21 May 2012

The Air-Con Factor

by George Cheng

"Wah you know Ah ...ah...this fellow, ah Derek, Ah Auntie Mei's second son lah, He so smart leh, the other day. Wah, "cheng tua sar" OK!! Working "ang-mo kang" in Shenton Way American bank...got wear tie also. Wah, Auntie Mei....so lucky So you how? Your son how? Still young lah. What ah? Primary Three only meh? Never mind ah, study hard, next time also can!"

- An Unnamable Godma/Auntie/Woman–Who-Lived-Behind-Our-House-But-In-The-Next-Estate-Who-Never-Picked-Up-The-Phone-But-Shouted-At-My-Ma-Across-The-Adjoining-Backyard-Clothes-Drying-Area;

circa 1977.

**** **** **** ****

Air-Conditioning. It is now everywhere.

This artificial customisation of infrastructural climatic conditions by means of developing cool ambient airflow using filters, gaseous coolants and mechanical pumps for the purpose of distribution throughout homes, buildings, planes, trains and automobiles. It was once wittily cited by one of our most prominent politicians as being the greatest factor of influence behind Singapore's remarkably paced growth as world class economy.

It has become so ubiquitous these days; babies in Singapore are born in an air-conditioned room in the hospital. We wake up in an air-conditioned room, step into an air-conditioned car to travel, arrive and then spend the rest of the day mincing about air-conditioned shopping malls, sitting about in air-conditioned offices and meeting rooms; and still after all of that, retire to dinner in an air-conditioned restaurant after a life-balancing bout of frenetic exercise in an air-conditioned gym.

But air-conditioning wasn't always everywhere.

Growing up in the Early Ice Age of the 1970s, "air-conditioning" was a significant and inescapable factor in influencing the decisions people took when they got up out of bed and dressed for work. Quite apart from the genuine need to fortify one's delicate shoulder tips and shin tops from the Trans-Shenton-Way-Collyer-Quay Mistral, the "air-conditioning" factor allowed one to dress in a way as to reflect (or perhaps, to transmit) a class signal as to where one worked – this being Asia, of course; where you worked almost, sadly, comprehensively defined your "status" (nay, "station") in life.

As a kid in the 1970s, you overhead older folks gossiping and setting down the sartorial fashion codex of the day. This was a desperate dogma festooned with wondrous (well, incredulous) and very particular notions of the Singaporean–Chinese mentality of that period. In brief, the codex determined that, in accordance with what you wore on any given day outside of the house, this corresponded with "what you were" in life (and therefore, how proud or not your parents were of you – or not) as follows below.

For obvious reasons, this codex excluded uniforms which signalled that you had a "jeng hoo kang" (Government job) and, blessed with pensions and the like, you had an "iron rice bowl" and were almost comprehensively immune to criticism. Another exempted category were doctors, who in their rank-less and fashion-less light blue pajamas under long white coats and silver-chromed stethoscopes, were simply every Chinese mother's Holy Grail for "son worship" (or as often also the case; candidate son-in-law bragging); and hence, elevated and immune above this petty hypothesis.

• The short-sleeved shirt (or, T-shirt) and cargo trousers (read: short or ¾ length with pockets) ensemble meant that you were engaged in manual labour, or the close standing supervision of manual labour;

• The long-sleeved shirt and pressed trousers ensemble meant that you were in a clerking position and yes; it was likely you would have worked in the CBD, but also very likely, you sat under a ceiling fan and wore scuffed shoes which gave away that fact that you exerted manual labour daily getting onto and staying inside that SBS bus that got you into work;

• The long-sleeved shirt and pressed trousers ensemble, with a tie, made a quantum leap. It meant, joy of joys; that you worked as "junior-sales-to-middle-marketing-or-management-executive" in an air-conditioned building (although, not necessarily, an air-conditioned own room; which brings us to,

• The long-sleeved shirt and pressed trousers, with a coat and tie from a Singapore tailor, ensemble.
Well; my son, you have made the "cheng tua sar" league. But whilst you almost certainly would have been sequestered in an air-conditioned building and very likely also, your own air-conditioned room, you would still be ranked not a mere hair's breadth under, your then-quite common-sighted Expat Boss, who not only sent your silly girl cousins giggling into secretary-infested hair saloons under Change Alley bridge at lunch hour to iron-curl their hair into incineration; he also developed for the benefit of you and your copycat 70s Ah Bengs at the time, an annoying wind-swept and intrepid way of tossing his jacket behind the shoulder on one hooked finger, so that you sad sacks copped a proper eyeful of the flashing red/blue/"any other colour other than the colour of the jacket" lining suggesting,

• The European bespoke tailored suit with Italian silk tie ensemble; which shame of shames at the time, was unfortunately also exempt from Auntie criticism.

In fact, so prevalent was this ridiculous system that for the longest time, I never even detected that it had settled, unconsciously, deeply into my very psyche (as with all cases of such home-styled backwater values) and remains to this day like some strange hung-over case of sudden brain farts that startle me every now and then when I go shopping to replenish (more like, repair) my workaday wardrobe. In truth, before realising now that I am, (and in the same breath), this system was in terms of societal norms, the last generational residue of my father's own-generational thinking about how we should dress; I also wonder with horror if such thinking somehow was lurking behind the curtains when the rest of my brain was busy choosing the path that would lead me to the day job I currently have.

Today of course, most of all that you have read above is turned absolutely on its head. In fact, the reverse of the 70s codex holds true today often with alarming but always with amusing implications. But this is the stuff of our next chapter.