Blog: Tom Rieke

Good things come to those who believe in serendipity. Tom Rieke, president of Ann Arbor creative consultancy Q LTD, writes this week on a fortuitous international alignment of Qs and why being "blur" is good for business.

It Isn't Easy Being Blur

Two years ago, while wandering around a huge display of pottery and antiques in Singapore with my friend YT Lee, Prof. of Mechanical Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, I saw a carved wooden plaque. It was a short Chinese poem, a deep thought, like the plaques that often appear above the doors of Chinese homes throughout southeast Asia.

The plaque wasn't old. It was probably mass-produced somewhere in Malaysia. But it caught my eye, so I asked YT to translate it. His parents were from Hainan, the tropical island off the coast of southern China that is now a booming resort destination, but they moved to Borneo, where he was born and grew up. He speaks flawless English, three or four Chinese dialects, and Bahasa Malaysia. He understands my American accent because he spent two years studying in the snowdrifts at the University of Rochester.

I was in Singapore to escape the snowdrifts in Ann Arbor, and work. In 2008, one of Q's major clients, the annual SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, created a new event: SIGGRAPH Asia. They asked Q to provide all the same services we deliver each year for the North American conference: graphic identity, advertising, web design and production, print design, and merchandise design. The first SIGGRAPH Asia was in Singapore, and YT was the conference chair.  

So I went to Singapore to work with YT and the local conference-management company. I also avoided North America's frigid season and explored Asia for the first time. From Singapore's 21st-century airport, I traveled to Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), the Phillippines (Manila), Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City), Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macao, China (Beijing and Shanghai), and Japan (Tokyo).

I learned many important things about Asian history and culture and religion, especially Buddhism. But I did not learn to read or speak any of the amazing languages in that part of the world. Conveniently, English is the most understood of Singapore's four official languages. The others are Mandarin Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia, and Tamil.

In Singapore, casual spoken English mixes all four of the official languages. The result is called Singlish. It's one of my favorite languages.

When YT combined his linguistic skills to translate the plaque, he said:

"A rough translation for the title is: 'It isn't easy being blur.' The text says:

"Being wise is difficult. So is being blur. Moving from wise to blur is even more difficult. Step back and relax sometimes. Put your mind at ease. Good fortune can not be planned."

I liked this thought, so I bought the plaque and shipped it to Q North American Headquarters, where it's now hanging on my office wall.  

Later, YT told me that the poem was written by Zheng Banqiao, a very influential artist, poet, and philosopher who lived and worked in Yangzhou (about 200 miles northwest of Shanghai) during the early Qing Dynasty. Today, 400 years later, Singapore hipsters are preserving Zheng's meaning of "blur". It means: silly, goofy, oblivious, unhip.

For example, while enjoying some delicious fish-head soup and a Tiger beer at a Singapore food stand, and eavesdropping on a group of young professionals, you might hear one of them complain about a colleague:

"Ahhh. He so blur, lah!"

Usually, that's a critical comment. But in business and in life, it could (and should) also be a compliment.