Singaporean Skyline

The island of Singapore is enveloped in a dull haze. A massive forest fire in neighboring Indonesia has colored my first week in drab gray. The city seems more like the Los Angeles basin on an oppressive September afternoon than an equatorial paradise.

Nevertheless, my first week has been exceptional and I already feel comfortable and settled.

Day one is a pleasant arrival into my new life. The flight on Singapore Airlines is as close to luxurious as is possible for 2.5 hours on an airplane. Each seat is equipped with a free networked Nintendo terminal and there is plenty of space to stretch out and explore MarioLand. (Of course I did get lucky and wind up on a particularly empty flight out of Bangkok)

At any rate, before I know it we are cruising over the island and preparing to land on the North East edge at Changi Airport.

Dragon Walk entrance

Customs, is decidedly stocked with placards warning, "The penalty for bringing drugs into Singapore is death." I walk through my packing procedure in my head about a dozen times like some manic compulsive making sure that I left the correct film canister in Los Angeles and brought only film with me in my bags. Fortunately, all goes well. I breeze through customs and make my way out into the terminal.

Without difficulty I find my new boss, Mr. Andrew Chiang, waiting for me outside of customs. Andrew, however, has not had such an easy time. Apparently I'd forgotten to give him the flight number and there had been two flights coming in from Bangkok at the same time. He and one of my new colleagues, Cy Boon, a stocky Malaysian with a penchant for Perl/LINUX and a soft spoken kindness who I'd met in Sunnyvale when several engineers came out to meet me during the interview process, had split up to cover both terminals.

So immediately, Andrew calls Cy Boon and instructs him to wait while we get the car. Fortunately, neither seem very disturbed and both seem happy to see me. I guess the "Mai Pen Rai" (Don't worry, be happy) attitude of the South East Asian mainland extends to Singapore as well.

Note: In order to prevent the congestion and pollution typical of so many cities out here, Singapore has made owning cars very difficult. It costs about 200,000 $US to own a car, any car, in Singapore. After you pay for the extremely overpriced cars, you must pay a 200% tax and then a boatload in operation permits.

Not only do you have to pay the initial chunk, but gas, maintenance, and parking are rough. Further, you can only own a car for 10 years. Beyond that you must scrap the car, or get a special permit (more money) to run an "old" car. Of course, the metro (MRT) and bus system here is quite impressive. From 6 - midnight, public transport is rarely more than a five minute walk and a ten minute wait. Prices are cheap ($US1 for the longest trip) and after midnight you can easily catch a cab anywhere you want to for 5-10 $US.

I notice right away that everyone uses various strange British idioms and a motley of pigeon English (Singlish) terms and phrases. I find myself asking, "What did you say?" far too often for being in an English speaking country.

Little India for Deepvali

The island is extremely small. The longest drive is about 45 minutes, so we arrive at the office in no time flat. The office is in a rapidly ramping up industrial/technology sector near Science Park with several large office buildings under construction in every direction. It reminds me a little bit of Bangkok where there is construction on every other block. Of course, there is very little trash, smog, or grime, but more than I'd expected given western stereotypes of Singapore.

My office is on the fifth floor of an older building tucked away at one end of the building. The office is bustling, perhaps twenty people in an area the size of Neuron Data's training room, all seeming to be busy and motivated (this is quite good and a big difference from Neuron Data's corpse like mood). It is primarily an SGI shop for engineers and a PC shop for admin folks. I will be fine and will benefit from learning a visual UNIX platform.

A quick go around with Andrew at the helm and I've been introduced to everyone, have smiled a lot, shaken many hands, and have remembered not a single name. I've also been stared at quite bit.

At the end of my tour I am shown to my office. Strangely, I have one of four offices in a sea of cubicles. I wonder if it is because I am an American, though later I find that it is perhaps because I am being groomed for management. Either way, I feel really uncomfortable with being placed there. I know from many a strip of Dilbert that office politics are always a concern and status (offices, chairs, desk material, etc.) carries with it a bunch of issues.

Another oddity is that my desk has been placed diagonally in my office, placed in just about the worst possible location it could be in. I ask a colleague later if I should move the desk to a more logical position and they advise against it because apparently it was placed there specifically to deflect evil spirits (It is a belief called "Feng Shui"). So I leave it alone.

Since I don't begin to work until next week, I sit down to address the wad of 400+ emails which require thoughtful answers (all others will be simply deleted). I also call several apartments which are advertised as available in the Straits Times and on the web.

For the most part, newspaper classified ads have been placed by rental agents who will charge me one month rent for scoring me a pad, so I hope that I will get a response from the web. I'd hate to pay $1,000 for an apartment which I may only use for a few months. However, if worse comes to worst, at least the convenience of having someone else do the legwork is worth some fee. Either way, I leave several phone messages and send out several emails.

HDB Flat

Email duty goes well and I knock of several hundred answers by the end of the day.

That night, Andrew drops me off at the guest house which they have reserved for me for a few weeks while I search for an apartment. I am very grateful to have free housing provided but am utterly disgusted by the room. It is smelly, loud, hot and I vow to settle on an apartment over the weekend. (Of course, I am like that anyway. I am pretty bad about hunting and tend to settle on the first or second place I find. I have little patience for searching around, comparing, and haggling). At any rate, I put on my headphones, turn the fan on high, and do my best to get used to the smoke soaked walls. Eventually, I fade to sleep.

The next day Andrew picks me up so that he can show me the bus route and walk from the bus stop to the office. He really has been very nice all the while and takes great pains to answer all my questions, make arrangements, and make me feel welcome. He even takes me out for breakfast.

Most of the day is spent answering email and setting up my laptop to write and edit chapters of the AFC book that I am writing with my old boss, Eric Swildens (AFC is Microsoft's implementation of Java - yes, I am colluding with the evil empire). I also have to set up my SGI which turns out to be fairly easy to use. But I miss my PC and mac at home.

At around noon, Stephen Peterson, an expat from New Zealand asks me to lunch. It is quite a relief since I was getting hungry and had absolutely no idea where to eat for lunch. Plus it would be nice to have a chance to talk to someone about office things besides the boss.

Stephen is a very nice and intelligent engineer of 28 who is clearly high-positioned and experienced, and who has been with the company for some years. He takes me to the "Hawker Center" for lunch.

The Merlion

The hawker center is an open air but covered food court populated by a couple dozen tiny stalls where entrepreneur restaurantees whip up a full array of local cuisine which is primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian.

Note: I am extremely impressed by the socio/cultural diversity of Singapore. It is almost as diverse as Los Angeles, but markedly more integrated. At the lunch tables you will see Americans, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Indonesians. While walking around downtown I have also seen Africans, Filipinos and Japanese (Although there is quite a bit of anti-Japanese sentiment here, as Singapore was one of the many countries brutally ravaged by the Japanese war machine in the 30's and 40's.)

Stephen explains that it is best to eat just before noon since the food is still fairly fresh but that I should avoid eating too much later. He has had food poisoning a couple of times in three years, but those two experiences were enough to modify his eating schedules. He also directs me to one Malay stall where he says he frequents regularly. They have several stew-like/curry dishes based on mutton, chicken, pork and fish atop a bed of rice. I get a mutton/chicken combination for 1.30 $US.

We grab a table and are quickly approached by a drink seller.

In all the food courts I have seen so far (including those in fancy shopping malls), you cannot order drinks at the stall where you buy your food. Instead, you go to a separate drink stall and order drinks there. Often, drink sellers will come around to tables and take orders to prevent lines.

Singaporean Butterfly

We each get a lime juice which I have since become quite found of. It tastes a bit like a less sour and a bit less sweet country time lemonade.

When I return to my desk there is an email waiting for me from one of the people who advertised a room for rent on the web as well as several phone messages. I arrange to go visit apartments for the evening after dinner.

That evening I meet Soy for dinner since she is in town for a training with her company. She is staying at the Westin Plaza Hotel which is a beautiful hotel in the center of downtown Singapore. Her company pays an entire month's salary to house Soy and her colleague for a week. The Plaza sits atop one of a zillion shopping malls which dot Singapore like a bad case of chicken pox. I have heard several times that the national past time of Singapore is mall shopping and this is no poorly conceived stereotype. But they do have a great food court where we get Korean BBQ which is so large that Soy and I are both over stuffed.

After dinner, Soy and I hop on the MRT and metro over to the area where I will be looking at apartments.

The Metro is very much like the metro in DC. It is very clean, quick, and takes you to most of the places you want to go. Also, the people getting on the train stuff themselves in before people can get out so there is always a traffic jam at the doors regardless of whether it is rush hour. In the city, the metro goes underground and in the suburbs (only a couple stops away in Singapore) the train goes aboveground.

The second appointment is with Keat, a Malaysian graphics artist working on Shockwave applications for CD ROMS who had advertised on the web. He is a tall, lanky fellow with a sincere smile who shows me around the flat. It is fairly small, but very new and clean. My room is perhaps twice the size of what I had for most of my time in DC (enough space for two steps cbetween the bed and the door), but sufficient with a lot of closet space. The rent is $600/month. The complex also has a lap size pool and a gym so I feel right at home after my place in Silicon Valley, and am happy at the thought that I can continue my daily swimming. Keat shares the three room flat with another Malaysian named Henry who has a thick Australian accent and seems quite the party guy. Both welcome me in and I am fairly convinced that I will stay here.

Chicken Rice and Lime Juice

That night however, and for the whole weekend, I stay at the Plaza with Soy which is so much more comfy than the rat hole guest house I would be staying at. It reminds me a lot of the Ritz Carlton we stayed at when we were doing the Aerosmith Cybertour thing when I worked for EFF. Your typical TV hookup in the bathroom kind've hotel.

The next day after bit of book writing we catch the skytram (a cable car system which spans the straits between islands some 50 kilometers above the intensely busy Singapore port) over to Sentosa Island which is sort've like Disneyland except with no rides. The island, off the southern coast of Singapore has all sorts of attractions from beach Volleyball to nature walks, and a bunch of museum-like things such as a butterfly museum and a historical museum called"ÓImages of Singapore".

Since neither of us have our suits, we skip the beach. I'll have plenty of time to come back and check things out later. Instead, we go to the historical museum which is sort've like the Hollywood Wax Museum but with much more interesting commentary and content. The two hour tour takes you through several stages in the history of Singapore from the colonial period, through the war period, to the modern period. I'd already read quite a bit about the history of Singapore when I was researching the island before I accepted the job, but I felt as if the tour gave a much broader presentation than many of the books I'd read. The museum also took a lot of time to discuss the varied cultures which make up the local population and explain several cultural holidays and activities of each.

After that we went to the butterfly museum which turned out to be quite a surprise. On each end of the structure is an insect museum with both live and pinned examples. The diversity of really exotic and weird looking insects native to Singapore and neighboring countries is astounding! I just hope I don't see several of the species crawling along my ceiling at home.

Between display sections is a large atrium/garden with hundreds of live butterflies of all types, colors, and designs fluttering about everywhichway. I think that if my grandma makes it out here to visit, this is must. The butterfly garden exists onto a long nature walk called the "Dragon Walk" because the entire path tells the pseudo-science of dragons as if it were Jurassic Park. You walk over fossilized footprints and through tunnels of rib cage and are surrounded by forest.

Half way along I am excited to see a troop of monkeys making its way up the trail on the treetops. I spend several minutes watching and smiling as they jump around showering us with dried leaves.

By the end of the trek though, we're ready for dinner and we make our way back to the entrance area where the food court, the Merlion and the musical fountain is.

Singapore's mascot is a half lion, half fish called a Merlion. The Merlion on Sentosa cost 15 million dollars to build but has lasers which shoot out of the eyes and a skin made of fiber optics which can be manipulated like neon from hell.

The musical fountain turns out to be pretty lame; as does Burger King. A traipse through the "Asian Village" and then we take the skytram back to Singapore proper.

Sunday is another lazy day with quite a bit of time spent writing the AFC book. However, we do take a few hours to have lunch in China Town and look around. China Town is pretty unimpressive really. I think LA and SF are way better. I have yet to see Little India which is supposed to be very impressive though.

Sunday evening turns out to be much more interesting. As I mentioned earlier, I spent a good deal of time preparing for and researching about Singapore before I left the states. One of the things I did was to get information about the local Swing dance scene since I'd had so much fun doing that in San Francisco.

Well, after some work I got the name and contact information of Sing Lim who everyone recommended as a great contact. Apparently, she'd attended several workshops in the states and had impressed everybody with her Lindy Hop.

Singaporean Butterfly

So, she was one of the first people I called when I arrived. Sing happily told me that she had a couple of things going on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays but that this Sunday was a "Jazz in the Park" festival at the Botanical Gardens. They would be picnicking all afternoon and evening.

So Soy and I went that evening to find them. The Botanical Garden is very nice with a great and densely populated turtle pond which put my old tank back in SF to shame. There is also a large orchid garden (Orchids are the national flower) but we shot right for the stage, following the sounds of horns and drums.

We found them pretty easily, though the area was packed, because Sing had told me exactly where they'd be and what to look for. We hung out for a few hours. Coincidentally, Soy met one of her friends there so she was happy too. Before that she'd been somewhat reluctant to be forced to be social with a bunch of strangers. But in the end all went well. I did not dance, but I felt as if I made some friends who I could get to know better later.

Monday is the first official day of work. Fairly soon after I arrive, Stephen stops by and asks me to meet with him and Sharon to discuss a project that they'd like help on. In short, the project is to compile an employee resource manual which will help towards building a corporate memory. Apparently the company is growing extremely quickly and they are finding that traditional informal processes are becoming difficult to maintain and pass on to new hires. Further, too much knowledge remains solely in the heads of a few people. Their answer to the problem is a Java-based employee resource guide which reminds me of a cross between a bulletin board system and a Windows Help application. They hope to link up all their employees globally via the web and be able to distribute faqs, standard document templates, engineering specs and resources, news and alerts, and miscellaneous built up corporate knowledge about how to do things.

It seems doable and since Andrew is not in today I don't have anything else to do. So I begin.

Stephen and I eat lunch again at the Hawker's Center and I learn a lot more about the company, it's official and unofficial rules, some of the politics, and a good deal more. One thing which is confirmed is the fact that I will have to work every other Saturday for a half day. Work here is 22 days a week instead of 20. Oh well, it seems as if I will have enough work to keep me busy for the extra days.

I leave early at 5:30 in order to pick up my luggage at the guest house and drop it off at my new apartment. However, I only make a brief appearance at the flat since it is getting late and I am supposed to meet Soy for dinner.

The next day, I complete my portion of the employee guide prototype. Stephen seems pleased and has some good ideas to make the interface better. Andrew is still not in the office so I continue improving the prototype. I eat lunch on my own because I want to get back quickly.

Statue in Little India

The rest of the afternoon is refining work and by the end of the day, I'm very happy with the prototype.

Soy meets me at my office to look around and then we leave for dinner and to drop her off at the airport. There is a convenient shuttle which goes to and from the airport that takes me right to the MRT. The plane departs after nine, so by the time I get back, I feel tired and go right to bed. My flatmates are still not home so it is another day without really saying hello.

Note: It is inappropriate to say "roommate" here. I was out at a pub the other night and referred to Keat as my roommate. Everyone started laughing and making jokes like "Oh, is Keat good? We didn't know he was like that!" Well, apparently, roommate only refers to sharing the same room/bed and not to sharing an apartment. Flatmate refers to sharing an apartment. If you switch the two, it is a bit of a faux paus.

Wednesday is my first day going to work from my apartment so I have to find the shortcut by myself. The shortcut winds through a group of HDB (Housing Development Board Housing - government subsidized) Flats. It begins with a treacherous climb down a steep trail exiting into a grassy area behind the HDB flats. I slip down part of it (it rained last night and the grass is still a bit wet) and get my shorts a bit muddy. But heck, that's part of the whole experience and I have a long overshirt to cover it up at work.

The walk to the bus stop from the bottom of the hill is fairly quick, though I take several wrong turns along the way, making it twice as long as it should have been. But once I find the bus stop, the rest is breeze. I am at work in 12 minutes.

In all, I'm 30 minutes early. But that is as intended. My intent was to set my alarm 10 minutes ahead each day until I find the optimal time. But for the first day I set it about an hour more than I thought I'd need. After all, I don't want to be late to work in my first week. (Since then, I have found that it is best to wake up at 8AM if I want to be at work by 9).

Andrew is here today and he tells me that my first priority should be a redesign of the external web page rather than the Employee Tutorial. I tell him that I can mange both and can work overtime if necessary. (Actually, I intend to ask him for a good deal of vacation time starting in mid-October so I want to work like crazy for the first month and a half).

I actually amaze myself and whip out a very nice design for the website by midday. Andrew is very happy and says that it is just fine if I continue to help Stephen with his project. The rest of the day is flying fingers as I code, code, and code.

By 7:30 I am quite beat. Stephen mentions that he will meet a friend at a bar called "Number 5" on Orchard Road and that they would be happy to have me join them. I agree, but say that I will meet him around 9:30 since I want to go to Ikea that evening and buy some housewares. Ikea is one bus away and a 4 minute cab ride to my apartment. I purchase about $100.00 worth of house supplies like a bath towel, a shaving mirror and trash can for my room. The basics. I take a quick shower, go down the hill (opposite the shortcut) and catch a bus which takes me to Orchard Road.

Orchard Road, littered with bars and pubs, is a swamp of expat scammers and hipsters. At "Number 5" I meet Stephen, his girlfriend and their American buddy upstairs where an acoustic crooner attempts the latest in American pop. Actually, he does a good job, though the mic is turned up a little too loud for easy conversation. Nevertheless, we sit and yap for hours, Stephen downing beer after beer and getting more giddy each time. I miss the last bus so I take a cab home at around 1 AM.

That night I lay awake for an hour or two thinking up better ways to redesign the Java applet. My mind is in one of those spinning modes where there is nothing to do but let it go. I know from experience that I will never get a good night sleep.

Sentosa Dragon Walk

Thursday is great. Everyone is happy with my progress on their projects and I have time to refine my ideas to my satisfaction. I also have time to finally finish answering emails. I get my load down to 13 by lunch. Stephen is in Korea today, which is good because I feel as if I have been hanging around with him way too much. I want to hang out with other people in my office, especially the Chinese ones who will eventually be teaching me Mandarin at lunchtimes (little do they know).

As it turns out, the networking specialist, Jason pokes his head into my office around noon and asks if I want to join him and a group of other co-workers for lunch. I agree and we hop in Jason's van and they drive me offsite to a hawkers center which they prefer. I meet Jess, Mabel, Emily, Annette, and Adeline who make up the majority of the admin department. They are all very nice and have all sorts of questions. I feel very much the center of attention at lunchtime but by the end, feel very comfortable with the group. I hope they ask me out again. This time I eat Chicken and rice and try samplings of the thing they get. Except for the seafood stuff, everything tastes great.

That evening, I take the MRT downtown where I am to meet Sing Lim and her group for Swing at the Raffles Hotel Bar and Billiard Room. I'm quite early and have time to sit and write. In fact, most of what you've just read was written in the bar under a cool ceiling fan with a $10 coke in front of me.

Little India Gargoyles

The group begins to arrive at around 10 PM and I quickly join in conversation having recognized several people from the Botanical Gardens. Conversation is very pleasant and I seem to be doing okay at the "meeting people" thing, but we al know what I am there for. SWING!

The band goes on at around 10:45 and I'm out there dancing on the first song. The band is okay. They are a little bit mellow for my taste, but I can't complain. Lindy is Lindy on both sides of the pacific rim.

At 11:40, I make a mad dash for the MRT and catch the last train. As the train pulls out of the station, I realize that I've left my credit card at the bar with an open tab. When I get home I phone the bar and they tell me that Sing closed my bill but was not allowed to take the card for security reasons. So, the bar guy tells me that the card will be waiting for me at the hotel's front desk. I tell them that I'll pick it up on Saturday morning and go to sleep feeling much better.

By the way, it was quite an ordeal finding the number for the hotel since the operator is not "0" and information is not "411". Fortunately, henry was up late and he helped me fin the number.

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