Honeymoon Diaries #10 – Los Angeles

The inflight Wi-Fi in Alaskan Airlines that we took

May 13 (Monday)

Yuen-lin, with possibly the greatest hospitality of all hosts we had, left us the keys to the house as he immediately ventured north for a 11 day meditation retreat 2 hours north of the bay area after putting us home safely the night before. We woke up really early to diligently pack our belongings and found our way back to Berkeley downtown to catch a BART back to SFO, as we head towards our final detonation of the trip.

Honestly, Los Angeles wouldn’t have been part of the tour if it wasn’t for Disneyland. Plus, placing this destination last means our shopping has to be done here (to prevent paying extra for luggage for internal flights, now $50 a piece! crazy!) with a really high Californian sales tax of 7 to 9%. In hindsight, I’m happy we came anyways, even though my parents didn’t have very much good impression when they visited a decade back.

Upon reaching LAX via Virgin Air, with all its weird Pink Purple Magenta lighted interior, we caught up with Sy Bor in the airport itself (macam business man…) before renting a car for the 3rd time. This time it was much cheaper than the previous 2 times as we will be returning it to the same place. It was necessary for us to carry out all the difficult shopping manoeuvres, plus we didn’t have any contacts in town who could help.

Wanting to be close to LAX so that we can catch our final flight home, we made Culver City’s Super 8 motel our headquarters for the week. Motels are such an integral part of the American travel experience, and to my delight I found dear very satisfied by its simple and practical setup. After wandering around the neighbourhood and having some really nice Mexican grilled food for dinner, we
stayed in for the evening to plan for the least planned part of the journey. After finally confirming against an day trip to San Diego (to visit the Zoo), we bought tickets that night to Disneyland.

* * *

Super 8 Culver City

May 14 (Tuesday)

We started our LA sight-seeing day knowing that they might be some disappointment due to our last minute planning. The first stop we climbed the hill up to Griffith Observatory, and true to our prediction we forgot to check its opening hours and had to make do with the glorious view of LA.

We headed straight to Hollywood next. It was the finals of American idol so large part of the street was blocked, but we got our fair share of tourist-ish things done, from reading the stars mosaics to taking pictures with the Hollywood sign from Kodak theatre, while avoiding all the mascots prowling tourist for tips.

Originally just wanting to pass by, we got lost wandering around Beverly Hills amidst the huge rich people’s mansions. When we finally found our way out, we stopped by another Mexican corner shop for lunch and it tasted awesome probably from the hunger. We kept heading west until we reached Santa Monica, and grabbed our 2nd Jamba Juice before heading out to the beach.

Walking shoeless on the hot sand towards the beach, we wondered if there were nudity (neh, sorry to disappoint) but there certainly were lots of trash cans lined up along the beach, making its long and beautiful sandy beach a pleasant place to get scorched by the sun. It wasn’t long before we retreated from the cloudless sky back into downtown Santa Monica, surveying camping gear prices in REI trying to figure out how much Yuen-lin invested in his gears.

We met Jung Kian at Soowon Galbi Korean BBQ restaurant for dinner at his recommendation, and for the first time in our trip we scheduled a meal with someone we didn’t know before (ha!) Thanks to dear who’s totally accepting of her husband’s random hook up habits, even with young undergrads. It was refreshing and inspiring to hear current generation Malaysians rather going back to serve out their bond instead of taking advantage of the 1 year OPT (optional practical training) to work in the states – or perhaps Jung Kian is an outlier? We also caught up with Sze Min at Bourbon street cafe, but our conversation was unfortunately cut off prematurely when the shop closed fairly early.

We dropped Jung Kian back to USC, and kept thinking of tomorrow’s destination at Anaheim on our way back.

* * *


May 15 (Wednesday)

Visiting Disneyland was the other key promise to my wife for this trip (other than niagara falls). I guess it had been important enough for her to insist on it, but the nagging feeling has always been that one would like to bring children to come to Disneyland together! Alas, I gave in since I also went to Disneyland Florida when I was a freshman.

After a really long drive from Culver City to Anaheim, we parked in the Mickey themed car park and took a nice train-length road transport to the ticketing booth, where we realise we were following all the family people into the main park, while the youngsters seem to headed for the adventure park (to do both parks we would have to spend 2 days here).

Dear was excited by all the high energy rides, while I was singing kiddy tunes silly. As usual, one has to be on top of your game to be able to avoid queues and get to rides as fast as possible, but we did not figure out this FASTPASS thing until when the day was almost over. Thus half the time we were really just queueing, especially for the Space Mountain, where the queue was so so so long. Nevertheless, Space Mountain was totally worth it – we were seriously considering a 2nd ride in that pitch black monster.

Otherwise, Ironman displays were great, bumper cars were my favourite. Burritos for lunch was delicious. Small world was a bit of a let down, but the final ride around the entire park on its feeder train soothed the soul somewhat. We managed to cover most of the park in the end, especially catching the most important Main Street Parade while holding our Astro burger in hand. Dear got her candy floss and souvenirs while I got a nice presentation on Lincoln before we surrender to the setting sun.

Totally exhausted, I thought the happiest place on the earth can really just be anywhere that can drain you completely in one day.

* * *

Guess which one we bought

May 16 (Thursday)

On our final full day in the North American continent, we started frantically acquiring all that could fit our luggages, and ticking off the huge shopping list by our friends and family. Medela breast pump, check. Kate Spade, check. And the list goes on. We started from the simple stores like Target, which dear found it super huge but I was like, well this is what the big boxes look like, and got Yunxin’s pump. Then at Nordstrom, we found a nice jogging T for Chern.

Next we headed out to long beach. Yes it was really far, but The Horn Guys are either there or way up north in La Crescenta, and they are the only larger brass shop that I knew after sufficient research. It was really dear who pushed me to go take a look, since I’ve half heartedly said that I wanted a new trombone, but did not find any earlier in Dilon and Chuck Levin.

The only thing in my mind during this honeymoon was her, so to now start thinking about something else completely different caught me completely off guard. Yes it has been in the plans to get a new trombone for years now but why now now? That feeling completely changed after this one nice B natural that rang everywhere in my body, and suddenly I was confronted with a bone that’s actually very similar to my current Bach 42B Stradivarius that I inherited from my teacher from just after high school till today.

I remembered having to tell the shop keeper that I’ll be back, walked out of the shop and sat in Jack in the Box for a whole hour reading reviews and comparisons while dear waited patiently for me, consistently reminding me that she hope that I can invest in one now. Not being a professional who works day in and day out as a trombonist put some brakes into this investment (it’s impossible to earn back that much money just from gigging), but then again, if i really can’t afford it later, I can still sell it as long as I can take good care of it. Maybe even at a profit if it’s aged properly?

Hoping to minimise buyer’s regret, I went back and spent more time with the instrument before having a conversation with the shop keeper. Then we found out how we could actually avoid a full 10% of taxes since I was going to use my Singapore credit card, as he could record this as an export and shipped to Singapore (without him paying for the shipping and with me only paying for the bank exchange rates). That, and a load of free oils and spray sweetened the deal and I relented :) The Getzen 4707DS is following me home, and it even comes in a fibreglass case that fits the airplane compartment.

Our last stop is to get dear’s sister her Kate Spade bag. We traveled a few cities before arriving at The Americana at Brand in Glendale, a place so new and polished it looks like a super tourist trap, but with no choice (as the other Kate Spades did not carry the item she was looking for), we shopped on. The large Apple store was welcoming but none of the items were of value, so we left. Barnes and Nobles provided the free Wi-Fi we needed to have real time conversation with my sister in-law as we only found the same bag not the same design. It was a happy ending.

After an order and a reorder of Alondra Hot Wings (didn’t know dear could eat so many wings!) in Alhambra, we crossed street to meet up with Sze Min again to continue our conversation, joined by another old friend Fang Ning who’s conducting her own community orchestra in LA. We chatted for a very long time, knowing that it would be the last conversation that we will have in US for a long time to come.

* * *

Sze Min & Fang Ning

May 17 (Friday)

Mechanically, we rose with all the task of the day laid before us. Breakfast, checkout, returned car, checkin, dropped luggage, checked and checked if our documents we right, and headed to the gate, where home calls.

I shed a tear, privately. I don’t know what it was for.

In my foursquare checkin, I said, “Bye and thanks for all the fish”. I don’t know what it meant, and don’t know what it means now. I wasn’t a hitchhiker lost in the universe – I wanted to go home.

* * *


May 18 (Saturday)

We gained a day when we came, we lose a day on the return trip.

Totoro said hi to us in Narita, and we waived back.

The 2nd leg of the light arrived at Changi airport on 5pm that day. Even though we weren’t sure if we’re back where we came from, we felt secure of the fact that we are now safe, from the turbulence on the way there, from losing our way on the roads so many times, from the adventure of our lifetime, so far.

And I realised, when we are together, we are home, always.

* * *

Pine Cones

End Notes

This diary was written as a present for my wife, and for our little to-be-borned daughter, who we conceived shortly after returning from the trip. Both of them gave me so much new purpose in life that I wouldn’t have even known how to ask for.

We hoped for a such an epic trip once again, perhaps to conquer the entire South American continent, as a family. Maybe it would take us 5, 10, or 20 years, perhaps it would never be, but it would be the hope and planning that will make this happen, just like that 42 days of holiday.

Public diaries are also my way of saying – look, you can also find your own story to tell, you just have to tell it to somebody and not yourself. The more you tell, the more you learn how to tell your story your way, and eventually find meaning in telling these stories.

I’ve found mine, which is why this blog had survived for more than a decade, and will likely continue as long as I can afford the domain and the hosting and my precious time to write.

I’ve learned that sharing one’s story, no matter how mundane you think it is, is more powerful than listening to all the stories in the world.

And in doing so, you will find who you love, what you love, how you love and, even if by just a faint scent, why you love.

Thank you for reading.

Lego in New York

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Honeymoon Diaries #9 – Bay Area

** Update – it has been exactly 1 year since I started writing these remaining parts of the diaries, memory might have fainted quite a fair bit **

Bike Cabin of Caltrain.

We reached SFO in one piece but stumbled to find our way through the maze of BART stops and Caltrain stops that we had to take to each California Avenue, where our host Yu-shan and Xinyi planned to pick us up. I was unfamiliar with Caltrain especially, since I had the luxury of my trusty Honda when I went to school, and ended up hanging around the bike cabin of Caltrain without a seat. At least we learned a lot about the system where people tag their bikes and try to put all the bikes alighting at the same station together.

After a short rest at California Ave Starbucks, Yu-shan came to pick us back to his humble place in Los Altos, right along El Camino Real, while Xinyi joined us later as we dined in one of Bay Area’s latest organic food place LYFE Kitchen. Lots of pampering and catching up that night since we all met in Ang Mo Kio S11 just months back. Dear was particularly attracted by a pair of huge pine cones that Xinyi displayed in a glass box in the living room.

* * *

Picture source: wikipedia

May 7 (Tuesday)

Unlike Seattle, SF has always felt like a tourist trap than a place to work or study. The fact that during my years of absence, more mobile startups have moved from where the “old money” (i.e. Bay Area, around Stanford, Sand Hill road) resides up to San Francisco is still a mystery, but Market Street is indeed bustling with startup activity.

And that’s how we got our free ride by Yu-shan there in the morning as he was going to work anyways. Enduring this commute could be frustrating as some have already settled down in the Bay when jobs went northward.

When we got off Market Street, we started to wander instinctively towards coffee. After some deliberation, I introduced dear to Peet’s Coffee. It was a good choice. The hustle and bustle of the city did not affect our optimism as we had one very clear goal for the day: Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The prospect of biking over the bridge soon became quite clear – it was not an easy feat, even for an experienced biker as me. The weather was still cold despite being late spring, while the SF fog lingered and lifted rarely. Still hoping for the best, we rented our bikes and set off on the simpler part of the journey as instructed by the bike rental company, where we crossed many flat and scenic roads between Fisherman’s Wharf and the foot of the bridge.

After being treated with great SF pastel-coloured houses, some nice architectures, and a number of pet walkers (1 person to 10 dogs!) we reached our first milestone at Torpedo wharf where one can finally see the challenge at hand. First, a steep elevation that most bikers simply gave up and pushed their bike up the slope, which we conquered tirelessly.

Next, we faced the daunting task of crossing the bridge with lots of pedestrian traffic, each lost in their own world of photo taking and admiring the beauty of the San Francisco bay. Determined not to stop, we pedalled up and down the arc of the bridge in one breath, taking in the wind chill as the fog brushed through our dry and cracking face, stopping only around the 2 major beams to navigate the tight turning.

When we finally reached the other end, it was a glorious moment as the fog lifted slightly, presenting the city and the bridge to us. I believe we took more than 3 hours for the entire journey to get to our destination, but it was worth it, more so than my last trip that I simply drove up the little mountain at the north end of the bridge.

Deciding against Sausalito and the return ferry trip, we rode back the same way we came, except a detour got us into the middle of many official looking buildings along Lincoln boulevard. It took us some time to find our way back to the Palace of Fine Arts, said hi to the beautiful goose, and then back to the piers.

Exhausted and starving at 3pm in the afternoon, we wolfed down our In-and-Out burger like it was the best burger in the world. I was worried about dear because it was a pretty intense day in terms of exercise, fortunately she was happy and insisted we continue our visit to Lombard street – again a wrong timing thing as most of the flowers weren’t blooming yet – before returning our bike to the rental company. The steep climb with the bike to Lombard further tired us out and by the time we hoped on the F train, we could barely lift our legs.

We met Sophyan at his Expedia office before we went walking around SF, waiting for his wife Joohee to get off work to have dinner together. To our surprise Ken also showed up, solving our transport back to Los Altos, and made the night more enjoyable with his ever positive spirit.

Unfortunately, that night, I hit the lowest point of the trip.

* * *


May 8 (Wednesday)

When we finally reached Yu-shan’s place, my stomach started growling and reacting. Even though I went to sleep as soon as I could, it became so bad at night I kept waking up and stayed in the toilet. The diarrhoea was extremely acute – even when there’s nothing left in the tummy, it kept torturing me.

When morning came, the pain did not subside. I had to cancel my trip to Redwood City to meet up with Adeline, but my perfectionist traits pushed me to continue with the all so packed and well thought out plan, that I still went ahead to get Yu-shan to drop us at Stanford, just to make sure dear gets to visit both my alma mater.

But then, it was quite hard for dear to enjoy – we were on a honeymoon and when one didn’t seem to be taking in the moment, the other just kinda followed. I felt fortunate still being able to give her a good sense of campus life that’s happening obliviously around us, unfortunately half way through I started to again hunt for an outlet for my agony. Cringing alone in FloMo (Florence Moore Hall) toilet, I prayed for Clarence to arrive early to accompany dear – so fortunately he did just that!

Campus life hasn’t changed much on the surface since my time 10 years ago. The food truck is gone, some new buildings here and there, but by and large the school had left the core intact, in contrast with CMU who had seen more expansion. Unfortunately the trip did not provide for a longer stay here to, say, watch a concert at the new Bing auditorium.

We took Clarence’s trusty car to Googleplex – I recall dear rode with a bit of trepidation, and Chio was apologetic about it, but I liked it all the more – this was student car! Definitely no worse than Yuen-lin’s 1983 Volkswagon rabbit he bought for $300 and managed to drive it to Pittsburgh and back to CMU.

We met Carolyn at Google, who bought us lunch again (shhh) as I saw dear marvelling at the facilities and food that the company served. Even though I wasn’t particularly interested in the nitty gritty of Google life, Clarence and dear was both intrigued and I guess Carol also felt obliged to walk us through some of the main displays and to bring us to the shop.

Google was one of those other possibilities. Hiring globally, they had attempted to head hunt me a couple of times to their Sydney offices, but never back to US. I wandered around the public areas looking at the conference bikes that looked abandoned thinking whether I lost those opportunities or did life actually wanted me to go down this path anyways, like there’s someone actually steering the bike even though I was pedalling hard at an angle.

At the same time, one could easily identify with some of the grudges Carolyn mentioned about work, mortal-ising the company in some sense because that’s the same grudges one would get in many other companies. Finding a great team to work on a meaningful and challenging problem would be the holy grail of employment of our era across most developed countries.

After hugging some Android plush toys, we left Carol to get back to work as Clarence fetched us back to rest. I so desperately wanted to fix myself I did nothing for the afternoon as we had already packed in the morning for Yu-shan’s mother to take over the guest room.

By the time the drugs worn off, it was time to bid farewell to Yu-shan and Xinyi, as Yuen-lin picked us up with his completely silent Toyota Prius. Dear got into much laughter when she realised that both me and Yuen-lin used the same bag. I was more amused that he wore the same jacket since college that we bought together (mine was .. lost, for now). Immediately we knew we had much catching up to do, but like the car we zoomed quietly to Fremont for dinner before heading to Berkeley where Yuen-lin resided.

* * *

Pray for peace

May 9 (Thursday)

Yuen-lin stayed right across from Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, where he actively participates in their meditation sessions. But for us, staying at his place was just as much a meditation session as we can get already, as he continued the simple life style that we used to have in school. He was like a time capsule, still with his laptop snugging on the bed underneath the comforter coding, as if it was Resnik House in 2001.

Technically still “working from home”, dear and I wandered around Berkeley as I tried (probably in vain) to explain concepts of liberal activism here in the past. Eventually we found common ground in Trader’s Joe, as she soaked it in like she did in Whole Foods while we were at Penn. But the limelight was eventually stolen by some $1 gelato ice cream along the street.

Having been on mainly a fruit diet and fully rested in the past 2 days, we set off to pack for another unique part of our trip – that is to camp amongst the great Sequoias in Yosemite – and retired early.

* * *

Setting up the tent

May 10 (Friday)

A camping trip like this would have been so much more fun if there were more people, but we were fully aware that we were indeed intruding on people’s gainfully employed lives (and it’s not yet summer holidays yet). Instead, we counted our blessings being able to spend intimate time with an old friend who was to say the least inseparable during school days.

Before departing Berkeley, we did our final round of shopping at the Berkeley Bowl (similar to Trader’s Joe) and loaded up our tummy with Burritos, just in case we couldn’t make ourselves lunch or dinner in time. The drive to Yosemite was much longer than I remembered it to be, considering we managed to leave Stanford for Yosemite, hiked up and down Half Dome in the span of 14 hours, and returned to Stanford on the same day long ago in 2004.

Still, the drive there was quite epic. Especially the winding 120 road before Groveland, where we gained tremendous elevation and dizziness. The Californian plains also gave rise to huge wind farms, with hundreds and hundreds of turbines spinning in unison (for the data centres!), the long and windy California Aqueduct, an engineering marvel to bring huge amounts of water to the endless farms that feeds America.

We settled into our camp ground (D?) that’s just right of the entrance to the park. After setting up our 4-man tent, we still had enough time to walk around irrationally trying to find the bear that the ranger was just warning us about, before utilising Yuen-lin large repertoire of camping equipment for making dinner and fire.

My tummy ache attacked twice that night, and I had to be woken up by the excruciating pain, braved the sub zero temperatures in the forest to reach the common restrooms. It wasn’t the most pleasant of all experience, and I looked at the stars to pray in tears for health. Some of these experiences had had a lasting impact on my new priorities in life. I was also woken up and completely frozen by some animal scratching the tent from outside, perhaps finding food. Maybe the bear did show up after all?

* * *

No bear..

May 11 (Saturday)

Being the only full day at Yosemite, we had to do the day hike thing. After making breakfast, we locked up all our food in the metal cabin and headed out to take pictures of Bridalveil Falls first, then Horsetail falls with El Capitan, and finally struggled to find a parking spot to put our car as we hiked up Vernal Falls.

Yosemite was just _full_ of tourist, even though it was not even peak season yet. As the cables were down, Half Dome was out of the question, but even so, the entire place seemed crowded. According to the system we actually booked the final available camp site 3 months in advance. So it was a pleasant surprise when we found a quiet spot along the river where dear could step into the icy cold river and giggled herself at the cold, interacted with the only other family there, before we set off on our strenuous hike.

We aimed at Vernal Falls because I wanted to see if I could still reach and see that bald tree where I once took one of the most iconic profile picture of my entire university life in US circa 2000 to 2004. In that picture, I was at the fittest ever in my life, and was at the peak of the privilege given to me to afford me a prestigious education in 2 of the world’s best university and still have enough money left to travel to these sanctuaries.

10 years later, I think I nearly fell going up those steps, and needed my wife’s verbal encouragement to take the next step. I wouldn’t admit it, but deep in my heart I knew that my physical peak was over, and now it’s about maintaining the body so that it can still last a lifetime.

Didn’t expect reality to hit me so hard during a honeymoon!

Later in the day, we gathered enough leftover energy to hike down an old unpaved road to come face to face with a few sequoia trees. You know, every sequoia is a temple. The size and the stillness of such a majestic elder does the same thing to everyone: it keeps you quiet and makes you want to stay silent. It then tells a tale of its existence, with woodpeckers pecking on it and the rustling of its leaves, surviving for hundreds and some thousands of years in solitude.

* * *


May 12 (Sunday)

I was happy that in these 3 days dear found enough pine cones to bring back as souvenirs, some of which were substantially larger than what I thought it could be. I was also happy that I really really caught up with Yuen-lin, and got a good deal of sounding board advice about how to take steps towards life’s happiness. It’s as if a sage fetched us to the mountains, preached, and fetched us back – unbelievable.

To celebrate and fulfil our modern civilisation desires, we bought very sweet coffee and Jamba Juice along the way back. They go very well with the sweet victory of conquering the wild.

In the evening we also managed to catch up with Fani and David at a remote vegetarian restaurant in SF and traversing the about to be demolished Bay Bridge as the new earthquake proof one readies itself for use.

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Checking out the Bootstrap framework

After lots of research and recommendation, I’ve plunged in to start rebuilding all my circa 2002-2005 websites. It’s surprising how much inertia there is, especially since the tools landscape has shifted dramatically, requirements for mobile is now a must (i.e. must build responsive websites), making hand coded HTML pages no longer feasible.

This blog has benefitted from the consistent updates of WordPress. After being with WordPress for some 8 years now, I still highly recommend it as a basic CMS. Some of my next few adventures will be Woocommerce centric – stay tuned! (and sorry Shopify etc. I can’t afford you)

For simple bootstrapped websites however, I’ve been recommended Bootstrap:


Originally I thought it will be impossible to plough through the documentation, turns out that it’s easier to learn by playing with the samples than any documentation that can ever be written.

It took me 30 minutes to complete the revamp of my super outdated homepage (12 years old!):



That itself gave me enough confidence to line up 4 more websites to be updated. The real gain here is responsive – no one in their sane mind wants to hack out responsive websites ever again, and while the hegemony of a few key devices and form factors are in place, it’s the perfect time to bring all content up to date.

To me the biggest value is the mobile-first grid layout. I think that itself is going to be central to most of the web apps I’ll be building in the subsequent months. I like the default colours, the glyphicons (aside: seen Google’s plan to translate the web into emoticons?) which is so finger friendly, and I haven’t even brushed the surface of the javascript interfaces it has.

I will update again on all the sites I bootstrap-ed.

Now to deal with all the broken links *sniff*

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Orchestration notes for including Chinese Orchestra

Last week during Hwa Chong’s 95th Anniversary concert week, I received some questions about orchestration for Chinese Orchestra (CO) when combined with western instruments. I must first admit I’m not an expert, but I do need to take notes for my future self if such projects comes about again. The following is my experience based on triangulating my childhood experience, interactions with members of Dingyi (鼎艺), one of the leading CO ensembles in Singapore, and members of Hwa Chong’s JC and High school CO players, and assumes you know what is CO is already like today.


The layman stereotypical view of CO is that it is out of tune, and that is not very far from the truth. The problem is multifold.

First there are really difficult instruments to play well that dominates the sound scape – such as the Suona. The lack of intonation accuracy of the dominant sound provide a disincentive for the rest to stay in tune. Yangqin and the plucked strings (e.g. Pipa) tune individual strings before hand and ignores intonation thereafter (most are fretted). Instruments like the Sheng undergo week long tuning of pipe to pipe, requiring tremendous efforts.

That leaves the Dizi and the bowed strings (Erhu etc.) which can be tuned before and during performance. Most of which does not know where to start. If there’s one last bastion of pitch accuracy that would be the imported cello bass section that provides a reference.

Second is the introduction of the western concept of harmony into the mix. When we combine CO instruments into western strings, winds or brass, they finally got the luxury of pitch of reference, but also the challenge of complex harmony that can be performed correctly only when all pitches of the chord plays their part. I’m not talking about clusters here, just try a diminished 7th chord and compare it to a normal minor 7th chord. Tri-tones anyone?

In band, we teach methods like lowering the 3rd, 7th, raising 5th and so on to make instruments blend into the overtones of one another. This is hard tedious training that hardly any CO goes through. At the end, we did normal major and minor chords in a single key well, opportunities to present pentatonic scales were seized, but anything more sophisticated like bar to bar modulation was struggled through.

And finally, in the tradition of CO as well as many folk musical groups, melodic material takes precedence over harmonic material. CO player spend a lot more time learning the right technique to get their appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas to sound tasty and linger on every melodic phrase given, which brings me to the next point:


Most young players take to heart that when it’s their chance to shine, they will unlock their courage and hold the entire ensemble in ransom – Listen to My Great Melody. I’m not sure if the instructors will give way to them, but it is disruptive to the rest of the accompaniment.

We kept the percussion right in the middle despite the large orchestral setting to prevent this from happening, but there were parts of the music where no percussive rhythms were given and solos went on and took their own tempo. Culture, ego and even instrument design (some instruments cover the musician’s line of sight with conductor) contributed to the problem.

But that’s not all – there’s also a lack of concept of impulse, or a steady momentum. This is much harder concept to teach and many CO or band instructor alike resort to beating the conductor stand (till it breaks) or have a snare drum subdivide the tempo. Orchestral players would appreciate this issue, as many famous conductor don’t give the player tempo, relying on the ensemble’s own musicianship to reinforce one another. Borrowing a quote from Lim Yau, “when you borrow time to emphasise something, you must return it the next instance”, that’s doing a rubato line in tempo.

Timbre and Balance

Apart from challenges of the show being outdoors, there’s also a challenge of balance of individual section timbres. For example, Dizi and Flutes cannot play parallel harmonies (it won’t “ring”), 1 Suona is 3 times the volume of 1 Trumpet, vibrato on Violins and the Huqins produces different effects, even the attack and intensity of a Paigu is easily disturbed when matched with a western toms.

The responsibility here lies more with the composer than the performer (see below).

Notation, Form, Style, Dynamics, Articulation

The rest are less a CO issue and is more general care for young players. Jianpu is a complete notation system that can capture 99% of what’s going on a manuscript. All young players require training to bring out large dynamic range and correct articulation. The form and style is pretty much subject matter dependent and will require everyone to have an open mind when performing.


Orchestration Tips

So depending on your project, you might be asked to showcase some CO instruments accompanied by a western orchestra or symphonic band, as such:

Or combined the entire CO into the orchestra.

1. Layout: After experimenting with a few layouts, I found grouping by instrument sections (winds, brass, percussion, strings) as still the easiest for both the composer and the conductor. You can go by instrument range to order them, or type (e.g. reeds together). This will force you to think of the individual sections and not which group they came from, otherwise if you’re writing a separate movement CO only better to just take out the rest and keep it clean.

Here’s my sample (this combines western strings, symphonic band, CO, and a choir)

Woodwinds – by type/range
Flute 1
Flute 2
Gaoyin Suona
Zhongyin Suona
Gaoyin Sheng
Zhongyin Sheng
Diyin Sheng
Clarinet 1
Clarinet 2
Clarinet 3
Bass Clarinet
Alto Sax 1
Alto Sax 2
Tenor Sax
Baritone Sax

Brass – regular
Trumpet 1
Trumpet 2
Trumpet 3
Horn 1, 3
Horn 2, 4
Trombone 1
Trombone 2
Trombone 3

Percussion – as needed (all percussion 1 to 4 has a mixture of western / chinese instruments)
Drum Set
Percussion 1
Percussion 2
Percussion 3
Percussion 4

Plucked Strings – by range

Choir – regular

Bowed Strings – by range (sort of)
Violin 1
Violin 2

And you just write like you’re writing Beethoven Symphony #9. If there’s only band and CO, the layout still works but you must be careful that chinese strings will need a lot more harmonic support from the reeds.

If you’re writing for solo or a small ensemble that features them, keep them together (middle or top) so that the conductor doesn’t have to hunt for them.

2. Style

No matter what you’re trying to write, your music is going to sound more “chinese” when CO instruments are added. Thus, it’s best to capitalise on this asset.

However, when you feature these instruments, remember the challenges I listed above. Unless they are mic-ed, don’t put too much accompaniment. Unless you’re working with a well pitched instrument, don’t introduce running harmonies. Unless you really want an open rubato passage, always hint rhythm (e.g. basses or percussion) to keep everyone together.

Much like how one learn Jazz, you’ll ask find it instructive to listen to some of the masterworks in CO and lift passages into your work, and then massaging them into your material. One has to find that “lick” (sorry for the lack of a better word) for the instrument you’re trying to feature, whether is that wavy thrill on the Dizi, or that soulful portamento on the Erhu, and so on. It will not sound cliche if used properly.

When in doubt – go for unisons and simple rhythm to keep the spirit high. Don’t forget about the percussion which can add a huge palette of colour to your already European + Latin American (+ African) percussion instruments.

3. Sweat the details

Once you got started and have an idea (or even before), you need to ask questions like – how many players do you have? What kind of instrument do you have? How large a range can you master?

Theory books on these instruments can only get you started, but due to the shorter history of the CO (it was only formalised only in the 1950s and still changing) and the wide variety of instrument makers, and varying budget on part of the player or organisation, you milage will vary. Let me go through in detail:

Dizi: Advanced players will have multiple Dizis in a variety of keys), but please be kind on the keys. Most COs have not invested in the Xindi (the chromatic brother that doesn’t sound as authentic), and half hole notes are hard to get right. Many young players can’t go beyond 2 octaves.

Sheng: You almost need to see the exact model of Sheng the person is playing – the variety is endless (think like the 1700s when every church has a slightly different organ, here every player might have a different hand-held reed organ). Also, young players have not found the means to project the sound, rendering this section extremely soft when notated at the same dynamic). All said, this is a very important instrument to get right because it provides the necessary harmony to centre your music (i.e. you can’t really get Erhu to split into 3 groups to play chords). Nevertheless, in combined passages that’s ok as you can substitute with any western group.

Suona: Similarly, many COs have not move to chromatic suonas, and with the demands of a double reed, it’s very difficult to get their half hole notes in tune. There’s also an ensemble challenge here because Suona players can’t hear the rest of the orchestra very well when they play, coupled with their traditional role in the music (there’s no brass section, this is it) they tend to overpower any ensemble writing.

All the Huqin (Gaohu, Erhu, Zhonghu, etc.): Although they do best in lyrical passages, these instruments can be as versatile as a 1 string violin – so far the easiest way to put it. So if there’s a jump you won’t write for violin sul G, don’t do that to a Erhu; if there’s a pitch so high you won’t ask the violin to play sul G, don’t write that for Erhu.

Yangqin: some keys require great jumps across the table – watch for running passages. Otherwise, perhaps due to their placement in a orchestra so close to the conductor, they do serve as a good impulse provider for subdivision.

All the plucked strings (Liuqin, Pipa, Zhongruan, Daruan): Perhaps the hardest to write for because of their limited sound, a large section is required to project melodies. As with the rest, each instrument can have a lot of flare for solo passages, but as a group keeping in tempo is a great challenge. However, the tremolo harmonies worked really well in such combined groups for soft undulating passages.

Percussion: Probably the easiest to write for, check out special techniques, you might be surprised.

Ok thanks for reading.

Here’s 1/3 the orchestra and 1/2 the choir the work was originally scored for performing 4/5 of the 75 minute work .. still hoping for better recordings :/

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Consequence of matter on gravity is happiness

Learning the meaning of happiness is, sometimes, quite painful. But I have not been happy like a child for so many years now, Monday’s incident is, to my mind, a blessing in disguise.

Before people go around saying my arm broke, I think I better let everyone know that it’s ok, nothing wrong with the bone according to the X-ray thanks to my many years of milk drinking, just a lot of trauma on the muscles. As I type this, I’m training my left arm to slowly rejoin my right arm’s service of my daily life. Yes it’s tiring and I’m typing very slowly, with lots of right arm jumping over to help with the ’T’ and the ‘F’ even, but I’m ok, the arm is just locked into L shape position for a while.

This morning I also managed to find new ways to take down and put up the laundry poles with one arm (to ceiling), besides doing the laundry, eating wifey’s 爱心 sandwich, and putting on a shirt (which I needed help originally). I mustered enough strength to push out the darlie onto my tooth brush, while doubled my time spent at the shower to reach otherwise unreachable places my body.

Oh wait, I haven’t told you what’s happened. In short, I fell. This 90kg mass on G-force fell on slippery platforms in front of 500 people (who hopefully didn’t see as they were focused on their rehearsals), while trying to avoid fresh paint on the ground. Initially it wasn’t painful per se, but the muscles slowly stopped working over a period of 3 hours, and by the time we were all supposed to leave, I was in such pain I couldn’t drive.

Well, what is so happy about this unfortunate accident? Nominally you can say it incentivised me to stop jumping around like a kid for the next 4 days, because the weather has indeed turned around from the 3-month long dry spell, to highly humid week of pouring, while we have to me outdoors perpetually.

But that’s not it – I was literally in tears when I fell – tears of happiness, knowing that I’m still capable of this childish act of innocence, of running around in shoes, in an open field (with platforms) with only the cloudy skies above, and surrounded by people who care but aloof in their own happy manner.

There was no hint at all during that moment of falling down, that I have had to carry any responsibilities (even though these thoughts did come back to me an hour later – knowing well that I need to stay healthy for the baby), no judgement made by anyone about me falling (mainly because the injury was internal and everyone thought I was fine and minded their own business), and no purpose of falling – other than a simple avoidance of paint.

Gravity was not of the matter, but, of matter with mass.

And at the end of it all, everyone said goodbye, save for a few who noticed my handicapped body still with a smile on the face. After rejecting a few offers to send me home, thinking I could still drive, reality finally sets in as I told my 7-months pregnant wife of my needing of her rescue.

And she came to the rescue with all her charming beautiful looks, drove me to the hospital and sacrificed her precious resting hours making sure my arm was still with me.

The moon was so full it spills out of its boundary when passing through my glasses. As I awaited for the rescue, I serenaded all the ghost around me on a broken piano with one hand, and the more I play, the happier I become, and the more I play, until I cannot play any more.

I also didn’t realise that one can’t walk properly without all parts of the body functioning together as counter balance. Hobbling with my back towards the moon, when I saw the cab passing through security in the distance, again my hearts went aflutter – my wife whom I married came back to the place I proposed to her to rescue me home. I want to marry her again and again!

Now that a few days has passed, I realise one cannot seek happiness, one has to be open to the arrival of happiness, and set your life up to be ready to receive it. Because real happiness, those of these kinds of magnitude, has no formula. It’s not just a dose of dopamine on the brain, it’s the climax of an epic story of gigantic proportions when compared to our daily routines.

My next training is now to re-learn how to put my left hand into the pocket to pick out the phone. Wish me luck!

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1 month check – time is ticking

Hooray! 4 weeks a.k.a. 1 month anniversary of my self-employment-hood. Looking back, happiness was indeed ++ but not so on stress level.

Yesterday I started having really bad dreams again, a recurring theme whenever I get stressed or if my sleep patterns get out of whack. I found myself filling every void when things fall apart, forcing everyone to stay together to achieve our collective goal, a habit perhaps detrimental to my mental well being, but necessary. As I unwittingly drain my emotions, I lose my ability to stay composed. How do one recharge mental energy? Meditation could only shut it off for a while, but the chattering will come back in the sleep.

On the bright side, catching up with friends under a total different pretext of looking for a next gig was great! It’s also wonderful seeing others taking the leap or planning to take the leap into the unknown, except most have opted to try the high-growth startup route instead of building a lifestyle business. Expectedly, the urge to join them in the quest of burning other people’s money to build new technology is always there, but my priority is still to build the music business to a certain size before letting it run in autopilot and hop onto other things.

And in between all these buzz, this not so secret mega concert is shaping up. Here’s our 3rd combined practise:


The size of the orchestra is so big, there’s no rehearsal room that fits. Conducting this is no other than Darence, the one teacher who has literally given everything he has, to put music into the lives on many generations of band students. I’ve also spent a disproportionate amount of time on it thus far, and has started counting down the remaining 19 days of this challenging project.

The “challenging” bit is basically one mad man’s idea to the next and next and by the time everyone’s ideas comes together, it’s completely crazy yet first-of-a-kind. From both high school and college section, the orchestra consist of roughly 80 from chinese orchestra, 80 from concert band, and 80 from string ensemble, together with 80 from choir, 24 festive drums, 6 emcees, an unknown (120?) number of wushu performers, mime actors and a guest performer from the alumni, all playing one single 80 minutes long oratorio, in a setting that’s no less ambitious than NDP, and yet low budget and completely LIVE (no recording).

Once the music is written (i.e. my contribution to the craziness for scoring to fully exploit all instruments), the real challenge was the coordination between many teachers and staff and student leaders. I should take this chance to credit Dropbox (since I haven’t paid them a cent) and Microsoft Excel for being the most relevant tools available today for such projects. And the complexities only builds when the technical team doing the stage, sound, lights, camera and multimedia comes into the picture.


Taking a hindsight view at this mid point (the concert is in 3 week’s time) I had no choice – I had to break new ground. And as every composer / arranger will tell you, the fear is always not knowing who you’re writing for until when the work is done, because redoing it is usually tougher than writing it 1st time.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised and proud of the student’s resilience in the face of this project – none of them had a choice when they are co-opted into this, and we had less rehearsals than a professional group. Coming week they will move out of this shelter and face the elements for the first time, not to mention Singapore facing an extreme dry spell at the moment.

I hope I can recalibrate my own mind set, by watching how these Hwachongians cope with the demands of a block test the week before and after the concert week, their individual group’s demands (some had their own concert lined up, others are going for world competition), and the modern student life itself.

For this is why I went back to school (for many of you who has been asking, here’re the answer that hopefully make you happy) – to relearn that spirit of can-do that made it possible for me to survive my JC years. Not just doing because it’s a job, but because we can, and we will make it happen, and with that we will make a difference.

p/s the school is raising funds, check their website for details.

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2nd Bali trip

Back in October, as soon as we knew that YC was expecting, we were already thinking of taking a break in anticipation of the challenges of pregnancy. Amos’s wedding at Bali presented itself as a great opportunity.

4 months later, even with much regret for missing out on work related items, we’re here. And it sure was less anxious than our last trip, where I literally worked in the resort. That was 2010.


The wedding went really well (it was a Hindu and Chinese wedding, so it had everything). But today was really the best – we spent quality time doing nothing. Doing nothing in front of the Indian Ocean.

The beating of the waves silence the chatty mind, and the vast sea prevented any form of daily prejudices from surfacing – perhaps except when the mosquitos ambushes my delicious arms and legs.

It’s forced meditation, and after 4 hours of it, I had to take out the phone and write this down here, as a reminder that hitting the reset button, even when I’m out of job, is so important for the well being of the soul.

We felt the sun moving from one corner of the hut to another, identified every butterfly and tried naming every plant. There was no sense of loneliness – it’s more lonely on the MRT.

This would be the last trip before we dive in to complete as much work as physically possible. With precious 3 months to go, our honeymoon period will come to a close and a new family life will begin.

And then, we will all take baby steps together, for a happier tomorrow.

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Week 2 of self-employment

ante-natal course

I took the morning off.

Like, I have to literally “take leave” from myself. I’m such a bad employer of myself to the extend that I already overworked my mind 2 weeks after my last day – looks like there’re lots to learn for setting the right pace when working alone because it’s so easy to go into overdrive.

Good thing I took the morning off. I ironed some shirts and prepare for next week’s trip to Bali, while spending some time away from MIDI sounding band music and emails in general. And to write this.

At this juncture, I’ve collected some data based on simple metrics I set up earlier. Now my week looks like:

  • 30% actual music arranging / editing / publishing work (i.e. Sibelius time)
  • 30% meeting existing customers, as well as old friend + new people, discovering (and rejecting) opportunities, for the purpose of establishing an additional source of income (including travel time etc.)
  • 20% of family time (including ante-natal classes yay!) – which I think I will hold constant until when baby girl is born
  • 20% of daily chores (making own coffee now!) as well as really bad time management (slacking, gaming, facebook) which some people say is necessary to reset the mind, but I’m not so sure

And that’s bad because the following hasn’t even been scheduled in:

  • Learning / Retooling just in case I ever had to go back to full time employment
  • Exercising – which is like OMG-I-quit-my-job-and-I-still-can’t-find-time-to-go-jogging-ly maddening to me
  • Homey time (which my L!fesparks team is going to kill me)
  • Hobbies and other personal development (including redoing this blog itself to 2014 looks)

Not to mention if there are new opportunities to spend time to explore.

The importance of focus wasn’t forgotten though. Which means I might need to start doubling the number of “no”s I say to people. The first 20% of “no”s are easy, the next 30% I’ve learned to say when I had a job. The subsequent 30% is really tough, when only the last 20% or even 10% is what I should really be doing.

Time is really the most critical resource a freelancer has – and I’m going to spend the rest of the afternoon just optimising my time management mindset, processes and tools.

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Starting up not from scratch

Just got a big order today – happy!

Our baby girl is 21 weeks now and the pregnancy is going smoothly. Wifey is starting to feel the weight of carrying her (length of a carrot apparently) and so our walks to lunches and dinner has slowed down.

I’m glad I’m able to stay with her for more parts of the day, as I wind down at work. Starting February, my aim is to be able to make full use of the car to send her to work so that she doesn’t have to fight for a seat in the MRT, hopefully that works out for some days if not all. Ante-natal classes will commence, furniture will be shifted, and the hunt for hand-me-down will intensify in the next 4 months in anticipation of her arrival.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that every other person seem to use the word “finally” when I told them about my impending departure from employment into the world of self-employment. “Wah, you ‘finally’ leaving SingTel ah”, “Oh, you have ‘finally’ decided to do your own thing” etc. Hey I was a freelancer for the longest time, making applications for people since 2001, giving tuition since 2000, and arranging music for people since 1994 k.

Nevertheless, this gave me a good perspective of myself – no matter how much I see myself as a entrepreneur at heart, I’m always perceived as corporate or government man ever since I started in Singapore in August 2005. It was enterprise world after enterprise world, supporting and creating for people who can best consolidate power and organise hierarchies to build large organisations that ticks. The perspective needs to change.

It will start some time next month, from my completely outdated personal website (still in its 2002 format) to social media, and then to the things I create and share on the Internet.

At the same time, the physical part of me has already undergone some interesting changes. Even since I tendered, I’ve stopped ironing shirts. I started pulling out many of the old clothes in preparation for donation, and looking forward to the days where I can live on jeans and shorts and hundreds of T-shirts (many free and won’t disintegrate). I started meditating and exercising more often (still nowhere near the daily or weekly levels I desire though). I smiled more often.

I’ve also stopped waking up with a heavy heart. Nightmares are still present, but nowadays I wake up gracefully energised like a bee flying out to gather its first honey of the day. It’s not going to be easy – the last time I subsisted purely on my labour was when I had 8 tuition students and was helping coach a band, but I didn’t need much to get by. Now, the plan needs to pay for my own Medicare while ensuring that the two housing loans are serviced properly, not forgetting the baby.

If you’re one of those who have asked me to start my own thing without quitting my job, let me assure you – I tried, and failed. Useful Music is 7 years old and I haven’t got the energy to go beyond writing (see my last post) when I have bosses and other responsibilities. But of course I’m not hedging my bet only on this. I will put significant energy into this but when it’s time to pull back or when other opportunity arises, I will make the necessary tactical moves.

Tactical – that probably sums up the plan now. There are still lots of people to meet, and lots to explore. The adventure begins on 2014 and will hopefully not end on 2014 (unless I can’t make ends meet).

And now that I stop working for employers who always nags me about public speeches online, I’ll be able to update everyone a lot more on this blog. I have a lot to say, and I don’t intend to mellow as I age – I’m happy being who I am – so don’t be surprised or take certain comments personally.

Let’s do this!


Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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Happy New Year – 2014!

Wow how long has it been? A year just went past without me noticing much of it. Too much done, too little achieved. Seen a lot, caught a few. Spent the time, not everything reciprocated. Introversion increased, perfection decreased. Wrote code, abandoned; wrote music, unsatisfied. At least I brought my wife back to US to remind myself of the years gone by, so that the trajectory of the new year becomes clearer.

Following the global traditions of planning for the new year, I’ve done my high level thinking. From a prioritisation perspective, the anticipation of a new family member makes this pretty straight forward to gain the top spot, and yet extremely hard to nail down the exact resources required, especially not by a couple who has never had to give 24/7 attention to anything before, notwithstanding doing this in a foreign island.

Between asking around for pass-me-downs and doing the math of medical cost in disbelieve, I was also resolute in either ramping up or killing this time sucking business of curating music for band. Originally, I thought the decision would be simple – if Useful Music’s simple business model is valid 7 years ago when it was formed, I would have quitted my job and live by its decent return by now. 7 years of working in the enterprise ocean taught me the meaning of focus, and why the grey area between “success” and “failure” is as wide as the appraiser’s visible spectrum.

The good thing is, things have changed in the past 7 years. People changed too, both literally moving in and out the island, as well as changing their minds about their needs and wants. Dealing with new motivations, new customer segments, and new markets energises me. However, when people ask me why am I in it, I usually gave the same old story of where I came from and why this is important to for an amateur to perform and be respected by their respective audience, the lot of which loves them because they are family, friends, teachers, and/or civil servants in charge of music education.

While that story is true, what intrigues me intellectually, and probably millions in the world, is how the vast majority of the money (and thus people) in the “music industry” is in distribution and patronage, and so little into defending culture, engineering mood and happiness, lifting people out of poverty, forming new identities, etc. The intersection of the science of sound wave, mathematics, sociology, history, and even modern technology, was not brought to the fore by government R&D or public/private enterprises, and we continue to rely on some madly creative person meeting a grand dose of luck to break through the noise generated by the “distribution” and “patronage” people.

Don’t believe me? Who’s your idol? If you blurted out a fancy singer’s name you’re probably the customer of the “patronage” people. It’s not that it’s bad, but music plays an important role for your well being – you, as in the community of homo sapiens – just like the societies of the past. Do you think twice before what you put into your ear that same way you think twice before what you eat / see? Put it another way, if there’s legislation against porn and restrictions against swear words on TV, why not music? Do governments not want to educate the public about music so much just in case they need to harness it’s potential to control you like how Christmas music is doing to retail sales?

Back from the tangent: this tall order, of placing music where it is supposed to be in society, was spinning around my head for many years, with no way of pulling it back to earth such that it becomes a family-feeding stream of revenue. In between, we scrape bits of marketing dollars from shopping malls, celebrate a break-even recital with money we don’t have, accept whatever music education system that pays and just keep the kids struggling with the fingering on their instrument, hoping that one day they will find their calling in music, or their parents will alleviate them from their agony. While the majority live by education dollars by parents and MOE, some would bite the bullet and go into “distribution”, which brings us back to square one.

Thus, 2014 (up to 2017) is a chance I’m giving myself, to see if I can reconcile some of these thoughts, into something that can eventually create jobs, new types of jobs, knowledge worker type jobs, and not the printing and renting and shipping of badly edited manuscripts by dead people half way across the earth. A world where we place importance in music like we place importance in the grammar of speech, the colours of the rainbow and the accuracy of the CPU clock; a world where music guides you to meditate, to cross the street, and to make sense of your own identity.

I hope to be able to share this with you – through my blog still – when I figure it out.

What’s your new year resolution other than slimming down?

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