Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Where everybody knows your name

Since I’m not working, I have all the time in the world to do nothing much, except look back and laugh at myself or others. As I’ve already started on the subject of work, I’ll write a post each for places I’ve worked at in the past.

After my one year at “The Club”, I worked at a wine and spirits company in Singapore. Like the job before, my title at the company was always vague. Sometimes referred to as the Graphic Designer, sometimes Marcomm Assistant or Executive.

My job was simple enough. In-house designing for the company brand, such as logo re-design, magazine & press ads, website design, signage and displays, packaging, and mainly point-of-sale design collateral for the company’s customers, like tent cards, wine menus & posters for restaurants, pubs, hotels, etc.

It was at this company that I learnt to leave work on time. Not because I was finally good at time management, but because almost everyone left on time. It was a small company of about 24 staff back then, and the office was located in a building in the Tampines industrial zone.

A hired bus shuttled employees at this ‘ulu’ building to and from Tampines bus interchange in the mornings and evenings, so every evening, at exactly 6pm, everyone would hurry down to catch the bus at 6.15. If u missed this bus, you’d have to walk quite a distance through this dark and quiet industrial area to the nearest public bus stop.

You can’t help but want to leave with everyone else because by 5.55pm, the ladies would start packing their little handbags, shutting down their computers, tidying up their desks and counting down the seconds. Some would even make calls to each other to find out if the other party was all set to go. Like, “Oy So-and-So, u ready oredi? Ok see u”, or “Ay So-and-So, five-fifty-five oredi… balik loh”.

They HAD to get home on time each day to watch the latest episode of the current Chinese drama series on TV. (And of course the next morning there would be the usual discussion of the drama that took place on TV screens across Singapore, over breakfast).

So most evenings, I actually left work at six-pee-am on the dot. This was cool, although it was a bit of a culture shock cos I was so used to reaching home when it was already dark, so some evenings I’d simply jalan-jalan around Tampines Mall or someplace for a few hours till it felt more ‘normal’ to go home.

Because I finally had free evenings, I decided to take my Higher Diploma in Mass Comm as a part-time course, attending classes about 3 times a week after work. This was the start of introduction into the typical Singapore work-culture – working full-time and constantly studying part-time to attain something ‘higher’ – a diploma, a cert, a degree, or whatever we presumed we needed to give us “added value”. But taking this Mass Comm course was a good thing, even if not to “add value”, I was reading and writing again, something I’d hardly done since I left school.

It was crazy though. Reading stacks and stacks of books, writing stacks and stacks of papers within almost-impossible timelines. After living in Singapore for almost 5 years, I finally stepped into a library… and I was hooked. I had a premium membership which allowed me to borrow 8 books at a time. Most were for reference from the extensive list of books we were advised to read. And later, after I graduated, I’d still borrow loads of other books – design & photography stuff, food & cooking, nature & the environment, early childhood education & natural history. I guess I behaved at a library like how some behave at an all-you-can-eat buffet, grabbing as much as I could carry even if I knew I couldn’t consume it all.

Anyway, back to work. Of course there were nights when I did have to work till 10/11pm. Khim and Janet worked till really late very often too. It was quite scary if you were the only one left, because all the lights in the building and other offices would be out and you'd literally have to feel your way along the pitch black corridor towards the lift. I seriously can't imagine what I'd have done if I suddenly felt or heard something other than the usual empty space ahead of me one of those nights.

My messy workspace

In the office, most of us sat within earshot of each other, except for the Accounts department and the directors' rooms. Khim and I worked directly under Flora, the Sales & Marketing Manager, and we got along really well. It was impossible for me to not get along with Ida, cos we had the same shared love for non-stop snacking and idle chit-chat.

More of my messy workspace. This was also where anyone could leave snacks n goodies, so my workspace was also where everyone (even The Boss) came to binge.

Karen was a lot tamer than the rest of us, but there were times when she would really flare up if The Boss or the sales people pissed her off. She and Sabrina (the Accounts girl for our ‘sister’ or ‘mother’ company) lived in Pasir Ris too, and there was a time when they actually convinced me to join them at the Community Centre for Aerobics class.

Larry is the sweetest and most patient guy we know, and he never, EVER loses his cool. He sat to my left, and in front of Ida, and I still have no idea how he could tahan the two of us chatting non-stop from 9 to 6.

James, The Boss's uncle (and brother to one of the richest men in Singapore) sat behind me. He's a really humble and friendly guy, and never really bothered anyone about work much. It was all about his wine cabinets for him, so as long as you helped him design pamphlets and ads, or fax this and that, he was happy. He would ta-pau really really good food for us all the time, like the best ‘chye-tau-kuei’ (raddish cake) in Singapore, the best curry puffs in Singapore, the best pies in Singapore… it always had to be from the best stalls/shops.

James used to ‘cover’ for me a lot too. You know how, the people who live closest to the office are always the latest to get to work? Khim lives in Jurong and Ida lives in Commonwealth but they’re at work by 9 each morning. I live in Pasir Ris and the office is about 20-mins away by bus, but I was always late. Sometimes 9.15, sometimes 9.30… sometimes even close to 10! The Boss would come in at around 9.45, and some mornings he’d be unusually early, or I’d be exceptionally late.

This was the usual ‘Bernie’s-Late-For-Work-Again Cover Up' :
  1. I’d SMS Khim to let her know
  2. She’d switch my computer on and inform the rest that ‘operation cover-up’ was in action
  3. The boss would walk-in, pass my desk, notice me missing and look at Ida or James for an explanation
  4. Ida would point in the direction of the toilet and say “Stomach ache” or James would point upwards to signal I was on the roof (I would usually go to the roof for a ‘breather’ or to work with spray-mount for posters or spray-lacquering cards)
  5. I’d finally arrive at the office and leave my bag with the building’s receptionist, then cool-ly walk into the office as if I’d been there since 9, knock on the boss’ door and say, “You were looking for me?”

This was the super cool thing about working in a small company where everyone was like one happy family, and everyone shared the same dislike for authority, or “The Boss”… even the boss’s uncle!

Khim and I

Ivy, Nick, Trovan and Joel were in Sales. Ivy was loud, brash, quite vulgar, but the best in her field. Nick was a lot more reserved. Trovan and Joel were the younger guys, and Joel was the messed up shortstuff with the scary girlfriend I mentioned in an earlier post. Ida would refer to him as 'cicak kering' (skinny/dried lizard) cos he'd slink into work each morning, sneak up to my desk, and try out his 'Line of the Day' on me.

I remember one time, he approached my desk with a copy of the New Paper and said, "Miss Chi-i-i-n... We should go for this together?" It was a small advert in the papers, calling for contestants for Mr & Ms Chinatown!!

With Ivy, Karen, Ida, Larry and Khim

We were allowed to have the radio playing during work, and Ida would sing or hum along to songs most of the time, even if she didn't know the lyrics or the tune. "Under Pressure" was Khim's song, since she was always stressed out especially when The Boss wanted this or that changed for the millionth time. James would always make fun of names of callers or company names, like "LL" or "LJ".

If we ever had to take the crowded MRT heading West from Tampines after work, we were always assured an entire row of seats with the expert gestures of Ida, our official 'MRT Seat Blocker'. She'd target an empty row as the train slows to a halt, brisk-walk in, take the seat in the centre of the row, spread her arms out like a mother hen, then call out to us, "Ah, come, come!". No one else would dare take these seats, and embarrassed but giggling like schoolgirls, we'd sit and chat all the way to City Hall and beyond.

2006 Reunion with Karen, Khim and Ida

Now the oddest thing about me working in a wine company is that I don’t drink. I used to get really bad allergies if I drank the slightest bit of alcohol. Less than half a glass of beer or wine and a rash would appear on my arms within an hour, spread all over my body, and stay for a day. Long Island Tea or Tequila shots would hit me within 20 minutes and the rash would stay for about 2 days. And nothing helped – anti-histamines, jabs, calamine lotion, scratching till my skin was red and bare…

So you could say I missed out on all the ‘fun’ when we had wine dinners, wine tasting sessions, wine training for staff, and the occasional special lunch when managers or directors brought us out to celebrate someone’s birthday, farewell, promotion, Chinese New Year or just cause.

Everyone's birthday was an excuse to have cake and lunch treats.

I must especially mention Derek, one of the directors. He's what I'd call the hardcore wine guy, with a personal cellar full of dusty old bottles plastered with labels like Lafite, Petrus and the likes. He brought us out for 'power lunches' at nice restaurants - lunches that would stretch past 2 hours, pissing of our boss. 'The Boss' couldn't do much cos he was the young MD, whereas Derek was old-skool.

There was only one place to have lunch nearby - a sort of 'kopitiam' catering to the offices and factories within this industrial area. So quite often we had to rely on Larry to bring us to other coffee shops or food courts in Tampines cos he was the only one among us 'regulars' who had a car. Flora and the sales people brought us out for lunch quite often too, if they were around.

A group of people from very different backgrounds, all brought together by a similar interest, investment or just plain love for good food and fine wines, we were a small and happy family, for some time. Then, as usual, Change came along, this time by its other dreaded name, Restructuring.

People weren’t happy, and bit by bit the cookie crumbled. Ida and Karen left. I left. Khim & Flora left. Someone from Accounts ‘disappeared’. A few from Sales decided to sell something else. And as usual, just a handful stayed and survived, even till now. Though scattered all over the place now, we still try to meet up once a year, like a family at Chinese New Year reunion dinners.

2008 Reunion with Larry, Khim, Sabrina, Karen, Ida and Janet

I guess, one cool thing about job-hopping is that you (usually) make happy families along the way. The places you work may just be stepping stones, but sometimes, you form a bond with the people you meet on this never-ending road trip, and they will always be as much a member of your extended family as any uncle, aunt, ‘tai lo’ or ‘mui-mui’.

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