J for Jampulets

Dear friends, my beloved J died 20 February 2019. He struggled in the past month with anxiety and depression. While he received help from doctors and therapists, and so many of us spent time with him making sure he never felt alone, in the deep fog of his illness he left us.

He was loved by God and he knew he needed Jesus. Even as he struggled, he clung to God. Please be comforted, as I am comforted and confident, that in God’s goodness, grace and mercy, J is rescued and redeemed, and is now safe in God’s heavenly arms!

(*My apologies and an important note*: An important note if you are a relative or somehow connected to his family: please do not let the news get to J’s aged father or any of his elderly relatives. Please be considerate to his siblings and leave them to handle this tough news. Thank you.)

An ampulets celebration!
I would like to share some thoughts about J to celebrate this wonderful person who is my bestest and favouritest everything, every single day we have been together the past 18 years. We enjoyed a strong and I think special bond. I am so blessed to have shared the moniker of “ampulets 安普樂” with him, and will endeavour to keep this special something we made and will continue to make.

One thing everyone who knows J well will say is that J was very well loved. Whenever he asked me to describe him, as couples often do in their irritatingly self-indulgent way, i would always say first, that he is funny and furry; then, that I am amazed by the many good friends he has and how he is so loved.

Why was J so loved? Mostly because he has a big heart.

He received and gave love generously. I first got to know J almost 20 years ago at a difficult time in his life. His then-wife had wanted to leave him for another man, and I was shocked by how he forgave her so freely even though he was so deeply hurt. I wouldn’t have been so generous! Few of us would have been.

If you went out anywhere with J, you would have experienced bumping into someone else who knows him - at the traffic light, at the market, along the jogging path, at the MRT station, the most random places. Old aunties, uncles, very young people, arty people, designer-type people and very Singaporean-type people. When he saw someone in the distance whom he might know, an old army friend or a secondary school mate, instead of turning away to avoid contact (which is what many of us would do), he would go up and connect with that person. He didn’t see the need to be shy about this. In fact, he welcomed such connections and whatever these encounters brought to him and others.

He kept his friends close to him and always made time to ask how are you and ask to meet. He wasn’t one of those friends you don’t hear from for months. He did not take the people around him for granted and was constantly thoughtful about others. For example, he always made it a point to tell my mom how much he enjoyed her food, not because he wanted to “sa-ka” his mother-in-law, but because he saw how much love she put into it and how much she needed and deserved that encouragement when most of us would take the food for granted. So if he met you and he saw you wearing something nice, he would say it. If he came across a talented young person, he would want to support their work. I think he lived with no regrets when it came to expressing his encouragement and love, and I should know - every day, he did not hold back from showing his love to me in the most practical, silly or fantastic ways. And I, him. He was that easy to love.

J did not just have a big heart, he had a good heart, a kind heart.

If we ever saw a blind or old person needing help, and believe me there are lots of old people in Toa Payoh, I would just say “J, go help” and he would, without thinking. In fact, he would often notice someone in need first, and required very little prompting for any small kind act - whether it is to offer to carry someone’s bag up the stairs or down the bus, or stay with someone looking unwell until all was good. He was more than an hour late once meeting me because he was helping a supposedly blind man who was seemingly lost in Orchard Road find his way around, make contact with his friends and even repair his glasses! Ended up that was a con-man who managed to swindle $50 from J. Whatever little acts of kindness he gave to strangers, he was more than ready to extend that help to friends and family. If he said “no” to any of you, please know that he would have struggled for a long time before he gave that reply.

He could empathise and help others, because he not only had a big, good heart, but because he had a broken heart.

He held many worries and a deep desire for perfection and beauty. He held himself but also others close to him to high standards. He wanted always to do the right thing, and he wanted always to love me perfectly. When I underwent the surgeries late 2018, the fear of losing me and the strains of caregiving broke something in him. He saw his own brokenness, sometimes too clearly. With friends, as with some of you, he never hid his vulnerabilities. And because he was always honest and real, many opened themselves up to him as well. In his troubles or plain ol’ grumpiness, many of you have been a source of great comfort, understanding and joy to him. He appreciated your goodness and held them close, next to the worries and up there with his ideas of perfection.

And because he had a broken heart, he knew he needed Christ, who was God’s perfect son. Particularly during the last months of 2018 when I was in hospital, he experienced personally and very deeply how God loved and provided for us. I was happy that there was this one good thing that came out of that stressful time for him - J clung to God daily.

There is so much goodness to remember of J’s life. I wish there were more years of his life for me to experience. But that would be greedy and now, an impossible ask. Us amps praise God for all the goodness there has been!

A request
I would much prefer that you do not send me messages or leave comments although I appreciate your thoughts and prayers. I only ask that if you know anyone who is suffering from anxiety, depression or even a very bumpy patch in life, please be kind. I know that while such emotional turmoil and mental illness are invisible afflictions, they are far harder than anything I can imagine.

If you have ever lost someone to depression or anxiety, do not stand accused. Instead, know that you have done whatever you can in love.

If you ever have had such dark thoughts, please reach out early to people around you, counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, SOS ... Do not hesitate. However impossible it feels in our foggiest darkest moments, it is not. We can be and are often helpless, any and all of us, but we need not be without hope.


Taiwan Number 8

At J's fave cafe in Taipei

Perhaps it has nothing to do with any intrinsic qualities of the city, the land, the people or the culture that we keep returning to this place. Maybe it has to do instead with the time we lavish walking through its streets and alleys, the quiet we give to ourselves in its hills and valleys, the curiosity we award to its conversations, and our willingness to receive.

And so our 8th trip together to Taiwan yields little in terms of new discoveries. Our typical itinerary is to spend a week in wider Taipei, day trips and all, and another 2-3 days in another part of the island.

Part 1: Hualien: the Pacific, the gorge and the ferns
Image by J: on the road to the gorge 

It was a 3 day/2 night trip with our base in Hualien city (the Hualien county is on the East Coast of Taiwan, between Yilan and Taitung), chiefly to check out the famed Taroko Gorge. We opted for a private tour so there isn't much advice we can give on being adventurous! But with permits and a guide you could do overnight treks; or if you can ride a scooter or moped, you could explore less popular trails.

Image by YL - bike path on the way to Qixing, encountering concrete breakwater structures and dark clouds

Our first day at Hualien city we attempted to cycle on rented bikes from the city's Nanbin coast to 七星潭 (Seven stars bay), a black pebble beach. There is a well-marked bike trail that will take some 2-4 hours to and from the city, depending on how many stops you take to wow at the scenery along the way! [We didn't get there in the end as it was threatening to storm and our bikes didn't have any lights.]

The trail is broken at one point by an unpleasant stretch of construction and a massive cement factory that mines rocks from the taroko mountains. The landscape changes from the beautiful ocean views to this apocalyptic monster of pipes, towers, dust and rust.

Cafe that looks like it's closed down, Hualien City 

We understand from the guide that it was long promised by the government that the factory would go, but this year, the factory's lease was extended again, leading to protests. I don't understand much of Taiwanese politics, but there is always a suggestion of corruption. Walking around the city, many of shops were shut. While it could be because this is not quite peak tourist season for the gorge, but beyond tourism, there was also a sense that the standoff with China was affecting the rest of the Taiwanese economy. Of course, as a tourist, I do not miss the hordes of Chinese tourists we experienced during our 2010 and 2013 trips.

The Taroko tribe still owns much of the land in and around the gorge. We were reminded of this by a sign at the start of a popular tourist trail that it was in fact the road into the aboriginal 部落 (village). At one point, an aboriginal auntie zipped past us on the scooter, with a white puppy chasing.

The gorge is lovely. Its sights are made accessible by multiple tunnels carved into the rocky sides. Our guide took us on foot through one of the tunnels still in use and showed us another abandoned path or road, far narrower and snaking along the cliff. That used to be the only road that came through  the gorge. Either cars were a whole lot smaller then or people were more foolhardy.

Because we did not take the path less travelled, the best part of our Hualien trip was our morning drive that finally brought us to 七星潭 (Seven stars bay). It's not the kind of beach you swim in. It is the sort of beach that gives meaning to "roar" and "crash'. Yet it is immensely peaceful standing before an undisturbed stretch of coast with the Pacific Ocean before you. There are barely any ships in sight and definitely to hint of land in the horizon. Instead, the waves are magnetic to the gaze; their percussion is both fierce and meditative.

Image by the Guide, but "art directed" by J from a distance!   

P/S We didn't hunt down any food, but one thing we will recommend eating at hualien is... bird's nest fern! It is supposedly an aboriginal dish. They cook only the very young leaves of the fern. We had it fried and flavoured with salted black bean and garlic. I think it's called 山蔬. The leaves are sweet and crunchy. At the hotel's breakfast, another fern was served. But this is a more common vegetable fern that you'll also come across as the 山菜 that is eaten with Japanese soba .

Part 2: Revisiting mountain friends
Image by J: Waiting for ZhuMaMa's rice balls...

Back in Taipei, we were warned that Yangmingshan will be covered in a thick mist that day, so we decided on a fuss free trek up the Elephant Mountain. Armed with giant rice balls from street vendor ZhuMaMa (imagine: fish floss, salted radish, braised egg and crunchy dough fritters wrapped in red rice!), we trooped up Elephant Mountain.  It's not our first time up Elephant Mountain (click here for our past trip & more practical tips), so we got up to the top pretty quick.  Much of Taipei from the top was cloud country as well. At that point, we thought we'll venture to the next peak - 姆指山 (Thumb Mountain), and figure what next from there.

Image by J: A glimpse of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

The older we get the less adventurous we are. Because we didn't plan for this extension of the walk, we were tentative in our steps all the way, even though the trails are all very well marked out with maps, signs, and stone paths. We would have chickened out and headed back if not for our trusty mountain friends again.

This time, it was Mr. Singapore-is-boring and Ms. Are-you-going-there-too.

He made it clear from the start of our conversation that he didn't think too much of our tropical island. He belonged to a section of the Taiwanese people who disdain the order and predictability of our island state (some say they are just jealous). But it wasn't an uncomfortable conversation as he was pretty matter-a-fact. More importantly, he encouraged us along the way! And he got us to venture even further up to the 九五峰 (9-5 Peak)where the air was even more crisp and the peak was more exposed.

Joining us intermittently along the way was a middle aged lady walking alone. As it was a cold drizzly day, the trail was mostly deserted along the way. Like us, she was hesitant where the trail forked or seemed to take an unexpected upward trajectory. Seemingly unprepared in her pale pink jacket, blue jeans, Skechers shoes and foldable umbrella, I wonder what made her take this walk alone that day.

As we went along, she felt comfortable enough to eventually ask - "Are you going up there?" - pointing to a large boulder outcrop whose top was covered in a thick mist, and along the edge was what I would certainly call "a treacherous path". We said no, she eyed the path, we said "too dangerous", she eyed the path again, "I was thinking whether to go, and if you'll go..", we said no. And that was that. Singapore is boring that way.

Once past the this peak, we joined the 虎山Tiger Mountain trail. From there, it was another 30-40 min down to the start of the trail. Along the way, we walked by a shed where an old lady and uncle offered massage services, and another shed before a small grassy field with a sign that announced its status as the Taichi Association.  Tiger Mountain must be where the martial arts pugilists of old go to get a massage before they go attack their enemies, or to learn some secret Taichi moves from the invisible Master in that nondescript rundown hut.

Images by J. The sign reads: "Everybody together practise Taichi"

Altogether the walk was a fairly leisurely 3 hours.
[For other mountain friends at YangMingShan, click here, and for the Seven Stars trail at YangMingShan, click here.]

Part 3: Taipei Stories
Image by J - in search of supper

Just when it felt like we could spend most of our days in Taipei revisiting cafes, bookstores and spots already known to us, we found two stores whose shopkeepers seem to be both displaying yet hiding their stories. Their charm is in creating these seemingly personal libraries or museums that can never be completely consumed, if at all.

溫事 (Zhongshan North Road, Lane 33) is a corner two-storey shop with ceramic works mostly from Japan and a second storey or loft-like space displaying the owner's collection of Japanese chawans set within a tea ceremony space. The very modest and soft-spoken owner set behind his counter most of the time reading most of the time we were there, although he offered to take us up to see his collection after a while.  Time stood very still in that space. It was exactly as the owner wrote: 期待一期一會  (awaiting each moment of meeting).

How did this middle-aged man in an outdoor vest and bedroom slippers come to fall in love with tea? How did he create this space, this shell and armour into which he slips and waits? Why?

Of course the Singaporean in me also wonders - how on earth does he survive - can make money like this meh? He must have been some crazy stockbroker in his past life who smoked 2 packs a day, and while that lifestyle is over, he still relishes wearing a vest. Maybe?

Then there is a second storey bar in a small alley 茴香. I had hesitated to share its name, because it feels like it cherishes  anonymity - or else I am just being selfish. The owner Mei is a woman who looks like she had just walked out of an Amano comic, and the space sits up to a maximum 15 people. There is nothing that exceptional about the space except that every painting and piece of furniture seems to be at home there. It was unpretentious, comfortable and, even when almost packed, quiet.

Among the regulars (we were there 3 nights in a row) were an artist, another looked like an engineer who seemed to fancy the owner, an old man was some TV academic or businessman or minor celebrity who has a lot of opinions and money, and a good looking couple brought their suppers there. We were the odd tourist who had stumbled in and decided to sit in a corner with our funny accents.

Did she always own this bar? What was she doing travelling this much to Japan? Was she ever bored with the folks who sat at the counter - are they her old classmates, devoted admirers, neighbours upstairs? How on earth did she keep such nice skin staying up late every day?!?

So friends, when you ask "Aren't you guys bored of Taiwan yet??", you can re-read this post for the answer.

For past itineraries and recommendations > click here or the "Taiwan" label on the left bar.


Mid-life reflections on the MacRitchie trail

All images in this post by J.

It's like learning how to cycle when you all grown up. All you can think about is the falling down.

The last time J and I ran along a trail at the MacRitchie nature reserve was definitely more than a year ago. Maybe even two. Since then, I haven't even gone running much, having grown lazy with "the demands of work".

So when I stupidly suggested going for a run in MacRitchie, J's eyes lit up - mostly with disbelief.

Actually even I didn't believe it will happen. I was super dreading the painful, breathless trudge up the uphill sections (and there are many). Aiyoh, there would be the heavy 4pm air that clogged up the lungs. Oh and the humiliation of these retirees whizzing by, plus the distraction of aggressive monkeys...what about the potential cramps and headache...

After hours of such silent protest and whining in my head, we took a cab to MacRitchie. I survived to share these reflections, which are kind of like my mid-life (does 42 going on 43 still count as midlife?) reflections, if you will indulge the metaphors.

1. It is ok to walk when the uphill-going gets too tough...
It feels like you've given up - failed - lost it. It's not. As long as you keep moving, just keep moving - however slowly.  The uncle or two uncles will run by you in the meantime. Heck, even the auntie doing her briskier walk will outpace you - and that hyper 5 year-old will skip by. Some things are difficult. Be humble. Some things are gonna leave you breathless. But most times it's worthwhile to still keep at it, however slow.

2. Cos, hey, if you don't at least reach the top of the trail, you can't enjoy the downhill sprints.
The downhill sprints are worth it. Especially for lazy people like me. Little effort. Much reward! Even if the bare-chested sinewy runners who aren't breaking a sweat running in the opposite direction  uphill are taking even larger strides than you are, it's your moment of freedom.

3. Running downhill (ok, that sounds too ominous) - running downslope is better when it's fast.
And you've got to run like you are free. There is no time to think of falling. Trust your body and the momentum. I'm not smart enough to get behind the science of this. But running downslope actually feels more dangerous when you are slow and your landings are hesitant and heavy.

4. Feeling the hard, rocky ground is safer than being completely cushioned from the sharp edges.
There are some crazy rocky bits on the trail. Protecting your feet is important. But I've found myself more sure-footed when I can feel more of the ground on a minimal, flexible sole. Some friction keeps you grounded.

5. Listen.
Maybe it's because having more information helps your body to process, balance, and adjust against the terrain. And in the same way, if your body is saying slow down, slow down. Listen to your body.

Listen to the ones you love and trust. So when J said not to have any more excuses and just run - I'm glad I did that afternoon.

But even your body and loved ones are not always wise or right. For J & I, it's always a reminder to listen to God. No metaphors here.


8 Books for August the 9th

If watching the National Day Parade or listening to those National Day songs is "too much" for that skeptical you, but you know it doesn't make you any less of a citizen, I recommend any of these books by Singapore writers instead to spend your August with (in order of their appearance on the photo, from left to right, top to bottom). They are mostly written pre-2000... not because nothing good has been written since, but for me, these titles have stood the test of time.

Singapore the Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the politics of comfort and control 1990-2000, Cherian George (2000)
This is the first collection of essays on Singapore society/culture/politics that I've really enjoyed, for its incisiveness and insight, and the quality of its writing. I found it also an unabashedly "patriotic" book, a voice that cared about the society he lived in.

Frankie and Poo: What is Love, Incomplete & Abridged, Sonny Liew (1996)
Pre-Charlie Chan fame, Sonny Liew drew daily strips for The New Paper (or was it ST?) back when newspapers still had comic strips. I looked forward to the Calvin-and-Hobbes inspired comic strip,  the questions and wry humour about life in Singapore were easy to relate to. I think you can still find this book in the library.  It's got all the casual political critique you will find in Charlie Chan (and the book was published by SPH's Times!), but 1996 belonged to a different time... Then, the lo-fi feel of the drawings wouldn't embarrass anyone too. Below is an image taken from a random page.

A History of Amnesia, Alfian Sa'at (2001) but actually the poetry collection I really want to recommend is One Fierce Hour (1998) but I think I loaned that book to someone years ago and it never came back. I remember reading it, a year or so after I came back to Singapore from the UK, and feeling excited about the quality of writing. Sure there was lots of angst from the then 21 year-old poet, and there will continue to be that angst in our literature in this politically and sometimes even socially oppressive society, but I have never before heard a voice both "fierce" and lyrical. 

Fascist Rock, Claire Tham (1990)
Another angry-young-person book. I read this in JC1, was jealous of the writer. But after years of resisting the Singapore fiction that was Catherine Lim, Claire Tham's short stories were urban, current and energetic. And it had the words "Fascist" and "Rock" in it. Win liao. It will seem dated today. Pre-social media, the means and meaning of rebellion were perhaps more subtle and considered. 

The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole...and other plays, Kuo Pao Kun (1990)
These plays by Singapore's foremost playwright will survive re-stagings. I think every generation of audience - and not only in Singapore - will be able to empathise with the characters' encounters with bureaucracy, authority, loss and desire for home.

As Though the Gods Love Us, Goh Poh Seng (2000) and If We Dream Too Long, Goh (1972)
The former is a poetry collection and the latter is Goh Poh Seng's first novel (I have a photocopied version somewhere in a cupboard but you can probably find it in the library). Goh's biography Tall Tales of a Young Westernised Oriental Gentleman  is a great read. I don't know why If we dream left such an impression on me. The writing, particularly its dialogue, was a little stilted. Its premise of an idealistic young man battling his pragmatic environment is familiar with all coming-of-age stories.  If I have to use an adjective to describe what I've read, I think it'll be "honest".  Read it. Also Goh's poems. Maybe you'll discover his writing for yourself.

The Space of City Trees, Arthur Yap - this is an old selection, his collected poems are also now available under NUS Press.

My favourite Singapore poet to read aloud - or even if you read his poems silently to yourself, you will be drawn not only into his paintings, but the cadence of his brush strokes, the gentleness with which he seems to view the world. His poems are like an oasis whenever you feel our tropical island is too crude, the air too dense, the people too unkind. 

These Foolish Things & Other Stories, Yeo Wei Wei (2015)
And so we enter this decade! I may be biased because WW is a very dear friend. But these stories are damn well-written. They are measured, humorous, witty and strong. They also remind me that our arts and lives in Singapore are not only defined by politics, but they are rich for the relationships, feelings and thoughts that we have. And it is for this that our stories and lives are free. 


10 Books to survive this strange reality (Part 1)

Special guest appearance by HolyCrap's monster!

In an attempt to escape from a world that gets weirder by the day, I've been reading science fiction.

So far I'm halfway through a 10-title SciFi reading list. There's a trashy quality to SciFi (starting with the covers of these supermarket editions!), partly because it's been a very white-male genre concerned about survival and dominance, or at least of the titles I've read so far...but thanks to a friend CT who has introduced Chinese Sci-Fi, I've just added 2 to the remaining to-read list.  

So not surprisingly, 2 of the more interesting titles I've gotten through are not by white-male writers. Le Guin's (white female) 70s novel gets quite didactic about capitalist-socialist ideologies, but it is also feminist and a great defender of the arts, as she is of the theoretical sciences. Delany's (black male) novel in the trip 60s has the usual environmental disaster/terrorist troubles boiling, but he has cast a female poet-linguist with an Asian name saving the world through language. 

What makes Sci-Fi interesting is also how much their dys/utopian visions are grounded in the times they are written in, and like all good fiction, the ideals and evils behind God-like aliens, androids, "cat-people", greedy corporations, foolish academics/bureaucrats, and oppressed inter-stellar settlers persist today. 

Of course, all this means that SciFi is often no escape from today's world at all! But the stories help frame our realities, and sometimes, they point to some new perspectives, even hope. 

So friends, I welcome more recommendations. And when I am done  reading all the titles (Part 2 of this post?), this self-style literature module on SciFi will be up for adoption!

1. Cat Country (1932), Lao She...yes, he of the TeaHouse fame.
2. Childhood's End (1953), Arthur C Clarke
3. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Robert Heinlein
4. Dune (1965), Frank Herbert
5. Babel 17 (1966) and Empire Star (1966), Samuel Delany
6. Do androids dream of electric sheep (1968), Philip K. Dick
7. The Gods Themselves (1972), Isaac Asimov
8. The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula Le Guin
9. Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson
10. The Three-Body Problem (2008), Liu Cixin

Bonus give-aways:
*American Gods (2001), Neil Gaiman
**Six lEasy Pieces: Essentials of Physics (1963), Richard P. Feynman

*OK, this one is not sci-fi, but it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. I realise I am so not a fan of Neil Gaiman so this is a bonus in my eventual give-away pack. 
**If you are, like me, a complete idiot in physics, then the physics mambo-jambo in some of the Sci-fi will more than bewilder you. Reading these 6 lectures won't make any of that stuff less fantastical, but it will equip you for basic party conversation with 10 year-olds on atoms, molecules and space travel.



The folks ahead of me in the queue hesitated getting on the bus. And when I finally got up the bus, I smelled their dilemma. An old lady in an old oversized tee, disheveled and seated by the exit eating a carton of takeaway noodles, had pooed either in her clothes or had it staining her clothes. The whole bus stank. Where I sat at the back of the bus the smell mingled with someone's medicated oil. 
A grumpy lady seated at the front was urging the driver to persuade her to leave. An NS boy (a brash kid with a crooked neck I watched grow up in the neighbourhood) snapped at the old lady to get down the bus. She shouted back at him - "you army how to fight war like that". Caught, the driver didn't want to leave the bus terminal and radioed for help. I thought I heard him plead with her at one point that eating on the bus was not allowed. Poo, while inconvenient, was.
This went on for a couple of minutes. J and I looked at each other - should we speak up and ask the driver to please just move on, surely we'll all survive the stink. It was terrible, but so was this bullying. Soon as the radio comments grew, the lady got off the bus and we were told to do the same. Another empty bus had turned up.
For our bullying or complicit silence, for our bodies failing us, for our poverties and pity - it was a quiet shameful ride home.


a new day

Image by J

J wrote this on his FB:


This is a translation into English:

A few days ago, while having lunch at the hawker centre where I live, I bumped into the helper who works at the Western food stall. Let's call him Meng. In any case, since he's no stranger, I wished him a happy lunar new year in advance. He shrugged and replied, "it's easy for the new year to pass, after all, it's only a couple of days.  Nothing remarkable. What's difficult is trying to get by every single day for the rest of the year."

It got me thinking that whether it's the lunar new year or another festive occasion, perhaps one of its purposes is simply to break the monotony and grind of our daily life. And if we don't even pause and make some effort to observe these occasions, perhaps we will always be weighed down and never see pass the strains and stresses of our daily lives.

Photo: Pa J goes to visit Uncle Yeh to tailor two to three pairs of new trousers ahead of every lunar new year season. This year, J went along.


alone at Bras Basah

Bras Basah Complex is my favourite place for wandering alone. It is heaven for loners, a paean to the joys of spending time alone, a refuge for those still learning to do so, but also a reminder of how being alone is a necessary part of growing (up or old).

Which is why Bras Basah Complex is - at its heart - a Complex of bookstores. The old timers bear such heroic and hopeful names: union, friendship, youth and the younger Basheer. The newcomers speak a language naturally closer to today's desires: popular, Socrates, or rather, cat(s). You are alone but never lonely in the worlds that books contain, and in the knowledge - of self, others, the world - that you gain.

Surrounding the bookstores are other shops that promise self-improvement. Not of the financial kind, but of the spirit, mind and body. There are the old art supplies stores that smell of ink, paper and stone, hidden by the ever-expanding Art Friend. And stationary shops that supply not only the office but retail harmonicas, ukuleles and fountain pens. Because these are the tools you need to create your own worlds and champion your rebellions - resilience and resistance. 

Of course the function of commerce necessitates the presence of printing shops and event collateral suppliers today at the Complex. But even with these shops there is a sense of DIY. 

Then there are the opticians. Because the greatest hazard of reading is looking like a nerd.

The last kind of shops at Bras Basah Complex bear a similar fate as bookstores, battling the digital stare! On the Complex's ground floor are a handful of watch and clock shops. The watch, like the fountain pen, was the mark of the learned and accomplished man, and today, the wealthy man. Perhaps even more so today, time, like knowledge, is a commodity, a luxury, and a function of the economy. But Bras Basah Complex gives us other experiences of time. The cuckoo clocks and Casio alarm clocks allow the romance of time as memory; in music time as rhythm; and books the suspension of time. Still they are illusions all. As is my illusion of being alone in a crowded lunchtime Bras Basah.


Furrie & Shortie Pre-orders!

An amused reader. Image by J.

[UPDATE: See Neighbourhoods for details. Limited copies of the book are still available for sale at BooksActually, City Book Room, Basheer, Woods in the Books, Gallery&Co (National Gallery), Supermama (at Esplanade), Grassroots Book Room and Woods in the Books.]

Finally, Furrie and Shortie will be meeting you in Issue #1 of their comic this December!

Issue #1: To Be The Most Wonderful You/做最美好的自己.  Furrie and Shortie’s everyday adventures that make the most of society and each other’s idiosyncrasies will make you smile. 

Check out the special illustrations by some of our faves Holycrap, James Tan, MessyMsxi, Theseus Chan and Wu Yanrong* in the book! Together with those artists who are donating their fees, this project will adopt 2 needy families to receive monthly food packs for a year through the charity organisation Food from the Heart.  

Pre-order now for the early bird price $28 (usual $30). 1st 200 copies contain a free Furrie or Shortie temporary tattoo (usual $3.50). Email info@ampulets.com with your order. 

Us amps have been drawing this comic for the past year and J designed the book. It's not hard to guess the inspiration for this...but it slowly grew as a way for us to share our observations on friendship, family and the changing world around us.

Some early drawings we shared on FB are below. All text in Chinese will be translated in the book...and of course, J has made sure the book design will be sui


city of books, Taipei

At Gu Ling Street

Taipei has always struck me as a reading kind of city. Maybe it's because it is hard to ignore the Eslite bookstores that seem to be in every part of the city. Which city can boast of a 24hour bookstore in one of its most prime shopping districts? Or that its bookstore chain also operates a hotel in the estate of a fancy restored tobacco factory?

But Taipei is more than Eslite.

It has a lively publishing sector that translates many of the latest foreign titles within a year or so. And in some ways, although it is not immune from the general demise of reading and books, its domestic market is secure because the Taiwanese use the traditional script (fan ti) versus China's simplified script.  And like many enterprises in Taiwan, I think its books and publishing reflects its spirit of independence.

And so with bookstores. These are a few independent bookstores that we've discovered over the years through the recommendations of friends, websites and magazines.

Bleu & Books

青鳥(Bleu & Books) is in the HuaShan creative and cultural district, a cluster of warehouses restored to house eateries, exhibition spaces, Legacy Taipei (a music livehouse), arthouse cinema Spot, and various design and lifestyle shops. You get the idea. The bookstore is worth a visit if you are at HuaShan. It has an interesting selection of fiction and books on architecture, politics, Taiwan and just ideas. If you order a drink from the cafe, they don't seem to bother if you sit at a table for hours. 

Look out for this sign for Pon Ding!

朋丁(Pon Ding) - A book store with a small but good and current selection that includes zines, photography, design and art books. Level 2 is a gallery. They serve coffee on the ground floor, and the staff are friendly. It is appropriately located in the ZhongShan MRT area, which has all these trendy cafes.

下北沢世代 Shimokitazawa Books) - Another art and design book store, but with a bit more focus on independent magazine, illustration and art/literary publications from Taiwan. The bookstore is a tiny office unit on Level 2 of an old nondescript commercial building. It's quite a trek from the MRT station, with pet stores and old electrical stores lining the way. I think Shimokitzawa is one of the earliest independent art and design bookstores. I like how it's pared down, unfussy, lived-in and still managed by the owner. 

Entrance to Mr Zeng's kingdom

水準書局(Shui Jun Bookstore) is an institution, and its owner Mr Zeng is a legend. Located in the Shida university area, the bookstore is frequented by students and everyone who's been a student. It's a real book-lover and knowledge-seeker's bookstore. There's no hipsteresque furniture and knick knacks, only books. And the books are shelved from floor to ceiling. You can't see any bit of the wall surface, not even the counter.  If he could, Mr Zeng would have shelves on the ceiling. And the store stocks all the latest titles.

My Chinese isn't great, so I can't for the life of me figure out how the books are arranged. "Hmm. Most of the time, by publisher", J answered without blinking. "Which bookstore arranges books by publisher?! How do you find the books you want?!?" The wannabe librarian in me protested. J continued browsing a book he had picked out from a shelf which seemed to me to have mostly books by Japanese authors. "Why not? You see, more or less they are the same kind of books."

Mr Zeng gives our discounts as easily as does advice and conversation about life, world politics, philosophy. J and I witnessed the former in action. "This book is NTD420" he glanced at the price printed at the back cover, then adds, "let's go with NTD310." On the edge of a shelf, there are postcards from customers thanking him for being a part of their student lives. 

荒花 (Wildflower Bookstore) A really goodlooking store with an adventurous selection of art books and zines, It is not far from Pon Ding, so it's worth a visit if you are wandering around the ZhongShan area.

Whether Eslite, a university haunt or hip design stores, the book trade in Taipei began in 牯靈街 (Gu Ling Street). Gu Ling Street is always special in my mind because of Edward Yang's film! As in the film, Gu Ling Street was previously lined with bookstores, including rental bookstores. There are still a few of these left now, but they are curiosities. The old/second-hand books are magazines are bundled up, as if they are to be sold by weight. 

We spotted a tiny store on Gu Ling Street. It is no wider than a corridor and lined with shelves of old academic publications. I didn't dare pick any of them up because they look too fragile. Most of the spines are so faded you can no longer read their titles. But the owner has lovingly hand-written the title or topic. These treasures are named so that they are more than just a bunch of paper... more than a recording of knowledge, ideas, stories, love and time.
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