chek Hiang. Jeremy is doing quite well, judging from his car, and it is our theory that the shop is a family heirloom that he runs as a sideline.
Jeremy is obviously a reasonably competent musician, and he demonstrated several of the instruments in the shop for us. I need to hire local musicians to do some Chinese music for one of our projects, and when I asked Jeremy if he knew any local musicians I could hire, he suggested his own group. Well that sounded great to me, and I told him I was interested. He told me that the group was $400 an hour, which sounded reasonable to me. I envisioned five or six musicians with a variety of traditional instruments (don’t worry, the story has a happy ending).
Jeremy said that the group was rehearsing the next day (Sunday), and would I care to watch them rehearse? Mike and I were thrilled, and Jeremy told us to meet him on Sunday at his shop in the afternoon.
The next day Mike and I met Jeremy, and followed him down to neighborhood just off downtown. We with Jeremy up to the fifth floor of a rather grungy building, where we were surprised to find a forty piece Chinese orchestra (er-hu, pi pa flutes, hammer dulcimer, pipes, percussion, and cellos and a double bass…yes, I know the last two are European) as well as a Chinese choir of another twenty or so people. It was quite spectacular. We were introduced to the conductor and orchestra director by Jeremy, who warned us to introduce ourselves as his friends, and not his customers if we didn’t want to take shit. Then we watched the orchestra practice for about an hour and a half. It was great.
It was an interesting experience, and one of the few times in Singapore that I felt I was truly off the ang moh path, as we call it. The entire session was in Mandarin, and we got stares from many people. Mike theorised that we were the first foreigners to set foot in the building, and it certainly felt that way. On the other hand, everyone was courteous, and the music was fantastic. I am planning on hiring about six of the musicians to provide music for Year of the Rat, and Jeremy has told me that the conductor can compose music to order as well.
Update on Gwai Loh & Ang Moh
We have recently learned that our casual use of the word gwai loh may be offensive to locals, our staff being the locals in question. (Gwai loh is the Cantonese for “white ghost, and is colloquial for a white person, much as ang moh, or “red hair” is in Hokkien.) We bandy both terms about as a joke on ourselves, but Leshia explained that it is a genuine racist invective. That doesn’t bother us any. If black people can co-opt “nigger,” I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t co-opt the Chinese racist invective against white people.
But, of course, it is a question of context. The implication when we use the word gwai loh is that all Chinese people are racist, which, of course is not true, and certainly not true among our staff. Imagine being with a black person, and getting the impression that they thought all white people thought of them, seriously, as “nigger.” It would make you uncomfortable. So we have a renewed sensitivity about the word gwai loh. We still use it amongst ourselves, but not in the company of locals.
Rev: We have since been told by various members of our staff that it is no big deal at all, and most locals are likely to be amused by ang moh referring to themselves as ang moh.
Next installment: CGDC and E3, our new office, our new staff, the resolution of the music studio, and will the great computer odyssey come to an end? (Hint: No.)