What Was I Thinking?

When I read in the national newspapers last year that this TV host/actor has written a memoir, my first thought was: when would a copy be available for loan at the public library? Well, it didn’t take long. (By contrast, I still haven’t been able to get hold of Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl With Seven Names for more than two years now.) Perhaps many readers are not as interested in local books, since I could also easily get a copy of Josehpine Chia’s When A Flower Dies soon after it was published.

I did not have high expectations for the book, as all I knew about Gurmit Singh was that he has a reputation for being a funnyman (when I didn’t find him all that funny), a host for programmes like Singapore Idol and the NDP (National Day Parade) and an actor (the most famous of which is Phua Chu Kang, the contractor with yellow boots, permed hair and a big mole, who could not speak proper English). Hence I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered what a good read it is: I was not only highly entertained (I laughed out loud more than a dozen times) but I also learned something more.

In 16 chapters over 275 pages, Gurmit Singh writes about his early childhood (birth, speaking problem, memory problem, kindergarten, primary school), in which he reveals how his inferiority complex (I would never have guessed, from what I saw on TV) led him to become depressed and harbouring thoughts of suicide when he was only 10 years old.

Due to the financial circumstances at home, he became the youngest jaga (watchman) of a bank when he was 13 (from when he was in Sec 1 till Sec 4). Here, there’s something he writes that I fully agree with: I think everybody should play at least one instrument. Not to show off … but just so you have a place to go to when you want to be alone or just ‘escape’ for a while to get your thoughts collected and to feel calm again. Your instrument will always allow you to go to that place where you can just zone out. And that zone can sometimes be the difference between sanity and all-out war.

When he was in Pre-University, he was shocked to find out during an Economics class that his 40cents-allowance-per-day was not the ‘norm’ as even the teacher didn’t quite believe it when his classmates were getting allowances of up to $20 per day. I was shocked to learn this tit-bit because I had an allowance of 50cents a day (though I’m almost a decade older than Gurmit Singh) and my parents made me believe it was a lot!

I already knew from earlier reports that he didn’t attend University because his ‘A’ level grades were not good enough, but I didn’t know he sat for the exam twice, and that it was Maths that caused his downfall. (So there’s something I have in common -well, almost- because Maths has always been my weakest subject, but at least I managed not to fail and had better grades in other subjects to ‘help’ me.)

I would never have guessed that he was classified as ‘medically unfit’ (PES E, for those who are familiar with the system) when he enlisted for National Service. After all, he has mentioned in many interviews that he was very active in the National Police Cadet Corpts in school. The reason was that he has a LAZY left eye! (Something else I didn’t know but can empathise because I also have something like that.) So he was sent to the Navy Headquarters as a Registry Clerk and then to the Navy Recruitment Centre where he was bored out of his wits. When he auditioned for the Music and Drama Company, and was selected, he felt as though he was going to the New York School of Performing Arts; there, he learnt ballet, jazz ballet, breakdance, tap dance, Malay dance, acting and singing. This would be a turning point for him!

In his recounts of how his career went from being a dancer to TV personality, I had lots of laughs! In between, he also wrote about how his application to the Ministry of Education was rejected (because of Maths again), and his relationship with his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Melissa (to whom he devotes a whole chapter, and more, through the pages throughout the book).

From humble beginnings at the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now Mediacorp), he became a household name. Programmes I remember catching glimpses of include Live on 5, Can I Help You, Gurmit’s World, Gurmit’s small Talk, Tonight with Gurmit, Phua Chu Kang (PCK) and Minute To Win It. PCK was such a huge phenomenon that there was even a movie (which I watched, courtesy of the National Library Board) and a stage performance for the President’s Star Charity. Another movie he had starred in is called One Leg Kicking, which I had also watched (on DVD on loan from NLB) because it also starred Mark Lee and Sharon Aw.

I’ve almost forgotten (because I didn’t follow every episode) the Mandarin drama serial called Baby Boom until it is mentioned that this was the only time he spoke Mandarin. He made great sacrifices and dedication for his craft. I vaguely recall an English drama serial (but never watched a single episode) called Lifeline; I got an insight to the lives of firefighters from a behind-the-scenes section here.

Having hosted the NDP 19 times, and the Countdown Live show on TV for 20 years, Gurmit Singh decided it was enough. Because all these have taken a toll on his health. For a long time now, he has been experiencing fainting spells and epileptic fits. His Blood Pressure is generally low, and doctors advise the best solution is never to be hungry (another piece of useful information for me). Fatherhood has also changed him.

One surprise came almost at the end when he reveals (with a photograph) a tattoo on his back with the names of his wife and children – a permanent part of his life.

In earlier chapters, he has also shared snippets about his parents, their relationship, and how he coped with their illnesses and eventual death.

Besides the fact that there are many details that take courage and conviction to write, I also like his conversational style. There is a lot of humour and wit in his honesty and frankness. Of course, there are also lots of photographs!

Sunshine Superman

I’ve come across this DVD a couple of times but didn’t think of borrowing it until recently because I finally decided I wanted to know more about BASE (Buildings, Antennae towers, Spaces, Earth) jumping, though it’s definitely something that I won’t ever attempt. That it is a true story and a documentary on Carl Boenish means I can expect lots of archival footage and superb aerial photography.

The film begins with a Prologue in which Carl Boenish narrates that Nothing happens by chance. Everything that happens, happens for a reason. Happens due to the law of the universe. The aerial photography of the cliffs is simply breathtaking.

Boenish is seen being interviewed by Pat Sajak, the host of my all-time favourite TV programme, Wheel of Fortune. This is from a 1978 footage. The camera then cuts to show Carl as a young child: he had polio and weak legs, therefore spent a lot of his time playing the piano. As a young man, he is seen playing a mean piano. An intellectual, his life changed completely when he started skydiving,

He is the first person known for free fall parachuting photography, and in-charge of the aerial free fall parachuting sequences in MGM’s The Gypsy Moths. As a film-maker first and shydiver second, he spent two years to do a 15-minute film.

One of the greatest challenges is falling from the 3,000-feet tall El Capitan inside of Yosemite Valley Park in California, USA. It is an idyllic place, so beautiful and utterly magnificent.

A geek and a nerd, Carl was still unmarried at 40, until he met Jean in April 1979. She wrote him a letter, and he called her. On their first date, thay talked about drop zone, things they believed in, principles they held to and had a foot race next to an airplane that was starting to take off. Theirs is an unique coupling: they are diametrical opposites but both are very analytical. Places they jumped off together include Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and a TV tower that is a thousand feet high in Houston, Texas in 1981, Crocker Centre Building in downtown Los Angeles, Union Planners Bank Building in Memphis, Tennessee in 1984 and Trollveggan, the largest cliff face in Europe. (Most appropriately, the music played here is Wagner’s Das Weingold).

One fateful day, an exhausted Jean decided to stay behind as Carl leaves for Stabben. (The music during the drive to Trollveggan is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 9 in E-flat.) There is some rain and is quite windy, and Carl has a problem with his leg. Still, he goes up to the Pinnacle. He jumps between Trollveggan and San Vatin in Troll Tin Massive. The jump failed. Carl hits the mountain wall and is suspended in the valley. His parachute stops at the mountain side and there is no sign of life.

The Police are informed and they call in the coast guard helicopter as the accident occured in an isolated area. Jean is informed over the phone: “Your husband had been involved in an accident and it doesn’t look good”. Though Carl is known to live on the edge of his dreams, his death shocked and shook many people.

Two days after the accident, Jean is the first to jump off the same cliff. As is also Carl’s vision, Jean believes that “everybody goes through the same things in their lives from the time they are born till the time they die. We all go through birth and death but we have had cultural pressures about how to handle it. Everyone has his own real way of reacting. It will be individual. And BASE jumping encourages people to be individuals, to discover and explore their individuality. There’s been no one who had never had this death experience, so don’t let death impede you as a hurdle. Don’t let it be a wall that you bang up against and then can’t see past, can’t see through, can’t see over. What deserves praise? Death doesn’t deserve prasie. Life and the wondrous works that we do in life from our good ideas – these deserve the praise. That’s what we should be standing by. That’s what we should be paying attention to.”

Just before the end credits, footage of a BASE jumper at Trollveggen in Norway dives to The Hollies’ “All I Need Is the Air”. Even more archival footage is seen as the credits roll. The entire team – including the reenactment cast – is fantastic.

Wu Kong

A librarian recommended this 2017 movie for the Chinese New Year period because it’s one of the “latest” in its DVD collection. I would otherwise not have borrowed this fantasy-action-adventure.

The main story is that of Sun Wukong (Eddie Pang), who was born on the Huaguo Mountain, and Yang Jian (Shawn Yue) who goes there because of an offer.

The best part of the movie is its prologue because of the gorgeous calligraphy and the narrator’s explanation of how the immortals of the Heavenly Kingdom decided that Pure Evil resides in the Heart of Stone inside Wukong. He vows revenge and three hundred years later, makes his way to Heaven…

Other than the three songs (Purple sung by Singaporean Tanya Chua, Sky sung by Taiwan’s Terry Lin and the Main Theme written and performed by China’s Hua Chenyu), I did not like this version of Wukong as it is completely umlike anything I remember of the Wukong in the classic Journey to the West. The special effects are rather exaggerated and the action sequences crazy.

I am surprised it has been nominated for a number of acting awards and none for the music.

 

The Real Picture

I chanced upon this book at the library earlier this week while looking for books on Music. It is a very thin book, and I thought it would not take more than a couple of hours to read. I was curious about what real drama this King of Caldecott Hill (Li Nanxing) has to reveal, especially with regards to his fairytale marriage to former actress Yang Libing.

There are many photographs accompanying the text, which makes it an even easier read. Published in 2015, I thought it would contain more information about the actor’s early years in the industry. In the first two chapters, he describes how he was born into a large and impoverished family, and had to drop out of school in Secondary 3 at age 13 to work at a provision shop (and later in a paper factory and as a waiter at York Hotel).

When he was 20, he was talent scouted by Mao Wei, drama consultant for Singapore’s television. This changed his life. He is taught courtesy, politeness and humility and encouraged to observe, listen and learn continually, and to always have a sense of confidence. The entertainment industry is an excellent platform for learning, and he perservered with grit, paying particular attention to the veterans in action, especially in articulation and diction.

He shot to fame in three years and was earning $10,000 to $15,000 a month after more than a decade. When there was no new project, he ventured into business, sinking his entire savings of $900,000 into a country club in Sembawang. Then he was sent abroad to star in a show and the business deteriorated. He juggled acting and business and was mentally and physically exhausted. Saddled with a $2 million debt, injuries and misfortunes, he sought respite in alcohol. He is eventually arrested for drink driving and had his driving licence revoked for two years and fined $5,000.

He gambled in his attempts to clear his debts, but sank deeper and deeper. Unshaven and unkempt, he once left a casino $700,000 poorer in about 72 hours. He lost all his friends and his only companions were cigarettes and liquor. Negative media reports circulated around and no sponsors or shows wanted him. Besides a huge debt, his reputation was tarnished. He was shunned. He was in a state of despair.

Then a miracle happened. His life took another turn. He realises that the best and most precious things in life cannot be bought. After almost three decades, he left the television station to join an artiste management company. He is enjoying a simple and carefree life, and remains passionate about acting and film production.

I finished the book in less than two hours, feeling quite disappointed, as much of what he revealed in the book had been reported in the local newspapers. There is no mention at all of his ex-wife. I wonder what she has written in her book (the title of which I cannot recall). And I wonder why the library does not have copies of her book.

Scribbles from the Same Island

Neil Humphreys was a journalist at the Today newspaper. I had enjoyed some of his weekly columns. Since this book was readily available, I decided to read it in one day. (Published in 2003, it contains 38 short articles in 213 pages.)

Humphreys had written a successful first book, Scribbles from an even Smaller Island, to high praise from the media, notably from the paper he was working for: “A candid look at the idiosyncracies of Singapore and Singaporeans.” Others include The Sunday Times (“He pokes fun at Singaporeans… The ribbing is always cushioned by good-natured quips often sprinkled with hilarious anecdotes.” , BBC World (“The book presents a warts-and-all view of the city-state and celebrates many of the things most often criticised.”), Women’s World (“Humphreys’ humorous take on Singapore is an entertaining read.”), Singapore FHM (“A thoroughly enjoyable read on the virtues – or hazards – of living in Singapore through the eyes of a … Briton whose style is so disarminly honest, you will laugh at the things you once considered the bane of your existence… Decidely Singaporean, distinctly British.”)

I have not read the first book, but I guess it must be similar to this one: rambling on about both British and Singaporean cultures. Some of the topics here may not have been suitable for printing in a family newspaper (eg. The Ban, The Sex, The Hookers, The Lovers). Other topics are safe for discussion but not the way they are presented (eg. The SPG, The Trip, The Casino, The Romance). Many, I feel, are included to make up the number of pages (eg. The Crocodile, The Break-Dancing, The Toilet, The Farecard, The Wheel, The Spy, The Hunchback). I’ve enjoyed reading all the articles, including The Replies, The Doctor, The Games, The Snip, The Skin. There’s one I dislike: The Graduation; I feel it’s all made-up as I’ve never heard of a family member having to pay $150 to attend a university convocation at night in a hotel! Everything described is also too far-fetched from the few I’ve attended. Also, it feels like he is a misogynist when he describes more than once that his girlfriend/partner/wife has the ‘mental age of a four-year-old’ when she is a university graduate.

Humphreys went on to write another book, Final Notes From a Great Island : A Farewell Tour of Singapore before he left for Australia. Since then, he has written other books, including crime thrillers. I may just pick one up to read on another day. After all, he has a First Class Honours from Manchester University and has given talks/seminars/workshops and taught English at various educational institutions.

Testament of Youth

This 2015 movie is based on the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain and stars Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington. The story encompasses many themes – youth, hope, dreams, love, despair, war and the horror and futility of war, tragedy and rising above it all.

The opening scene shows Vera Brittain (Vikander) trying to seek solace in a church amongst the crowd’s yelling and cheering and cars honking on Armistice Day in Nov 1918. We are then transported back to a time four years earlier as Vera recalls the spring/summer during which she shared her dream of becoming a writer with her brother and his friends, including Roland Leighton (Harington).

However, her hopes of going to Oxford with Roland is thwarted: War is declared and he enlists; she volunteers to be a nurse, even nursing the Germans. He is killed, and she writes this memoir to record her wartime experiences.

This movie is beautifully made. All the actors (including Talon Egerton as Edward, Vera’s brother, Colin Morgon as Victor Richardson, Edward’s friend who is secretly in love with Vera, and Emily Watson as Vera’s mother) are good, especially Vikander. There are many big scenes, which involve lots and lots of extras, all contributing to the authenticity of the plot.

The cinematography is lush – the gorgeous Brittain family home, the vast pastures and paths surrounding it, the long and wide roads, hills and heather, the calm blue sea. All feast for the eyes. Adding to the visual effects are the costume designs, great make-up and hair designs, and of course, music and poetry. I love the use of Chopin and Dvorak and the quotes from Chaucer and Leighton.

The Goldfinch

While most people were out enjoying the festivities over the long weekend, I tried to read The Goldfinch which won Donna Tartt the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As I had borrowed the Large Print edition, I thought it would be a more pleasant experience compared to The Secret History which I didn’t like.

The novel is told in the first person by Theodore Decker who survives a terrorist bombing at an art museum at age 13. He takes with him a small painting called The Goldfinch, a work by Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt’s most promising pupils. Over the years, Theodore has always concealed the painting as he is afraid of being accused of theft.

Sometimes I do not understand myself: this is a Pulitzer Prize winner, yet I didn’t enjoy it one bit. (Just like how the immensely popular Harry Potter put me to sleep the three times I tried to read it.) Is it because it’s in the first person narrative? (Yet I’ve enjoyed many book written in the first person.) Is it because the characters are not mesmerising enough for me? Is it because it’s about a painting? (But isn’t this akin to an old music score by a well-known composer?) Is it because it’s too lengthy? (But then I love another Pulitzer Prize winner Gone With the Wind, and novels like War and Peace and  Anna Karenina, all of which are lengthy; however, these do not have more than 50 pages just for the opening.)

I would not be recommending this book to anyone. However, if ever it is made into a movie, I’ll probably go and watch it. If nothing else, perhaps I will be able to better appreciate why it is praised as “a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart” by the judges of the Prize.

Spy

Spy is a 2015 comedy spy movie starring Melissa McCarthy and Jude Law.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is a deskbound CIA analyst who remotely assists her partner, field agent Bradley Fine (Law) on missions. When he is shot in the head and all the other agents’ covers are blown, Cooper volunteers to go deep undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer and prevent a global crisis. The mission takes her to France, Rome and Bulgaria.

The plot aside, what I like best about this movie is McCarthy’s acting. She is a really good comedian who can deliver wise-cracks and be hilarious in her actions spontaneously. There is not a dull moment when she is onscreen, even when she delivers serious lines. With the right script and role, I won’t be surprised if she is nominated for an Oscar for her performance one day. In her role here, she has the license to kill the audience with laughter and slay with her acting skills.

A cameo appearance by rapper 50 Cent (as himself) is a nice surprise. The views (especially the aerial ones) of Bulgaria (Varna), France (Paris), Italy (Rome) and Hungary (Budapest) are a feast for the eyes. There are many stunts, all well-executed and do not smack of exaggeration. Besides the original compositions and 50 Cent’s Twisted, there are also classical music; notably Anton Dvorak’s Humouresque and Mozart’s String Quartet in G Major, all used appropriately to enhance the atmosphere of the situations the characters are in.

The Expatriates

What attracted me to this book is that it is in Large Print, and written by someone with an Asian-sounding name. My attention was arrested right from the Prologue: The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week… … and they dream of what lies ahead.

The novel focuses on three women: Mercy Cho, a young Korean American and a recent Columbia graduate;  Margaret Reade, one-quarter Korean and once a happily married mother of three; and Hilary Starr, a 38-year-old wealthy housewife from San Francisco haunted by her struggle to have a child.

The story of how these three women are bound together, how their lives converge and are changed unfolds slowly in intricate and unexpected ways. In the process, there is quite a bit or revelation about the lives of both the expatriates and locals in Hong Kong.

Almost reminiscent of Jodi Picoult, the story is told by each of these three women in alternating chapters, and the reader gets insight of their inner thoughts, emotions, frustrations and dreams. This makes the characterization more vivid. Each of these characters is flawed, making them real. The relaionships and their complexities make it a compelling read. Each also learns to metabolise grief, and try to live life in her own way.

The three women come together in the epilogue, and the sentence that sums it all up is: Becoming a mother is the most life-changing event in a woman’s life.

Equity

Equity is a 2016 movie that centres around a female investment banker at Wall Street. The financial world (things like IPOs and insider trading) is almost alien to me, and I recognise none of the leads. I thought I might enjoy the plot of a (financial) scandal and corruption but I ended up only appreciating what it takes for a woman to be at the highest echelon of her career. It seems that they end up with less-than-fulling personal lives while thriving on competition and ambition.

The plot is about a post-financial crisis: a company going public. It tells of what people would do to themselves, their friends and other people to get ahead. The characters are quite complex. There is moral ambiguity and grey lines. There is trust and mistrust.

The main characters are women. Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) embodies the strong woman on Wall Street. Despite her drive and passion to succeed and the sacrifices she’s made, she faces setback such as clients losing confidence in her work. She is betrayed by her scheming second-in-command Erin Manning (Sarah Megan). Samantha Ryan (Alysia Reiner) is an old college classmate and now an investigator of white-collar crimes.

This movie is not particularly interesting. I can’t fault it for anything, so I guess I should stay away from stories about investment bankers.