In praise of the things in your life


It's not politically correct to say you love material things, but what if they give you happiness?

For our honeymoon five years ago, H and I decided to go somewhere nearby and quiet.

We settled on Uluwatu in south-western Bali.

The resort was beautiful and the area was indeed quiet.

But too quiet we discovered, after we were done with the touristy treks to temple and beach. There wasn't very much to do there.

The highlight of our trip was a visit to Jenggala, a store that sells ceramics, glass and pottery that are well-made and reasonably priced.

I ended up buying crockery we didn't really need.

My favourite piece was a water pitcher. It had lovely luscious curves and was in a gorgeous green gloss.

I carted it home with care and brought it to use in the office.

A few months ago, I accidentally knocked the jug from my table. A big chunk of it broke. There was no way it could be patched up.

I was shattered.

I love the jug.


For one thing, I had bought it on my honeymoon and it held memories of that trip.

It was also precious because it was beautifully made. I appreciated the creativity that went into its design and craftsmanship.

Mostly, though, I was upset because I had felt special using it.

Before I bought it, I had used an assortment of anonymous water containers. Some were glass, others plastic, one was crystal, but there was nothing noteworthy about them.

This ceramic pitcher always got me compliments. Seeing it sitting on my table, I felt privileged to be its owner.

And so when I stupidly broke it after five years of use, I was upset.

I was gripped by a desire to get my hands on the exact same pitcher and went to Jenggala's online store.

The good news was, it ships to Singapore. The bad - I couldn't find the jug on its site.

In desperation, I wrote them an e-mail, attaching photos of my poor dismembered jug.

Lo and behold, I got a reply within hours. They commiserated with what happened and said that they had checked their store.

Unfortunately, the jug in green gloss was no longer available and the design had been discontinued. But there was one last such pitcher available - in white. There was a 70 per cent discount on it too.

I was both happy and sad. It wasn't what I wanted, but it was the next best thing.

I ordered the white jug and after scrolling through the online store, added two more items - water pitchers in other designs - to my list.

The package arrived last month. All three containers are beautiful and I love them.

My mother, though, said I was crazy. What do you want with three water jugs, she asked. When will you ever use them? They will only clutter up the house further.

She has a point.

I am not a hoarder exactly, but I have lots and lots of things at home which I never use but am loath to discard because I simply love them.

Like clothes.

I woke up last Sunday in the mood to weed out my wardrobe. By the end of the day, however, I had only managed to set aside a tiny pile of ratty T-shirts and track pants to discard.

I had started with this resolve: If I haven't worn an item in the last 12 months, chances are I would never wear it and so out it should go.

But I had an excuse for keeping practically every piece of clothing.

That floral sundress which was white when I bought it a decade ago but is now a sad, sun-bleached yellow? It was my first Anna Sui dress and of course I had to keep it.

Those sarong pants from the 1980s which I haven't worn in 25 years? They were from Singapore designer Thomas Wee. I had to save them; they're practically vintage.

Ditto the heavy green woollen skirt from Kenzo and an acid-pink skirt from Byblos from the 1990s, even if they no longer fit.

It wasn't just designer labels I hoarded.

That maroon T-shirt I have never worn? I had taken the trouble to order it from an online store. No way was I going to throw it away now. There was always a chance I'd wear it one day.

Those half-a-dozen white cotton pyjama pants from Chatuchak market in Bangkok which I've yet to wear and are turning yellow? All they need is a good wash.

I just don't have the heart to let it go when it comes to my clothes and, for that matter, my shoes, my handbags and my (mostly costume) jewellery. I love them too much.

In fact, even if I don't use them, I'm happy just to own them, to say they are mine.

I sometimes look lovingly at what's hanging in my cupboard and lining my shoe closet. I treat my clothes and shoes with respect and loving care, handwashing, brushing, even stroking them.

Marketing experts have a term for this - material possession love.

It applies not just to fashion items but also stuff such as cars, computers, bikes and other consumer goods.

In H's case, for example, he had a motorcycle which he treasured. There's also his Bosch power drill which he handles like a baby, taking it out periodically to charge and storing it gently in its hardcase box. He shoots me dirty looks when I'm rough with the drill.

I know it's not politically correct to admit you are attached to material things.

You risk being accused of being materialistic, shallow and insecure, and contributing to the world's carbon footprint.

Studies have even pointed to loneliness as the cause of people's attachment to material things.

Less is more is the fashionable mantra these days.

The thinking is that the more we simplify our material needs, the freer we will be to think of things that really matter.

In a popular Ted Talk titled Less Stuff, More Happiness, writer Graham Hill speaks about how the sheer accumulation of stuff has led to bigger credit card debts, huge environmental footprints and "happiness levels flat-lined" over the past 50 years.

A stripped-down life, he argues, brings you more freedom, more time, a smaller footprint, saves you money and will also give you "a little more ease".

He goes on to give tips on how to achieve the "joys of less":

One, edit ruthlessly so you buy only stuff "that we're going to love for years, not just stuff".

Two, learn that small is sexy, so opt for things designed for how they are used the vast majority of the time. Why have a six-burner stove when you rarely use three, he says?

Three, opt for multifunctional spaces and houseware.

To be sure, I don't want to end up a crazy compulsive hoarder.

I also realise it's silly to measure my life by possessions, and that material goods can't replace things such as relationships.

I know it's ridiculous to go to pieces if, say, I accidentally spill ink on a much-loved dress or handbag (which has happened before). Things can be replaced (or forgotten), so why sweat it?

I am aware of the perils of spending frivolously and buying stuff not because I need them, but just because they are there.

But I'm not ashamed to say material things contribute to making my life pleasant and convenient, and I will continue acquiring them.

Things can give joy and satisfaction, be it a smartphone, a piece of art, a T-shirt or a really fluffy cotton towel. They delight us with their design, colour, texture and function. In return, they deserve our respect and care.

What I need to learn, though, is to be more discerning and to buy only items that are better-made and will last, rather than just because they are cheap or on sale.

As for my poor green water pitcher, I couldn't bear to throw it away even though it was broken.

I patched it up as best as I could with tape and it is now sitting in my bedroom.

It had served me well for five years and while it is broken, it is not forgotten and is still loved. What, really, can be wrong with that?

••Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'In praise of the things in your life'. Print Edition | Subscribe