Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei

“”A schoolgirl—Siu-Man—has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window to the pavement below. Siu-Man is an orphan and the librarian older sister who’s been raising her refuses to believe there was no foul play—nothing seemed amiss. She contacts a man known only as N.—a hacker, and an expert in cybersecurity and manipulating human behavior. But can Nga-Yee interest him sufficiently to take her case, and can she afford it if he says yes?

What follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, especially an online gossip platform, where someone has been slandering Siu-Man. The novel is also populated by a man harassing girls on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social dramas; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N.’s neighborhood of Sai Wan. In the end it all comes together to tell us who caused Siu-Man’s death and why, and to ask, in a world where online and offline dialogue has increasingly forgotten about the real people on the other end, what the proper punishment is.”” Unquote Link

This is one of the best novels I’ve read recently. “Your sister killed herself.” – That’s the first sentence on Chapter One which got me hooked to the end of the almost 500 pages novel. 2 things strike me as I read the novel – Hong Kong society and the cyber world. I could not help comparing them to Singapore as we are both very similar.

Just like Hong Kong, we are tiny city states with high density population on an island. Their flats are small and tiny. Their trains are fully packed during peak hours. Things there are so expensive and getting more and more expensive with the commoners struggling to make ends meet. Their wages are so low that they have to take on extra jobs to earn extra money so that they could save up for their children’s university education etc.

The secondary 2 schoolgirl Sui-Man lost her parents due to poverty. Her father died in an industrial accident due to over work. The long hours of working caused him to lose focus and got killed when the forklift he was driving dived into the sea. The mother had to work so hard that she virtually worked herself to death. This young school girl had only her elder sister to look after her. The latter also had to work extra hard to pay her school fees, save for her university education in few years’ time and also to meet the escalating costs of daily living. It seemed that her wages could not keep up with the ever rising costs of living.

If only her parents and elder sister were earning good income, Sui-Man would not have committed suicide. I think poverty is one of the reasons why she committed suicide. On the surface, the contributing factor is that she was bullied in cyberspace and she had no one to turn to. Her elder sister was too busy making a living to keep them surviving.

“I asked you how much pocket money your sister got,” said N placidly. “That’s when I knew that you might be close to your sister, but you had no idea what she was thinking.” “Huh?”
“You gave her three hundred a week. After subtracting MTR fare and lunch money, that’s hardly enough for a secondary school student to live on these days. You know how much prices have gone up in the last few years. Twenty-odd dollars used to buy you a decent boxed lunch, but these days thirty isn’t e enough for a plain bowl of noodles. You think your sister liked having sandwiches for lunch every day? She was just choosing the cheapest option. Where do you think she got the spare cash to have coffee with Kwok-Tai and Lily?”
“Siu-Man was never materialistic like that! She’d never starve herself just to afford a fancy phone or-”
“Who said fancy anything? I’m talking about ordinary social life. If her friends wanted to hang out, then even if money was tight, she’d have to save up enough to go along rather than pouring cold water on their plans. Isn’t that what people do?”
“If she’d asked for more pocket money, I’d have given it to her!”
“Your sister wasn’t just worried about keeping up with her friends, she also knew the family’s finances were tight-that’s why she didn’t ask.” There was a hint of mockery in his voice. “You know what your family went through-and you’d better believe your sister was aware of it too, even at her age. She saw how much you and your mother suffered—and that’s why she was so insistent that she didn’t want to hold anyone back. But you didn’t see what she was going through. You thought every- thing was just fine.”

The need to make a living had caused Nga-Yee to forget about something even more important. Earning money was a means to an end: to support the household and let her family live happily. But capitalist society lulls us into believing our wages are a goal in themselves, turning us into slaves of money. We forget that as crucial as money may be, there are even more important things that we can’t afford to lose. Unquote

The next theme in the novel is about cyberspace and the internet. The author is able to explain all about cyber security, cyber crime, internet footprints, hacking into personal information etc etc in extremely clear and simple ways. By reading this novel, one would realise the internet having tremendous power to destroy and ruin our life. The main protagonist known only as ‘N” is a computer expert, hacker who was engaged by the elder sister to find out why Sui-Man took her own life.

“Guess how I did that?”

“You’re controlling her tablet!
“Nope.”N pointed at the PISCES FREE WIFI sign on the counter. “I’m controlling the Wi-Fi network she’s connected to.” “Huh?”
“This is known as a man-in-the-middle attack, or MITM for short. Hacking techniques are actually simple. Just a sort of third-rate magic trick. But because there’s a layer of science over the top, people think it’s complex.” N glanced over at the woman with the laptop. “I got my phone to pretend to be Pisces Free WiFi. My signal was stronger than the shop’s router, so her tablet jumped to my network. At the same time, I connect ed to the real Pisces Free WiFi, turning myself into an invisible go-between. Do you know what your computer does when you surf to a web page?”
Nga-Yee shook her head.
“To put it as simply as I can, when you type in an address, your computer sends out a request to the remote server, which sends the right words and images to your computer. And it’s the Wi-Fi network that makes the connection between them. It’s like when you’re at the library and someone wants to borrow a Harry Potter book. They ask for it at the counter, and you get it from the shelf for them. You’re the Wi-Fi in that scenario.”
This analogy made sense to Nga-Yee – after all, that’s what she did all day long. (Nga-Yee is a librarian)
“What I’ve just done is to put on a librarian badge and set up a fake counter by the entrance. Customers think I’m the real thing, so they ask me for the Harry Potter book. I take off my badge, go to the real counter, and ask you for the book. You give it to me, and I pass it on. Neither you nor the borrower would notice that anything was wrong.” “But you’ve found out that this person wanted a Harry Potter book.” Unquote

Second Sister is Chan Ho-Kei’s second novel. I enjoyed tremendously reading his first novel – The Borrowed. My fren Dr Mike introduced him to me. He also gave me both books. Even though the novels are originally written in Chinese by the Hong Kong novelist, I would rate it on par if not better than some of the world’s best crime fiction. I’m amazed that Hong Kong – similar in almost everything to us could produce such an outstanding thriller writer whilst we had none. However, I take solace that both of Chan Ho-Kei’s novels are translated into English by an overseas based Singaporean. Link

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Happy Birthday George!

On this day 25 Feb 1999, 22 years ago I witnessed you came to this world. I was the first person you saw when you opened your eyes to see the world for the first time. You measured 49 cm in length with 33 cm head circumference. You weighed 3.050 kg or 6.71 pounds then. You came out facing the sky instead of the earth.

As a Chinese, your zodiac sign is rabbit which is the same as mine except that I’m 3 cycles above you. On that day it’s also the 10th day of Chinese New Year. I could still remember vividly when she went into labour @0500 hrs on that day and quickly got admitted to KK hospital. I kept vigil in Delivery Suit Room 24 for more than 12 hours when you finally came to this world. The moment you opened your tiny eyes, you cried upon seeing me for the first time. Understandably, you could not utter a single word. But that fleeting priceless moment when you opened your little eyes to look at me made me so happy and proud to be your father. I cut away your umbilical cord at that moment even as your tiny body was still wet and slimy. The nurse quickly took you away to clean up.

I forgotten how hungry I was when I waited for your imminent appearance. Even after you came to this world safely, I was still reluctant to go for a quick meal. I was over-joyed by your arrival after having waited for so many months.

Your name was chosen months earlier and everything was prepared for your eventual arrival. I had to do everything within the first days of your life such as getting you registered, your first POSB account etc. I consulted a Chinese astrologer to get your Chinese name. I was given more than 10 options in choosing your Chinese name – 10 for the first and another 10 for the second name. I mixed and matched until I got this name for you. There is no Chinese name on your birth certificate except George Tang with Chinese characters. Henceforth, you shall be known as George Tang with Chinese characters written beside.

The years rushed by and suddenly you are now a strong young man having completed your national service and running your own western food business. You got your driving license 2 or 3 years ago. You did not do well in school but still managed to earn your own living running your own business which you told me barely 10 days ago.

On this special day ie your 22nd birthday, I wish you all the best in your business endeavour. I wish you success in life and everything you do. Happy Birthday George!

Related article here and here.

My son George running his own food stall

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WSQ security courses and our competent civil service?

I have completed 14 WSQ Security modules between 27 July 2020 to 3 Dec 2020. I also took First Aid Course (CPR & AED) at St John. Together with my previous courses taken at Certis Academy, I’ve completed a total of 23 courses to date. I’m left with 7 WSQ Security modules (3 SSS and 4 CSO modules). If I were to continue with the remaining 7 courses, I would have completed all the WSQ Security modules. I did not. I’ve decided to switch career. That’s another blog post.

The rule says that the last training centre ie APRO has to submit the relevant 6 courses transcript to Skills-future to get Advanced Security Certificate comprising 6 WSQ modules. Accordingly, I submitted my 6 SOAs (Statement of Attainment) to APRO requesting them to do so. APRO training side referred to their Admin. Someone in Admin replied she was on leave and the matter was forgotten. I asked for updates but to no avail.

The 6 WSQ security modules qualify for Advanced Certificate in Security. ☝️ I’ve done the highlighted modules.

I decided to write directly to Skills-future to highlight the matter. The Advanced Security Certificate is important cuz I could get $200 cash award and security agency sometimes asks for it. Likewise I submitted my 6 WSQ Security modules to Skills-future to qualify me for the certificate.

When the reply dated 4 Feb came I got a shock. They did not read carefully my request. Until today there is no follow up after I pointed out their careless mistake. The whole matter is forgotten.

This is my Higher Cert in Armed Security Ops ☝️

On 9 Feb 2021, I brought AT to KT to register for Basic WSQ Security courses. I highlighted the issue to KT admin staff. The young Malay admin officer was kind enough to assist by contacting APRO. KT told me that since APRO was my last training provider, the latter had to submit my 6 WSQ modules transcript to Skills-future even though all the courses except the last were taken at KT.

On the same day, I received an email from APRO that they had submitted my transcript to Skills-future. I had to take their word since there was no cc to me when they did the submission.

Fact is it’s coming to the end of Feb 2021. I’ve completed the required 6 WSQ Security modules (which qualify me for the Advanced Security Certificate) on 3 Dec 2020 and yet no updates forthcoming from the relevant parties. It can be frustrating dealing with these government agencies. That is how efficient our civil service is.

In the meantime, what could I do?

When will the cow come home?

Nobody knows!

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93 years old farmer at Chai Chee Rd

Today is the 7th day of Chinese New Year aka as everyone’s birthday even though I do not understand this. I goggled and it says, “On the seventh day of Chinese New Year, the Chinese commemorate an event known as REN RI (People’s Day). This is recognized as the day the Chinese goddess Nuwa first created human beings, thereby making the collective “birthday” of the human race.” Even the Chinese believe in creation theory!

My good friend Freddie asked me out for lunch today. Two of us for lunch as the rest were not free; either working or CNY visiting. Over the past few days, Freddie was complaining about his broken annual routine of getting up in the wee hours of CNY heading to the fishery port to buy in bulk and deliver fishes to all his relatives including myself. He was sore about not able to fulfill this yearly obligation. For more than 10 years, Freddie delivered rabbit fish to me on the first day of CNY without fail. Like many other activities in our life turned awry by this vicious Covid 19 pandemic. This CNY, only those in the fish mongering trade were allowed into the fishery port to buy in bulk.

When it will ever end after a full year of wearing facial masks in public has become a norm? My CNY wish is for this madness to go away as soon as possible.

This afternoon we headed to Blk 416 Bedok North Ave 2 coffee shop to try the famous fish soup. There was a long queue and Freddie patiently queue for the 3 dishes he ordered. It’s a simple affordable meal. It was a fantastic lunch paid for by Freddie. I’m blessed to have a friend coming all the way to fetch and send me back in his luxurious E200 Mercedes sedan for lunch and paid for by him.

After our sumptuous lunch, we proceeded to pay a visit to his old Mata Ikan kumpung old neighbor. The 93 years old man was tilling a small plot of land beside Blk 34 Chai Chee Avenue off the main New Upper Changi Road. It was a super hot day! They chatted in Teochew and caught up with each other. The old man was complaining about the low quality soil (clay) which is not ideal for farming. He planted herbs and pandan leaves amongst others to while away his time. The plot of land belongs to the RC (Residents’ Committee) with water and electricity supplied. It’s rent free. He sold those herbs thru a friend in the market to pay for the fertilizers ie chicken shit bought from LCK chicken farms. When he was much younger, he used to farm on a bigger plot of land near to SAFRA Tampines. The old farmer liked the old place due to the better soil fertility. He found satisfaction in growing fresh lovely vegetables there. The landlord was kind enough to allow him to farm for free. It was subsequently sold off and he had to move to Chai Chee.

Every morning, his family members send the old farmer to this small plot of land to let him do farming and they fetch him home in the evening. This is his daily routine. He cooks porridge for himself there. What a back breaking frugal lifestyle which partly explains why at 93 years, he is able to move about on his own. He told us his Chinese Zodiac is snake.

I was told that in those days, the old man was a full time farmer having huge farmland at the current train depot at Koh Sek Lin Road. He used to drive a lorry to transport his freshly harvested vegetables to the market to sell. Presently, he’s doing farming as a hobby without profits. I was observing the old farmer intently as Freddie and him chatted away in Teochew.

After a while, we left the place. I commented that this could be the last time he’s meeting his ancient friend. Freddie listened and remained silent as if to acknowledge this fact. Breaking the silence, Freddie said the old farmer was hard on hearing. He had to shout at him when talking to him. Soon, he will be like him.

PS : Read another interesting article here. Link

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Old school Heap Seng Leong coffeeshop serving butter coffee

Today is the 5th day of Chinese New Year (CNY). It is back to normal with many businesses. Is it true that the pandemic remains unresolved? It started soon after last CNY and lasted throughout the year. We need to put on masks and can’t travel freely to neighboring countries. Nobody knows when it will end. Life has to go on.

For the whole of last year after the CB period, together with few of my friends, we have been going around the island searching for nice food. At least once a week, we would go to different parts of the island for lunch. We’ve been to many of the popular food paradise recommended by friends or social media. This afternoon, we set off to Blk 10 North Bridge Road.

We had a hard time looking for this particular block as we circled around Beach Road, Crawford Street and North Bridge Road in AT’s car looking for Blk 10 not knowing it is the only block away from the cluster from Blk 1 to Blk 13 North Bridge Road. Blk 10 is situated amidst those new blocks of Blk 461 to Blk 468 North Bridge Road. We did not even know that we were right in front of that block waiting for Wilson to arrive for our lunch.

Close to 1pm, we had our lunch at one of the 3 coffee shops at Blk 10 North Bridge Road. This block of old flats is short but has 3 big coffee shops. We went to the first one for our lunch. We ordered 3 dishes from the Tze Char. Fried spicy fish head with black beans, Ka Lan and Tofu. The food was delicious and the prices were reasonable.

After a simple lunch, we moved over to the next coffee shop at the middle of the block to try their famous “butter coffee” and toast. The Malay stall selling freshly made big curry puff at $1 was fantastic. They keep churning out curry puffs for the stream of customers at a bargain price. We ordered three pieces of curry puff for each of us plus coffee for each of us. Three pieces of thick bread with cold storage butter. Each cup of coffee had a butter thrown in. That’s how they got their name “butter coffee!” Coffee costs $1.20 per cup. The bread costs 40 cents. We had three pieces of bread.

The said coffee shop belongs to the old school. It is run by father and son. The father brews the coffee. At age 88 yrs, the old man looks fit and healthy. He was dressed in a typical pajamas pantaloon without pockets like in those bygone days to prevent siphoning of cash by the workers.

When we looked around the premises, we observed that the electrical wirings are not concealed in PVC casings. All the wirings are exposed when this block of flats were built more than 40 years ago. Nowadays, all electrical wirings are either covered within PVC casing or in concealed piping. When I visited the washroom, I noticed sacks of charcoal stashed at the side. This is a rare sight to see charcoal used for the heating of the coffee canisters. No gas or electricity used in maintaining the heat at the stove. There is even an old clock that runs on electricity hanging on the wall. I remember when I was a child I used to see similar clock in almost every shophouse. This place brought back reminisces of those good old days.

We were having our thick delicious butter coffee enjoying the antique ambiance of the place when time stood still. This is unlike those new modern establishments where everything looks expensive and fake. They open from 6am to 6pm and take their business to occupy themselves without any profiteering mindset. This is a sharp contrast to those modern sleek chain coffee shops monopolizing the entire neighborhood.

How long could that old school coffee shop last before it’s gone?

We do not know. Only time will tell.

When it’s gone, part of cultural heritage will be gone. Slowly, bit by bit we are losing our inner psyche and turning into a soulless society where everything is measured in dollars and cents with profiteering as the driving force. When that day arrives, it’s going to be a sad day.

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