Monday, May 17, 2010

68. Incredible But True Story: When the chips are down - Part 1


Year: 1998 - 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

Location: Singapore, Desker Road Coffee Shop 

Yuan: Hokkien Peranakan. Male, Singaporean. Late 30s. Retrenched. Jobless. Estrangement from his wife. No children. 

Big brother: Triad chief of Desker neighbourhood 

Pig face: A look-out 

Susan: Coffeeshop drinks operator 


Between 1995 to 1998, there was a period of recession. Singapore was affected too even up to the early 2000s before SARS appeared in 2003. One of my friends lost his marketing job and could not find any executive job for several months. His marriage was on the rocks and his mum sided with the daughter-in-law for some reason I am not sure of. 

The HDB re-possessed his apartment as he was unable to pay the mortgage for many months. He had to move out to room with some friends. He always had a coat-and-tie job in exotic places. I would marvel at his stories of interesting people he had met and the closing millions of dollars of sales for his employers in securing accommodation regional hotels and resorts. 

The recession just stopped people from travelling and so he was retrenched.  After several months of rejections in his job application, Yuan lost all his savings. He was not the type to go around looking for loans from friends. 

He decided to open a food stall in a corner two-storey coffeeshop at Desker Road selling laksa. As to why he set up a stall in this notorious red-light district, I did not ask him but I made him show me the real place as his tale of setback was incredible for a Singaporean brought up in a Hokkien Peranakan family with no connections to the underworld or to the politicians and top businessman. 


I had met him for lunch two days ago on April 21, 2010. I wanted to learn some secrets of his success as a marketer for a corporation and how he bounced back from a severe setback in his life. Learn from the best and successful person. Books can only teach you theories. 


Lately, I had been meeting men and women in dire straits and looking for loans. So a meeting with Yuan was so much positive for my spirits as his stories were entertaining and uplifting. During lunch at the Hans Cafe eating his favourite sweet and sour fish, I asked Yuan to re-tell me my favourite story of working in a combat zone called Desker Road. 


Desker Road was and probably is a "red-light" district and I imagine the place to be frothing with gangsters. It is a place that looks normal during the daytime, but I could imagine that the Singapore Mafia had a strong presence there. 


Yuan recalled vividly the behaviour of gangsters in Singapore while he was operating a small food stall. "One day, a young man on a bicycle beckoned me with a finger to get out of my stall to meet him outside the coffee shop. He wanted to extort protection money from me." 


Yuan said: "Brother, I can give you free laksa. "I have no money to give you." The extortionist was not pleased and threatened him bodily harm. "Why are you so depressed nowadays?" Susan, the coffeeshop lady asked Yuan who was usually a cheerful person. No customers want to buy from unhappy people and he always showed a happy front. He was selling laksa at $3.00 per bowl and could sell 100 bowls per day during good periods. 


His friend who owned the coffeeshop had asked him to start a stall and said: "Pay me $25.00/day or whatever amount you can." So, Yuan had no pressure unlike the Marina Square food courts whose rental is $10,000 - $15,000 per month in 2010.


 "Susan is the wife of the Landlord and operates the drinks stall," Yuan elaborated. "She will barter free drinks for my laksa. But I cannot barter my laksa for her Tiger Beer or Guinness Stout."

"I don't want to cause trouble," Yuan had told Susan what happened. Soon Susan told him, "You will see some fireworks today."


 "So, what happened?" I imagined the beast in man to be brought forth. The extortionist would be chased into a dead end by gangsters with poles, parangs and machetes and hit and clubbed and hacked to death.

"Big Brother (the gangster chief) came for dinner and I served him. I usually gave him two eggs for his laksa." I have always thought that the triads and secret societies were wiped out by the number "999" in Singapore as the Singapore newspapers seldom report on gang warfare. Maybe the tabloids report such incidents but I don't read tabloids. Many Chinese secret societies had numbers but somebody told me that the only gang in Singapore is "999" nowadays. Even in the red-light district of Desker Road, I had presumed.


 For the benefit of readers, "999" refers to the Singapore police force who is the top dog except that the control of loan sharks appear to have slackened.

Yuan recounted: "Big Brother ate his laksa. Then he asked his side kick to get Pig Face who was cycling up and down the alley between Desker Road and Rowell Road. Pig Face came and Big Brother said: "When my mother does not cook my lunch and dinner, I come here to eat. Why are you harassing Yuan?"


Yuan means "Handsome" in the Hokkien dialect according to my friend as this was his nickname in the coffeeshop. That was what Big Brother called him and this is what I call him for this story as I can't identify him as he is a real living person.

More Hokkien expletives followed. Big Brother nodded his head and slammed his right fist on the table, spilling out the gravy of his laksa. He squinted his one good eye and curled the fingers of his right hand downwards at Pig Face. His men rained punches onto Pig Face's abdomen. Pig Face fell and he was kicked more times.

Extortion and violence are part and parcel of secret societies but as I did not associate with such elements, this was the first time I had heard of the culture of the gangsters at Desker Road.

"I presume the gangster chief and his men get free meals from you for protection," I said to Yuan. "He always pay for his meals," Yuan said to my surprise. "Gangsters do have their code of ethics. Do you know what Pig Face does for a living?" "No," I said. "”Pig Face's job was to cycle up and down the alley between Desker and Rowell Road.

 Whenever he sees the police, he will sound the alarm or ram his bicycle into them. This will alert the sellers of pirated CDs and pornographic material." Since Playboy magazine is prohibited in Singapore, there must be a demand for such items amongst the young national servicemen." Yuan continued as he completed eating all his food:

"Pig Face is a runner." But runners can be ambitious too to rise up the corporate ladder. Only that he picked the wrong person to extort. All the characters I had written had disappeared although the coffee shop, now taken by a new management, still exists.

After one year selling laksa, there was a marketing job in the a hotel. Many Singaporeans shun a marketing and sales career as there are targets to be made and people to be convinced to close a sale. Yuan is now a very successful sales person and earns at least $5,000 per month. He still works for various corporations. Only for legal ones and he does not get involved with shady businessmen. He is very selective in making friends as many of his contacts just want to use him for his large network. He is the type who is afraid of starting up but he has the network and supporters over the past 15 years to support him if he knows how to be an entrepreneur. He has the guaranteed salary at the end of the month. So, why bother getting out of his comfort zone and being at risk of no income. He never takes kick backs when he works for the corporation. Nor does he go for the wine and women, con people or ask for personal loans. So, his reputation in the closely knit hospitality industry remains good. There is a great demand for experienced and successful marketers in his industry.

When the chips are down, Yuan started a food stall rather than borrow money from friends. Or con Singaporeans by promising them high returns on their investment. Or like the older lady who spiked coffee of older men with Dormicum and ran off with their money and Rolex watches for the 4th time. 

He is the sort of the rare honest employee who is an asset to any business and was never affected in the 2008 recession. He had no university degree but he could perform much better in getting sales than his managing bosses because he had the passion to sell. And know how and what to do in closing the sale.

As to why he worked in Desker Road and had survived the gangsters there for one year, I will ask him the next time I meet him. I am sure 99% of Singaporeans will not be able to survive there. When the chips are down, Yuan did not go around looking for personal loans or stay at home. Well, you could say that he had no more home since his mother sided with his estranged wife and his HDB apartment was re-possessed. But he found a way to survive.

Today he is employed and as employees, he is exploited by corporations to make money for them as he has an extensive network of clientele. That is a reality of life. At the end of the month, he has a salary. And that is important for him. But I can see that he can make three times his salary if he is confident of coming out of his comfort zone. His supporters are there.

It is just like a successful songstress. If she has a good voice and good lyrics, she would have fans. They will increase in numbers over the years and she does not need to sing in seedy bars. If you have viewed the movie "The Runaways", you can see that Joan Jett was having setbacks in her early career. She persevered when her lead singer in her band gave up. She became the singer and started her own band "Joan Jett and the Blackhearts".

IMAGE: The Esplanade guitarist and singer. Labour Day. Singapore. 


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