If you passed him on the street on a given day, you might never notice Ong Chin Guan.
The first time I saw him, he was dressed rather formally in a business shirt and slacks, with a backpack slung from one shoulder.
His square-framed glasses sat perched too low upon a sharp-ish nose; the upper boundaries of the frames seemed to cling to the top of his eyes for dear life.
All this beneath thinning hair that somehow managed to be both short and unkempt at the same time.
In fact, that day, as the middle-aged man wandered into an angsty event at Hong Lim Park, even the sign he was carrying didn't look out of place.
Nothing particularly noteworthy, until you took a closer look at what was written on it.
Atop a pole made of paper towel rolls taped together and reinforced with chopsticks was a rectangular piece of cardboard meticulously 'laminated' with scotch tape.
This impressive work of upcycling served to announce a simple message, typewritten in both English and Chinese, that Ong wanted the world to know:
"From my heart, honest man need a wife, any age, look, race, ok. But back must nice. Will pamper you like a baby."
Below that Ong signed off with his nickname (Ah Guan), and — somewhat bravely — his phone number and email address.
After that day, images of Ong started appearing on social media platforms like Facebook and Reddit, and he became something of a ridiculed figure.Behind keyboards and computer screens, many found humour in the "honest man" looking for a wife.
"OK C U"
About two weeks after I first saw him and his sign in person, I find myself seated across from Ong at Tiong Bahru Market, after he agreed to sit down for a chat.
It's common when I'm approaching someone for an interview for them to show some level of apprehension. There's often curiosity over why I would want to write about their story, or what I'm going to do with it.
Not for Ong, though. My first message introducing myself and asking if he'd be keen to talk was replied to one hour later in a manner both simple and resounding — "Ok".
Six days, three more Ok's and an "Ok C U" later, Ong bounds up to me in a blue checkered short-sleeved button-up shirt, his backpack characteristically slung over one shoulder — as it has been in every photo of him posted online.
And, of course, his by-now-famous sign in his left hand, held high.
I can't stress enough how out of the ordinary it is for an interviewee to be so obliging.
"This is not fake news. It's real me"
"From my heart, my objective is really to find a wife," Ong says to me.
"So I don’t mind to be honest to everybody, to be open to everybody."
The same level of honesty and openness forms a partial explanation for the sign according to Ong, who reiterates that he is "serious about finding a life partner".
Describing himself as an "IT illiterate" who is "not very good with the smartphone", the 57-year-old air-conditioning repairman sees the sign as a way of circumventing what he perceives to be the increasing deceitfulness of the internet.
"I find that the internet has lost its credibility. Because of all these love scams, people might not trust me if I put myself there. So I just be honest and walk with this, show myself, I’m sincere."
To him, the one-two combination of his words on the sign and his physical presence represents something of frank declaration — what you see is what you get.
"(Pointing to the words on the sign) this is from my heart. Like I already say, I want to show myself. It’s real me, this is not fake news. It’s real me, here."
"Back must nice"
The sincerity extends to the promises he's planted on the sign — "Will pamper you like a baby".
"That’s true," he exclaims, breaking into a laugh.
"I promise, otherwise you can sue me in the international court."
Referring to his declaration that "any age, look, race, ok", Ong says that he wants to "make it easy, lah."
"But this one... back must nice."
Here comes that aforementioned honesty:
"That means the behind, the body part lah. Sorry, I'm not a pervert ah. It's more an artistic kind of thing."
Somewhat poetically, Ong likens his preference for "nice backs" to that of an everyman admiring artistic sculptures — its an adoration of form that he struggles to explain or describe: "When you see the artistic (things) you just know".
This "fascination", as he calls it, stems from his days as a teenager, occurring naturally — he repeatedly reassures me — without the help of pornography or R-rated movies.
Rejection and the spiral of indecision
Unsurprisingly, not many people see things the way that Ong does; commenters online zeroed in on what has been called a "strange fetish".
Ong is well aware that he's on the receiving end of derision, though he's nought for letting it get to him.
"I’m used to being laughed at, shamed, or looked down upon just because of my honesty. That's why a lot of people want to hide their honesty, because of rejection."
With his features hardening, I can't help but feel for Ong, who in his 57 years has clearly had his fair share of knock-backs.
He tells me of his lifelong troubles approaching women, bemoaning his lack of "tactic" and "technique".
With a natural disposition to timidity and shyness, seeing a woman he's attracted to often sends Ong into a spiral of indecision and inner debate over what his next move should be.
"I found I was keep dreaming, keep thinking — by the time I approach the girl they dislike me."
Even joining the Social Development Network did not spark any romances.
Most of the women he's gotten close to over the years have ended up being "friend-friend only lah".
"We will call and talk about general things lah. Social thing. More on social one. Not serious."
Finding love at Lucky Plaza
Yet there is one woman Ong met when he was in his 40s who left a lasting impression.
They chanced upon each other on a Sunday afternoon when Ong spotted her outside Lucky Plaza.
Almost immediately he was enamoured by her beauty — the kind of attraction that sends one's inner voice into overdrive, compelling one to make a move while also rooting them to the spot in momentary paralysis.
Luckily for him, perhaps, in this instance his hesitation was cut short when the woman caught wind of his stare.
In the succeeding micro-seconds, his heart must have made the trip from chest to mouth, and back again to his chest to resume its loud pounding.
He'd been in this exact situation before — the next moments would see the woman looking away quickly and scurrying off in the other direction.
But not this time. Instead, she laughed and flashed a smile.
"She was quite friendly. We had a wonderful conversation, that’s how it started lah. We went to go some makan lah, talk lah, drinks lah. Subsequently every weekend we meet up."
A husband and children
After a few weekends, she went to Ong's house and soon they would spend almost every Sunday there.
There was one problem though: the woman, a foreigner, had a husband and children back in her home country.
But Ong wasn't about to let that spoil his mood. For the first time in his life, he was in an intimate romantic relationship.
"I was lonely also and I found someone nice so…" he says when I ask him if he felt bad about being third party to an affair.
The pair were together for a few years until the woman decided to return home.
Ong was heartbroken, but at the same time, he saw that back in the Philippines his lover would have a genuine shot at something he himself craved his whole life.
"If I don’t feel bad I could just say 'forget them, just go with me'. But I don’t do that, I encouraged her: 'okay lah, you have a happy family… that’s all (that matters)'."
Cherishing the moments
Nostalgia can be a double-edged sword — a reality that becomes painfully obvious to me as I watch Ong recall the relationship.
"I feel happy that with someone I was able to have this kind of experience. I feel wonderful. I appreciate that.
Even though I didn’t get to be with her as a partner, I appreciate that moment lah. Really cherish that few years of my life."
Almost a decade later, thinking of the memories reminds Ong of what once was, a void that has proven tough to fill since.
But it also presents itself as a source of hope: happiness is possible for him.
And at 57 years old, both these emotions now find themselves against the background of a ticking clock.
"I'm pretty worried also. Because how many more years of energy I still have? Maybe now I still okay? This 10 years very crucial for me.
Maybe I hit my late 60s I'm waiting for what? Rest in peace already. So I have to do something now."
The sum of our desires and fears
And that's when it hits me.
Ong isn't some crazy, weird guy. He's isn't a character you might find in some bizarro police line-up next to the Kurt Tay's or Steven Lim's of our sunny island (no offence to either of them, of course, be who you are).
Rather, he and his handmade sign are just the embodiment of what so many of us desire — someone meaningful to spend our time with.
Nowadays, young romantic hopefuls walk around town with dating apps, their profiles subtly hinting (or sometimes declaring) their preferences and qualities to prospective partners.
Ong does the same, a few times a week, except his profile caption is written on a rectangular piece of cardboard and his pictures are in 3D, his actual moving body — no chances of catfishing here.
They are also the embodiment of what so many of us fear — dying alone, without someone by our side.
"By myself, all by myself. Everything by myself. Even if I'm sick or what, nobody knows," he says, telling me that he doesn't really talk to any of his three brothers and two sisters as he's much younger than them.
"You will know lah, when you’re alone. When something bad happens, you’re really by yourself. It’s really not the right way, as I say."
And so Ong is doing the most courageous and sensible thing he can think of, walking around town with his sign explicitly looking for love.
Countless calls and one date
On the day I'm speaking to him, Ong tells me he's been walking around with the sign for about two weeks.
He specifically requested that we publish his phone number, but I have decided against doing so, not wanting him to be inundated with prank calls and trolls. We have, however, left his email visible in the pictures of his sign we present in this story.
To date, he's received many of these calls, mostly from Vietnamese women.
"But they are really young, around late 20s. Some even say okay, they want to introduce the mother to me. I have a Japanese call me."
Guys have called him too, he adds — not to proposition him, but to offer encouragement.
"Guys call me and say that they sympathise with me, they say they have certain kind of behaviour like me, in the sense that they also prefer women have some kind of criteria they look for. And its not very easy to just say out, and express out.
They say actually (liking a) nice back is nothing, very normal."
It's all amounted to one date so far, with a woman from mainland China, though Ong suspects her intentions lay in places other than a meaningful relationship.
"She kept asking me are you qualified to apply for the kind of criteria for her (to gain citizenship in Singapore).
She’s more interested in gaining the citizenship so I don’t think (I'll go on another date with her)."
After all, Ong isn't just looking for something physical; a warm body to wake up next to in the morning.
Instead, he wants a genuine loving relationship.
Oh, and a nice back.
Top image by Zenn Tan