I am obsessed with factories. Soap factories. Peanut factories. Chocolate factories. Not least, foam factories. Manufacturing is in my blood.
I love machines. Tractors, industrial buildings, engineering works. That was probably why I loved England, and specifically Manchester so much. It was the home of the Industrial Revolution.
When I was younger, I never liked saying that my father was in the foam business. People always thought that he made telephones. I said sponge instead, but that didn’t sound quite as classy. Sponge evoked pictures of a dishwashing tool, or worse, a bathroom loofah to scrub off dead skin.
The Hokkien word for foam was chui puek, which literally translated to bubbles, like buih in Malay. But the foam that I knew in my father’s factory was anything but bubbles. In Mandarin, the word was hai mian, 海绵, which sometimes translated to hai mi in Hokkien.
I learnt these words as I grew up. Though not learning the mechanics of production itself, I did dance, run, sleep, play, work and pretend to be an office girl in the foam factory in Mak Mandin. Fabrica is the Italian word for factories. The English word to fabricate is to make, to create, to produce, to manufacture, to invent… the meaning is used both industrially and deceptively.
“My forte is in manufacturing. I like to make things,” my grandfather once told me. He used the word forte, unlike the more politically-correct words like passion, skill or talent. Forte is the word to describe something you excel in. I thought it was an unusual word to use. But my grandfather knew what he was good at, and he was not ashamed to say it.
At one point in his life, he was a teacher in a vernacular school. He picked a vernacular school because he knew that there would be less work and pressure. The reason was so he could learn to make things in his own time, in his own space. He made cigarettes, he made porcelain, he made fibre glass, he made foam. Where did he learn them? He simply watched, read, and experimented.
In university I met a fellow student whose father made sanitary pads. They all thought he was a bit weird, but I was more interested in his father’s business. We females use sanitary pads. But who makes them? Where are they made? How are they made? If you never knew how things were made, how would you know what you were consuming? I always loved reading the back of packages for a reason.
When I was about 8 years old, I remember watching a Sesame Street programme on how they made peanut butter in a factory. The peanuts were deshelled, churned, bottled, packaged and shipped. I watched the 10-minute programme in awe and amazement. The manufacturer in me had been ignited, and a life long dream of wanting to visit, work or go to a factory was harboured.
The Tiger Beer Brewery’s factory tour in Tuas, Singapore was disappointing to say the least. More a marketing gimmick than an educational lawatan sambil belajar, the sole aim of the tours were conducted for corporates to get merry and drunk in the eating room, buying more and more beer from the tap. It was our company Christmas event last year. I enjoyed the socialising, but not so much the tour, which was an excuse to drink at its lamest.
All my life I harbour this dream of being in factories. I know that manufacturing is in my blood. Even before the hipsters descended into warehousing their art galleries, launching their book parties and holding their secret rave parties in industrial buildings, I had been born into manufacturing. My sisters and I – we were the children of manufacturing tycoons, only shy of being born in a factory.