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the remnants of my surprise Shanghai visit two years ago.

The last time I returned to Shanghai was almost two years ago, for a quick 3-day 2-night getaway. This was about a month after I started working in Grace AG. It was a last-minute arrangement as my former boss needed an urgent favour. He paid for my air tickets and I thought it was a great opportunity to spring a couple of surprises on some friends as well as to bring home the extra luggage that I couldn’t carry with me the last time.

This is my walk down memory lane…

The first surprise I pulled off was on Kay and the second surprise that I pulled off was on the youth group that I had served with. I remember my heart beating rapidly as I drove to the home church where youth service was held. I had planned to attend youth service as a regular attendee – I didn’t tell anyone and arrived without much fanfare.

It was great to see so many familiar faces as I climbed the flight of steps to the fifth floor. And it was priceless to see the shocked faces when they said hi to me. The youths greeted me like they would anyone. But it was the second wait-a-minute-that-can’t-be-Joey look that I will remember for the rest of my life. I remember Janelle poking me to check if I was real. It was wonderful to be greeted by so many hugs, smiles and conversations, as well as to share a meal with Bryan.

The third surprise I pulled off was on my cell group – the wonderful group of people who took care of me when I was there. I arrived early and remained in my car while I waited for them to arrive. I remember stalking from my car when they strolled into the premise after dinner. My heart was in my mouth when I exited the car to sneak up behind them. I walked towards them covering my face with my laptop and Kay brought me into the lift lobby.

I was the last to enter the elevator. Cindy Hong exclaimed. Christine was stunned. Teresa was speechless. They asked in unison, “Are you real?” It was still too surreal for them even when we arrived at the 28th floor; they still couldn’t believe it even after I entered the apartment. Teresa immediately called Cindy Lee (who was sick) and Yee Kean (who had a lot of work to do) to make their way to cell now.

Cindy Lee was the first of the two to arrive. I opened the door. She screamed. In my face. And I think I saw tears moments later. Yee Kean arrived shortly after. This time, Teresa opened the door while I remained on the couch. Kay pushed my head down and covered me with her jacket. Yee Kean entered the apartment and sounded really grumpy as she removed her shoes. “I don’t want to play board games. I am tired. And I want to go home”, she sulked.

Then she took her seat beside me, still unaware that it was me. “I am also tired and I want to go home too”, I parroted her. She was stunned momentarily. Then she screamed (I think). After everyone recovered from the shock of watching each other get shocked, I shared my testimony of my journey into full-time ministry since I left Shanghai in August, as well as what’s in store for me in Grace AG. I am thankful that my decision to trust and obey inspired them to do likewise.

To my surprise this time, that cell session evolved into a prayer meeting. I received so many prayers and much encouragement and affirmation from the body of Christ. I also had the privilege to pray a prayer of blessing over everyone present. On a personal note, it felt really good to be feel so loved and wanted. I am thankful for all the da-jies God brought into my life in my short stay in Shanghai.

The other incident that I remember clearly from those 72 hours there was meeting up with Kim Soon, Kay, Kurk, as well as Cindy and Christine for lunch at Vargas. I nearly lost Kim Soon as a friend because he reacted badly to my teasing (of how Liverpool lost a game the night before). I had no ill intentions of course, but I should have seen the warning signs. I won’t give details of what was exchanged because I respect him and don’t want to paint a wrong picture of him but I learnt two things over that meal:

  1. It’s not worth risking friendship over football rivalry
  2. Not everyone shares the same harmless ribbing relationship that Xianyi and Daniel Heng and I share so don’t ever assume familiarity.
  3. When you are sorry, just say and be sorry. There’s no need to cover up or make excuses. Sincerity is the greatest apology.

But all ended well eventually so I was thankful for a restored relationship. That incident really caught me off guard.

On a happier note, my cell mates had a meal together the week before I arrived and Christine randomly remarked that she would “love to have brunch with Joey again”. And as we shared a meal on that table, she said, her “dream came true”. Sweet things like these, a sentimental guy like me will cherish for a long time.

My final lasting impression of those three days in Shanghai was heading to Loushanguan Lu to buy a bag for Huiyi from a local store that carried Korea-looking items. As I drove out of the car park, a drunkard suddenly appeared in front of me – so I had to jam brake the vehicle. Thank God I didn’t hit him. But he remained standing in front of me and kept egging me to hit him. Honestly, I wasn’t really annoyed because I just wanted to leave the car park, but on hindsight it was an extremely daring deed committed. It was the first time I encountered something bizarre like that in my two years in Shanghai.

But the craziest thing wasn’t him acting crazy but the parking warden and the security guard who did absolutely nothing about it. “Bear with him – he’s drunk”, said the former, matter-of-fact. “Call the police – we’ll be your witnesses”, said the latter, nonchalantly. No wonder I wasn’t all that surprised by the recent videos that came out of China – the inhumane running over of the little girl, and the intoxicated lady who got molested in broad daylight – to seemingly oblivious bystanders.

On my flight home, I remember looking forward to returning home quite badly and realised that Huiyi and I would really struggle to survive another long-distance relationship. It’s a miracle in itself how we managed to pull through 15 months of that!

I know this post is random and appeared from out of nowhere but it feels good to finally transfer these memories out of my system. I really miss Shanghai. Hope I get a chance to return someday.

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my final birthday as a bachelor.

Over the next 24 hours, I will celebrate my 8th 21st birthday, by having lunch with none other than my best friend, Lionel, and dinner with my fiancée, Huiyi. I’m just two years from turning three decades old – that’s more than twice the age of the new youths initiated into youth ministry. I feel older but more alive than ever!

  • By December, my salutation would have changed.
  • By January, my ministry responsibilities would have increased.
  • By February, I would have completed my undergraduate programme.
  • By March, I would have accomplished another of my childhood dreams.
  • By April, we would have completed the pre-wedding photo-shoot.
  • By August, Huiyi and I would have changed our marital status.
  • By September, I would have embarked on my postgraduate programme.
  • By this time next year, I should be in New Zealand with my wife, enjoying my honeymoon.

That’s a lot of things to look forward to in the next 365 days. But before I arrive at next October, There are 28 reasons to be thankful, most of which are for people who close to my heart. I believe that people define lives, not possessions or pursuits.

1. Huiyi: My fiancée has become such a big part of my life, ministry, personality and growth. There’s no one who knows and understands me better than she does. She is the strength behind my passion and the stability within my authenticity; her grace towards me and her forgiveness of my tainted past gives me more reasons to believe in young people. Without a doubt, she is the most important person in my life.

2. Home: My family has made my house feel like home. My room is the best place to be at night. I will miss it once renovations begin to transform it from an overgrown teenager’s to a newlyweds’ room.

3. Maisie: I’ve enjoyed a relationship resurgence with my beloved younger sister, and watching her flourish in her career and achieving her dreams makes me beam with pride. I love her with all my heart.

4. Mummy: Honestly, watching my mother slow down is something I am learning to cope with. Her years of sacrifice is now taking its toll on her. It is my prayer that as my mother ages, my sister and I will adapt to her changes. Home, Maisie, Mummy – the next three thanksgivings.

5-8. Family-to-be: In the last year, my knowledge of Bryan, Uncle Kheng Leong, Aunty Rosalind and Xianyi has grown. Our conversations have moved beyond the superficial and I am thankful because I am never one who likes to scratch surfaces. I look forward to getting to understand them a little more intimately in the next year. I believe by faith that my entire family will coming to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

9-10. Shepherds: My family outside of my family is one whom I’ve the privilege of shepherding. Recently on youthministry.com, it sent out an article on “Sharing Your Life With Your Team” and I see it as God’s way of affirming how I’m doing ministry with them. Huiyi and I always remind each other that it is our absolute delight, honour and privilege to have them play the role of groomsmen and bridesmaid at our wedding. But beyond that, I look forward to doing life with two groups of them; the boys – Keith, Bradley, Kun Jie, Caleb, David, Shavinn; and the girls – Melody, Natalina, Yixian, Melissa, Andrea and Sheena.

11. Grace AG: Six days ago on 15 October, I arrived at my 2nd full year in full-time ministry with Grace AG. I still feel like it’s a dream job because I don’t feel like I’ve worked a single day in the last 730 days. I wake up everyday feeling unbelievably thankful for all the way my church believes in me. And it has been fantastic working with friends – Ps Cuixian, Ps Jadene and Suhui.

12. Ps Ronald Yow: The one most responsible for my career joy is none other than my irreplaceable boss, mentor and role model. He has been unbelievable in guiding me as a youth minister and profiling me as the youth pastor. Thank you…

13. R-AGE: My my, look at how the youth group has grown! It has been a joy pastoring the flock at Bukit Batok and I look forward to journeying with those at Tanglin Road in the coming days.

14-20. Buddies: It’s never good to walk alone. I am delighted to call Lionel, Kurk, Gideon, Johann, Kenneth, Joel and Cheryl my contemporaries whom I check on, and who keep me in check.

20. RMIT: I never expected myself to perform so well in school. It is indeed by the grace of God because I know that I’m not a brainiac. I have also enjoyed learning alongside responsible classmates, and from the occasional good lecturer.

21. Ps Edmund Chan: In the last 13 years, there has only been one man has spoken so deeply into my life into such a deep-seated issue that no one has ever ventured into… Being with him in Perth was already a treat, but the moment that I will never erase from my mind is the lunch we had together on the last day. I couldn’t stop my tears from running down my face.

22-23. Mentors: I have the privilege of being mentored by greatly esteemed and highly respected men of God. And there are three I’d like to thank God for. Peter Chao and Ps Benny Ho who has looked out for me, given me their time and attention, dispensed invaluable advice, pointed me in the right direction, and most importantly, believed in me. I cheekily (but audaciously) asked the Lord for mentors to guide me in leadership, preaching and growing deep, and He sent me the best in the business…

24. Mentorees: I am a product of mentoring and it has been instinctive for me to mentor others. Over the year, I’ve had the wonderful privilege and opportunity to journey with young people bursting with capacity and capabilities. I still believe that the greatest gift you could ever give to a young person, is to believe in him. It’s been an absolute joy!

25. Friends overseas: This year, I’ve spent Autumn and Spring with Chin Seng and Ervina in Perth and had the privilege of being Daniel Heng’s best man, who flew back from New Zealand to hold his wedding. (I would have loved to catch up with Liang Zhi in my last trip…)

26. Going overseas: It’s amazing how the Lord rewards my desire to travel with the most number of trips I’ve ever gone on in my life in one calendar year. I am always thankful to get out of Singapore – be it for mission trips, vacations or even just a short trip up North across the Causeway for a weekend getaway! May the frequency increase with age!

27. A deeper hunger: I find myself desiring God with increasing intensity… More than just the things of God (books, sermons, conferences, ministry) but God Himself. For He alone satisfies. If Jesus is all, then Jesus is enough.

28. A consistent devotion: Of course I’ve missed some days and in some periods, even a couple of weeks. (Even pastors struggle!) But if I were to put my finger on why my hunger for and knowledge of God has increased, it is simply down to spending time with Him regularly… And just enjoying His presence… And allowing His living Word to breathe life into me.

I’ve probably missed out a couple of items or people but well, these are the first 28 thoughts that come to my mind… So here goes, happy birthday to me! I pray that I’ll easily have 29 items to thank God for 365 days later! (:

XXXV. the entrance of exuberance.

As we entered the function room, the air-conditioning suddenly hit us and we nearly stumbled into the glass door. Huiyi almost tripped as she asked if she was at her function room. And as soon as I gave her a cursory reply to distract her from our grand entrance…

“SURPRISE!!!” Everyone screamed at my cue to perfection!

See the video of her shocked reaction here.

And I kid you not. She literally shook and practically got the shock of her life when she opened her eyes. It was quite a sight!

She expected one present from one person, but she was greeted by nearly 40 people instead. I gathered both sides of the family, her closest girlfriends, my closest man-friends and our beloved cell group. What a gathering!

But seriously, how could I ever allow her birthday to pass without a birthday party? I saw absolute delight on her face as she celebrated with the some of the people she was most intimate with in her 24th year on Earth.

See how she was nearly presented her cake by the wrong guy here.

They were ready to see her through a new phase of her life.

“Okay, this is the final part – I have no more surprises after this.” I told her and her parents (who found out about this party just 15 minutes ago) as I finally began to unwind in my mind.

I have never been happier telling the completely honest truth.

One by one, our friends approached my mother, her parents and the both of us to congratulate us of our engagement. We were flooded with handshakes and hugs, and it was such an unbeatable feeling.

Throwing a party to celebrate this moment proved to be a wise choice after all. And I was pleased with my decision to go over-the-top. I gave a short speech after the birthday cake and song presentation to thank everyone for turning up as well as to give credit to our friends who worked so hard behind the scenes to make this proposal so successful.

It was joyous time of merry-making, congratulatory conversations and re-telling of the entire day’s worth of memories. Huiyi and I individually and together, felt the love in the room for the both of us. We felt so blessed to be so wonderfully supported.

(By the way, every ice-cream flavour was generally well-received except the ginger and sesame tubs. I was so tickled by the younger ones lamenting about my peculiar choice of flavours. But I digress…)

I am intentional in almost everything that I do. And one of the reasons why I wanted to throw a party for Huiyi was to show her parents how well-loved and supported we were.

I also wanted both sets of parents to interact in the midst of our friends, just as I wanted Maisie (and her boyfriend, Bryan) to get to know Xianyi (and his girlfriend, Eileen) a little better.

Having this precious group of people turn up was extremely meaningful and significant for us. More importantly, I wanted to show Huiyi’s family what a Christian community was all about.

And I think we managed to achieve it.

(While you await the final few entries to be published, click here to read Huiyi’s perspective of the party!)

Next chapter: the professional post-production pace.

XXXII. the first meal together as an engaged couple.

We finally checked into Privé (which by the way is translated as “Private” in Dutch), where the waitress had been expecting us to return to reclaim our belongings.

I had called the restaurant earlier and asked for the best and most “privé” seats in the house, explaining that it would be our first meal together as an engaged couple. I also asked if Privé had any special arrangements for birthday celebrations.

The manager ushered us to the end of the restaurant, where it felt exclusive and quiet (and certainly “privé), and we commenced our alfresco dinner. We treated ourselves to:

  • Organic Mushroom Soup garnished with White Truffle Oil, Mascarpone & Parmesan Crisp
  • Seared Squid & Jumbo Prawn with Wild Rocket & Basil Sauce
  • Braised French Duck Leg with Pearl Barley Risotto, Blood Orange Segments & Spiced Duck Jus
  • Pan Roasted White Cod with Haricots Vert, Virgin Cherry Tomatoes, Almond Flakes & Herbs Beurre Blanc
  • Hoegaarden (for me) and Watermelon Juice (for her)

As we waited for the food to arrive, I showed her the self-composed lyrics of my Chinese song and explained the meaning to her. I also described the process of producing the ring, the coordination required for today and the amount of dedication that the crew put in for us, amongst many other things.

She admired the ring and was still taking in full effects of the life-changing hour that just whizzed her by. She didn’t say much, but her absolutely contented smile spoke volumes for me.

Before the food arrived, I asked Huiyi to call her family to tell her what happened. At this point in time, only Xianyi in the Lee clan knew that there would an engagement party later.

So even as Huiyi was regaling the recently-concluded proposal to her parents, Huiyi and her parents had absolutely no idea that there was going to be part two.

I asked Xianyi to only tell his parents about the engagement party after Huiyi’s phone call. Yes, I left absolutely nothing to chance.

While Huiyi was on the phone, I approached the restaurant manager to ask if they had an iPhone charger in the premise. The evening wasn’t over and I desperately needed to charge my iPhone with only 4% of battery power remaining. Coordination work wasn’t over and I needed to power up!

When the food arrived, we prayed together for the first time as fiance and fiancée and gave thanks for the food. It was a special moment indeed. And we took our time to enjoy the delectable food.

She was thoroughly surprised and completely grateful for the extravagant proposal. She thanked me profusely for all the effort I put in. I smiled and acknowledged. She’s the only one that I’d do it for.

But she had no idea that the evening wasn’t over…

Next chapter: the drive back to Lakeholmz.

XX. the one mad week of errands.

Preparing for this elaborate proposal required a number of props, and since it was my proposal, I wanted to accomplish most of it by myself as much as possible. I sought help of course, on matters that I didn’t consider myself familiar with.

I approached Hilary to ask him to recommend a professional printer. I liaised with a printing company and paid for five A2 and three A3 full colour prints on PP sticker with a five millimetre kappaline mounting. And I made my way to the obscure Kallang Bahru on Wednesday to pick up the prints, since delivery wasn’t worth it for such a small quantity. I took leave on Thursday to complete the remaining errands. I had no idea printing these things were so costly…

I started my day at IMM where I spent an unimaginably long time in Daiso and Giant, picking out tiny plastic bags for goodie bags (so that everyone who turned up at the party took home something), a magic chalkboard as a prop for photo-taking, seven glass cookie jars to store sweets, five luminous paint markers, and a whole stack of tidbits.

It was there and then that I discovered that I have decidophobia (no kidding!). I became unexpectedly stressed at having to choose from the huge variety that was available to me. I even made distress calls to Cheryl, Melody, Yixian and Keith because I started to panic so much. Cheryl and Keith were amused by it but realised shortly that I was seriously distressed, so they patiently walked me through every decision that I had to make at those supermarkets. It was the most stressful errand, ever!

Besides helping me to record the song, Johann was also generous enough to restore my guitar to showroom condition, including drying, cleaning and dressing it with a new set of strings. Having my guitar restored was also helpful for my worship set at J333 (the Wednesday prayer meeting) anyway.

But as you would know by now, it seems like I never get to do things the easy way… The E-string snapped during soundcheck and I was frustrated, not because I had to use an inferior guitar, but because I had to buy a new string! So I swung by the Clementi Yamaha and to my horror they ran out of E-strings. But fret not (no pun intended!) for I simply purchased a new set of strings.

After Clementi, I made my way to Holland Village to make orders and pay for eight tubs of ice-cream at The Daily Scoop and arranged with Wei Kurk to help me pick it up on Friday, before the engagement party. I also swung by Party City to order enough helium-filled balloons to fill the function room. It was my first time ordering balloons and I got shocked at how expensive these items were considering they only had an eight-hour lifespan! I paid for it nonetheless and arranged with Xianyi to receive the balloons at the function room on Friday evening.

My last stop was back to the office at Tanglin Road, where I dumped the loot and packed them into plastic bags, with labels on each of them for my crew to pick up; Gideon picked up the guitar, guitar stand, projector and placards, while Keith picked up the logistics needed for the engagement party.

Oh, did I mention that it was pouring this entire time and that I didn’t have an umbrella? Okay, I just did. And I accomplished all these errands without a car. Yes, I had to make do with public transport the entire time, carrying with me big and small, heavy and bulky plastic bags. And I completed all these errands just in time to meet Huiyi at her office to head for her birthday dinner together with her family. Perhaps this justifies why I forgot to buy her birthday cake that day.

Next chapter: the one regrettable conflict.

XIX. the inception – the surprise within a surprise.

Planning a surprise proposal itself was enough to keep me busy. But I am a sanguine. And I am over-the-top. So I decided to also plan a surprise engagement cum birthday party for her.

Yes, the proposal itself was a private affair where she had all the time and space in the world to enjoy the moment. But I was sure she also wanted to celebrate this moment with close friends. Besides, it was also her birthday. So it made complete sense for me to throw a party immediately after she became my fiancée. Yes, I am justifying my decision, but it proved to be well worth the extra effort.

Hence, I made numerous phone calls to establishments like The Coffee Connoisseur (TCC) @ KBM, Simply Shiok @ One North, The Daily Scoop @ Holland Village and Haato @ Greenridge Close to enquire about holding the party there. TCC instantly priced themselves out of my consideration (and I wasn’t impressed with their service inflexibility too).

Simply Shiok had space constraints but the owner, Gladys, was kind enough to offer to rent the adjacent restaurant to create more seating capacity. I thanked Gladys for her effort but decided to turn her down because the cost didn’t justify the result.

Wei Kurk attempted to help me pull strings with the owner of Daily Scoop (they were former school mates). But we didn’t order enough ice-cream to qualify as bulk purchase so instead of dining in, I placed an order for eight tubs of ice-cream instead. Much to the dismay of my guests (but to my absolute amusement), I picked out four unique flavours and four even more unique flavours. I didn’t understand why people couldn’t appreciate flavours like Gingerella or Salted Mr Brown… But I digress.

Haato was another one who proved to be inflexible with their services. They refused to let me book the entire premise (even after their peak hour during dinner) unless I could guarantee minimum orders per customer. I wasn’t impressed and I wanted to rebel by getting my guests to clome the restaurant group by group and take over all the tables one by one. But I decided against it and ended up canceling my reservation.

Let me sidetrack here. If you are reading this and you own a café or restaurant, do yourself a favour and HELP THE MAN who wants to hold his engagement party at your place! Come on, he’s about to bring 40 people to your restaurant to create a positive memory there for everyone in attendance. It makes complete commercial, marketing and economic sense for you to host his party. Don’t you get it!?

I ended up throwing out the idea of holding the party outside and decided to scale it down instead. I asked Xianyi to help me book his condominium’s function room instead (which was more affordable anyway) and I decided to DIY this engagement party; I’d buy my own food, beverages, desserts, decorations and set my own theme for it. I was sure I could have done a much better job at throwing a party than those so-called food and beverage experts. Most of them didn’t leave me with any food for thought.

Three-quarters of those who were waiting in ambush...

Next chapter: the one mad week of errands.

XVIII. the birthday that nearly ruined the proposal.

There weren’t many people who knew about the proposal. I wisely decided to keep it from her parents because I wasn’t confident that they could contain their own excitement and keep this secret from her, but I chose to confide in her brother, Xianyi, instead.

The reason why we couldn’t visit USS on Thursday was that we celebrated her birthday with her family on that evening. And the reason we deliberated for a week was that she was trying to arrange for an evening where her parents, brother and his girlfriend, as well as both of us were all available.

It was so trying that she had nearly wanted cancel the family dinner. And Xianyi, another unsung hero in this story, couldn’t intervene as much because he was supposed to help me keep it a secret. He skipped a school lesson to ensure that he was available on that Thursday evening for the family dinner, and missed a birthday (or farewell) party on Friday evening to ensure that his parents were home. More on that later but know that these are important pieces of information.

Normally, a boyfriend would pay special attention to his girlfriend’s birthday. But this dinner was so low-key to the extent that I forgot to buy a birthday cake on Thursday and had to trouble Xianyi to do it for me instead. My mind was focussed on one thing only – the proposal. I was surprised that Huiyi didn’t suspect anything from my lack of preparation for this birthday dinner.

Anyway, we celebrated Huiyi’s birthday on Thursday with her family at Peony Jade and this left Friday cleared for us to spend the day at Sentosa, as well as to have a private birthday dinner at Privé. Initially she wanted to dine at Lawry’s (and I had already made reservations for two) but I convinced her that Privé would be a better choice, simply because of location.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have dinner by Keppel Bay Marina? I read reviews on hungrygowhere.com and apparently Privé’s got quite good ratings. Shall we try a new restaurant?”

Once again, she nodded and even told me that she had been to KBM a few times with her colleagues. I played along and told her, “Cool, then you can bring me around after dinner since you know the place better than I do.”

Now by this time, you might have realised that the original proposal plan had modified significantly, because she decided to take leave on her birthday to spend a day at USS together with me.

The original plan was to propose at MBC, then head to Lawry’s for dinner. But I had to throw that idea away, as well as the office surprise by her girlfriends. Why? Well, she wasn’t going to be at work that day! A major modification, but it was still fundamentally the same idea.

(I couldn’t get) Sunset by the (beach, so instead I got sunset by the) bay – check. I was good to go.

Next chapter: the inception – the surprise within a surprise.

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