Thank You

Stories, they bring us together, they stitch wounds close. Stories, they catch us unaware, at the twilight just after waking, the forgotten pauses between mouthfuls of rice, gooey with an unknown sauce. Stories, they leave us alone. 

Today, I was reminded of how my batch of army comrades helped to direct the social media outreach of National Day some years ago. We looked at fireworks and sighed over the fiery bursts of taxpayers' money, of our parents' money, our money. 

We scurried around like little mice, digging for stories to post on blogs - are blogs even a thing now? - on twitter, facebook, flickr. We argued like little people who had not been exposed to life, its tender infancy, its gradual decline, its sudden bursts. 

Last Thursday, Mrs Ho, an ex-colleague, boarded a cab home in the evening. It was the day before a public holiday. The cab tried to beat the red light. A heavy vehicle smashed into the passenger side. Mrs Ho passed away.

Like many who have been touched by her generosity, kindness and patience, I spent the weekend, caught in grief's waves, barely buoyant in its ebbs and flows. I sat on the stairs, picking apart weeds struggling to survive. I was distracted and messy and missed my family of ex-colleagues. Grief was alienating.

It was not the first time someone I knew passed away. I should know better, I really should, but grief, it is an alien. It is strange and unknowable and pierces the bubble of comfortable doldrums. 

An ex-colleague has this story of Mrs Ho moving the entire assembly to the afternoon slot so that him, a fledgling teacher, could attend the session.

Another shared the story of how Mrs Ho gave her a box of macaroons after her somewhat unusual attempt of being a little miss sunshine. 

A student mentioned how she was the only one teacher who constantly reached out to him and reminded him that growth was within reach. 

She was my mentor, back when I was new and tender, bruised by screaming kids who flipped tables, tore notes, cheated during tests, fought in the air-conditioned music room over a fan and in the garden over a girl. 

She gave thank-you notes and bought little thoughtful gifts to inspire and encourage everyone around her. 

She was the well-loved mother of the staff room, the beloved granny to her students, a kind soul who deserved to enjoy retirement after years of being the first few to reach the office and the last few to leave it. 

So many people spent that long weekend, battered, broken, wrecked, tearing, sobbing. 

This week, I drifted. Marked test scripts and mumbled. Cooked and mumbled. Walked and mumbled. There was grief, of course, and shame. The ignominy of impatience, of raising my voice at my classes. In what world would she shout at her students? 

She wouldn't and I shouldn't.

An ex-colleague said that Mrs Ho wouldn't want us to be self-reproachful. She would say something warm and remind us to be loving. She would say that there is a long journey to being a good teacher, to be kind to oneself, to try and last in the service.

The enormity of this all, the injustice, the ugliness, the sheer unfairness.    

I want to write about parade colours, the flags in the orderly march-past, the bright metallic bursts across the city skyline. To recollect the countless KFC meals given to servicemen during rehearsals. The sparrow-like squabbles about the social media efforts. 

When I was a kid and loved reading superhero stories, I would imagine myself having powers like super-strength or psychic blasts or pyrokinesis, all destructive forces with a sudden wave of hand. I never thought about having powers like time travel, I mean, how lame can that be.

Now, I imagine the power to reverse time, for the opportunity not to ever board a cab. 

I imagine her family, the magnitude of their grief, and the gentleness that would eventually come after the wounds have scabbed over and the scabs have fallen off.

Thank you, Mrs Ho, for your mentorship, your kindness, your inspiring example. 

Growing Catasetinae Orchids

Catasetinae is a group of orchids consisting of 8 genera. These resilient plants grow on branches, stumps and lamp posts. They go dormant in winter by shedding all their leaves and explode with growth in summer, the botanical equivalent of being a Sleeping Beauty. 

Some growers tend to trim away roots and leaves to force them to go into hibernation for a better show the following year. However, I find this unnecessary since the local weather is humid with sunshine year round. In fact, there may be no noticeable dormant-growth passive-active phases. 

They are way hardier than other family of orchids and almost impossible to kill. A small fragment which I broke off grew into one sturdy plant this year and may flower the next. Keeping my fingers crossed. 

Here are some ideas on growth culture, based on my past three years of keeping them. 

Potting mix

Inorganic media which allow water to flow through freely yet retain some moisture work really well. A mix of pumice, volcanic rock, clay pellets and charcoal is good. I simply use whatever media I have. During the growth phase, I may add a thin layer of moss on top of the medium.  

Spagnum moss tends to rot easily in our tropical weather, becoming a soggy mess. As such, care must be taken not to overwater the plants.

Another grower I know use coconut chips. It works really well for him. 

There is no hard-and-fast rule for choosing the potting mix. The trick is to get a medium or a mix of media which meets the water requirements of a plant and fits how often the caregiver likes to water. 


I used to like clay pots for growing my catasetinae orchids. They do grow well. 

However, I find that the plants grow even better in a semi-hydroponic manner. 

Many of them have huge pseudobulbs!

The plastic pots come from halved bottles. Holes are melted in with a soldering iron though they could be formed with any cutting tool.

There are no holes at the bottom of the plastic pot. This ensures that there is a very thin layer of water at the bottom of the pot. It is important that there are holes at the sides of the pot at the bottom to ensure that the layer of water is very thin and mosquitoes do not breed in the pot.


I tend to use a variety of slow release pellets and top up as and when I remember to. Every now and then, every green creature gets a heavily diluted fertiliser solution - a few drops to a large bucket of water. 

Sometimes, the plants remind me to fertilise them when they push out new growths and flower spikes.

I would have to say that the plants thrive with my benign neglect. When I was working from home, I killed a number of plants - not Catasetinae - by spraying Baygon on them to get rid of imaginary pests.   

Pest Control

Small conical snails tend to be attracted to the fleshy roots. The bright pink snail pellets work but are incredibly toxic. I find that Mr Garrick's organic snail powder - it smells like coffee residues - is much more effective.

Ants are drawn toward the nectar produced by new growths and flower spikes and can be poisoned off with ant gel.

(Also, they didn't pay me to advertise their products.)


Here are some photos of past blooms:

Have fun gardening!

A Dinner Conversation

Son: Hi, Mum, what’s for dinner?

Mum: It’s your favourite long beans fried with onion and garlic.

Son: Wow, what delicious organs!

Mum (puzzled): Huh?

Son: Do you know that a bean is basically a seed-containing pod, which make it scientifically, a fruit? Since fruits are organs, thus beans are organs, thus we are eating organs.

Mum: Wow.

Son: What wonderfully caramelised onions. Just the other day, my friends and I looked at the onion cells under a light microscope. The upper epidermis has cells which are more oblong compared to the lower epidermis. Potato cells even have starch granules which turn an amazing turquoise when iodine is added, due to the formation of the starch-iodine complex!

Mum: Wow, wow, wow.

Son (oblivious): What’s that lovely smell, Mum?

Mum: It’s the night fragrance of the butterfly ginger flowers.

Son: Oh my, are we indulging in the smell of a reproductive organ?

Mum: Aren’t we glad that you receive such a good education.

Note: The reproductive system of plants are generally covered in the Y3 Biology syllabus.

Note: Sambal-fried beans are yummy.


What I like most are lab sessions. The slicing and dicing of potato cells, the skinning of onions, the faces that little things seem to make under the glare of a microscope. Some of these critters just do not appreciate attention. 

The mixing of chemicals is the equivalent of a Potions class, the double bubble boil of trouble. Flares of magnesium light and effervescent joy of discovery.

It is intuitive, perhaps, but onion cells look so different. Those from the purple outer skin are squashed oblong figures while those on the white inner skin are stretched rectangles. Things are simpler under a microscope. 

Lab sessions, usually and unfortunately, are a mess. Sometimes, a sense of being inundated, swept away by so many voices clamouring for immediate attention. 

'Cher, is this okay?

'Cher, is this what I am supposed to see?

'Cher, I broke glass. 

'Cher, my cover slip fell into the sink. It is gone.

A thin square glass fell into the sink and the poor child asked for help. How could glass disappear? I walked over. There was a smooth watery mirror and I - with mild reluctance - who knows what have been poured into this sink? - used my hand to tap around.

There was a thin square glass. I held it up and looked at him. 

But, 'cher -

I waited. My eyebrows might have been raised in anticipation of a juicy retort. 

But... never mind. 

Another student requested for help when the thin wet glass refused to budge from the plastic petri dish. 

How, 'cher, how?

I reasoned that this problem of surface tension could be resolved by using  a paper towelette to dry the petri dish. It worked.

Big brain, wow, thanks, 'cher.

I felt strangely validated and rather virtuous. 

When surrounded by so many voices - each urgent and insistent - it is easy to feel an adrenaline rush. At the end of most lab sessions, I would be deflated, like a poor helium birthday balloon, all limpness and lethargy.  

It's no wonder why my neighbours keep screaming at their three children, insisting that they behave, else threatening to throw them out. 

So, yes, I am thankful. 

Thankful and grateful for the care that my parents have afforded to my brothers and I. The four of us, once scampering around like invasive chipmunks, now adulting to various degrees of success/failure.

 So yes, happy fathers' day, to those who have kids, who look after kids, who might have kids. 

Cheers to one and all. 

Animal cell with its nucleus, mitochondrion,
endoplasmic reticulatum and other organelles.

Best Wishes

These days, I miss my students. Their antics, their humour, their sarcasm. Their agitated bouncing on seats whenever they are released late for recess or from school. Their misguided - and utterly foolish(?) - impatience to grow up. Their distemper against authoritative figures, power and hierarchy.

I remember secrets that they would tell me on the condition that I would not tell anyone. On one occasion, I promised to do so... and what a spectacular fallout. The child turned out not to have told the truth and the resultant brouhaha was memorable

The truth, crystalline, susceptible to fractures. The truth, refracting into multiple truths. The truth was it was tough. Tough to hold on to a student's bag and ask him what's wrong while he tries to squirm free and begins to cry. Tough to speak to the girl who post videos of red marks on her forearm, only to realise that they are just realistic make-up.

The truth was it was hard to leave. These chewren are young men and women now, people of promise, people of potential. I remember how I used to call my first batch chewren because they are always masticating food. I hope they grow into assured adults who know how to eat in a refined manner. I hope they are happy with their growth. I hope they are well. 

I remember how students would spend their time co-creating romances between their teachers. Maybe their Science-CCE-form-English teacher would pair up nicely with their Chinese teacher, if not the adjacent class's English teacher.

They are, of course, busy with their own romances too. For example, a battle to the death in the Eco-garden between two barely presentable mammals and the winner gets the hand of the fair damsel. 

I remember Sol, her frailty, her charisma, her stage presence. That magical performance - what else could it be but magic? - that feeling of being shaken, destabilised. I remember telling Ms Chan that I was touched to the point of tears. She looked at me and said, 'Aiyoh, I already started crying.' 

I remember J, how he confided in me about his feelings for this particular girl after everyone told me that he liked her. The class - any class - is a rumour mill where the slightest side-way look could be interpreted as a look of love, despair or displeasure.

Of course, I did not do up the seating plan so that two nice kids would sit side-by-side due to their good nature and compatible looks. Of course, I did not need any entertainment throughout the academic year.

As I write this, I think of all the brilliance that I have missed, all the brilliance that the nature of this job demands that I miss. Just a short interaction - a year, or two, four if I'm lucky - before they go on their ways and I'm relinquished to a dusty corner of their memory, pulled out for a good laugh during reunions every other year. It's not the present that we miss. It's not the present that we treasure.

Dear child, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, do good, do well. All the best.

And here's a picture of the oyster mushroom I fried for lunch last week.

Trekking in Bako National Park

It has been a long while since I last posted anything.

A child discovered this dying blog - the final effervescence of forgotten wine, the dehiscence of a poorly stitched wound.

Is it because words have dried up, from an overflowing river to a mere trickle to a dehydrating puddle of mud?

Thoughts are there, still there, just not processed into anything coherent, anything worthy of being read.

I wish I could talk about how the baby mammals misbehave, how they remind me of those infant primates clinging to their mummies' tummies.

These little creatures run around, hooting, screeching, touching, smacking. They are adorable and infuriating and (sometimes) show sparks of intelligent life.

But since I am circumscribed by my circumstances, I shall talk about what I did this holiday.

Let's start with a photo of this handsome fella, ruggedly bearded. He was loitering around the accommodation in Bako National Park and seemed lovingly tame.

There are many beautiful pitcher plants - seven different subspecies! - twining around trees, like snakes.

The most charismatic animals are, of course, the endangered proboscis monkeys. This one was foraging for tender leaves just a few meters away.

Silver leaf monkeys are more cautious and take extra care to maintain a healthy distance.

Here are photos of the flora and fauna we encountered in the park. I'm lazy to write descriptions of the many wondrous things we have seen.

There was a constellation of stars in the sky and a constellation of fireflies in the mangrove and everything was blinking and the world was magical and beautiful.

It is banal and unfortunate and irrefutable that everything must become the past. Work will begin again next week.


There are always bright spots in the darkening sky. That's how we see metaphors in constellations, Orion in the scatter of stars, Ophiuchus from disparate pinpricks of light.

We see meaning in what that may be essentially meaningless. Random clusters of rocks are imbued with myths. Within stars, there is an archer, a lion, the snake charmer.

We are meaning-making creatures, prone to see colours in drifting leaves. Apophenia: that's our tendency to attribute meaning to perceived patterns between unrelated things.

Sometimes, it's easy to be disheartened by young people, how they lose their temper for what may be trivial reasons. That vulgarity, that arc of marker across the classroom, that defiant tilt of the chin.

How easy to see patterns in these acts, a constellation of why not to be. How easy to forget the oft printed call to make a difference.

Much more challenging to remember the laughter within the classroom, the easy smiles along the corridors, the unexpected gifts between lessons.

There are many people to leave behind, many reasons to leave. How then to perceive the network of light to stay for, to remain for.