Nanyang Butterflies

For my dearest wife, son and daughter.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names and characters either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 

Author's note: Video links in between the lines dictates the mood of the chapter. in some cases they also help readers to relate better to the context. Enjoy!

Nanyang Butterflies - Prologue

Nanyang Butterflies

This story is dedicated to the teachers, parents and children of Singapore.

About Butterflies

Butterflies are amazing creatures.

In midlife, they completely transform themselves and become capable of flight.

Some of them fly over distances humans cannot imagine they can.


Nanyang, in literal translation, means Southern Ocean in Chinese.

南 Nan(2): South

洋 Yang(2): Ocean

The word for Ocean in Chinese also means Limitless.

Each and every child is unique and has limitless potential.

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 1

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 1

Mr Moe sat in his office, legs crossed over his desk. He held up his glass of Johnnie Walker whisky and swivelled it twice. The Blue Label dignified oak aroma filled his senses. He took a sip and smiled. His company, South Ocean Garments made a million dollars last year. This was something unthinkable just four years ago when he left the Federation and decided to strike out on his own.

 He allowed himself to marvel at this for a short while. Imagine. One million dollars in four years. Little did he know that this moment marked the pinnacle of his lifetime net worth.

He started with just $9,819.65, bought an old smallish factory, fitted a few sewing machines and was up and running in a month. He reflected at those times in the beginning. It was very tough, but also fun. There was one time, he and his workers were singing while working, "Wooh ho-oh^oh! Wooh ho-oh, oh oh!" They sang so loud that the next door factory owner Stephen came over and complained. He jokingly threatened to stab them for such terrible singing.

Well, Singaporeans complained about everything. Mr Moe chuckled as he reminisced those crazy early days.

A remake of the song Mr Moe sang with his workers

Ironic as it seemed, he couldn’t help wondering whether he was happier now or then.

"Boss, you need to take a look at this.", a lady's mild dissatisfied voice came across the door.

"Give me a minute." Mr Moe replied curtly, frustrated that his moment of tranquility came to an abrupt end.

"Look at the quality of these uniforms, they're worse than third world countries' T-shirts, we gotta do something about this." Ms Lim complained as she held a piece of attire in her hands, checking the stitches.

Ms Lim was a typical Singaporean lady, prim and proper at work, driven and demanding, even towards her own boss. Although she had the capacity to be really sweet if she wanted to. She could bring a policeman to his knees with her feminine charm. Literally. Her last date was the Deputy Commissioner. But for now, her priority was work.

Ms Lim joined the company since its inception. Before Ocean, she worked for two years with another firm, NIE Logistics. Mr Moe needed a capable assistant for his business. She came to the interview and got the job on the spot. She proved to be a competent worker. With her credentials now, she could easily switch to another private competitor. But she stuck around.

She didn't particularly like South Ocean Garments or Mr Moe. What she loved most was her current core job as the trainer and role model for young factory seamstresses that the company had to hire and train every year. She was a born teacher. She was adept at showing the ropes, stern at work but a friend and confidante for new workers in times of need.

She never minded that her pay was way below her responsibilities. While she was hired to train young seamstresses, she also had to take care of the company's administrative work, sales and marketing, PR and liaison with government officials. She had a team of fellow-minded staff but one by one, they resigned as the going got tough. Things took another leg down when a colleague in a similar senior position went on maternity.

Her workload exploded. Still, her love for her factory girls kept her going. She couldn't wait for her colleague Mrs Tee to get back. Just a few more weeks.

But for now, she was worried. Both for the company and for her girls.

"Boss, the girls are not given enough coaching. They worked too long. They are tired all the time.  The quality of their work is declining. Look at all these shoddy uniforms, they won't last ten washes."

"It's okay. The important thing now is to hit the numbers. Our order backlog is piling up. We don't have time to conduct so many training days. Especially for Line EM Two and EM Three."

"But EM Three has the biggest problems"

"We can only do so much for each Line. Yesterday you spent a whole day with that new girl, Su Zhen right? She's not even EM Two right? You should focus only on the Top Line."

"Give her some time, she will make EM Two."

Mr Moe grimaced. He needed to convince his best assistant. She was not easy to work with, but at least she's honest upfront. He had a few foreign senior staff in the past. They were really good with words and always painted a rosy picture of how well their section was doing, but left to join his competitor the next day, leaving a pile of leftover shit for him to clean up. 

"Okay, let her do the Final Examination tomorrow. If aga-aga can already, put her into EM Two." Mr Moe said.

There was no particular reason why the Lines had the EM label. Nobody remembered what they stood for. But it stuck. EM One produced the cream of the crop and EM Three was condemned.

Su Zhen was the company’s newest hire. A young Singaporean Chinese girl, full of hope and fun. She never really had any childhood and now before she knew it, she started working. She was good at day-dreaming and drawing. It could be complementary skills. She would day-dream while holding a pencil, some time later, she would produce a beautiful picture of flowers and butterflies or a scenic landscape. She could create magic with pencil and paper. Well, dreaming does help to fuel imagination, the more important attribute, as some scientist once said.

One of Su Zhen's drawing
(originally by Lin Ying)

Su Zhen's parents knew Mr Moe for a long time. They wanted her to work at Line EM One, where the uniforms needed to be of the best quality. But her capabilities now did not allow that to happen. When she was young, she did sewing with her mother. And her mother drilled her for four weeks before coming to Ocean. But some young minds needed time to flourish.

Ms Lim saw a lot of potential in Su Zhen though, the young bubbly girl twelve years her junior. Yes, Su Zhen was still inexperienced, her skills were still far below that of the EM One workers. But with enough time, Ms Lim knew she could surpass them. She believed Su Zhen could be so much more. Not just labelled as an EM One or EM Two seamstress but something bigger. 

"Ms Lim, I know it's been hard on you too. All the more so since Mrs Tee went on maternity. I will see what I can do okay?" Mr Moe said.

Ms Lim nodded unwillingly. Mrs Tee was the senior ex-colleague who joined 6 months later than she did. She remember that fateful day vividly. Two ladies came to the company for their interviews. She was with Mr Moe who conducted the interviews. Mrs Tee was a confident lady who became her strong competitor at work. The other girl was very young. Even younger than Su Zhen. She was boyish and loud.

When asked for her name, she replied curtly, in just one word.


A melancholic feeling dawned on Ms Lim as she thought about Mei, the girl who died in her arms. 

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 2

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 2

Taylor Swift's Love Story Cover by PixieTea

Su Zhen worked up and looked at the clock. It was 8 o'clock.

"Ma! Why didn't you wake me up? I'm late!" She shouted.
"You don't know how to set an alarm clock meh? In the old days, girls your age are already mothers."
"Aiyo, I'm so late, I don't have time to argue with you."

She ran down the stairs to save time as the lift didn't stop at her floor. She was on the fourth while the lift only stopped at the first, fifth and ninth. Also, the lift moved at a glacial pace. If she missed it, she might as well walk back to her flat and sat down, drank a cup of tea and ate a bun and would still be in time for its next stop at the fifth floor.

Usually she would have taken the company transport. She hopped on the first cab that came her way.

"Uncle, South Ocean Textile factory please... Roughly how much ah?" She asked, slightly worried about the fare she had to pay.

The taxi driver scratched his head and said, "Err.. now peak hour right? So got peak surcharge, then we pass through CBD so ganna city area surcharge. If we pass any gantry, then there's gantry surcharge. Where's the factory ah? Might also got location surcharge, I think. So peak hour surcharge plus city surcharge plus gantry surcharge plus location surcharge and maybe I forgot one or two more surcharge. All these plus the basic fare lor. But don't worry lah, I discount to the nearest dollar for you."

"Wah... how come so many surcharges?" Su Zhen protested.

"You ask me I also dunno ask who... But I can tell you ah, they surcharge here and there, now Singapore become the Number One most complicated taxi fare system, but then they raise our daily cab rental fee, in the end we drivers also don't see the money one..."

 Su Zhen nodded in sympathy. She seldom took cabs. But today, she couldn't afford to be late. "Anyway, Uncle, please try to rush a bit, I'm late..."

The world's Number One Most Complicated Taxi Fare System

The taxi sped off.

Today was an important day. The day of the Final Examination. Su Zhen needed to show she could deliver that many uniforms in a stipulated time frame. Ms Lim had taught her how. She practised. But she didn't expect her alarm to mess up.

Su Zhen was late by 10 minutes. Ms Lim had already setup the sewing machine. She was not happy to see Su Zhen in a rather hectic demeanour on such an important occasion.

"Su Zhen, why are you late? Do you know today is a very important day?"
"Sorry Ms Lim, my alarm clock messed up..."
"What? Don't give excuses! You must be responsible for yourself!" Ms Lim was especially harsh, partly because she didn't want to be too emotionally attached, like she did with Mei. It was a way to protect herself.
Su Zhen's eyes were turning red and she was about to cry.
"Aiyo, don't be a baby! I will give you another 3 minutes to get ready."
"Yes, Ms Lim."

She sat down at the machine and Ms Lim started the stopwatch. Su Zhen fumbled a little at the start but soon got into the rhythm. At the end of the test, she needed to orally explained what she did. Most new seamstresses found this difficult. Su Zhen did okay, she liked talking. Her timing was above average for a Line EM Three, in fact she could join EM Two, but there was still a gap to EM One. Ms Lim announced sternly to Su Zhen her results.

"You barely made it, you can start work at EM Two today. Your pay will be $20 per day."
"Oh… but I thought I was in Line One?"
"Well, what do you expect? You will need a lot more training for EM One."
"What is the pay for Line One?"
"It's just slightly higher."
"But actually, all these lines are quite confusing to me."
"Yes, they are."

 Ms Lim was somewhat in relief that Su Zhen didn’t ask about EM Three.

Su Zhen was not very happy with Ms Lim. She came here to work, not to get scolded. She was never told about the strict requirement for EM One. Now that she couldn't get in, she knew her pay would be lower. She glared at Ms Lim for a split second. Luckily Ms Lim didn't seem to notice. She appeared to be deep in thought.

Ms Lim recalled that Mei worked on the worst line - EM Three. That was after she got transferred from EM One. Mei while careless and coarse, showed potential as a seamstress. When she sat down to work, she would transform. Her back straightened and her head held up high. Her eyes focused and her hands and legs moved to the rhythm of the sewing machine. She could work the cloth deftly, like an artist. Su Zhen was like Mei. Ms Lim saw the similarities in both girls. They just needed some coaching and time to flourish. They could be so much more.

But something happened to Mei not long after she joined. Her work faltered. She was transferred from EM One to EM Three. She never recovered from that blow. Ms Lim heard that there was some trouble in Mei's family. Her parents fell out or something. Originally, it was Mei's mother who started work in Ocean. Her mother got the job when the factory started. But a few months into the job, she asked for her daughter to replace her...

* * * *

Su Zhen completed 39 uniforms on her first day. A formidable number for a new seamstress. The boy helper, Ibrahim, who helped carry baskets of uniforms to the various locations was amazed.

"Wah so many uniforms..." Ibrahim shouted. "Aye, you think you super girl ah?"
"No lah... It's not difficult to make... you need help?"
"It's ok, I also got super power one"
"Yah lah! You make me angry, I become green and grow big big, my shirt will break but my trousers won't break. Then I become very strong and I can jump very far one."
 "You don't believe?"
"I believe, I believe" Su Zhen was laughing but trying to look serious.

Ibrahim was quite a happy-go-lucky chap. He was just two years younger than Su Zhen but had to work to supplement the family income. He started working at Ocean during the early days. He was actually assigned to EM Three. But due to the shortage of manpower, he helped new seamstresses as well.

Su Zhen didn't wait for Ms Lim to come by and rushed off. Her date was waiting.

She arrived just in time to see him finishing his last song. He was playing at the campus open air theatrette. Brian was a year older than Su Zhen. A student who enjoyed playing the guitar. He always had a natural inclination in music. He started playing when he was seven and had gotten quite good at it. So much so that now the whole school noticed and he became somewhat a celebrity in his school, Nanyang Polytechnic.

They met each other a year earlier at Orchard when Brian was playing his guitar by the street. She walked past with her friends and was immediately mesmerised in his music. But Su Zhen was too shy to just stand and listen with her friends around. So they continued shopping until it was time to go home, when she quietly slipped back to Brian. She stood far enough not be noticed but close enough to hear him play.

Sam Driscoll performing Oasis' Wonderwall

Of course, Brian did notice. So he walked straight up to her.

"Miss, you have been standing here for an hour?"
"No, no, I'm… I'm waiting for a friend."
"Ok, I am done playing for the day, do you intend to stay for your friend who made you wait like forever, or can I buy you a drink?"
Su Zhen covered her mouth to contain her chuckle, knowing that her lie was seen through instantly.

That's how they hit it off. Brian was every girl's dream. He was charming and witty, played the guitar and was the perfect gentleman. He was also very different from the normal Singaporean guys. In fact he didn’t quite fit in Singapore. Not just his appearance but also his character. He was a non-conformist. That was why he didn’t want to go to National Junior College like all his friends who did.

Brian's British father decided to stay in Singapore after independence and started a successful business venture. His mother was a Chinese Singaporean who worked for his father but later decided to marry her boss. Brian grew up learning both cultures, inheriting the best of both worlds. He learned to be different but better. It was no good just being different and poorer than average. Of course, he had his secret weapon:  his guitar.

Su Zhen parents were middle class Singaporeans, very traditional and typical Chinese parents. Sometimes Su Zhen felt they were too kiasu or afraid of losing. They were always competing with neighbours on this and that. She hated it. They also believed that their kids should just follow the road well travelled: work, make money and get married. They noticed her artistic talent but didn’t give it too much thought. Being an artist had no future in Singapore. They knew Mr Moe and were able to get her a job at his textile company. They saw this as fulfilling their duties as parents by providing for Su Zhen, who now had a job and hopefully learned a good life skill as a seamstress.

To be able to be with Brian meant a great deal to Su Zhen. He represented everything that she was not but what she could be if she dared to be different. She could draw and create art. There might be a more beautiful path. A better tomorrow. A future with Brian. He represented her dream. But she also felt unworthy of Brian, which was why she thought her art skills and her work at Ocean would help her fulfill aspiration to be a fashion designer.

However, Su Zhen feared the day her parents found out that she was dating an angmoh. They would probably go crazy.

"Brian, do you think I can become a fashion designer?" She asked.
"Is that why you are taking up the seamstress job?"
"Well… Yes… Partly"
"What's the other part?"
"So that I can be with you."
"Hmmm, how does that work out?"
"You are good at music, so I have to be good at something to match you right?"
"You complete me as you are now, my dear."

Su Zhen felt emotions flooding her chest. She blushed and cuddled up to Brian a little more.

"Actually I was quite good at drawing when I was young. My mum and relatives kept saying I drew well."
"You never showed me any!" Brian exclaimed.
"Ok I will draw you something some day."
"Well, I will write you a song too." Brian smiled.

Although their backgrounds were oceans apart, they found their common interest in music and art. They huddled together and spoke at length about their hopes and dreams.


Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 3

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 3

Mr Moe laid three uniforms on his desk. He took up the one with the EM Three tag and scrutinised it at length. It was what Ms Lim had told him. Quality was worse than what he expected. His random cloth for wiping his BMW, which is also Singapore's best selling car, looked better. He made a grim face.

This was not what he set out to do.

When he first started South Ocean Garments, he had only four employees. Today he employed 400 seamstresses and workers and made a million dollars but the uniforms paled in quality.

The strategy was really simple then. There was a huge demand for Engineering uniforms, so he should just make as many as he could at a relatively average quality. The trick was to sell much cheaper than market price and manage the cost well. It worked. But soon, the market was flooded with Engineering uniforms and the prices fell like that was no tomorrow.

But in a few months, there was an anticipated huge demand for Biochemistry uniforms and he caught onto that wave as well. Again, the good times didn't last long. The market got stuffed with Biochemistry uniforms and prices collapsed. The Finance uniform prices started out fine and held up better but still prices were falling down and some of the lower quality stuff got really commoditized.

Somehow Mr Moe never learnt not to catch such fads in fashion and to focus more on producing fundamentally stable uniforms.

But Mr Moe did do something that worked well until recently. He decided earlier on that he had to build up three different Lines to cater for different needs. EM One, Two and Three. Each for a different quality standard. At first this segmentation worked to his advantage. After all, there was always a diversity of needs and it didn’t make sense to produce different quality products on the same Line. 

Ocean started to be more and more profitable. Word got out that a textile factory was making uniforms, willing to train seamstresses and paid well. People queued to join South Ocean Garments. But there were only limited vacancies.

It got a bit crazy. People queue overnight. Boyfriends queued for their girlfriends. Parents for daughters and occasionally sons. Fights broke out. It was ugly. Singaporeans showed their true ugliness in such situations. So he did away with queues and resorted to alumni references.

If an alumni worker referred her relatives, then these people would get in priority queue to join. Whatever vacancies remained would go to a public ballot for people living within one kilometre. But things took a different turn. Suddenly everyone who joined had a relative who worked at Ocean before. Girls who worked at Ocean became prized brides and land prices around his factory shot through the roof. It was quite delirious.

But now, even more difficult issues were surfacing.

Seamstresses on EM Two and EM Three were asking why they were not worthy of EM One. Seamstresses on EM One thought they were better when in reality they were not that more skilful. Even Ibrahim asked why he was assigned EM Three. Not forgetting that the biggest issue now was the poor quality of products. The quality was falling way below the industry standard.

Mr Moe wished Mrs Tee could come back tomorrow.

Mrs Tee was hired to be the principal and executive operator as well as the sales and marketing person. The idea was for Ms Lim to focus on training and admin, and for Mrs Tee be the overall in charge doing strategic planning, operations including sales and marketing, PR and other liaison work. Of course it was a small outfit then, a lot of work overlapped between Ms Lim and Mrs Tee. Ms Lim did marketing as well and Mrs Tee could also coach and train seamstresses.

Mrs Tee was as passionate as Ms Lim. She wasn't just adept in dealing with day-to-day mundane matters. Her real talent was much more than that. She was the street-smart one and the innovator at Ocean. She came up with so many ideas to improve utilization and cut costs. Mr Moe really relied on her.

Mr Moe poured himself a glass of his favourite Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky and contemplated deeply about the issues at hand. Then he picked up the phone and started dialling.

* * * *

Crystal Lee covers Fireworks

It was a hot and busy Monday morning at South Ocean Garments. The seamstresses were working especially hard to complete a big order by the end of the week. Su Zhen did 19 pieces before lunch. It was a new personal record.

She was holding a colour pencil for marking on cloth and day-dreaming when Ms Lim walked up to Su Zhen with a defect uniform. She was all ready to reprimand Su Zhen. At the corner of her eye, Ms Lim saw a familiar character walking into the factory. It was Mrs Tee. Ms Lim was surprised. She should still be on maternity.

Mrs Tee was the same age as Ms Lim, but definitely a stronger manager and now a new mother who could not afford to rest. But the two were never actually that different. Mrs Tee started out coaching and enjoyed training seamstresses like Ms Lim and was given to do a lot more. Ms Lim never recovered fully from Mei and when her workload doubled, she just succumbed to the stress.

“Hi there, long time, Ms Lim” Mrs Tee beamed.
“Oh, you look new.” Mrs Tee said, referring to Su Zhen.

“Hi, I’m Su Zhen.” Su Zhen said.
“Which Line are you assigned to?” Mrs Tee asked.
“EM Two.”
“Oh ok… try to get to EM One, the pay is 20% higher.”

“Hello Mrs Tee. How come you are not taking care of your baby?” Ms Lim cut in coldly.
“To see Mr Moe lah, he asked me to come back today.” Mrs Tee said.
“He is in his office.”

“Ok thanks." Mrs Tee turned back towards Su Zhen and said, "Nice meeting you, Su Zhen."

Su Zhen asked Ms Lim, "Who is she?"
Ms Lim did not reply her.

* * * *

It was a short meeting. Mr Moe informed Ms Lim that Mrs Tee would be back to help out given the situation in the company. She would also take over the training of new seamstresses including Su Zhen. Ms Lim was not happy but obliged.

Mrs Tee looked around and found Su Zhen day-dreaming again, playing with her pencil.
"Hi Zhen, can I call you Zhen? From today onwards, I will take over your training. Lunch together?" Mrs Tee asked.
"Oh... ok..." Su Zhen woke up in a flash.

Lunch used to be a simple affair. There were six primary stalls at a local canteen. The newer workers would eat at Stall P1 and P2 where the food was simpler but also cheaper. The senior colleagues would eat at Stall P5 and P6 that served meals with more stuff. But recently, a lot of new workers started eating at the higher numbered stalls. So Stall P1 and P2 needed to prepare more elaborated food as well. It became a mega-competition.

So Mr Moe asked two more hawkers to come in to open up two more Mini-Stalls. To differentiate, they were named as Stall K1 and Stall K2. The two stalls were supposed to serve simpler and cheaper food. But in just a couple of months, they got into the game of making extravagant food as well. It was hilarious.


Mrs Tee treated Su Zhen at one of the original "higher end" stall, Stall P6. After all, it was the end of her probation. Mrs Tee loved coaching new seamstresses. She was doing that job for a while but got tasked to do more strategic stuff as Mr Moe needed help. She always wanted to do more for younger girls. Now that she had the chance, she seized it. She took time to observe Su Zhen and figured out how to help her.

"I see you are doing quite a number of pieces and the quality of work is very consistent" Mrs Tee said with warmth and pride.
"Yah, I have been trying hard."
"Good, keep it up. I will ask the boss for you to be transferred to EM One"
"Really? That's great!"
"That's my job. To take care of you girls." Mrs Tee smiled. Su Zhen grinned widely with a sense of gratitude. She was really grateful.

Su Zhen thought about how Ms Lim scolded her and threw her into EM Two when she completed her Final Exam. Although Ms Lim and Mrs Tee looked about the same age, to her one looked like Devil's Advocate while the other, an Angel. Su Zhen gave a big smile to Mrs Tee. Like an angel, Mrs Tee glowed and rubbed Su Zhen's head gently. Without a doubt, Su Zhen felt that she was now in better hands. Ms Lim was just disastrous. No wonder she wasn't married, Su Zhen thought.

* * * *

Both Ms Lim and Mrs Tee were there when Mei kicked up a big fuss over her transfer from EM One to EM Three.

"Why am I being transferred to EM Three" Mei demanded.
"EM One uniforms require much more skill and experience. I just said that." Ms Lim explained.
"But my pay drops by almost half!" Mei was on the verge of crying. "My mother will not be happy. She is now working fourteen hours at another place to make more money to pay our bills."

Ms Lim did not know how to answer.
Mrs Tee pondered at Mei's words and then asked.

"Is there anything that we can do to help?"

Mei did not answer.

Afterwards, they heard her story from the other girls. Mei's father disappeared one day and her mother was left to take care of the five children. Since Mei was already deemed old enough, her mother decided to let her work. She literally begged Mr Moe to let her daughter take over her job. Mei started out fine at EM One but without guidance during those busy early days, her work quality dropped rapidly. She needed time and guidance, luxuries that Ocean couldn't provide. Mei also showed other talents. She could sing and she was very good with younger colleagues, like Ibrahim. 

* * * *

“Can you tell me about your boyfriend?" Mrs Tee asked.
"Well. he is a really nice guy and he loves me a lot. He said he will write me a song" Su Zhen answered bubbly.
"Wow, he's so romantic"
"But he is also half British, I don't know whether my parents will accept him"
"Well if your parents truly love you, they will support your dream to pursue a different future."
"I hope so."

Mrs Tee held Su Zhen's hand and smiled.

"I remember when I met my husband, we were just like you and your boyfriend. We were young and inexperienced and didn't know whether our parents would accept us. But things work out."
"Of course they do. I just had my baby and now I am back to work. My husband runs his own company! It's call Tee Lifestyle Limited."

“Wow! That's a cool name. What does your husband's company do?” Su Zhen asked
“Oh, it's in a different line. We are expanding and are really busy. Even though I am on maternity, I have to spend all this time helping him. Of course, he doubled what I am getting here. But that's just left pocket to right pocket I guess” Mrs Tee chuckled.
“Oh yah, left pocket to right pocket..."
“Oh, we are hiring more people. My husband wanted to talk to Mr Moe and maybe ask for some workers, I think."

Su Zhen listened half-heartedly and was drifting into her daydream mode.

Mrs Tee sensed that and said, "Well, my message to you is things will always work out!" She paused then got up and announced.

"Let's get back to work!"


Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 4

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 4

The Imperial March

Ms Lim stormed in Mr Moe’s office. Mrs Tee was deep in thought.

“What is this daily ranking thing? How come I was't informed?” Ms Lim demanded, her face flushed with anger.
“Calm down. I just thought about it yesterday. I was about to discuss with you.” Mr Moe replied matter-of-factly.
“This is what I think can solve the quality issue you raised.” He added.
“I don’t see how that is possible.”
Mrs Tee added, "Actually I kind of agree with Ms Lim."
Mr Moe grimaced. He thought he just convinced Mrs Tee and had her buy-in already.

“Look, now every worker churns out different number of pieces. Some can do high volume, some only 20 pieces per day. But we pay them based on which Line they are on. This is not right, isn’t it?”

“So we check on them and rank them daily?” Ms Lim shouted.

“We measure their output and pay accordingly. But they must also adhere to the quality needed for their Line. Once we have the data, we can know exactly which worker produced how many pieces and how many did not meet the quality criteria.”

“Checking daily will not help improve quality. Teaching and training improves quality.” Ms Lim retorted.

“This will help motivate the workers. Remember Su Zhen, she makes almost 50 pieces a day now, of good quality. We pay her $20 when she should be getting $25, same as the EM One workers or maybe even more. This will help her.”

“She needs to learn how to make EM One uniforms. It’s not like she can jump straight into EM One tomorrow.” Mrs Tee said.
“I know.” Mr Moe raised his pitch with a tinge of dissatisfaction.
"But you will raise her pay right?" Mrs Tee asked.
"Of course!"

Mrs Tee backed off. She knew it's futile to go against her boss. She already gave Mr Moe her word on executing what he wanted to do although deep in her heart she sided with Ms Lim.

“What about workers who cannot make as many pieces?” Ms Lim asked, with a tone of an angry lion.
“They would get less than what they get now. It is only fair.”
“They will leave! We have to hire, teach and train all over again.” She roared.
“If that is what it takes to keep our better seamstresses.”

Ms Lim was fuming. Mrs Tee put her hand on Ms Lim and tried to comfort her. She shrugged her off. Mr Moe looked apologetic and softened his voice and said.

“Ms Lim, you have been the best hire for this company along with Mrs Tee. Ocean will not be here today without you. Both of you. And that is not an overstatement. But for us to progress from here, I will need you to accomplish this.”

 Ms Lim said nothing.

"This will solve your quality issue."

Ms Lim was not convinced.

She had tried this with Mei. After Mei got transferred to EM Three, her quality of work just went downhill. Ms Lim checked her work daily and showed Mei the uniforms she produced. The buttons were falling off. Mei didn't take it positively. Nobody liked to be told that they were not good. Ms Lim changed tactics. She tried a softer approach and offered to help her. She suggested training after working hours and also visiting her at home, to babysit her siblings. She even gave her some of her own money.

Ms Lim did spend a whole Sunday at Mei's place helping her. It was tiring but they bonded well after that. Ms Lim was especially comforted. 

"Ms Lim, do you know why butterflies hate the rain?" Mei asked.
"I don't know."
"Because if the raindrops hit them, it breaks their wings and they die."
"Then they should stay at home when it's raining, I guess."
"But butterflies are born to fly..."

It was the first time they had a good heart to heart talk. Mei confessed that she actually had another job after her work at Ocean. That was why she was not getting enough rest and kept making mistakes. It was getting popular for girls to take on two jobs. Working at Ocean during the day, then doing more during the night to supplement themselves. It wasn't healthy. But everyone wants to win the rat race.

* * * *

Ocean operated half a day on Saturday and was closed on Sundays. Workers didn’t actually work on Saturday but had to do cleaning up and other activities. They also received their weekly salary on Saturday at noon and had some time to enjoy themselves over the weekend. Su Zhen had been giving the monies to her parents since she started work.

They just moved into their new HDB flat and there were lots of big purchases. Their neighbour bought a colour TV set the other day. Mama Su immediately complained to Papa Su that their own TV was still black and white. So Papa Su, being kiasu by nature, bought a colour TV as well.

Su Zhen didn’t mind giving back to her parents though. After all, her parents sacrificed a lot to raise her. They had always pampered her when she was young. She got toys when other kids didn’t even have clothes. They even got her this job. This week, Papa Su told her to keep the week’s pay. It was time for her to enjoy the fruits of her labour as well. She was delighted.

She decided to treat Brian to A&W, a favourite fast food hangout for youngsters.

“Thanks for this, Zhen.” Brian said “This is really nice of you.”
“Well you always paid, now is my turn.”

Brian turned away for a second.
“I probably can’t treat you dinners as often in the future.”
“Why? Your parents cut your pocket money?”
“No, I am trying to save money.”
“I have never heard about you not having enough money.”

“I wanted to enrol in this music school but they have a bizarre enrolment system. In the end, my Dad and I figured that paying some money would probably be the easiest solution for us.”

“What's the system?”

"Oh, it's complicated. There are like 10,000 Phases. It starts with Phase 1, then Phase 2, then they even have sub-Phases like 2A1, 2A2, 2B, 2C and 2C Supplementary. Then Phase 3. There could be more, I lost count"

"Wow... Really? That's really confusing. How does money help?"

"Well, in Phase 2A1, if we pay some money, my Dad gets to sit in some committee of the music school and I get to enrol into the school."

10,000 Phases (well actually about 7 in reality)

"How much is it?" Su Zhen asked.
“It’s like five digit or something."
"Five digit? Oh my goodness! So it's a school for the rich and famous!"
"No lah, you can volunteer to help in the school activities to get in as well. That's another way to enrol without forking out money."
"Sounds like it's not easy to get in..."
"Yeah, I guess so. But my Dad says he has already prepared the money, but I just want to do my part too. If I use less pocket money and save up, it would help, I guess."
"You are so filial."

Su Zhen pondered for a minute and asked, “But can I help?”
“That won’t be necessary.” Brian said. "But I appreciate that, thanks Zhen."
Su Zhen smiled brightly.
“Sorry to ruin this a bit, but forget what I said about the money.”

He held her hand firmly and smiled too.

Brian sent Su Zhen home that night. They were usually careful not to let Su Zhen's parents see them. But today was not their day. They bumped into Mama Su right at the lift lobby. Brian did a quick and polite "Hi" and took leave. Mama Su looked on disapprovingly and said nothing. Su Zhen just froze. She got a lecture from her parents that night.

* * * * 

Mr Moe just ended a call with a client. The uniforms got rejected and they demanded a refund. He was not happy. He just lost $200,000. He did some quick calculations mentally. He probably needed to cut the bottom 10%, or forty workers.


Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 5

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 5

The average worker salary was about $20 per day. Mr Moe calculated that if he fired forty workers, he could save $80,000 in salary for the next 3 months. That would save him some money to tide over the cash flow until the new orders come in. He had two other big orders lined up, so that should make it work.

Mr Moe didn't like the solution. But there was no choice. It was better to cut a limb than to die outright.

He knew Ms Lim had a point all along. It was just about priorities. Which was more important? Meeting orders or training workers? He had to make these decisions. Of course now that the shit had hit the fan. He had to change his priorities.

Mr Moe was not a bad person. He was just too pragmatic.

He thought hard about how to help the girls who were going to get the axe tomorrow. He called his neighbour, Stephen.

"Hey Stephen, I got a cashflow problem, I need to fire some of my girls. Can you take some?"
"Hey Moe, I not running a charity leh... I can probably take 1 or 2 lah. How many you got?"
"Wah lao! What happen? You employ underage girls tio dua ki summon issit?"

Mr Moe was not in a mood to joke about this. Stephen sort of got the hint.

 Aiya, ok lah, ok lah, at most I take 3 or 4 ok. For old time's sake lah, since we go back long way."
"Ok thanks. I owe you one, bro."
"Please don't sing that Wooh ho-oh, oh oh song ever okay?"
"Got it."

There's still 30 over girls. Then Mr Moe remembered something and picked up the phone.

"Mrs Tee, I remember you mentioned your husband needed workers? Can I trouble you to get him on the phone now? It's urgent."
“Hi, this is Tee” someone answered at the other end of the line.
“ Mr Tee, I have a favour to ask from you”

* * * *

It was quite a commotion at Ocean the next day. Girls were sobbing and Mrs Tee and Ms Lim were running around. Mr Moe gathered everyone to a big room and introduced someone to the audience. He was Mrs Tee's husband.

Mr Tee knew Ocean well. Ocean was a supplier to his firm when he was still working there. That's how he met his wife too. He saw all the problems with Ocean and persuaded his wife to quit, in preparation to strike out on their own. However Mrs Tee was passionate about her job and was not about to call it a day. Well, as it happened, she got pregnant. Mr Tee then started his own company and employed a few Ocean staff who unwilling to take Ocean's poor working environment, decided to leave and join his new setup.

Mr Moe took a stance, like a singer before his best performance. 

Something like this

"Everyone, as you might know, Ocean is running into some difficulties. But we are gonna be okay in a few months. Mr Tee here is running his own company and he needs workers. I think his company is called Tee Lifestyle Limited, or TLL in short. He has kindly accepted some of our workers. I shall let Mr Tee talk about his company to make you all understand his business."

Mr Tee spoke in a confident voice, “ Hi Everyone. TLL is what I call a learning laboratory. THE Learning Lab, No.1 in Singapore.You see, there is huge demand for additional learning all over Singapore. Children, teenagers, young adults even seasoned workers want to spend their leisure time to learn more. Weekday evenings, weekends..."

"Learning during weekends? Why?" Someone asked.

"Why? Because everyone wants to win the rat race. But more importantly, I think mainstream education had too many issues."

"Way too many issues." Mr Tee added.

Su Zhen didn't really understand what this guy was talking about.

Someone then asked, "But what exactly is a learning laboratory?"
"Well... simply said, it's an employment agency. But not everyone is eligible That's why I am here."

"How to be eligible?" Mr Moe asked naively.

"I issue something call a Certificate of Entitlement. But there is only a limited quota. So I setup this auction process for people to bid. And I tell you, people go crazy over this. Sometimes the bids go to five or six digits..."

A few people gasped after hearing the price.

"But don't worry, there is quite a bit of supply for these certs now, so prices should fall."

The speech and questions continued. Su Zhen kept quiet, thinking. After everything has ended she approached Mr and Mrs Tee.

"Hi, I would like to know more about TLL." She said timidly.
"Yes! How can I help?" Mr Tee asked.
"Su Zhen, don't worry, you will have your job at Ocean." Mrs Tee added.
"I understand. I was thinking about how can I also upgrade myself."

Mr Tee immediately got her thinking and he said, "Let me put it this way, we do have programs that start from 7 o'clock, after your work has ended.

Mrs Tee was asked to attend some other matters and left the conversation.

"But what kind of programs start so late?"
"Well... Essentially TLL is an agency. We help train workers for other industries. There are all sorts of industries and some of them operate at different hours. Like restaurants, hotels etc, they would need workers around the clock."

"I see." Su Zhen beamed.

“Of course, if you live up to your potential, I can personally train you to do value added stuff like sales and marketing, that sort of thing that will help you in Ocean.” Mr Tee said.
“You know sales and marketing?” Su Zhen asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, of course. I would say I contributed to the growth of Ocean through my wife. I did gave her a lot of good advice!”
"Look, if you are really interested do give me a call."

He handed Su Zhen a namecard. 

* * * *

Dinner that night, Su Zhen ate quietly with her parents. She day-dreamed for a couple of minutes and then she blurted out.
“Pa, Ma, what do you think if I took on another job?”
“What? Are you crazy? We fought so hard to get you into Ocean you know? Is it bcos of that angmo boyfriend?” Mama Su was not amused.
“No no, I am not quitting. It’s an additional job. They can pay me double and they will train me to do marketing. By the way, his name is Brian and he is Singaporean.”

Mama Su was not happy that her daughter was talking back. She gave a deep frown.

“The new job... Sounds good, actually.” Papa Su said.

Su Zhen's face brightened and she added quickly, “It could help me in Ocean too. I have moved up to EM One but think I can do more. I see Mrs Tee. She can make uniforms, do sales and marketing.”

Papa Su spoke slowly without looking up. “It’s a rat race out there, you have to run faster, work harder, earn some money before you get married. It’s good that you are trying to do that.”

Su Zhen listened to her father silently. Somehow it didn't sound too right from a parent.

 "The older girl next door is also doing marketing. I think the pay is better." Mama Su said, still frowning. Comparing her daughter again.

Su Zhen rolled her eyes.

Moving to Line EM One was an accomplishment for her. The next logical step was to move to a higher level. She did witness other seamstresses got demoted to EM Two and Three. If they really cannot make it, then they were asked to attend Foundation Training. Nobody wanted to go Foundation Training because the pay would be cut to zero. Sometimes it wasn't entirely fair.

There was another plus point. She can have more money which could help Brian with his music school enrolment. It was a bonus.

Or was it?

She thought about her fashion designer dream. But convinced herself that taking on another job from seven o'clock should be the better plan for now. It would be tough but she thought it's worth it.

Su Zhen thought about all the bad news at Ocean today: daily ranking, her colleagues getting retrenched, quality issues... If she did not continue to do well, she might also be asked to leave. It’s really like running a rat race, as Mr Tee and her father put it. You cannot be the last rat.

Somewhere inside her, a voice cried out: this didn’t make sense. Humans are not rats. Each and every person is unique and possessed different talents. She could create art. She could become a great fashion designer. Brian could play music well. Ibrahim was good in his own ways too.

But for now, she decided to give marketing a try. She looked at the namecard Mr Tee passed to her. It stated TLL: Tee Lifestyle Limited.


Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 6

Nanyang Butterflies - Chapter 6

Su Zhen took a bus and came to Tanjong Pagar. She seldom came here. It was an office district and people were generally less friendly. She asked her way around and found Mr Tee’s office.

The big sign was quite intimidating. Three big letters TLL stared at her. As if asking if she had what it took to be here.

Mr Tee was not around. A lady at the reception asked her to fill in some forms.

"Ah, you are from Ocean. There are a couple of us from Ocean too!" The lady exclaimed.
"But I have never seen you at Ocean." Su Zhen said.
"Oh we left before you join."
"Why did you leave?"
"Everyone who taught sewing leaves Ocean after some time."
"Really? Why?"
"Most of us love to teach and train young seamstresses. Or work with younger people, help them and be a role model for them. We are not interested in doing other stuff like admin or marketing. But at Ocean, we have to do both and yet we are lowly paid."
"But Mrs Tee just came back to help us. And Ms Lim is still there..."
"Ms Lim? Oh she's different. She was there from the beginning."
"Mrs Tee's really nice, I like her." Su Zhen said.
"Yes... They are both nice actually. I worked under Ms Lim, she helped me a lot." The lady smiled. "Oh by the way, you need to do this language test. You have 30 minutes to finish."

Su Zhen was mildly taken aback. She didn't know there was a test. It was not easy. She struggled a bit but managed to complete it. She took 29 minutes. Cold sweat rolled from her hands. She hadn't had this awkward sensation for a long time.

A man’s voice echoed behind.

“Sorry sorry, I had to attend this meeting. Glad to see you here, Su Zhen.” Mr Tee shouted across the corridor.

“Hello” she replied.

“Oh you did the test? There is no need for that. You are over-qualified.”

“What is it for anyway?”

“Well some of our jobs require some talking, so we just wanted to know if the girls could speak good English, Mandarin, that sort of thing. Don’t worry, you passed.”

“What will I learn?”

“There is one that might fit. You need serve some drinks, talk a bit. It’s a restaurant and bar. You can do it one lah. You can start tomorrow?”

“How about the marketing training?”

“Oh! Yes, marketing, don’t worry. Tomorrow’s job is urgent. There will be a lot of marketing coming after that. Market until you call tolong.”

Su Zhen was not comfortable but she agreed anyway.

"Oh, by the way, here's your Certificate of Entitlement. Take good care of it. It's worth five or six digit! Don't worry about the payment now, you go make money first!" Mr Tee smiled sheepishly.

The next day she arrived at the office but never saw Mr Tee. The same lady put her into a room asked her to change into half dress and shorts and also did some make-up for her. The lady then handed some money to Su Zhen and said with a stern face, "Girl, listen to me carefully, this money is for you to take a cab to your workplace tonight. But if you decided not to go. Take the cab home."

Su Zhen was confused. Why would she take the cab home? She took the cab to her workplace and reported to a lady in her early forties with heavy make-up.

For the early part of the night, she was just taking orders and serving drinks. Some times it was in English but usually in Mandarin. This was not exactly what she wanted but the money was good. In four hours, she would make the same amount she made in Ocean today. Still, she made a mental note to tell Mr Tee tomorrow that she would only want to do marketing.

The crowd started coming in around half past nine and the place got much livelier. Many other waitresses were darting to and fro the place. The place completely was short handed at this hour.

“Su Zhen right?” the lady with heavy make-up asked her quickly.

“You go over that table and help them mix drinks ok? Simple job. Just add lime juice into the one like water. They call it vodka lime. Come back here quickly when you finished.”

Su Zhen obliged.

“Hey new girl, come! Here’s your seat. Make three vodka lime ok?” A pompous man in his late thirties cried in Mandarin. Su Zhen didn’t like him at all.

“What’s your name?” He asked.

Su Zhen didn’t reply. She was getting really uncomfortable. She felt a tinkling down her spine. She sat down and made the three vodkas as quickly as possible.

Then it happened.

The man put his hands on Su Zhen’s left thigh and exclaimed, “Wow, look at these legs, white as dao ni!.”

Su Zhen screamed and got up. But he grabbed her chest and forced her down.

“Wait, wait! Where are you going?” He asked as he laughed loudly while massaging her busts.

“Let go of me! Help!” Su Zhen screamed in Mandarin at the top of her voice. The man did not stop. He continued for a couple seconds for what seemed like an eternity for Su Zhen. The man had his big arms like a giant python over Su Zhen. She could do nothing.

Her heart was almost bursting. She continued to struggled, like a captured butterfly.

The heavy make-up lady came over and pulled her out.

Mr Gay, don’t be so harsh on her lah, it’s her first day here. You have to be gentle to girls. Then you can touch as much as you want”

Su Zhen was in tears. She felt totally violated. She sobbed uncontrollably on the shoulder of her rescuer.

The lady was definitely experienced in handling such situations. She took Su Zhen to the kitchen.

“Aiyo poor thing, come, let me make you some hot tea.” She told Su Zhen. She gave her a warm towel as well to wipe herself. Her tea had a fresh jasmine smell. Su Zhen sipped her tea, still sobbing. The tea was very soothing but it didn’t help that much.

“I guess Mr Tee never told you the whole story again.” The lady said. “That idiot!”

 Su Zhen was not amused. She looked angrily at the lady.

 “Tee Lifestyle manages restaurants and bars providing night entertainment for guys. The office you visited was a front where we choose and train our girls to work here.”

“He told me he is running an employment agency!”

“Well... not all the girls work here. Some work at the office. He tests girls like how he is testing you.”

“This is ridiculous!”

"I know."

Su Zhen blood boiled. 

“He did tell me not to let you go near clients yet. It was my fault lah. I thought just making three vodkas should be ok. You saw right? We didn’t have enough girls.”

Angry tears trickled down Su Zhen's cheeks.

"But you shouldn't have sat down. I asked you to make 3 vodkas and come back right?" The lady tried to defend herself.

Su Zhen started crying again.

The lady gave her another towel. Then she sighed and said, “Aiyo, I am sorry, young lady. You can go home now. I will ask Mr Tee to pay you full pay tonight even though it’s still not yet ten. You take a hot shower and forget about it okay? Here’s some lemon grass. I prayed at Thian Hock Keng one. Supposed to cleanse evil. Put it in your bath water.”

Su Zhen left in a huff.

Let's pray for Su Zhen okay? She so poor thing...