Monday 30 January 2012

Pot-Luck for "Lo Hei"

"Lets have pot-luck this Chinese New Year" exclaimed Ah Meng - a fifty something taxi driver.

"What's pot-luck?. Is it pork & duck?" asked Ah Soh, with a cheeky smile.

"No, lah. Each one cook a dish and we eat together" replied Ah Meng

"Last year, we had our "lo hei" (Cantonese 捞起) at a restaurant in Geylang. This year, we should try something different". added Ah Meng

"Sound Great! Let's wait for the rest of our buddies to come in and ask them whether they're interested or not? I chipped into the discussion.

It was 3am on the 6th day of CNY. The three of us had finished our driving early and were sniping coffee at our regular coffee shop in Jurong Central.

We, taxi drivers, had a unique comradeship, usually starting from casual acquaintance and developed through the passage of time into lasting friendship, like recruits in army. We undergo the same trails and tribulations of surviving as a taxi driver and endure similar abuses from our passengers. Ours was a natural affinity because we suffered the same hardship together. The many things we share in common makes our bond unique and endearing .

Unlike office workers, we don't have office politics nor competition for promotion in our ranks. The only competition I can think of is at the mah-jong table. Each of us are on our own, searching for jobs on the road, like anglers at a fishing pond. We regularly share information of traffic jams, jobs opportunities at crowed locations and police road blocks.We rush to help our buddies when they are stranded with a stalled taxi at secluded places or involved in a traffic accident and sometimes, assists in whatever we can when they've problems with difficult passengers or drunkard. Because, we're not obsessed with raging self interest, we're less selfish and friendlier to each other. And with the warmth of fraternity, it makes our jobs less miserable and more bearable. Of course, there are many taxi drivers who prefer to work as "lone-ranger" and still "enjoy" their day of work.

The road is an oyster of opportunities. It pain me to see some taxi drivers race against each other as soon as the traffic light turn green. Most race for nothing. Some suddenly cut into your lane at the sight of a prospective passenger ahead and risks their life and others for a few dollars more. How much more can we earn a day? $100 or $200 more? No! Maybe $50 more in a shift. Some also cheery pick passengers at busy taxi ranks. Somehow, another driver had to pick that rejected passenger. These are the bad hats and they are the ones who tarnish the image of our vocation.

Now, going back to our pot-luck. An hour late, about 10 of our buddies sauntered over to our table and were immediately invited to join the pot-luck. Almost all agreed without hesitation.

-I proposed to cook a simple dish of fried bee-hoon with prawn, meat, vegetable etc......(Below photo is my contribution)

-Ah Meng will supply a set of  Yú shēng which include thinly sliced fresh raw salmon, shredded white radish, shredded carrots........
-William will cook a pot of black sauce pig trotter. 
-Ah Roy will supply a dish of curry fish head and mutton
-Ah Lui will get his wife to cook a pot of our favourite curry chicken.
-Ah Leong will supply a roasted Peking Duck....
-Others will supply tit-bits and drinks for the occasion.

Wow!! look at the spread of foods on the tables.

We feasted on Monday - 30/1 at 3am with about 10 dishes.

I was overwhelmed at the spirit of comradeship and endearing friendship displayed at the simple celebration. We may be poor taxi drivers but we know how to pull our resources together to celebrate the traditional "lo hei" in a simple and fun way.

We started off by having the "Yu Sheng" (Chinese: 鱼生), or Prosperity Toss, also known as "lo hei"(Cantonese for 捞起). It's a raw fish salad mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments. When having this dish, we gathered around the table and tossed the shredded ingredients into the air with chopsticks while saying auspicious wishes - "Huat -huat -huat" - out loud to mark the start of a prosperous new year.

We thoroughly enjoyed each other's cooking and discovered that some buddies should have been chef, instead of taxi drivers, because the dishes they cooked made them Michelin potentials.  Anyway, at the end of our celebration, we combined our money together to try our luck on the coming 10 Million Dollar Hong Bow Draw. As taxi driver, our only hope of a good fortune comes from the weekend 4D or Toto. Most of the time, we ended up consoling ourself -better luck next time.....sigh!

Wednesday 25 January 2012

God of Fortune

Like most Singaporean, I started work on the 3rd day of Chinese New Year, after two days of celebrations that had drilled a big hole in my pocket. On my first day of work in the Year of the Dragon, I was hoping for a memorable and good start, with many airport runs and lots of tips. Today, I drove the day shift in exchange with my hirer. As I've an interesting story to tell, I rushed home early and posted it a few hours after my work at 12 noon, least I forget and partly because of the interesting happening in the day.  

Whoever is Chinese in appearance and got into my cab is greeted with a friendly "Kong Hee Fatt Choy" and my many other pleasantries. This is the special game I like to play during this CNY festive period. Most of the time I would get a return greeting and nothing else. But it is the very first passenger that I really look forward to on my propitious day of work. If I get a tip, no matter what amount, I know the day would be a "prosperous" one for me. Unfortunately, my first passengers turned out to be a group of Arab tourists who could barely speak English and had no appreciation whatsoever of this auspicious day. In fact, Arabs, like the Japanese, are the worst tippers from my experience, as tipping is not customary in their culture.

But I knew today is a good tipping day and I was not deterred.

After dropping the group of Arabs at Marina Bay Sand Hotel, I proceeded to the rank at the opposite casino. First in the queue was a Chinese man of fifty something, in business suit and a travelling bag over his shoulder. "Airport" he said with a foreign accent, like those spoken by HongKongese or Mainland Chinese. Although he look tired, he had a nice smile and a prosperous big nose on a chubby face, like the God of Fortune. Unfortunately, things got off to a bad start right away when he lit a cigarette without asking permission. I immediately told him to put it out, as it was against the law. I could get a ticket,... blah,.... blah,.... blah. But the guy was persuasive and convinced me that since he would have only a few puffs and he would die if he didn't have that cigarette. So, I let him smoke it as long as he agreed to keep it out of sight. I empathized with his desperation for a fix as I'm a smoker too.

Well, apparently this was enough for him to make us both pals and he went on to tell me about his good fortune at the casino table earlier and his faultless tricks of winning at casino games. I recounted to him my by-gone days of misfortune at casino that eventually led me to my present job as a taxi driver but he was adamant in teaching me his winning tips. I patiently took his "advice" at one ear through the other ear like wind passing by the ears. Nothing will ever get me back to my stupid path of gambling in casino, not even with God whispering into my ears at the table before each bet. By the way, the main point of his gambling trick was to know when to stop and not to be greedy! Every gambler knows this but it's easier said than done. If I had faithfully followed this simple piece of advice, I won't have landed myself as a taxi driver today!. Sigh.....sigh! 

Anyway, I just kept acknowledging anything he said when the conversation between us ended abruptly as we neared the airport. Suddenly, he requested that we turned back to the casino!. He didn't tell me the reason for the sudden changed of destination but I was naturally pleased with a double distance fare. There wasn't much to talk about on the return trip, as we had probably exhausted all the issues in our main topic of conversation earlier. He gets to smoke another cigarette though, this time he asked politely for my permission.

Now (if you're still with me), you know a fare like this will turn out to be a winner. I had been polite, patience and accommodating. He seems like a winner, eager to dispense his winning tips, not a looser, silently brooding over his lost. I was a good listener and he was anxious to have an audience to share his good fortune. We were a perfect pair. I was speechless when the guy gave me two red crispy $100 note from a rubber-banded bundle, for a $50 fare. Wow!! it was a $150 tip, an amount that's more than my expectation, an amount that's more than my whole day of driving. I never had such a big tip in my five years of driving. It was a propitious omen for a Dragon Year. With that tip, I was tempted to call it a day immediately, but continued driving diligently till 12 noon. With only four hours driving, I had earned enough, with that generous tip included. For the rest of the shift, there was nothing to write.

Going back to my "God of Fortune", I thanked him profusely as he handed me his big tip and good heartedly reminded him of this earlier advice to me --- don't be greedy!. He gave me a wide smile and walked into the casino. I hope he practises what he preaches and not land himself, like me, to become a taxi driver eventually.
                                          God of Fortune

Friday 20 January 2012

Happy Chinese New Year.

Soon after Christmas, came New Year-2012 and now, Chinese Lunar New Year is just round the corners in two days time. Wow!, with three major celebrations in a month, it's being a hectic month of activities for both revellers and cabbies alike. Jobs were plentiful, with thousands of shoppers thronging the ubiquitous shopping malls and city streets in Singapore. It could have been better for me if not for the recent taxi fare hike that coincide with this festive month. With the fare hike, taxi rider-ship had dropped a bit but I was not short of customers and taxi commuters were also able to get a cab faster. It's a win, win situation. But for how long? It's too early to predict. I hope the status quo would not change too drastically but stabilises at an optimum level with supply of cabs meeting demand.

Now, how do I celebrate Chinese New Year?. Like most Chinese Singaporean of my age, CNY to me is just like any other ordinary day. The youthful days of excitement, joy, fun and frolic in celebrating CNY had long dissipated. It's now more a financial burden on me than anything else. Giving "any pow" (red envelopes filled with money) to unmarried juniors, buying goodies, decorative materials, new clothings and food for feasting, drills a big hole in my pocket. But I still pour my money generously to prepare a lavish re-union dinner for my family on New Year Eve. I think it's the most important event of the year, comparable with the western Christmas dinner. Usually, my family will have a seafood steam-boat dinner with the more expensive items like abalone, lobster meat, oyster, scallops, crab meat and pomfret fish. If leftover of wine from last feasting is available, I'll have a few glass of it with my grown up children and wife.

Before the big day, I cleaned my flat, sweeping away all ill fortune and decorated it with red couplets in popular theme of prosperity and happiness. On the first day of CNY, I would visit my mother-in-law and close friends, followed by rounds of mahjong games with my taxi buddies till daybreak.

With both parents gone and being the eldest of 8 siblings, my siblings would visit me on the second day of CNY to honour me in lieu of my parents. Though we hardly see each other on the other 365 days, they would surely pay me a visit on this day without fail each year. Like the reunion dinner, I spare no money in preparing a sumptuous lunch and dinner for them. The 60+ of them would spent the whole day in my apartment, often creating a ruckus, eating, singing, watching movies and gambling in small amount. The satisfaction and joy I experience on seeing the extended family tightly knit together and growing, is worth more than the money I splurged for this occasion. This visiting ritual is part of the Chinese culture. Its important to pass this tradition along to each generation and not to put it on the burner. I think another Chinese tradition that should be promoted is the "Ching Ming" festival, (Remembrance of Ancestor Day), a day when the living pay their respect to the dead ancestors at their resting place. It's an extension of the CNY visiting, albeit visiting the dead.

I usually start driving on the third day of CNY and my life would be like the ant again, searching for food everyday.

I thought I should write a bit about a few unforgettable recollection of CNY in my teenage days and things that I missed nowadays about CNY.

First, I remember having my first long pant when I was around 12 year old. I can't remember how I got it but I think it must be a CNY present from my wonderful grandmother, who pampered me the most as her eldest grandson. It was a ready-made, ill fitting, buggy and longer than my legs piece of cheap fabric. The pant was light green in colour, with a sling made of the same fabric as a belt and a small metal ring as a buckle. I remember clearly that I didn't sleep well that night and woke up a few times before sunrise on CNY day to try on the pant and felt how handsome and grown-up I look. Looking back, the childish excitement of wearing a new long pant was unforgettable and I was then anxious to grow up to be an adult. Now, it seem that my wish had come too soon.

Another recollection that's indelibly impressed in my memory, is the playing with firecrackers. As a poor kampong boy, I play the cheaper type of firecrackers that are bonded in a long roll with 2 or more extending out at each level. I remember dislodging a single piece from the string and placing it under an open condensed milk tin. With one hand pressing hard on one ear and the other hand igniting the firecracker with a lighted joss stick timidly, the thrill and trepidation of an sudden explosion was beyond description. Upon exploding, the tin would fly high into the sky like a space capsule and falls back, crushing like a fallen.......tin. As a naughty kid, I would indiscriminately throw a lighted firecrackers at unsuspecting siblings or friends and ran away laughing at their fright. Nowadays, I hear only fake noises of firecrackers from recordings and see dummy crackers serving as doorway decorations. These come nothing close to the real ones. Firecrackers was banned in Singapore in 1967, due to many fire and fatal accidents. The joy that comes from playing with it was then gone forever and I felt privileged to have enjoyed the cheap thrills of good old days.

"Wishing All My Chinese Friends - Kong Hee Fatt Choy" 


I promised myself to visit the eighty year old lady of McCallum Street in one of Dr. Cai's episode. Last night, with some Mandarin oranges in a plastic bag and an ang pow, I went there to look for her beside the 7-Eleven store. She was not there. Disappointed, I left but return shall return to look for her during this festive month.   

Sunday 15 January 2012

Why Ask?

Welcome On Board, Buddies!!

A few days ago, I received the following email:-

"Hi James,

My name is Amiya Bardon and I am an American film student who is in Singapore to make a short documentary film for school. I am part of a group of six and my group and I have found great interest in the story of Singapore taxi drivers and your blog caught my attention.

I was wondering if you would be interested in speaking with me about possibly telling us a little about your life and the story about how you became a taxi driver and the struggles that come along with it (and the fact that you are also a blogger). I would love to be able to speak with you over the phone to explain more about what we are trying to accomplish with our project. Please let me know if you are interested!

Thank you for your time,

Amiya Bardon
B.F.A Creative Producing '12
Chapman University"

I replied a day later:

"Hi Amiya,

Just got back to Singapore from a short holiday trip to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and read your email. Sorry for this late reply. Called you a short while ago on your cell phone but you were not available. So I thought this email reply might help.

Well, I gave considerable thoughts to your request to make a short documentary film for your school project of taxi drivers in Singapore and would like me to participate. Yes, if I can be of any help to your school project. And that's the only reason why agreed to your request.


James Lim."

Nothing was heard after my reply. I don't know why. So be it.

A "Wrong" Guy.

"Like to challenge her?"

Have you ever begin unlucky to meet a "wrong" guy at a wrong time and at the wrong place or has something like this ever happened to you?

You are walking on a crowded side walk, when someone bumps into you and knocks you off balance for a moment. But instead of apologizing to you, he looks contemptuously into your eyes like about to say..."Get the fuck out of my way, asshole." Or this? You are waiting in line at the Singapore Pool's booth and someone much bigger than you blatantly cuts right in front of you. You think of saying something to the guy but he looks like a gangster with tattoos on his arms, so you just bite your tongue and remains silent .

In both cases. you suppressed your urge to react. You're not a coward but is worried that you might get injured, killed or arrested in a fight. All for what? .....Nothing!!. So, you soothe your anger and tell yourself....... "Someday that guy will meet "someone - the right guy" -who will teach him a lesson or two" The someone is not you, so you let it pass.

I happened to pick a "someone - the right guy" one night, last month along Geylang Road. The first thing I noticed about him were his physical attributes. He was about 40+, 6 feet tall and with muscular arms. He looks like an ex-military Eurasian man and had an expression of a tiger that had just killed his prey. After boarding, he suddenly shouted through the window, "F@#$%  BASTARD! DAMN F@#$%  BASTARD!"

"What's the matter?" I asked.

His answer shocked me. "I hope I didn't kill him."

"What happened?" I asked again.


"What happened??" I asked in desperation for more details.

"I think I killed him," he blurted out as he covered his face in his hands. "Oh, God, I hope I didn't kill him."

His emotions were like the waves of an ocean - a minute up in anger- the next minute down in grief. It took me quite a while to figure out what had happened in the bar.

He'd been sitting alone at a bar counter, having a couple of drinks and enjoying the sentimental music. Then  three rowdy Chinese guys entered the bar and sat in a row beside him. One of these guys decided to have some fun at my passenger's expense. He began dissing at him while his buddies laughed. My passenger was understandably infuriated and it led to a brawl.

Powerful blows and kicks were exchanged aggressively. It ended with the rude guy collapsing on the floor from a chop to his neck, which may have crushed his windpipe. He gasped desperately for air before slumping over in a moribund condition.. My passenger ran out of the bar to the street looking for a taxi. My cab became his getaway car. Those Chinese guys had finally met "the someone" who happens to be an ex-military man who knew martial arts and was in no mood to take crap from some punk. They had met the "right" guy who taught them a lesson they will never forget for a long time.

When we arrived at his destination, I advised him not to talk to anyone else about this incident other than a priest. Not to let his feelings of guilt put him into a jail. Till today, I heard nothing more about the incident.

Interestingly, I felt no fear in being alone with him in my cab although he was a "fugitive killer". He wasn't my wrong guy. I usually don't meet wrong guy because I don't go around intentionally provoking or insulting strangers.

Like what Miss Kim Ong commented in one of my posting : " Justice will prevail, she will get her comeuppance, may not be swift but it will surely come, you may not see her get her just dessert. After all, sow an action, reap a habit, sow a habit, reap a character, sow a character and reap destiny. Have faith."

Saturday 14 January 2012

An Assault

It's almost two weeks into the New Year now and I just heard that one of my buddy, Mustafa Almin, had one horrible New Year fare he will never forget for the rest of his life for all the wrong reasons.

"Ah Meng", as we fondly call him, was seriously injured on his head, when one of his passenger smashed him with a beer bottle on New Year morning. All for allegedly making a "rude" remark at the passenger and taking the "wrong" route to his destination.

Yesterday, Roy and I visited him at his home in Bukit Batok and he was still on un-paid medical leave with bandage over his head. Apart from trauma of the incident, he was fine and told us what happen on that fateful morning.

He had a bountiful collection on New Year eve and at 2am, was on his way home when he stopped for a passenger at a KTV club along Pasir Panjang Road. Ah Meng winded down the window and asked the 40+ white chap where was his destination before he let him into his cab. "Jurong West" the man answered scornfully. Ah Meng decided to take him as Jurong was near his home. It turned out to be his worst decision in his New Year.

The burly white chap shuffled into the cab. He smelt strongly of alcohol, too inebriated to walk and carried a sling bag. Apart from his pallid countenance and greasy face, his demeanour was of a typical drunkard who had a lots of drinks at the KTV. As the cab moved off a few hundred meters, the white man suddenly shouted at Ah Meng.... "Why stop and ask me where I go. Don't pick, Don't stop. You're a.....F@#$*.... taxi driver..". Ah Meng was shocked at his sudden verbal abuse but bite his tongue and remained silent to avoid flaming the situation.

Ah Meng was still sizzling at the earlier abuses when the atmosphere changed abruptly for the worst, as he turned into Jurong Town Hall Road. "Why turn here, You've taken a wrong route. You Bastard....You mother-F@#$*....!" came those horrific verbal abuses again. Ah Meng had enough. He stopped his taxi at the traffic light, got out of his cab and demanded the white chap to get lost. But he refused to budge and remained seated inside the cab. Ah Meng had no choice but to get back into his cab to drive off, as other vehicles were horning at him furiously.

As soon as he pulled into a nearby bus stop, he was suddenly struck on his head with a beer bottle with a loud crack. He almost fainted and soon felt wet around his upper body and realised he was soaked with blood. His assailant dashed off quickly into the nearby HDB flats, throwing his broken bottle away. Soon he was gone in seconds. Ah Meng was in no condition to chase him as he was dizzy and weak from the assault to his head. He immediately called the police with his cell phone. Nobody stop to help him, not even fellow taxi drivers. Either most were not aware of the incident or do not want to get involved.

Police and paramedics arrived within minutes and Ah Meng was taken to the National University Hospital, where he was treated for his injuries. Luckily, his skull was not fractured and he had only seven stitches to his wound.

50 years old Ah Meng had been driving taxi for almost 18 years. He had argued with passengers who blamed him for taking the "wrong" route, when they themselves are not sure which way they should go in the first place. Nonetheless, he always apologises and gives them discount to placate them and avoid disputes. He is also aware that some passengers tend to boss him around and if either one is moody, toes will get stepped on and tempers flare on both side. Ah Meng is a humble and patience man and always tries to avoid trouble by giving in to his passengers' demand at all times.

In every country, incidents where passengers get infuriated with taxi drivers on routes is a very common thing but threats and violence don't occur often. It was unfortunate that Ah Meng met a violent man on that fateful morning.

Now, I think taxi drivers are like prostitutes. We've no idea what kind of customers we're serving. Although, the job takes only a few minutes, sometime nasty things can happen when we're alone together. Patrons can always allege that they had not been given the best of service and disputes occur. I'm not a "know-all" taxi driver but I think as a service provider, we, taxi drivers have to be always tactful in our dealings with all sort of customers and should endeavour to deliver a complete overall experience. It's a daily learning experience for every driver. The sooner we learn to be humble, patience and polite, the better. If not, we'll be getting into fight freely everyday. In any case, our passengers are with us for only a few minutes. We deliver, they pay, we part our ways and never meet again.
hello, taxi-driver
Sad to say, taxi drivers are also like Ants on the road, searching for food everyday and if ants not careful, they get easily exterminated with a rub of a thump. 

Friday 6 January 2012

A Loan Shark.

Every New Year begins with hopes. For me, every day is a New Year day, with lots of hope. In the beginning of every shift, I hope for a few good airport runs, hope for steady work, hope for big tips and a safe and accident-free day. I also hope for a good story. Sometimes the story happens to me, but sometimes the story happens to my buddies. But it becomes everybody's story, nevertheless.

This is a real life story that happened last night. This is how it goes:-

It was the slowest part of what was a dull evening. The kind of evening in which you're so desperate for work that you wouldn't care if he had a butcher knife in his hand, so long as I got a fare, I felt lucky instantly.

The 24-25 look-chap was wearing a baggy blue jeans and an old white polo T-shirt with a "snowflake pattern - like splashes of random art work". He also had a sling bag over his shoulder and looks nervous, with a crazed look in his eye. But, he was nothing special.

He burst into my cab. "MOVE IT!" he shouted, slamming the door.
"Where to" I asked.
“Uhhh. . Bedok, and HURRY!”
He smelt of thinner and his hands were stained with paints.
"Just get moving NOW!!”
"Okay, okay". I punched the meter and flew off.
I then saw a middle-aged woman running towards my cab. She was waving and yelling, pointing at my cab.
"Is she with you?" I asked.
"NO! C'MON, MOVE IT!!" he shouted.

In the next breath, before my cab could move off the car park, the street was filled with cop cars... two or three cars, all lights flashing. They screeched to a stop, blocking my cab, and in the next second they were are all out of their cars, swarming, ready for battle.
Holy shit... And then it became clear.
Hey, are they looking'..........?
I didn't even finish the question before the back door flew open and the young chap was gone, leaving his sling bag behind. I turned in time to see the guy's back just as he turned the corner at a full sprint. While the rest of the cops hauled off in pursuit, one cop pointed at me to pull over. I was a suspected accomplice and had to give all my personal particulars to the police officer as demanded. It turned out that my customer was involved in loan shark harassment activities in the estate and the police had been waiting for him in ambush. The abandoned sling bag contained cans of paints, gloves, marker pens, screw drivers and pen knife. 

After fleeing my cab, the man ran down a side street and into a row of shop houses. He ran up the stairs, climbed out onto the roof, jumped onto the neighboring house's roof (like a James Bond movie). Amid the shouts of police officers below, he stood on the peak of the roof and weighed his options... and sat down to smoke!. He then took out his cellphone and called his wife. After a long talk with his wife, he asked the police for a ladder, which they used to help him down and into an awaiting police car. All this while, I was a spectator in a large crowd watching the unfolding drama.

After patiently answering all the police's questions, I got back into the cab and finished my shift. I lost a fare but was rewarded with a story to post. It was an interesting, albeit slow evening, indeed. Not a very good start to a New Year and a bad omen.