A teenage girl in 1990, her first dial-up modem and a stalker in the dark
My Singapore Life is a CNA Lifestyle series about coming of age in the Lion City. This week, running free in a new digital world unregulated by parents – and mistaking affinity for love.
There is a singular sound that tech geeks of a certain age will recognise: The screechy whine; the bouncing cadence of two notes, an octave apart, repeated thrice; the burring finish of electrical white noise.
The sound of a dial-up modem once heard is seldom forgotten. In an era before the ubiquity of WiFi, that music gladdened the heart with the prospect of reaching out. Of finding something, after waiting an eternity for rows of ASCII art to load, to take the edge and loneliness off youth. It is a little like the sound of falling in love.
My dial-up modem and the white noise of falling in love: Teen love takes a dark turn
The year was 1990. I was a 13-year-old girl getting her first modem.
My friend Kelvin’s father ran a computer-import business. One afternoon, after school, Kelvin and I took the bus to Sim Lim Square. I watched as he haggled with a shopkeeper over a 2400bps internal modem, before handing over a couple of crisp blue S$50 notes. In return, we got a new modem card. It looked like a wafer biscuit: Dark-green, with colourful bibs and bobs soldered on.
I realised my wandering from BBS to BBS was like having a back door to naughty boys’ dormitories, where one might pick up the carelessly strewn lad magazines of seniors.
Back at my home, Kelvin and I unscrewed the casing of my bulky beige desktop computer and inserted it into the machine. The casing would stay off for good – the best way to fix a bad connection, I was soon to discover, was to physically grasp the sodding modem, rock it back and forth, and jam it more securely onto the motherboard.
Modem installed, I unplugged the family’s Snoopy-shaped phone and plugged my modem in for a test drive. Kelvin produced a dot-matrix print-out of bulletin board systems that he frequented. A BBS was essentially a computer set up as a server for other users to dial in at. Once logged on, users did things such as send one another messages, play simple games and upload/download files.
My modem dialled. And it made that noise. Boy goes home. Girl begins romance with tech.
For years, I faffed about on various BBSes in Singapore, downloading pirated software (I am very sorry) and random bits of erotica (not-so-sorry). Coming from a prudish convent school, I realised my wandering from BBS to BBS was like having a back door to naughty boys’ dormitories, where one might pick up the carelessly strewn lad magazines of seniors or secretly play their games.
This being the 1990s, everything was underground and unabashedly nerdy – and male. Women on most boards were seen as rare oddities, often regarded with a mixture of suspicion, scorn and hot-blooded excitement.
But, eventually, inevitably, one finds one’s tribe.
I stumbled upon boards with a literary bent; boards with names like Rivendell and Lothlorien – Elven cities drawn from Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings – long before the movies made LOTR mainstream. Like in a cyber-extension of Dungeon & Dragon games, users took on fantastic identities: Arch-mages, paladins, rogues and the like. For a while, I went around as a little critter named Sesame, complete with a full-stop as a signature, before promoting myself to a knight named Faith.
On Rivendell and Lothlorien, one could post one’s amateurish poems as public messages, or start a thread to serialise one’s fiction for fellow-users to read. Like a literary journal for a very geeky audience. I started posting poems and stories, and began exchanging messages with other writers active on the board systems. They gave me my first taste of sharing my writing with an appreciative audience. And the quasi-anonymity of the bulletin board system, coupled with the folly of youth, made it less intimidating to put my words out there.
The sound of a dial-up modem once heard is seldom forgotten... It is a little like the sound of falling in love.
In contrast to the cold, corporate sprawl that the Internet has morphed into – filled with commercial websites and conglomerate-owned social media spaces – the BBS scene was idiosyncratic, as though you were visiting a series of living- or bedrooms. Each board was run by a System Operator, or SysOp, who literally rigged up a computer to be a server and used the family’s phone line – hence, many boards had strict night-time operating hours – and coded the interface themselves.
And unlike today’s lightning-fast hook-ups, old-tech required persistence and patience. The hours spent trying a busy BBS number, sometimes physically pressing the keyboard to redial, and the elation at finally getting through? I doubt the current generation, for which WiFi outage for half an hour is a disaster of epic proportions, would understand that sweet frustration.
Navigating the boards was often like playing a text game: Enter (A) to go west, (B) to go east, (C) to go north and (D) to invade the dragon’s lair? Again, SysOps demonstrated their literary pretensions by incorporating long self-written descriptions about each virtual room. To me, the word SysOp was a strange one, redolent of the tang of soursops. They were a bit like mini-gods, presiding over their digital domain, and I toyed with the idea of becoming one myself.
The thought of my father’s expression when he opened the next phone bill, however, was what stopped me (the early 90s also being the era before free incoming land-line calls).
Some nights, we met at the now-defunct S-11 eating house near the demolished National Library at Fort Canning, or in Bukit Timah pubs with suitably archaic names like The Wagon Wheel.
By then, I had lurked long enough on the BBS to start meeting some of the users in real life. They tended to be a brainy bunch. Young men serving out the first few years of their bonds as government scholars, American-accented high-school philosophers from international colleges, or closet intellectuals and autodidacts.
Thanks to their recommendations, I began expanding my reading into previously unknown territory for a 16-year-old: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig, The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman and other Vertigo titles, and the theories of Gilles Deleuze.
Some nights, we met at the now-defunct S-11 eating house near the demolished National Library at Fort Canning, or in Bukit Timah pubs with suitably archaic names like The Wagon Wheel. I tried to keep up with the conversation, which sometimes bordered on showboating as incredibly articulate shut-ins attempted to out-debate one another. On other nights, my friend JF and I drove around in his dad’s green BMW among the graves in Bukit Brown, disrespecting the dead.
For a while, I dated someone I met on a BBS. He wrote me poems, and I sent him some sappy stories involving farm boys and rabbits (Princess Bride-inspired juvenilia lost forever to the depths of obsolete floppy disks).
I felt like all teenagers these days with Snapchat and luddite parents do: The thrill of getting away with something right under the adults’ noses.
The relationship always felt wrong when we met in real life. He had long hair, bad teeth and did not like to take showers. But as our messages pinged in the dark nascent digital caverns of my secret BBS life, I felt like all teenagers these days with Snapchat and luddite parents do: The thrill of getting away with something right under the adults’ noses.
The medium was the message. The message board – a courtship conducted in the quasi-public consciousness of compulsively-scrolling tech-heads – was what passed for the idea of love for me.
The poetry-writing boyfriend with the ponytail had a room which he had painted a midnight blue. With the blinds closed, door shut and the lights off, it was lit only by the faintest of glow-in-the-dark stars stuck on the ceiling and walls. For months, we shut ourselves in, listening to melancholic music. The way I remember it, the soundtrack to those brief days was a murky soup of Cocteau Twins and ethereal female vocal gibberish; the gloomy drone of Dave Gahan’s baritone against the upbeat synth of Depeche Mode’s sound.
In the end, I called it quits on the relationship. The ennui was getting depressing. The constant sexual advances, tiring and annoying. I was starting junior college and he had opted out of the system, flunking his A-levels as a private candidate and trying to run a comic store out of his bedroom.
For a while, he stalked me. At least, that’s the way I remember it. He lurked in the bushes near my house. Called me on my private line in the middle of the night and said nothing, until the sound of tortured sobs made me hang up. I would find stacks of print-outs of verses in cursive font in my mailbox. Online messages, by turns florid and vaguely threatening, the content of which I no longer wish to recall.