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A Day in the Life of Aran

The latest entry in our series on working at Epigram Books. In this episode, our intern Aran finds out what it’s like to track down an author the old-fashioned way.

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Today Jocelyn, one of the editors, approaches me to give me more work. This is most satisfactory––an intern is created to serve. As the voluntarily enslaved, designated master of menial tasks, lackey work is what I exist for. Maybe it will be a new press clip to upload to the website, or a parcel to pack. Or maybe even an invoice to do up…One has the right to dream.



But Jocelyn has in mind something outside my usual job scope. Today I am to be an intern-cum-private investigator, set on the trail of a case shrouded in mystery and intrigue: The case of a man named Tan Kok Seng, who wrote a series of notable books in the 1970s but who has now seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. A tip-off from an unnamed informant tells us that he is still alive, and still in Singapore. Jocelyn has done reconnaissance via the Yellow Pages; I’ll just have to call every person with that name.

There are 49 people named Tan Kok Seng in Singapore.

Tan Kok Seng #1:

“Hello.. Can I speak to Mr Tan Kok Seng?”

“He’s working. What you want?”

“Do you know if he’s written a book before?”

“没有 la [No, he hasn't]. Bye bye.”

The next 10 or so calls repeat this pattern: “Don’t have la”…Never pick up…Never pick up…“Sir not home sorry”…“Wrong person”…Weird sound (dial up connection?!)

Around #15 is this very funny Tan Kok Seng.

Me: “Have you written a book before?”

TKS: “Return book?! I never borrow book how to return?”

Then around #17/18 is this old lady.

“Can I speak to Tan Kok Seng?”

“Huh”

“Can I speak to Tan Kok Seng?”

“HUH?”

“Can I speak to Tan Kok Seng?”

“HUH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“(same thing in chinese)”

“Oh…ha ha. 他不在 [He's not here].”

Wah lau. The search for the true Tan Kok Seng does not seem to be drawing closer to an end. I pause for a while to contemplate the enormity of the task and the disastrous consequences of failure, then continue.

At #30 plus is this Tan Kok Seng who actually wrote a Chinese book before, but nothing in English…

By this time I have perfected my manner of speaking to grumpy old men, which is what most Tan Kok Sengs turn out to be (no offence to the handful of nice/youthful/non-grumpy TKSs). Just speak loudly and impatiently and they will relate to you/understand what you are saying much better.

#32-39 is this long stretch of no one picking up and discontinued numbers. By this time I’m almost just going through the motions. Even as the excellent, resilient intern I am, any hopes of getting to the end of this mystery are rapidly fading. Of all the countries in the world, Tan Kok Seng has sought refuge in the one where the most people share his name, and spun around himself a web of deception and misdirection. His insidious guile has bested me and he will forever remain an enigma, a phantom roaming the dark streets of Ang Mo Kio, an urban legend whose books we’ll never get to publish. With a heavy heart, I pick up the phone to resume.

Tan Kok Seng #40:

“Hello can I speak to Mr Tan Kok Seng please?”

“(woman’s voice) Ok wait”

“Hello? Mr Tan?”

“Yes, this is Tan Kok Seng speaking.”

“Hi Mr Tan I’m calling from a book publishing company. Have you ever written a book before?”

“What book are you talking about?”

“It's called Son of Singapore.

“Oh yeah, my first book was Son of Singapore, my second book was Man of Malaysia, my third book was….”

But I’ve stopped paying attention. An angel’s choir has erupted in my head, and I feel like my entire being has been flooded with light. Felicia, Sok Wan and Charmayne, who have been eavesdropping on my phone calls and laughing at my failed conversations, freeze and turn in my direction.

“Mr Tan!!!!! I have been looking for you!!!!!!!!!!”