#2064 | things i did in london

Hey guys,

I was in london for a week in May, chasing certain ideas and chancing instead upon other things that make you go, well, life, whatddaya know? A good trip, in other words. I recognize how blessed I am to be able to say: it’s my fifth time in london now, so i felt no compulsion to rush around aggressively sightseeing. (You should have seen me my first time in london, i hung around chinatown, wept at imitation laksa, hyperventilated during phantom of the opera, was dazzled by leicester square and pronounced it lei-ches-ter the way all tourists do, a sure sign of naivete: the assumption that england is bound to the phonetic rules the rest of the world holds. I was publicly embarrassing, in other words.) No, no. This time I crashed on a friend’s couch, read compulsively, crossed lengths of london alone, caught up with old friends. It was so great.

Life has been rushing ahead without any consideration for the part of me that struggles to catch my breath, and I was afraid that if I left it too long I’d never get around to documenting my london trip. Already it’s June, and I have so much i still want to say from my trips to helsinki (jan), chiang mai (march), and so on.. Hell, I have thoughts backlogged all the way from when I was in san francisco last october. So I’d better get started now. Here we go..

backstory

trishna: come stay with me, offering my couch because friendship
me: are you sure
me: because im not going to say no to free accomodation
trishna: yes
me: do you want anything from sg
trishna: salted egg fish skin chips
me: shake

Donald, this is the art of the deal.

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day one

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fresh pasta, burrata, wine.

Perhaps it is because i rarely have pasta (my noodle cravings are mostly of the asian variety), but i was so easily – too easily, even – blown away by how fresh and straight up yum this was.

Pastaio London
19 Ganton St, Soho, London W1F 9BN, UK
(Carnaby, Soho)

Fresh pasta followed by a very girly night at home, painting our nails, trying on outfits together for each other to rate, googling (and then trishna actually succeeding at) ‘how to make scented candles’, me picking out the copy of Americanah i gave her a year ago lying untouched on her shelf and going WHY THE HELL HAVENT YOU FINISHED THIS YET? Bahaha. More or less an early night, I was exhausted from the flight.

day two and beyond: things i did alone

Opened Forgotten Country on the tube and promptly cancelled all my morning appointments, found a cafe, and sat down to finish it. Forced myself not to cry in public – a feat of pure discipline. Raved about it while also being aware of how flawed the technical aspects of the book were, thought about the ways we weigh up emotional impact vs skill when it comes to books, film, art, et al. Decided that i still liked the book very much but it may not hold up to a second re reading.

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nude espresso makes very good coffee, for anyone wondering.

Read Octavia Butler’s Kindred in three hours while sitting in a nook in Libreria, then purchased Ponti by Sharlene Teo to go. Bought tickets to The Writer at Almedia Theater over the phone, was very nervous, it was like my first time buying something over the phone and i am very paranoid in general of things like that. I suppose this means i will be obsessively checking my credit card bill for strange purchases over the next six months or something. The nice girl at the counter told me i like your coat and I just stammered. Shame on me, I make a living talking nonstop and i cannot even reply to something like that. To be honest, at that moment i had thought of saying thanks but then also thought: but i didn’t make the coat, i shouldn’t take credit for it. Of course that is a stupid thing to think, but anyway, by the time those thoughts had passed through my head it would have been awkward to say anything because too much time had passed so i just smiled (i hope), bought myself a glass of red wine and hid inside the theater.

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at 39 pounds this was probably the most lavish thing i did in london

The play was very good. I thought to myself at multiple points in the play that there was something truly wrong with me because i was literally brimming the entire time, threatening to cry. I thought: why the heck am i being so emotional, i nearly cried on the tube reading forgotten country, i nearly cried in libreria reading kindred, and now im going to cry in this theater where im sitting all alone and give the old woman next to me a heart attack, she’s already glanced at me four times suspiciously. But then after the play ended I thought, well, probably it was just really good and that is my response to performances that i feel are good. Major callback to phantom of the opera 2014. As we were walking out, the guy behind me said: what a pretentious play, seriously, this whole feminism thing has gone totally bonkers.

Ran in the rain to catch a bus, not by choice.

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you always think getting caught in torrential rain is the kind of thing that happens to other people, not you

Wanted to go to church the next day but it was cancelled (who cancels church?!) so i went to catch a comedy show instead at top secret comedy club. My friend had actually asked me to go to a housewarming party with him and i briefly considered it but it was freaking 50 minutes from london and when i heard that i just laughed at him and said i’d do my own thing instead. So, the comedy show. Because i was being cheap, i bought tickets to a work-in-progress show, and it turned out to be super interesting – the comics tested out new material for upcoming performances, and there was a lot of live audience feedback. I watched two shows, one was free, one was 7pounds, I drank cheap beer, I laughed like a crazy person.

Read Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter on my phone’s NLB app in between the two shows and it was so amazing, i finished the book feeling this small sorrow at having been privy to such a compact form of perfection, having had accessed the interior life of this lonely italian mother. It was very strange, fluctuating between the two extremes, laughing till i had to pee, then feeling this immense gravity within me from starting and completing the book (it’s pretty short, and i’m a fast reader), then immediately transitioning to side-stitch laughter again. I texted my friend: how’s the party? I went to a comedy show instead and he replied: i didnt know london HAD comedy shows. He lives in london.

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I took an overwhelming number of mirror selfies this trip

The Top Secret Comedy Club
170 Drury Ln, London WC2B 5PD, UK
http://thetopsecretcomedyclub.co.uk/

The next day was the only morning in my 2 week trip to europe that i had specifically dedicated to taking photos on my instagram, or had you forgotten that i live out a large part of my life participating as a cog in the commercial capitalist system? I spent two hours in the morning shooting with a photographer from sweet escape, then met trish for brunch at the built-for-instagram elan cafe. After that she went home to study (omg, i said, student life!!! And she rolled her eyes on me because i had graduated less than a year before hahaha and there i was talking like an old person) and i went to daunt books, another independent bookseller, and took photos of all the books i knew i wanted to read. I purchased han kang’s the white book and ayobami adebayo’s stay with me, i would have purchased more, but i was trying to be conscious of my luggage restrictions. Turns out my estimation skills suck and i was stopped at the airline counter anyway, they made me take out all my books and hand carry them to singapore. Ah well. A small price to pay.

I really liked daunt books – i tend to really like all independent booksellers, to be honest – because they organized their fiction by region, so a shelf for Southeast Asia, Middle East, America, Italy, India, etcetera. Obviously they had more space dedicated to european fiction but still there were a good number of books from the rest of the world, and this made it easy to locate them. Idea!

Then I bought day-of tickets to The Comedy about a Bank Robbery and it was not my kind of funny but still very enjoyable. The main female lead was so talented and assured in her role, and i googled her after and it turned out this was her first gig out of school??? Then I felt sorry for myself for a bit because i was intimidated and jealous, i suppose. But i only indulged for a short moment, then told myself what kind of unhelpful reaction to any sort of talent is that you goon, and got over myself soon after. My seat was in the second row and it only cost me 10 pounds fifty on lastminute.com, the moral of the story is it’s easy to get cheap seats when youre travelling alone and your plans are very flexible.

I went to The Ordinary and bought a ton of their caffeine solution 5% + EGCG as gifts for my friends in singapore because i knew they wouldnt take offense at my extremely accurate diagnosis of the state of the standard singapore working professional’s eyebags. I was right.

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I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng on the Libby app, it was much better than her first book, Everything I Never Told You. I have a funny story about Everything I Never Told You actually, i had gone to Kinokuniya in Singapore two years back looking for singaporean writers and their works, wanting to familiarise myself with the local literary canon. Celeste Ng was stashed under Singaporean Literature so i bought it and started reading it immediately. I remember thinking wow she writes the asian american immigrant experience so clearly, how did she know and i even wanted to email her to ask her about her writing and research process. Then I googled her and turns out she has NO AFFILIATION WITH SINGAPORE and the moral of the story is kinokuniya can really be freakin country-ist sometimes, surname Ng means singaporean ah. The end.

I also bought last minute tickets to Everybody’s Talking about Jamie which was SUCH a great show!! I got super lucky with the tickets too, i got dress circle box tickets for 20 pounds, and the other two people in my box had bought them for 50, LOL. The man in my box asked me how i got them so cheap and i said: have you heard of the broke student’s guide on jemmawei.com? It was more suave in my head than when i said it, he just went, er, no. Then I chickened out and said: ha ha er yea well you can book it for good prices on last minute.com if you want to buy on the day of or day before and just shrunk back into myself in utter mortification. Anyway, good show. I’m glad it was good because it was between that and Phantom for the 6th time and if it wasnt good i would have wanted to die even more than i already did from that whole thing with the man in my box.

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in my super awesome velvet and gold box

After these shows that happened over a span of nights i also had many meals alone, i had chinese noodles and japanese ramen and ten-pound steak and wine, i also went for drinks at bars by myself and read books off my phone. In the daytimes when i was by myself i had beer and snacks and coffee and actual lunches as well. I have actually always enjoyed eating alone – but i dont get to do it much in singapore because i try to double duty my eating times with my social times so i can meet friends and stuff. Someone asked me once, arent you lonely? And i realised i hadnt felt lonely since i was, say, 14. I texted this revelation to my girlfriend, i said to her: i dont need company but i choose it anyway when im with you/ shane/ my other close friends, and later, she sent me this article on eating alone which i thought was relevant, you can read it here. This felt newly relevant to me again when meeting friends in london to lunch/coffee with, i actually did meet a lot of old friends here and there, jian wen, tash, charis, rachel, hayley, and of course, trish, but i felt like i had actively wanted to meet them all, which was a good way to feel.

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Dim sum with hayley, my airbnb-host-turned-friend from 4 years ago!

My last morning in london i went to have oysters for breakfast at borough market, when i was having them i texted my girlfriend: i feel your absence most keenly when im at the markets, no one to freak out over the communal goodness of straight up yummy food, and she sent me a telegram bunny sticker with an egg yolk as a reply. Then i was still hungry so i queued for a supposedly famous grilled cheese sandwich which was so oily it just reminded me of why i think asian food is the best food in the world. I didnt finish the sandwich: to be honest, my mind was on the book i had in my bag. I get into this state when im reading where real life is simply an interruption to the immersiveness of a fictional world, i just wander around in a perfunctory daze. One of my friends told me london is wasted on me since all i did was try to get to places which would allow me to sit and read, but i had a good time, so that’s that.

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the average grilled cheese sandwich

the end?

I was momentarily torn between making the most of my last few hours in london and reading, but in the end reading won out. I went back to the apartment early and sat at the cafe opposite, had banana cake and a coffee, marvelling at how all coffee is good in the uk, and finished Stay with me by Ayobami Adebayo.

Then, draining the last of my cortado, i stood, packed my bags and left.

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X
jem

#2060 | grieving for a vienna

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Vienna, Austria

It sounds so stupid and obvious but I am in love with Vienna the way most people who visit the place are. I was there over the weekend with fred and edwin, both of whom were skeptical at my wide-eyed amazement, fred asked: for someone who travels so much how can you be so easily amazed still? and edwin said: close your mouth, you look like a demented person (I was smiling at the air).

The truth is i find relief in my wonder. When I first started the broke student’s guide I was very new to travel and so literally everything made me gasp. I was, in other words, 11 year old daniel radcliffe entering diagon alley for the first time, right down to the perpetual gape and bespectacled naiveté. Even then i was afraid of (dare i say it?) growing up, one day letting the faraway concept of adulting allow more pragmatic concerns (jetlag, financial worries, the hassle of packing, the inability to see the humor in being pickpocketed abroad) rob me of that first instinctive reach toward wonder whenever life threw new situations at me, whenever I visited a new destination. So when Vienna took my breath away it was as much a gasp of amazement as it was a gasp of relief. Let me never reach a stage, i thought to myself, where i would face new wonders and be blase. Let me never allow myself to hide behind the facade of boredom.

But there was no possibility of keeping unfazed in Vienna. As we wondered around the city I kept muttering to myself and the boys this city is so so beautiful I can’t comprehend or process this and as a result we made no plans for any kind of concrete sightseeing, we rented bikes and cycled wherever, dropped them off and continued ambling along, stopping for coffee or beer whenever we felt like it with a kind of laziness. We joked: we saw absolutely nothing in vienna but there was no internal direction to ‘see’ anything because the immersiveness in the city was already enough. And the days rolled on.

Towards the end of the trip we were granted an incredible, drawn out sunset, and i was amazed all over again by the universality of the golden hour’s charm. But as the sun started actually setting i felt an immense sadness settle in me. The sunset was lighting up the city in fire and gold as it reflected off the gilded facades of Vienna’s buildings, and watching this I felt a kind of reverence at that kind of beauty and also a heaviness at how temporal this moment was. I could feel the moment dimming and dimming as the sun continued to sink and i knew it was exactly how my memory of the moment would be, the wonder I was feeling at that instant fading away slowly as time passed, so that eventually i would only remember that i had once felt amazement and wonder at the beauty of the city during dusk but not actually be able to locate and reexperience the feeling of wonder within me. I got sadder and sadder.

With a sense of mourning I conveyed this to edwin and he said dont be ridiculous there is so much world left to see. As he said this the sun did its final dip below the horizon and it was officially night. It was 10pm. We went for dinner.

There is no neat resolution to this arc. Back in Germany I thought I had better write this down before I forget. Already parts of it I am forgetting, I looked through my phone’s photo album earlier today and thought with surprise: that’s right, we did have some pretty weird soda that masqueraded as coffee. The bittersweetness returned. And so I am grieving for a version of Vienna that exists only in my memory, and an inconsistent one at that. But then again I have to remember that there are so very few neat resolutions in life. It sounds so stupid and obvious but I am in love with Vienna the way most people who visit the place are.

x
jem

#2154 | Some things dont change

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Behind the scenes of a shoot last month, multitastking as a coffee runner

I am always surprised by how time passes. I told myself I would learn to make banana cake last year but it’s been a year and I still dont know how to make it and anyway I told myself banana cake is full of sugar so it’s better that I dont know how, walking away in the face of temptation and all that. But it did not seem like it had been a year since I had committed to learning to make banana cake. That was the part that shocked me. I thought to myself, alright now, no one can measure their lives by their baking prowess. But then all I could think about that week was how my access to banana cake was limited to my purchasing ability and not my ability to create that which I desired. The thing I said before which I had had moderate success with, the being a morning person thing, is still ongoing. It facilitates my friendships more than ever, I now see my girlfriend every weekday instead of just meeting her for post-work drinks once a week. I pick her up on the way to the CBD and we go to the gym together then shower, get coffee, and go to work. We comment often on how this seems like a good sign that we are surviving at this adulting thing. At twenty five your conversations are always preceded by but we’re only twenty five or But we’re already twenty five rather equally. I guess what that says is that we are still figuring it out. Last week we joked about how our daily morning routine felt like a married-couple routine. When we separated post-coffee for our respective offices I shouted bye honey and she said bye honey and it felt like we were play acting a script that had been rehearsed many times before. When we were seventeen we used to joke that we were married with the intimate complicity that girl-friendships have. On the saturday that just passed I picked her up again at 6am and we were on our way to do a reef clean up dive, she turned to me at some point and said, I packed you breakfast! I was so touched. I looked at the tupperware and it was homemade banana cake. And it was cold and delicious and tasted like a year of anticipation. The moral of the story seems to be that it matters not how you get there, but that what is meant to be will be in the end. So it goes.

x
Jem

#2150 | lilacs out of the dead land

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Seoul, Korea.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am – it’s april already, the cruelest month, etcetera, and time seems to have taken on a fluid and unorderly state. I go into the office in the mornings on Monday and when I come out it is Thursday and I am surprised. There are so many things that have to be done. I received a regular number of rejections in the past month and felt comforted: I thought of how roxane gay says that she has become accustomed to rejection, and anyway, rejection is good for the soul. I tried to have more work life balance this year but the trying is trying. One thing I have done with success is transition into becoming a morning person. Now my waking hours vary in odd numbers: 5:35, 5:55, 6:07, sometimes, a luxury, 8:01. I failed once, I rose in shock at 10:00 and blamed it on jetlag. No one cared but my cat. As a morning person I am now the earliest riser at home and thus the human who feeds her. The day I woke at 10, she looked at me with disgust. I tell myself that she doesnt have to understand. I have become very dependent on the Cloud.

x
Jem

#2148 | meditations on an job-shadowing afternoon

Hey guys,

So a thing I have been thinking about lately is the inseparability of one’s job and identity. I suppose I am thinking about it now, as opposed to sooner, because I delayed my graduation from academia by two years thanks to taking on an MA degree. But be that as it may, the two years have come and gone, and now I am forced to wrestle with what, exactly, I am.

For so long my identity has been personally grounded in the fact that I was a student, and it was something I loved being (I’m straight up, a nerd) and something I derived great meaning and joy from. But come August I will have convocated, and officially phased out of academia, and I guess these things induce a certain hum of low level panic because now I don’t know what to classify myself as beyond the snappy “just a millennial” reply. Ha.

All this is to say that the idea of career vs personal ambitions have been weighing on my mind quite a lot. There are so many schools of thought here – the idea that you should do something you love, the opposite idea that a job can be just a bill-paying-functionary, the intermediary idea that you are not defined by your methods of production. The most popular, obviously, is the idea that your job should fulfil you, and that you should feel meaningfully challenged by it every day. But most people don’t get to do a job they love off the bat because that’s not the way life works. Most people take a job and then the job takes them, ala Fitzgerald. So purely based off the statistics of jobs available vs jobs needed, this didnt seem like a particularly smart way to approach the job-searching-conundrum since it’d produce a disproportionate amount of unhappily employed people who feel like they could have been doing something else, like being an astronaut or something.

It was in March this year that several things happened at once: I held a giveaway on instagram calling for responses re: what made each individual feel proud of themselves that day, analysed the trends and produced a map of accomplishments, and separately, spent a morning job-shadowing a gallery host at the National Gallery who was nominated for the Singapore Tourism Awards last year. The map of accomplishments basically isolated the elements and driving mechanisms for producing these positive feelings which then could be consciously replicated to self-motivate each individual, and I had a lot of younger people (late teens to mid twenties) email me to say that the map helped them a lot in clarifying their sense of direction within the institution they were currently situated in (eg. job, school). And at the same time, spending the day with the gallery host, a Ms Caroline Seah, I couldnt help but notice the same things I picked up in the giveaway responses being echoed both in the way Caroline approached the job, and in the way the job approached her.

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Gallery Hosts being briefed in the morning

Caroline does a job I could never do – mediate the consumer experience for one of Singapore’s most iconic tourist attractions. As a gallery host, her official jobscope is to give visitors a great experience that they have never gotten elsewhere before, basically generating the moments of delight that leads to repeat visitors and, I assume, word of mouth referrals. It’s a pretty broad jobscope, with a pretty broad range of people to meet and help day by day – she’s posted at the National Gallery’s Social Table, which is sandwiched in between the gallery halls and the Violet Oon restaurant, so as you can imagine, the flow of people passing through is pretty intense. I say I could never do this because I am helpless in the face of children (which the gallery is full of) and illogic (which I’m sure she encounters in the form of unreasonable customers). Customer service is tough, and customer service for a national icon is, I imagine, way tougher. Caroline is, by her own admission, not an art-fanatic, nor was she particularly a peoples person before starting as a gallery host. But she clearly loved her job, like, loved in italics and all, and I couldnt help but ask: why?

I love my colleagues, she said, which made sense, but then she went on: and the gallery helped me discover my talent for connecting with people. She thought about this for a moment, then she said: I never knew I was good with people until I worked here.

Her use of the word talent was specifically interesting to me – I dont know how old she was, but she was definitely parent-age-ish. That meant the discovery of her talent came relatively late in her career, and was evidently central to her enjoyment of her job. This echoed something I read recently about job satisfaction, so I prodded more and it turned out she especially treasured the anecdotal experiences where she demonstrated her talent for human relations – returning gallery visitors who evidently enjoy her company, registering the delight on the face of a child who she cheered up with art and muffins (it’s a whole story), and mediating tensions between visitors who clash over the social table, which happens more than you’d think. Manufacturing those moments of delight brought her personal satisfaction, which was then channeled into pride in her work, it seemed to be an everlasting loop. The result? A great employee – but more importantly, a satisfied and fulfilled one. A rarity these days, in a time where people seem increasingly dissatisfied or restless at work.

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The Social Table at the National Gallery

But perhaps she was just a good natured person? I know people who seem happy no matter where life places them, more power to them. Later in the afternoon, however, I headed to Bynd Artisan and saw the same sentiment echoed in Ms Grace Chai, a totally sweet atelier manger who you couldn’t help but love – the overwhelming adoration she had for Bynd and her work shimmered whenever she spoke, which was incredibly endearing. I asked her what made her a good employee, and unfazed by the directness of my question, she shrugged and smiled: I like people, people like me. And it was true – later, as I lingered in Bynd perusing their leather goods, I watched her tend to walk-in customers, and she shone in each interaction. Here was someone, I thought, who knew what she was good at, and enjoyed doing it. And this made total sense – that being allowed to constantly demonstrate one’s talent and refine it while being assured that one’s talent brought value to their place of employment would bring them a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in their jobs.

If happiness/ fulfillment in one’s employment were the end goal, then perhaps, I thought, instead of landing a job you thought you’d love off the bat, there was a way to grow into the jobs you had with excellence. But this had to be as much the legwork of the employer as it was the employee. I spoke to a communications representative from the National Gallery after that to better understand the way their employee trajectories were planned. Their baseline is ensuring an informational and accurate experience – so everytime a new art collection or exhibition is brought in, all employees undergo training for that collection. But beyond that, the gallery doesn’t clamp down on KPIs and allows the employees to explore their own best way of introducing and managing their section. Both the National Gallery and Bynd Artisan shared this approach, as far as I could tell, of identifying their employees’s existing talents and letting them run with it generally, as long as they fulfilled the objectives of their jobscope: giving visitors a great experience.

And this worked perfectly for them – both Caroline and Grace seemed the most interested in self driven and initiated ways of mediating the customer experience, found a method that worked for them, and proceeded to rinse and repeat it until they were excellent at what they did. Their employers gave them the freedom to do that and it produced a job satisfaction that trickled down to satisfied customers. Perhaps this is a lesson in being a good employer as much as it being a stellar employee, but everyone wins here – both Caroline and Grace must have impressed the people they’d crossed paths with so much that they were both nominated by the public and eventually became Customer Service finalists for last year’s Singapore Tourism Awards. Yet another moment of delight, this time validation from the people and the state.

It seems to stand, then, that the route to happiness – at least in one facet of adulthood – is finding the sweet spot between an understanding and nurturing employer, and figuring out a way of developing your personal talents within your jobscope. This seems generally reflective of life – you put in the practice and work that you can, and the rest is exposed to circumstance. Does this answer my postgraduate mild identity crisis? Not entirely. But it does bring realization that nothing will ever definitively be a solution – I can only do everything I can, and leave the rest to fire, flood, act of God.

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With Caroline from the National Gallery and Grace from Bynd Artisan

Nominations for the Singapore Tourism Awards 2018 are now open – nominate the Graces and Carolines in your lives now on singaporetourismawards.com and share your personal experiences with them to hopefully bring them a moment of delight in the coming year.

This post was brought to you in collaboration with the Singapore Tourism Board

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jem