Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tonight… There Will Be No Light

Christmas Eve in Tokyo
Is just like Valentine’s Day
Couples gather at restaurants
Overflowing with romantic ambiance
For dinner is the hallmark
Most couples, while together,
Heed their culture and discipline
And thus they keep their distance
While a metre of wooden table separates them
They behave as if thousands of kilometres apart
Except… sometimes…
A mischievous look
A playful smile
Sneaks upon their faces
So subtly
So briefly
A fleeting, naughty suggestion that later
In private
The couples will become closer
Much closer
Closer than the man draws his scarf
Around his neck as he makes his way home
(Which is not his home)
For dinner
While his love
His life
Is waiting at his real home
Thousands of kilometres away

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fades of Grey

I was listening to Haim’s “Days are Gone” and Samantha Fox’s self-titled album on the same “car trip” (i.e., “traffic jam”) the other day when a realization struck me: when did songs stop using the slow fade-out to cue the listener that they are about to end? That technique seemed to be fairly commonplace in the 1980s (with some exceptions, which are always there to test the “rule”), but not so much (if at all) today.

I’m not sure which I prefer, the slow fade or the abrupt end… whether in songs or life in general. I had personally experienced the abrupt one, and am now painfully witnessing a loved one going through a slow fade. In both cases, the ending isn’t so obvious.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Secrets of a Super-Hero Sketch Artist: Dual Duels of Duality

I had recently reached my 50th birthday the other week, and I have to admit that initially, the day wasn’t all that special. It probably didn’t help that my celebration of this half-century milestone was more of a halfway measure as I was currently halfway around the world from my wife and family. So while my birthday dinner comprised of what I believe to be the best sashimi the Roppongi district has to offer, it was less enjoyable when partaken at a table-for-one. I also splurged on dessert, a lovely honey-lavender pudding that one of my dear aunties managed to bring to me from Hokkaido. However, the evocative taste triggered thoughts of an exquisite delight that I had shared with my absent wife that I am to this day still debating whether the indulgence was more pleasant or painful.

I do suppose one consolation of my then-current solitude was that it had provided an excellent opportunity for deep self-reflection on the past five decades of my life – a chance to see how far I had come into this world, and how far I have yet to go.

But the only “midlife crisis” I wanted to deal with belonged to my cartooning “altered-ego,” the unabashedly conceited "Professor Xum," who couldn't help but commemorate the half-life occasion in a recent “mock comic book cover” submission to "The Line It Is Drawn" (a feature of the “Comics Should Be Good” blog on ComicBookResources.com [hereinafter referred to as “The Line”]). The week's theme revolved around a breakout cartoon programme called “Adventure Time,” of which I could sum up all of my personal knowledge at the time in this “sketch cover variant.”

The summation of my knowledge of "Adventure Time."

But a little thing like lack of show knowledge wouldn’t stop the narcissistic Professor – especially since he recently discovered that he is about the same age as another “Professor Zoom,” who was a recurring villain in one of his favorite childhood comic books. The idea of having two fifty-year-old “Professors” squaring off on the comic book cover was too much to resist, even if it had nothing to do with “Adventure Time.” Fortunately, a Twitter suggestion happened to request a team-up between a couple of the show’s characters and Zoom’s four-color arch-nemesis. So all the wily Professor needed was a few quick Google searches on “Adventure Time” to figure out the creative shoehorn he needed. The egocentric result can be viewed here.

The Epic Confrontation No One Demanded

Little did the vainglorious Professor know that this would only be the first “doppelganger duel” on the week of his birth. His long-distant wife and a few Stateside friends have conspired with the ever-wonderful ShannonFarnon to provide a special birthday surprise to a longtime SuperFriends fan: a follow-up audio scenario for the one episode that never truly had an ending. And the villain of the audio piece goes to super-extreme measures in an attempt to eliminate me (as if my head wasn’t swelled enough). Fortunately Wonder Woman arrives to save me… and the day… in a very unique manner. Of course I can’t keep this wonderful birthday gift to myself. You can check out this fantastic audio treasure here.

(By the way, it’s possible to hire Shannon Farnon yourself to create a Wonder Woman recording for your loved one’s birthday, or any special occasion. Just visit the “Voice Mails for Sale” tab on her website to find out how.)

Fortunately, my family had finally arrived at Narita Airport yesterday for the summer. As soon as they get used to the time shift, we'll plan a more proper, albeit belated, family celebration to kick off the next 50 years.

Friday, May 24, 2013

More Misadventures in Marketing: Now that You Unmention It…

Acting advertising creative director Mr. X was having a mid-afternoon creative session with his newly-hired American expatriate copywriter (who just happens to be the “Ginger-haired Man” mentioned in a previous blog entry). They are working on a pitch for a television advertisement to promote a line of male undergarments that have a European style but are fashioned to suit the more petite Asian male body type. The assignment was vexing enough — given the advertising restrictions in the select Asian countries the client wanted to target — without the client also wanting the duo to create a catchy jingle to help make the ad more memorable. (This was at a time before jingles started their slow decline in popularity in favor of synchronisation – at least in that part of the world.)

Now, creating jingles was not as easy as it may appear, as both the Ginger-haired Man and myse— Mr. X, I mean… would continue to attest. However, this jingle was a very rare exception, though Mr. X would attribute that more to dumb luck and quick-thinking diplomacy than creative skill. Well, okay, there was some creative skill involved, but not intentionally.

(I am getting ahead of myself [or is Mr. X getting ahead of… oh, nevermind].)

The duo’s discussion of the product benefits outlined in the advertising creative brief prompted the Ginger-haired Man to share with Mr. X his past attempts to purchase an intimate gift for her Malaysian-born wife in an American Victoria’s Secret. After several returns and repurchases and a final return, the Ginger-haired Man discovered that he could not find any lingerie that would fit his shapely spouse properly, and thus comfortably. He later learned that buying “unmentionables” for his wife was completely out of the question since the only underclothes in the U.S. that provided the best fit for her are those in American teenage girl sizes.

“So her underpants were loose,” Mr. X summarized cheekily.

The Ginger-haired Man smiled, eyes sparkling with inspiration that at the time had nothing to do with the pitch, as he repeated Mr. X’s statement to the tune of “the Thundercats are loose.” This quickly led to a mutual impromptu rewrite of the entire 1980s “Thundercats” cartoon theme:

The Underpants are on the move,
The Underpants are loose!
Elastic band’s not holding tight,
The Underpants are loose!
Under, under, under, Underpants!
Under, under, under, Underpants!

As immature as it was, the duo couldn’t help glowing with pride at their comical creation — and they sang the song again with added fervor.

“That is a really catchy tune,” began a voice from the open doorway. Unbeknownst to the creative duo, the owner of the undergarment company was visiting the ad agency, and the account director had chosen that moment to introduce him to the “creative geniuses” that were handling the advertisement pitch. “However,” the voice, now icy, continued, “I believe that jingle does not describe our products, only the opposite.”

The creative duo looked up at the new arrival in astonishment, and saw the unpleasant glint in the elder eyes that were fixed intently upon them. The owner of the undergarment company folded his arms, clearing awaiting an explanation.

Mr. X shifted uncomfortably in his seat while a thought flashed through the Ginger-haired Man’s mind. The American took a deep breath, choosing his words carefully as he responded in a respectful, scholarly manner (which Mr. X would later refer to as the man’s “professor voice”). “You are correct, sir. We were considering using the ‘Brand-X’ concept whereby we would feature a man who was not using your product and being noticeably uncomfortable as he tries to go through his daily routine. Then he would run into his business colleague, who is wearing your brand of undergarment and appears more comfortable and confident. The voice over would then tell the first man what he should be wearing.”

The elder eyes narrowed. “So the jingle is about what happens when you don’t use our product?”

“Exactly,” the Ginger-haired Man said. “We understand that it is pretty radi… uh, different, than what jingles usually do, but that is just one of the concepts we were considering for…”

“No,” the elder man interrupted, his voice softening a little. “Let’s use this idea, and this jingle. Please repeat it again.”

And that was how the Thundercats helped save the duo’s ad business (at least that day). Of course, legally they couldn’t use the exact tune, or even those jokily reworded lyrics. They were essentially changed to: “Your underpants are moving down; your underpants are loose…” translated into Mandarin and Korean. It was sung by children’s choirs in a very taunting manner toward the “Brand X” gentleman, a brilliant talent with uncanny physical comedy prowess that would rival that of Dick Van Dyke or Rowan Atkinson (I believe someone in the agency made a very accurate assessment of him as a “Korean Mr. Bean”).

Of course, it was a challenge trying to meet the advertising regulations of various Asian regions with a single version of the advertisement (for example, some places forbade the ad from showing the actual product [even in the package]). Further, other restrictions regarding the time of day and airing frequency for such a “taboo” ad also worked against our intrepid advertisers. Despite this, business was booming enough for the company that dealt with “unmentionables” to be something to talk about.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Stolen Moment

All the man could see was red.

The man didn’t know then that he had been shot. All he knew at the time was that his body was exploding with the most excruciating pain he had ever experienced. And then a cloying wave of euphoria suddenly washed over him. The shock was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. The man had felt himself falling. And then…

The man felt nothing.

And all the man could see was white.

The white was intense, like a blinding light. But the man couldn’t close or even shield his eyes; he seemed to have no hand or eyelids with which to do so.

He didn’t seem to have… anything. No limbs. No breath. No body. No mass. Just a sense of… self.

And a sense of sight, though that could have been debatable.

The light seemed to be completely white at first, but now the man could make out slight shimmers of dull colors here and there. The colors seemed to be shifting in all directions, like shapes swimming through a fog, fading in and out of his field of vision.

The man could also hear… something. Lots of somethings. But the noises were very faint... muffled... as if they were distant and underwater.

By all accounts, the man should have been frightened. But all he felt was… serenity.

Suddenly, one sound became much clearer, though not completely sharp. It was a voice, a girl's voice.

A familiar deep voice rich and thick with a British accent.

"It's okay, Xummy. You've just had a bit of a shock."

"Dan?" the man tried to say, except he couldn't hear his voice. He would say it felt caught in his throat... if he had a throat.

The fog of colors seemed to lift somewhat... enough for the man to be happily looking in those sparkling sea-green eyes that he had been longing to see again for over nine years.

"It's me," the voice said to the man, as if she had heard him. While her eyes were very close, her voice seemed to come from very far away.

"But you're..." the man couldn't say. A realization struck him. "Am I...?"

Her unblinking eyes seemed to dart about a bit, as if she were shaking her head. And that's when the man realized that he couldn't make out her head at all, and could barely see the rest of her face. Only those beautiful eyes. "No, not really," the voice said soothingly. "It's usually best to leave endies be, but how often does a chance like this come along?"

The man caught the wicked tone, and saw the matching mischievous flicker in her eyes when she said that. He could almost imagine Dan’s puckish grin; how badly he wished that he could have seen it.

"Listen, Xummy... there is something I need to tell you.” The faraway voice suddenly sounded very soft… and desperate. “Something I should have told you... that night. But I was...” She paused. “Anyway, I want you to know that I--"

The man suddenly felt his heart bump in his chest with a surge of blinding pain. Everything went red again, and then black.


The man opened his eyes, but his vision was fuzzy and confused. Without the aid of his spectacles, he had to turn to his other senses. He felt something light yet firm clamped to his face over his nose and mouth. It smelled like rubbing alcohol on an inflatable mattress. There was a burning itch in his nose and throat, as well as… “down there.” His mouth tasted of cotton. There was a loud recurrent hissing noise that seemed to be all around him, as well as a rhythmic beeping and a strange, unsteady mechanical drone humming and chugging just to his right. He stretched out an aching finger and encountered a thin starched bedsheet, and then a thick blanket. Both were tightly tucked to hold him in a slightly reclined, yet upright position.

It took a few minutes for the man to surmise that he was in a hospital room. His sensory analysis was constantly interrupted. Each breath, forced into a steady rhythm by the ventilator that astonishingly rumbled unrhythmically beside the bed, stabbed deep into the man’s right chest and released an icy river of pain down the length of his torso.

But that may as well have been a dull ache compared to the anguish of losing his first love for a second time.

The man almost wondered if that “white experience” was only a dream, but he knew it couldn’t have been. His dreams always faded into obscurity the instant he awakened. There had been a rare moment when he felt that he is close to recalling a small, murky fragment of detail, but it would always elude his cognitive grasp.

But every sight, every word, of his bizarre reunion with Danielle is fully retained in his mind with crystal clarity. Not like a dream, but a vividly real memory.

A voice caught the man’s ear; a female voice calling out in Cantonese. Through his hazy vision he could make out the shape of a nurse moving from the doorway of his room. He couldn’t help but smile faintly because she sounded annoyed.

The man managed to keep his eyes open, though it took some effort, and eventually he saw a bleary figure in white standing near the foot of his bed. His doctor, he concluded. The figure, a male, began to rattle off a number of statements in Cantonese. His tone was clinical and precise (as the man would expect from a doctor), and yet, surprisingly, it did not resonate any annoyance of even the slightest degree.

But, of course, aside from a few numbers, none of the words made sense. The man tried to hold up a hand, but it hurt too much to do that. Speaking also proved to be a struggle. The man wasn’t sure if it was due to the ventilator, the nasogastric tube, or his own fatigue. “I don’t… understand…” he eventually managed to rasp.

“Oh. My apologies,” the doctor suddenly said, and introduced himself as his surgeon who removed the bullet, among other tasks. He then proceeded to reiterate what he had said earlier in English. Not that the man’s understanding improved much. Fractures in his eighth right posterior rib and right fourth anterior rib. Diaphragmatic rupture. Punctured right lung and pleural lining. Some liver damage. To the man’s tired mind, the surgeon’s explanation of what had to be corrected during the surgery was just additional “white noise,” only a little more soothing than that of the ventilator. The man’s interest began to dim as the surgeon proclaimed how lucky his patient was. Lucky that the damage was minimal as the bullet lodged into that fourth anterior rib instead of ricocheting throughout the man’s chest cavity. And lucky that his operating team managed to resuscitate the man despite him being in the prone position.

That last statement made the man’s dull eyes suddenly snap to attention. The cold chill that gnawed at his right lung with every exhale seemed to creep over his entire body. “Re… resus…?” he tried to say.

The surgeon repeated his last sentence in a steady tone, as if it were an everyday occurrence. He then added a few details regarding a complication with the anesthesia during the surgery that resulted in cardiac arrest. While the medical team had successfully revived him, for about four-and-a-half minutes the man was clinically dead.

This latest piece of information was too much for the man to absorb. It felt like a great weight was pressed against his head. The man groaned as he wearily laid back against the headboard of his hospital bed. He could barely feel any surprise from the surgeon’s next revelation that the operation was conducted three days prior, even though, to the man, it seemed as if he was foolishly confronting the gunman in the convenience store about 15 minutes ago.

The man saw another shape, another nurse, appear in the doorway and say something to the surgeon in Cantonese. “I need to leave,” the surgeon said to the man. “You get some rest.” He followed the nurse into the corridor, slowly closing the door behind him.

The man closed his eyes, exhausted, despite having literally slept for days. He was clinically dead. The man mulled that thought over in his head several times, as well as the memory of his unbelievable experience with Danielle. Had he truly “crossed over” for a brief moment and saw his first love? He wanted to believe that with all of his heart, but his rational mind couldn’t help but wonder if it was all some fantasy his subconscious created in his mind to help him cope with the shock.

Despite his deliberation, the man was certain of three things.

First: real or no, he did experience it.

Second: he was very thankful for that.

And third:

“I love you too, Dan,” the man whispered in his head. Tears seeped through closed eyelids for several long minutes as he eventually drifted into a restless sleep.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Parting Shot

Hong Kong, 1989.

The man stepped out of the warm night air and into the air-conditioned micro-climate of the Chat Jai convenience store. He paused for a moment before the propped-open doors to scan the shelves along the front counter before him. The store was very similar to the 7-Elevens he had remembered visiting as a boy when he had lived in the United States in the early-1970s, except here the Western snack items were intermingled with some locally produced treats. As the English and Cantonese labels vied for his attention, the man felt as if he had stepped into a strange alternate world that was familiar yet different. He chuckled silently to himself as he realized that, in some regards, he had.

The smooth-skinned Chinese woman behind the counter, whose rough expression hinted her true age, looked up from her tabloid magazine and eyed the man intently. Her brow furrowed; she didn't seem to approve of him blocking the doorway — even though there was nobody else in the store.

The man walked forward and smiled warmly before his mouth fumbled across a sentence in Cantonese. He had only been in Hong Kong for a few months, and was still learning the language (his employer and co-workers spoke English so there was no language barrier at work). The man did know enough at least to awkwardly ask for directions, order food, enquire about a price (as well as count his change), and, thankfully, to request a cup of coffee.

The woman behind the counter didn't return the smile. She conveyed a Cantonese reply in a low flat tone, pointing to a self-serve coffee station near the back of the store. She sounded annoyed, but the man didn't take it personally. It seemed to him that everyone in Hong Kong sounded annoyed, if not mildly angry, when speaking in Cantonese. If fact, the man discovered that acting annoyed actually helped him perfect the diction of the few rudimentary phrases he knew.

The man nodded his thanks to the woman, who turned her eyes back to her magazine in obvious dismissal. He pushed his loose glasses back to the top of his nose before heading past the short shopping aisles toward his objective. As he grudgingly pulled a Styrofoam cup from the tall stack next to the simmering coffee pot, the man recalled when a co-worker brought Chat Jai coffee to the workplace and how everyone else seemed to consider it an exotic delight. The man, however, found it to be horribly acrid. He preferred the rich and smooth brew from the hole-in-the-wall local coffee shop across the street. Unfortunately, that place did not stay open past 11, and the man needed the caffeine now. He had two more comic book pages of backgrounds to fill before he could "call it a day."

The man had recently finished college in London and was working in an entry-level international marketing (re: sales) position for a Singaporean insurance firm when a friend there managed to hook him up with a job opportunity as a background artist in a modest manhua studio in Hong Kong. Within two months, he had relocated and now spent most of his waking hours transforming the head artist's few rough sketch lines in the otherwise blank spaces of comic book pages into elaborate architecture, or lavish forests, or battered asteroids — whatever the story called for. The man did very good work, but it was hard work. And it was long work. (The head artist would say it was "slow work," but the man's speed was improving. The man didn't mind putting in longer hours to make sure he stayed on production schedule; the last thing he wanted to be was a spanner in the works.) In addition to the long hours, the job didn't provide much pay. Just enough to cover the basics (since the studio provided quarters in the form of a small room with a bed and a portable stove), plus a little extra to set aside for emergencies. But the man had dreamed of drawing comic books since he had first picked up a copy of Justice League of America #111 from the spinner rack of, interestingly enough, a Texas 7-Eleven in 1973 — his ten-year-old eyes recognizing characters from the SuperFriends programme he had seen on Saturday-morning television. Now he was part of a team that was drawing Hong Kong action comics, and he enjoyed it. So the job was, to the man, worth it... at least at the time.

The man was just about to pour his cup of coffee when he heard a young male voice shouting in Cantonese behind him. This voice was definitely annoyed. The man turned and saw the back of a short male figure in a grey hooded sweat jacket and jeans pointing a small revolver at the cashier, who was nervously moving what little money was available in the cash register into a small plastic store bag on the counter.

The hooded robber kept his gun poised toward the woman as he grabbed one handle of the bag with his free hand. He looked quickly at the contents inside and yelled something else to the cashier in Cantonese — sounding quite angry this time.

The man's heart raced when he heard the cashier's undecipherable pleas abruptly silenced by the sharp click of the revolver's hammer, and saw the gun rise to the level of the woman's terrified face.


The robber quickly looked over his shoulder toward the man's shout. He was wearing sunglasses to obscure some of his face, but the agape mouth denoted the gunman's surprise to discover someone else was in the store.

The man's eyes narrowed with outrage as the robber, and the robber's weapon, whirled toward him. Unfazed, the man's muscles bunched as his fight-or-flight response was unexpectedly readying his body for the former. The reason was perhaps not as much due to his 10-plus years of martial arts training as the youthful motivation behind it. As a boy, the man dreamed of being Bruce Lee, "beating up bad guys" alongside the Green Hornet. And now, over a decade later, a "bad guy" was standing before him, and he definitely deserved a beating.

Fortunately, the training had taught the man long ago how to exercise discipline... and restraint.

"You have what you want," the man rumbled, pointing toward the exit. "Now go!"

The gunman seemed to scoff at the man. Whether he understood English or not, the terse demand was quite clear. The robber muttered something in Cantonese as he lowered his gun and left the store with his light plunder.

The man then noticed that the cashier had dropped to the floor while he was facing the gunman. He quickly moved behind the counter in order to help her to her feet, unaware that the robber hadn't moved far beyond the doorway.

The man barely heard the gunshot when something very small — yet felt very large — tore into his back. His breath, forced out of his body from the initial impact, refused to reenter as intense pain flared through his entire being, overwhelming all of his senses. He barely felt his glasses slip off his face as he tipped back and plunged into unconsciousness.

Caught in the grip of gravity, the lenses of the man's tumbling eyepiece gleamed under the fluorescent lights for a brief instant, then shattered on the sticky tile floor.


To be continued.