Best Friends

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Julia:  We’ve discovered that as two females work on a project together, people like to find a category for us.

“Are you best friends?” we’re sometimes asked.  Having grown up in the era of Enid Blyton, my image of a best friend is someone with whom you have midnight feasts and share deep and dark secrets.  On that basis, no, Hoi Yee is not my best friend.  I’m not a person with secrets, so there’s nothing to share!  But, feasts late at night?  Yes, we’ve certainly had those – usually with a glass or two of wine.

Is she like a sister?  No!  We don’t have the long history that sisters have; those intimate memories of childhood that can bring laughter or tears.  We are building our own history of fun and dire moments, but we’ve not gone through the growing-pains stage together, so can’t consider ourselves sister-like.  Anyways, we each have sisters of our own! There have been some hilarious moments, like the time when I arranged for us to be collected in an “almond” colored vehicle.  We were standing in the blazing noonday sun of India, but the only vehicle that seemed to be waiting was green.  Not until we had virtually melted, did I remember that it wasn’t an “almond”, but a “pistachio” colored car that was to collect us!

Soul-mates?  No.  Soul-mates seem more mystical, as though a silver thread runs through each of us, and cannot be broken by mere mortals.  Soul-mates seem more for romance and mystery, than for the nitty-gritty hard work of the regular writing we do together.

So, how do we categorize ourselves?

Hoi Yee:  Co-authors – I think that’s the only way to say it.  We are completely frank with each other.  I don’t think there’s a topic under the sun that we don’t discuss because we end up confiding so many things to one another during our writing sessions anyways!

We’re a great tag team – if one of us is feeling down, the other becomes the stronger one to make sure we don’t lose focus on our writing.  We share problems and help each other out as much as possible.  We’re also pretty good at playing to each other’s strengths – I try to stay on top of internet technology for our blog and other social networking via the web, while Julia is the best at typing up our ideas immediately to keep the ideas and thoughts flowing.

We’re both inclined to be verbose, but we recognize that in each other, so are good at cutting each other short without offending the other!  We also share an exaggerated sense of the ridiculous, and are good at laughing at ourselves, like the time we were traveling in India to attend a literary festival, and misjudged our accommodation and found ourselves sharing a cockroach and rat-ridden room.  I wouldn’t change out of my street clothes to go to bed (I didn’t want any contact with those bed linens!), and covered the pillow with a large shopping bag.  To avoid being bitten, Julia, slept with her head in a cloth bag, pulled tight around her neck.  She looked like she was ready to be led to her execution.

We looked absolutely ludicrous and were so giddy with fright . . . that we forgot to take a photo!

Rough Start

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Hoi Yee: To meet our first book proposal deadline, Julia and I took a two-week retreat in Thailand.  Away from all the distractions of business and family, and in a villa lent to us by a friend, we had the perfect setting to achieve our goal.  We travelled with stacks of paper and every stationery item conceivable to help us organize our writing and our ideas.  I even took a laser printer in my suitcase – that was the closest I’ve come to packing the kitchen sink!

Things didn’t quite work out as planned.  There was a district-wide strike that started the morning of my arrival.  The hotel was surrounded by the army for protection.  Julia was to arrive in two days, and I was so nervous that I was ready to hop on the first plane back to Hong Kong.  That was one of the first signs of how persistent Julia is: she said that she’s coming and that we’d finish our proposal before we return home.

On our first evening, Julia had food poisoning – even though she and I had shared the same dishes.  She didn’t even touch the shrimps that I munched on!  She had a miserable night and spent most of the next day in bed.  In my new role as nurse, I kept her supplied with snacks and liquids while continued our work.

I thought I had avoided the bug.  I didn’t dare return to that restaurant, never touched uncooked foods, and never drank untreated water . . . all to no avail.  The very next day, I ended up with food poisoning!

At least I knew where to direct her to purchase bananas and soda crackers.  In return, she pushed my bed closer to the washroom and advised on which bucket and towels to keep by my bedside.

Despite the army fortressed hotel, food that went off because tourists could not enter the restaurants, and finally just eating dried fruits, nuts and bread for ten days, we created a book outline that today, continues to guide our writing chapter after chapter after chapter.

First Impressions

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How did you two meet?

Julia: With our different backgrounds and professions, it’s unlikely that Hoi Yee and I would ever have met if it hadn’t been for the writing group, The Bauhinians.

A long time ago, a group of writers in Hong Kong signed up for a writing course that promised we would find “adventure” and “ourselves”.  Ours was a very eclectic group of women and one man.  We came from different walks of life, had different professions, and were all colours of the racial rainbow.

We worked against the clock on myriad writing exercises and then read our personal pieces aloud to the rest of the group.  We always stopped for food and alcohol, and smiles were on tap!

After the course finished, we continued to meet to write each week.  For over three years, we never missed a writing session.  We called ourselves the Bauhinians (after the national flower of Hong Kong), and met in a cosy function room at the historical Fringe Club, a converted dairy situated in a trendy neighbourhood.

But, Hong Kong being Hong Kong, people moved on to new lives in new cities, till only three of us were left;  an Australian, an Indian and English me.  Radha took up the challenge of recruiting new members and persuaded participants from another writing course to join the Bauhinians.

Hoi Yee was one of those participants.  But none of us had met her, so our only knowledge of her came through her curt text messages: “What is the room cost?”, “I’ll not be able to arrive on time”, “Does this price include food?”, “Who pays for the wine?” . . . eek!  What happened to “Thank you for inviting me.” “Would you mind if I arrived a little late?”.  Radha and I weren’t awfully confident that we wanted this autocrat to join our group.  Then one day, Hoi Yee announced that she “would give us a try”.  We were slightly daunted and not very optimistic.

We’d already started the session when there was a knock at the door, and in walked this lovely woman with a wide smile that lit up the room.  Radha and I just chuckled after that first session.  How wrong our fantasy impression had been!!

That was Hoi Yee’s and my first meeting.

Hoi Yee: Oh my gawd!  I’m so embarrassed, I am so embarrassed! (Face redder than a ripe tomato right now)  Yes, I recognize myself in that tone (oh, I’m still so embarrassed.)  Um, “Thank you for having invited me” . . . better late than never?

Sleepy Head

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Julia:  Sleep is so strange.  It grabs me in the middle of a movie that I really want to see, yet doesn’t come when I need it – like on a winter’s night when I’ve got a cold.  Sometimes it’s peaceful, and I wake up rested.  Other times, I have horrid dreams, and toss and turn till the alarm goes off.  Then I wake up ratty and still tired.

Where do I go during those sleep times?  Am I just lying in bed, or does part of me journey to another place or time?  Why should I have such pleasant sleep sometimes, and such harrowing sleep at others?  Perhaps it depends on the last meal of the evening, or dusky pollens in the air, or a thrilling read before bed-time.  What is it that makes sleep so random?  Why can’t we switch it on and off as we wish?

I’d like to sleep before a party, so I could be witty and charming all night long.  I’d like to sleep before a long flight and then stay awake to watch loads of movies.  I’d like not to fall asleep after Christmas lunch so I don’t miss the Queen’s speech.  It’d be nice occasionally to go to sleep really early and awake to see the sun rise. 

I’m told that the older one gets, the less sleep one needs.  I look forward to that time in my life so I can party till dawn and see the sun come up; so I have more time to enjoy everything and everyone around me.

Hoi Yee:  Sleep is like an extended 8-hour long hug.  It’s such a warm, soft, quiet place to be.  I love the softness of blankets, sheets and pillows.  It’s the indoor equivalent to lying in a field surrounded by billowy long grass folding over me. 

Once, I ironed the pillow cases with lavender water, and I was absolutely hooked.  Soon I was addicted – I couldn’t wait to put my head on that lavender-scented pillow each night.  I loved to breathe in the fresh and calming perfume of flowers and to stay quiet, not moving, not do anything but lie there until a new day started the next morning.

Sometimes, when sleep doesn’t come so easily, or when the iPad has to be plonked into the middle of my ‘lavender field’ to lull our little boy to sleep, I feel a little annoyed.  The bed is no longer a quiet oasis, but a twitchy, uncomfortable silence.  It is as though my meadow has suddenly been invaded by too many grasshoppers that don’t go away.  I have to get up and leave my bed to potter around our flat for awhile until my husband and son have dozed off.  Then I crawl back between the sheets and their warm bodies and murmuring snores soon lull me to sleep.

Piggy Bank

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Hoi Yee:  Banks . . . I would change them by having less people.

My relationship with financial banks has intensified greatly since we started our business.  I remember applying for a credit card facility so that clients could pay with plastic.  Five bank staff showed up in our small office and had to stand because there were not enough chairs.  We had to take them out to lunch to have the meeting.  We were granted the credit card facility, but I never saw those five people again.  When I received a letter informing us of the increased fees, I was unable to reach any of those five people on the phone.  The letter simply said “Please note your right to terminate our services should you not agree to the new terms.”

When I closed one of our bank accounts, I had to speak to four persons.  They had to send documents to other people in faraway offices.  There were countless mistakes, missing papers and authorizations, and none of the persons I was dealing with knew any of the workers in those faraway offices.  It took several weeks for the account to be properly closed. 

When I asked for a copy of a 1-page statement, I have to sign five pages in ten different places and personally hand them to a person at the bank, who sends them on to someone anonymous in yet another faraway office.

But, in the midst of all these faceless dealings, I have developed a wonderful relationship with one banker, Larry.  He calls me prior to his days off and tells me I can call him on his mobile.  He reminds me of documents I need to send him and calls to tell me when he has received them.  My loan requests and mortgages have been successful, 100% of the time.  He even hand delivers gifts to my office and calls beforehand to make sure I’m there. 

Let banks have fewer anonymous faces . . . and more Larrys.

Julia:  If I had a free hand to change banks, I’d begin by ridding them of ‘relationship managers’.  My own manager seems to be so busy building relationships with other clients that she doesn’t have time for me.  I end up leaving voice messages on her machine, which, by the way, tells me that my “call is important to us”.  Who is “us”?  I thought it was just “her” and “me”.

I’d also get rid of the deluge of marketing materials that come through my letter-box each week telling me how to pay for my children’s education or save for my retirement.  I find it rather insulting that banks have caused such huge global financial problems, yet still have the audacity to advise me on how to spend or save my money!  I’d also stop free calendars, diaries and red lai-see envelopes that end up in my wastepaper basket.  I’d reduce large reception areas, marble floors and huge desks.  As for centralized departments – it’d back to local people who know me.  I’d also insist on statements that are free of nonsensical numerical codes, and simply show what I’ve received and from whom, and what I’ve paid for and whom I’ve paid.

I want to see bank training programmes focus on how employees’ can give comfort to their clients, and build real trust by explaining financial products with everyday words and easy to understand charts that don’t make me feel like a chimpanzee at an IT seminar.

Could we rethink the whole system and go back to piggy banks?  We could make them secure so that we could keep them safely at home.  Of course, we wouldn’t get any interest, (what’s 0.001% anyway!).  At least we’d know exactly how much we have.  And, I could end those unsatisfactory relationships with people who are never there for me.

Unbelievably Similar

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Julia: “I am absolutely not like my mother,” I would affirm robustly in my teens.  In my 20s, I still thought we were both unalike, but an awareness of a certain similarity had begun to assert itself.  In my 30s, when I had children of my own, I woke up to reality: I was my mother!  I used the same words to calm my toddlers, got mad at the same little things like muddy footprints on a newly cleaned floor, and cooked the same dishes I’d enjoyed as a child.

But, then, in my 40s, I came to recognize that my mother was more accomplished than me; she could knit amazing sweaters, bake delicious cakes in a twinkling, garden, keep house with no home help, and manage a business, all in a very effortless way.  So, as my children became Tweenies, she became my role model.  At difficult times I would ask myself, “What would Mother do?”

But life doesn’t stand still.  My own parenting skills improved and I became more confident, so the relationship between my mother and I relaxed into one of friendship.   And, it stayed that way till her death.  My last memory of her is of an emaciated elderly woman, whose eyes were almost constantly closed.  I sat beside her bed and held her hand as I recalled out loud our shared stories – some funny, some nostalgic.  As the afternoon drifted into evening, it was time for me to fly back to Hong Kong.  Mother opened her eyes as I said “Goodbye” and gazed steadily at me, smiling, “What a lovely time we’ve had together, haven’t we?”  These were the last words Mother ever spoke to me.

Hoi Yee:  I started traveling when I was sixteen, and have never stopped visiting a new country or city each year since.  Even in my parents’ homeland of China, I’ve been to more cities and provinces than they will ever see.  How different our lives have been. 

All my sisters and brother are university graduates some with Master and Doctorate degrees.  My father learned his (broken) English in his 30’s, at church each Sunday, as an immigrant traveling across Canada looking for work.  My parents and I are so different.

Growing up in a house with four siblings, a dog, a large aquarium and parents who worked 70 hour weeks, I would describe our home as an over-crowded warehouse where people happened to live.  Today, I am obsessed that my own home is always clean, clear, and bits and bobs are put away . . . every day!   When our first flat was featured on the cover page of a décor magazine, I laughed at how different I am from my parents.

Recently, when recounting how my father also ran a real estate operation, a friend asked whether that is why I’m in property.  Five years running my business, yet I needed that off-hand remark to highlight the obvious similarity!  I never thought of my father when starting my business!  After all, I am supposed to be completely different from him, aren’t I?

Although I had always primed myself to be an executive at a multinational company, I left the corporate world to start a business.   My husband left his company of 14 years to join me shortly afterwards.  We are a husband and wife team . . . just like my parents were in their business.

I am very different from my mother and my father.  However, behind the travel photos and the education degrees, my life seems to match more and more the profiles of the two humble people who are my parents.

Winter Wonderland

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Hoi Yee: I was born and raised in a part of Canada where winters are cold and long.  The icy weather never stopped me from taking walks outside.  I wore furry boots and a coat that made me look like a walking sleeping bag because I loved the cold crispness.  Breathing in the icy air is like drinking purified water.  Cold air feels cleaner and even tastes better.

But the best thing about winter air was its quietness.  The colder it became, the more people stayed indoors.  Magically, the outdoors, wherever I went, was an oasis of peacefulness.  The sounds of my own breathing, the crunch of snow under my feet and the visible mist coming from my mouth were meditative for me.

Going through the countryside in winter afforded me views of a limitless horizon across flat fields of untouched snow.  It was as if the distance between where I stood and as far as I could see, was pure clean peacefulness.  On a good day, the long silence was peaceful for so long that my imagination took over.  My thoughts and ideas became the closest thing to dreaming with my eyes wide open.  It felt like I was awake and consciously moving into meditation.

I think I am homesick as I sit in my car in Hong Kong streets resenting that the air-con is on and the windows are sealed tight.  There is just too much noise, and too much pollution outside to open the windows.  I breathe out and try to listen to my exhalation above the din of double-decker buses, honking lorries and chugging trams.

Julia: Cold air in Hong Kong penetrates the bones and freezes the mind.  It deadens us for the first few days.  We are in shock.  Then, in an instant, we get our act together.  We take out the electric blankets, switch the air-cons to “heat” mode, make stews instead of salads, and settle down for the three months of cold, damp conditions.

Yet, when in Europe during the cold of winter, I sparkle.  I love the crisp air, the freshness, the quiet.  Paris in the winter is the most wonderful experience – no tourists are tempted to this great city during the months of January and February, so I can wander among historic sites free of queues.  Cafes are delighted by my custom and bring me endless cups of strong black coffee.  I can look at the paintings in the Louvre for as long as I like.  I’m going to Italy in February. I hope the cold will keep everyone else from going there, too!

As a child growing up in England, winter meant sharp, crisp mornings driving to school through Ashdown Forest, where the trees, coated in frost, looked like a magical winter wonderland.  It meant coming back in the dark at 3.30 in the afternoon.  My nose was always red with the cold, and my hands tingled.

Once home, my sister would light the log fire in the sitting room and make tea and toast, while my mother and I carried a tree trunk (not too large) into the kitchen and lodged it on two up-turned stools.  Then we would saw off chunks to keep the fire burning for the rest of the day.  By the time we had a boxful of logs, tea would be ready and the fire would be roaring.  We would sit in front of the blaze and tell each other about our day.

I don’t like the cold, but I am intrigued by how many happy memories winter evokes for me.

Flying High

Julia: 2011 was a year of chaos.  For me, it was also a year that made me realize my life was cluttered – the study was bursting with books we’d never read again; the kitchen was filled with gadgets that had been superceded by something slicker and quicker; the loft was stuffed full of nostalgia – a damaged porcelain doll, old photos of people I don’t remember, aged theatre programmes.  Our home was weighed down by the past.

Slowly, I have been discarding the unnecessary. Papers have been sorted into two piles – file or fling.  Movies are stored on a computer, and the VHSs, CDs and DVDs given new homes.  A local charity has even asked that we stop donating our books as they haven’t the space to store any more.  Even our beautiful grey cockatiel, Joey, who died of old age on Christmas Eve, will not be replaced.

Some friends recently moved house, and have given away most of their furniture, cushions, and knicknacks.  Their new home is a delight of spaciousness and freedom.  

Is that what de-cluttering is all about?  Do we feel free as we let go of material possessions?  I don’t know yet, as I still have so much more to dispose of.  But I can imagine the pleasure of opening a cupboard and knowing exactly what’s inside, checking the fridge and knowing there are no expired items hidden at the back, and thinking with a mind cleared of its cobwebs. 

Hoi Yee: My year can be summed up as back-to-back work of business, our boy and our book.   This means that my company has expanded, our son has grown taller and broader with wild and crazy ideas, and writing our book has created a (very) personal space where my opinions and  thoughts are put on paper and ready to be challenged.  I never expected writing non-fiction could make me so vulnerable.

But there I have it, this year’s challenges and changes have brought me “good problems.” 

These problems have pushed the limits of my personal tolerance for getting the job done, just putting one’s nose to the grindstone and not stopping until the task is finished.  It is the high of running my own show, experiencing the addictive sense of dedication and accomplishment.  When I need to pack ten boxes of files for storage I find myself making labels because I just want to get these boxes out of my office, out of my way! When I filled in as receptionist or book-keeper during those months when we could not find anybody to hire, I took on all their tasks and found myself re-vamping our systems.  I have entered mid-age with a steely sense of focus that keeps my energy high.

Raising my son has become the irrational challenge of predicting a moving target.  He worries me, he thrills me and he never fails to surprise me.  I gush with pride and collapse with fatigue within one waking day.  To all those parents who know what I’m talking about, I love my son!

The book is being written and I’m learning more about life, people and myself.  A great year indeed and I look forward to the New Year of the Dragon . . . Roaaaaaaaaaaaar!

Experience or Energy

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Julia and Hoi Yee: Hiring the right staff is probably the toughest element of running a business. We’ve read hundreds of books on how to choose the right people and how to encourage them to be loyal for ever.  We word the recruitment ads carefully; create questionnaires for the interviews; design forms and procedures.  Have we been successful?  Overall, yes, but we have whittled the selection down to two things; experience or energy.  

For experience, I choose older people for the jobs that require dealing directly with clients, following procedures, and being able to keep calm under pressure.  The older ones are often set in their ways so are not comfortable handling the unexpected and prefer to keep their heads down when difficulties present themselves.  In Asia, the older staff members still preserve the tradition of “face”.  They don’t like to acknowledge that they have made a mistake or to criticize their colleagues, which can lead to issues dragging on unnecessarily.  On the other hand, older staff members are often more considerate and more tolerant.

For energy, we choose the young bloods.   But they are chameleons that fall into two categories: a strong, loyal tiger, or a job-hopping sloth. 

The tiger can take on a challenge that is completely outside their scope of experience, while the sloth complains about why it cannot be done.  The tiger will walk up to a client trembling with fright but full of motivation, while the sloth, also, trembling, won’t get off the office chair.

There is nothing more motivating than to see the strong, young tigers learning, adapting and growing into areas that are new to them.  The beauty of these 20-something young bloods is that they are so willing to be taught, they are very open-minded and will enthusiastically adapt to a new world. 

We secretly love to mirror these young tigers, who simply think they are mirroring us.  Keeping up with their image of us keeps us motivated and enthusiastic!!!

As for the sloths, well, they move from their seat in our company when they quit and job-hop to another seat in another company  . . . Adios, and have a good nap in your new cubicle – We’ve got to save our energy for the tigers.

Hiring is not easy, but over the years, we have found the most consistently good guideline to a successful engagement is to choose someone who has a twinkle in their eye; the twinkle that the client sees; the twinkle of pride and success.  And (see the picture) . . . it’s the twinkle in the eyes of one of Julia’s staff on her wedding day!

Blazing Times

Julia:  Isn’t it funny, how little things can really irritate?  Like sitting down on the sofa with a good book, and the bulb in the reading light bursts.  Or, when you’ve nurtured a seedling and it’s just beginning to look as if it might survive, when a squirrel decides to nab it.  Or a precious lamp broken because someone carelessly whirled round with a broom in their hand!

Then there are the bigger things that get under my skin; a staff member who makes a mistake, but instead of telling me, tries to correct it and makes the situation a million times worse!  Or the dry cleaners who inadvertently shrink my favourite silk evening pants.  Or the workmen who promise to finish in two weeks, but two months later are saying, “It’ll be ready for Christmas”.

But so many of these irritations are what create our own personal history.  Unexpectedly bumping into friends and knowing I had to tell them that the bird they left in our care, flew away when the bottom of its cage fell out.  Sweating in the noontime heat of India for an “almond” coloured car, only to remember 20 minutes later I’d been told “pistachio” – and that that car had been parked outside waiting for us all the time!  Or opening my mouth ready to complain, only to hear, “I’m so sorry, I know just how you feel.”  The wind is whipped right out of my sails.  That’s all I needed – an apology and some sympathy.  As adults, it nice to remember how our mothers gave us a hug, or wiped away a tear, saying that everything was going to be all right.

Little irritations?  Just give me a big hug and tell me, “It’s all better now.”

Hoi Yee: Even today, my mother complains about my hot temper.  My husband responds by saying that a fiery temper is good for running a business and for running a household! 

When I was thirteen years old, I remember when I missed the tour bus and the next one was not for another hour.  Oh, I knew I shouldn’t have gone to the bathroom!  I just didn’t want to use those horrible toilets on buses.  I was huffy and puffy stamping around the road side with not even a bench to sit on.  I counted the cars making a statistics table for my math assignment – probably the first time I was ahead of the deadline for a school assignment! 

After I finished a long shift at my waitressing job, I left my hard earned tips in the locker room.  I was enraged when I rushed back in to find the money had been stolen.  I was only seventeen then, and each dollar that I earned after that was worth double the actual value.  I don’t think I have ever lost a dime since.

I used to lose my patience, and wanted to shout louder than our son when he screamed, and screamed, and screamed!  I got angry when my jeans still would not fit over my hips six months after giving birth.  I was hopping mad when I got attitude from a sales lady who was not polite to me.

I don’t get mad on purpose.  Anger makes me feel vulnerable, actually.  Now, when our son screams, I know that he’ll tire himself out soon; when my clothes don’t fit me anymore, I happily donate them.  As for the less-than-courteous sales lady, I enjoy on-line shopping immensely! 

I still have to keep some of that hot-tempered me because I am the daughter that my mother raised and I am the woman that my husband married.