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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

chope verb (Singapore) 1: to reserve a place, such as a seat in a fast food restaurant, sometimes by placing a packet of tissue paper on it.

Apparently I just needed to start writing about food.

When we first came here for our house hunting trip, Jeremy, the real estate agent explained the idea behind “chope”, or “chopping a table” by laying down “towels” on the table.  I got the gist of what he was saying, one would reserve a table before you order in a food center or what not, by laying something on the table.  What I didn’t quite get was “towels”, by which he meant napkins, by which is meant small packets of tissue paper, carried by Singaporeans as many food centers do not offer napkins on their own.  Me being the ginormous geek I am, I immediately thought of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, and Ford’s amazing advice of always carrying a towel on one’s adventures.

Now, all sorts of useful advice can be gleaned from those stories, but the towel?  That holds true here – it is the most massively useful thing you can carry on you at all times.

So was my introduction to the Singlish word “chope”.  Pronounced “chop”, its use is prevalent, and the act even more so.  A lunchtime visit to a popular food center can yield a fruitless search for open tables.  Plenty exist without people actively sitting/eating, but nearly all of them will have a packet of tissues, a book bag, or Singapore being Singapore, someone’s phone.

I’m not joking.

The act lends itself towards competitiveness – the act of chopping a table is winning a race, planting a flag.  It’s taking a stake, even if that stake is 30 minutes to chow down on some nasi lemak before going back to work for the afternoon.  Though many, most, even, might describe Singapore as a friendly, urbane and courteous town, there’s no denying that competition and the thrill of victory exist even on the most minute level, getting a place to park your ass for a few minutes to eat.

What does this have to do with the story I’m about to tell?  Absolutely nothing.  Everything.  The answer, of course, is fort… oh, you get it.


When not making geeky jokes, writing my novel1good god that sounds pretentious, playing video games, finding places to eat around here, I’m often tinkering behind the scenes with this blog.  Though I haven’t much to show for it, I have in some manner or another, attempted to not only make the blog readable, enjoyable, and have pretty pictures to stun you into insensibility so that you think I might just be the next great American author, but also have played my paltry hand at optimizing the site so that people searching for – something – might stumble upon my humble collection of words and be entertained.

Now, I am not an expert at getting something placed well within Google.  That act is called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, and the industry that has sprung up around that act is, in my experience, chock full of charlatans and snake oil salesmen.  There is an art to it, there is the dedication to constantly review your changes and the wherewithal to analyze the resulting data, but for each one of those people – some of which I’ve had the great pleasure of working with – there are, again, in my experience, fifty people willing to say with a straight face that linking to your site from a thousand phony domains absolutely will work, guaranteed.  A few small mutterings aside, of course, etcetera, etcetera.  The whole experience of having to unravel the fuckery and foul dealings of the less than reputable – or the less than knowledgable2and I’ve worked with plenty of those, and it’s only decorum that holds back the furious desire to shame them here and now – has soured me on the whole experience.

But I’m far from an idiot, and not so prideful that I can’t admit that I haven’t the first fucking clue of what it actually takes.  In my mind, content is king, but like everything in this word, getting noticed takes a bit shine and a lot of luck and marketing, so – in a vain effort to improve my skills, I’ve attempted to work the system.

It hasn’t really yielded much.  My skills at crafting prose far outstrip my ability to get Google to read it.

However, the point of this whole spiel wasn’t to illustrate my shortcomings, as plentiful as they are, but rather my recent success.  I gained a local reader – several, if what I am told is correct.  They come from a particular building, literally around the corner from my apartment, all working for a company called Honest Bee.  My rambling hopefully has served a point – despite my meager skills, despite my wariness of the whole SEO ‘thing’, I was rather taken aback to find that someone found me.

Someone who was looking for me, and people just like me.

I’ve mentioned more than a few times that Singaporeans love food.  This applies to expats as well, as a big draw towards taking an assignment in this town is the food.  But even endless hawker food can wear thin, and those of us that enjoy making a meal or two – nothing crazy, just a little something to enjoy for dinner, of course – the experience of shopping can range from the enjoyable to the downright frustrating.  Expats, especially, don’t often have cars here.  Bev & I are lucky in that regard that her little shoe company was able to provide a leased car for us, but if we hadn’t, the act of buying bulky items from the store, or going to Giant and trying to take everything back via the train, well it could get a bit rough.

Many of the stores here offer delivery service, which is handy for massive bags of dog food, or bulky items, or just stocking up for a large family.  And grocery delivery is hardly new – though not as popular in the US, it’s caught on in the larger cities where there’s been a decline in cars or a movement towards smaller vehicles3I miss my Mini Cooper..  Here in Singapore, however, the nearly prohibitive cost of a car, coupled with an expat’s sometimes busy schedule4lol and the general Asian approach towards full service, grocery service goes a long way.  Stores have found themselves however, a bit handcuffed by their own stock – enter conglomerate sites such as Honest Bee that source from many different stores.

I was intrigued by the comment I received5in full disclosure, I’ve opted not to approve said comment so it will not be visible within the site from Shona over at Honest Bee inviting to meet and discuss collaborations.  After we agreed to meet at the Honest Bee offices, Bev & I jokingly referred to the meet as an “interview”.

Well, it was.  But not in the way you’d imagine.  What I had jokingly called an interview of me turned more into the opportunity to interview Shona, who serves on their social marketing team.  As journalism was once a passion of mine, I thought I would have been a bit more prepared to really dive into my subject.  Turns out, doing something in high school for three years, twenty-plus years ago really doesn’t count as professional experience.

Still, my limited experience in journalistic practices aside, the afternoon was a pleasant one, and provided an interesting insight into one of Singapore’s startup dot-com companies.  Honest Bee is a new player in the market, just a shade over three months of open operations, but is carrying themselves with the swagger and finance of a more established company.  Their offices carry both the challenges and aesthetics of a well-funded startup, as a speak-easy inspired doorway revealed the one fatal flaw of not having a bell or a handle.  Our conversation was held in an under-construction break room, roomy and beautifully appointed, but with the activity of workers hanging a door over what I imagine will become a pantry.  The interior was open, windowed and collaborative, not the tired clutter of cubicle walls arranged in traditional desk layouts well past their prime6Hi, AlphaCard, love the redesign..

Shona was a gracious and deferential hostess, presenting me surprisingly with a gift of Honest Bee swag and a jar of Nutella, “a sample of what you can buy from our site”.  The Nutella was a great gift.  I forgot how much I love that stuff on toast.  We have it in the States, why haven’t I got more of it?

As we sat, Shona spun the tale of Honest Bee, and shared with me the details of their “scheme”.  I say scheme in quotes, because as many North Americans reading this will no doubt attest, the word “scheme”, while having the same basic meaning, usually has connotations of something nefarious or underhanded.  However, in proper English, scheme just means program or plan, without the sinister undertones that we Americans and Canadians might associate the word with.  Still, it tickled me some to hear my host become for a brief millisecond in my mind become my co-conspirator.

The scheme, such as it is, is simple.  Honest Bee is new, and they want – pardon the pun – buzz, so they’re reaching out to expats like me, writing and filling Google7hah!  joke’s on them with words about Singapore, about being an expat, about food, and how many more keywords can I slip into this sentence?  To facilitate that, they’re reaching out to folks like me, inviting them in to give their service a try, offering a few carrots to use the service, and then write up some (hopefully kind) words about the whole experience.

In short, I feel like I might have been chopped a bit.  Not in the psycho, axe murderer way, but in the Singaporean way.  Though I would have laughed loudly if they gave me a pack of towels as well.

As for the service, I haven’t used it yet.  I’m saving up – sadly, with just two of us, three if you count the pooch, there’s not been much of a demand for large shopping trips.  Though rest assured, those of you waiting with baited breath, I shall.  Though going through the demo with Shona, I was impressed.  Honest Bee does quite a bit well with their user experience, making the shopping process fast and immediately responsive.  It’s literally a more enjoyable experience than most, if not all, e-commerce sites I’ve used.  Singapore’s quite extensive postal code system means that you need only enter your postal code to bring up your address, making the experience of finding stores in your area a snap.

So, about the service.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn their model – instead of single giant warehouse with goods being constantly procured and resold, a model I’m intimately familiar with, they have personal shoppers on call that will enter the retail outlets and purchase for you.  One question that I had wish I had asked is how Honest Be makes it money.   They can’t be buying at retail rates, so have they made arrangements with their partner stores for bulk prices over time?  That’d be an interesting agreement, since the one question I had asked was, if places like Cold Storage have their own delivery service, why the hell would they even let someone in an Honest Bee shirt in the door?

Still, the service aims for delivery within a two hour window, same day, which is impressive by any count.  The added benefit with Honest Bee is that their personal shoppers will call you if they get to the store and find that your desired items are out of stock, something that a warehouse obviously can only deal with before fulfillment and sometimes with great pains by a customer service representative – again, something I’m intimately familiar with.

I asked about their competition in town, and heard a name that I’ve heard a few times before.  When I mentioned the interview to one of my neighbors – he was commenting on me in khakis – he asked if it were like the competitor in question.  Maybe I made a convert when discussing the pros and cons of this particular service, though, in full disclosure, I wasn’t truly trying to sell anything.

And I’m not selling anything.  Most of my audience is American, friends and family that get this popping up late on a Sunday from Facebook or feed notifications.  I’m apparently gaining a growing Singaporean audience, which is something I’m grateful for, so in the interests of doing well by a group that is showing me some kindness, check out Honest Bee, and don’t worry about telling them that Josh sent you, because it’s all on Google anyway.

As soon as I figure out how to add this site to Analytics.


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