29 Duku Road

The Koh side of my family is scattered all over Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America. It has been forever long since we had a gathering where every single one of our family members is able to be present. These days we keep in touch through facebook. The seniors ones are left behind in our facebook world.

I fight a losing battle holding on to those days as a child. It is where I feel rooted. It is where stories started for me.

Every single one of my uncles, aunts, and cousins will remember lazy Sunday afternoons at 29 Duku Road. No matter how busy the week had been, it was something we never thought of missing. Mama cooking her “Babi Tauyu” (Pork with Soya Sauce), Kong Kong dressed in his sarong. There was always feasting. And, there was always storytelling – about the old days, about an uncle, a family friend, or what was happening in the neighbourhood, or the big snake among Mama’s pile of old newspapers that made Ah Poh (the nanny) jump, or how uncle Alec caught Jill (Kong Kong’s trouble-making pet monkey) when she climbed into the neighbour’s house.

It was THE day of the week when I felt a part of a larger family.

I come from a family of storytellers.

My grandfather passed away when I was 17.

Although I don’t remember many conversations with Kong Kong (he gave me my name), his passing on made me acutely aware of the finality of death. My sister was 17 when she was diagnosed with Lupus, a blood disorder. Hospital visits, bills, pills, and procedures became a part of our family’s routine for the next 20 years until she passed away at 37. When Cynthia was about 32, my father suffered a stroke and then later dementia.

Illness changed the landscape of our family dynamics.

My sister’s and father’s frequent close brushes with death drove me down dark dungeons of desperation. My rite of passage from teenager to womanhood, my struggles with who I am, why am I here, where am I going compounded the crisis. There was a year when between Dad and Cynthia, they were in and out of hospital seven times – all life-threatening. We could barely breathe before the next crisis hit us. I had a quiet obsession with death and how to stop its inevitability.

Out of this quiet desperation emerged a profound respect for death and a passion for life.

In Asia, we don’t talk about death. But I learned, “if not now, when?”

During the last 11 days of my sister’s life, I dropped everything I was doing to be with her.

I asked her, “Are you afraid (of dying)?” She said, “No, I am afraid of living.”

Cynthia had come to terms with death. There was no more reason to live on. All her organs had failed. She knew that she would only be a burden to us. She had made peace with God. We cleaned up any unsettled accounts we had with each other. We had heart-to-heart talks, like the many we had on her good days between crisis over the years (we fought a lot too).

Her passing on was like a burst of fireworks – glorious but short-lived. Death did not leave a bad aftertaste.

I often described my father’s state of dementia as “network detected but no connection.”

He always recognised us but we could not communicate with him. We put him in a nursing home when caregiving became too much for us to handle. Mum visited him everyday without fail. We could count on our fingers the number of days she didn’t see him.

When I recognised that dad was soon going to pass on, my one heart-felt wish and prayer was to talk to him again, daddy and daughter. “Impossible,” I said. For almost five years I tried. In my desperation, I decided I would pour my heart out to daddy to tell him how I much I loved him whether he understood me or not.

We were in the subsidised ward of the hospital one evening just daddy and me. Around us was a ward full of other patients and their families. But I didn’t care.

I said to him, “Daddy, my friends say that you are a good father.”
To which he replied, “Oh! Is it?”
I was taken aback by his lucid reply. I said, “Yes, and I think so too.”
He broke down and wept saying, “No, I’m no good, I’m no good.”
I said, “No Daddy, you are good… remember the time when you…” and I began listing all the things I remembered that he had done for me and thanked him for them.

Daddy then began to rock a baby in his arms saying, “I remember, I remember.” He stroked the hair of the child. He couldn’t find the words but he kept rocking the baby saying, “From… from… (gesturing the child growing up) I have you here, I have you here (pointing to his heart).” We both cried. I didn’t see the other faces around us in the ward.

When there were no more words between us, he grew restless and said, “What are we doing? What are we doing?”

I said, “Nothing daddy, we are just here loving each other.”

Moving home.

About five years ago, I moved back from my own apartment to live with my then 77-year-old mother. It was not an easy decision for a 48-year-old. But it was a move that I felt God had led me to do. We clashed the first week that I moved in and the clashes continued.

One day, we had a big argument. She raised her voice and I raised mine. And then suddenly she burst out saying, “Why can’t you see that yours is the last face I want to see when I am on my death bed? Why can’t we get along?” We were both crying.

I decided then, “No more quarrelling.” We hugged each other for a long time. Mum said, “Ok we stop fighting. Let’s forget the past. We start new from today.” She held me tight and stroked my head.

Mum kept her word. She never picked on me nor I her. Six year ago I would have never imagined saying this, but “she is so fun to live with.” I adore my mother and I want to grow old the way she has shown me how to grow old. They say, “Never teach old dogs new tricks.” Well, we are not dogs. My mum changed at 77. I changed.

Grieving can happen long before the passing on of a person. Mum is 82 and in good health. I find myself often quietly weeping for fear of the day when she will be no more around.

The best way I can keep her forever with me is to make memories with her that will carry me through the days when I will miss her.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

Duku Road, growing up, happy days, sad days… a person, a place, an object, an event, the way of things are done, a quiet word spoken to us… more importantly, the meanings we attach to them, are what went into our individual histories. Our response to them shape us and make us who we are today.

When I went to the first digital storytelling workshop organised by the National Book Development Council of Singapore in 2007, participants were asked to make a personal story. Going through the process of creating my digital story, I recognised immediately that there was something innocuous but powerful in the digital storytelling process.

I saw how a two-minute video clip could so poignantly encapsulate those memories. Or help me paint dreams of the kind of tomorrow I envision. Concepts are abstract. PowerPoints are just precisely what they are, Points. It’s not “tell me about something” but “show me in a life.” No matter what hat or hats we wear – CEO, mother, sister, community leader… we all have stories. We need to tell stories for our own sake. We need to tell stories for those we lead and influence. We need to tell stories for those we leave behind.

A surprise – Lifelong Learner Awardee 2008.

Lifelong Learning was another passion that grew out of my life’s journey. I needed to keep finding ways to survive and thrive out of the many failure, disappointments and uncertainties in my life.

In 2008, Shirley a young mother and career woman whom I had mentored in her teenage and young adult life suddenly called to say that she was nominating me for the Lifelong Learner Award. Through a series of interviews and short-listing, I was one of 16 to receive the award presented by MediaCorp, WDA, NTUC, Spring Singapore.

Storytelling and Lifelong Learning became two thrusts in my life.

How you turn storytelling and lifelong learning into a viable business I don’t know. I only knew that I could learn and I was willing to learn. In 2010, without any business background, without doing sufficient calculations, without financial capital, without a business plan, I left the security of my job, dug out most of my savings to start up a social enterprise. Had I known how hard the journey would be (the saga continues), I would have just stayed safe where I was!

I fell in love with (digital) storytelling, got hooked, and never recovered.

Tyros Pte Ltd (formerly Digital Storytelling Asia Pte Ltd), came about from a series of accidents. There was really no grand plan, no strategy, no thought of starting a company. Aurelia Castro (my then colleague and co-pioneer of digital storytelling in Singapore who returned to the Philippines in 2012) and I stumbled on a Digital Storytelling workshop ad. I was then communications director of a non-profit organisation.

Storytelling was a big part of what I did… reporting people stories and events for our website and newsletters, and even being commissioned to write a biography of an Burmese anthropologist who works among the Moken Sea Gyspies. The book took me two years to write. I thought I was going to learn another software to help me tell stories.

We fell in love with storytelling the digital way. Colleagues and friends began asking us how to do it. Our informal teaching evolved into a workshop we created – adapted and contextualised from what we learned from our facilitator Denise Atchley but also from hours of research and experiments.

We decided to create a website to post our growing collection of stories. There was no one dedicated to digital storytelling in Asia. So that’s how the domain Digital Storytelling Asia (DSA) came about. DSA later became the most obvious name to call the company we co-pioneered in 2010.

From Digital Storytelling Asia to TYROS

In late 2012, we took a long hard look at our journey – our losses, failures and successes. With a new insight of who we are, what we are about, and how we can best serve the community, we re-branded ourselves from DSA to TYROS.

The best is yet to be!