WONG KIM HOH says he's fascinated by 'the man in the street' and, judging by the response to A Life Less Ordinary, he's not alone. His book brings together 30 articles from his newspaper column of the same name. First published in Singapore's The Sunday Times in 2003 as a six-part weekly series, the column is still running today. As the title suggests, the stories are accounts of ordinary Singaporeans leading extraordinary lives, often after conquering or learning to cope with obstacles and heartache. Wong's slice of life approach has proved to be a sure formula for attracting readers in an age of reality TV shows. With creative non-fiction proving lucrative, best-selling titles published in Singapore in recent years have explored such issues as celebrity branding and Asia's sex industry, but Wong prefers to keep his ear to the ground. A Life Less Ordinary delves into the lives of people with unusual occupations (an embalmer, a forensic scientist and a professional fire-eater), denizens of society's underbelly (a former secret society member, a heroin addict and a prostitute) and the downtrodden (a quadriplegic, a former transsexual, an amnesiac, an Aids victim and a schizophrenic). It even enters the realm of the supernatural, with a paranormal investigator and a middle-class yuppie who claims to have a so-called third eye. To satisfy demand for a steady stream of interesting characters, 44-year-old Wong keeps his eyes peeled and ears pricked. 'You never know when and where you'll get a lead - dinner parties, contact lunches, drinks with friends. When people find out what I do, they'll sometimes point me in the right direction. I've also approached on the streets people who I think are interesting. So far, I've only interviewed one person whose story I've not written. He was the only person who pitched himself as a subject.' Coming from a humble background, Wong says he's never uncomfortable among the people he interviews. Born in Kuala Lumpur, he was raised by his grandmother while his father eked out a living as a travelling salesman and his mother worked as a cook and washerwoman. Wong's own childhood tales unfold with all the drama of a potboiler. He had a gangster as a godfather, who later served 14 years in jail for armed robbery, and he lived next door to a broom-wielding lunatic who wore a sanitary pad over her face. Growing up, pocket money to buy books and movie tickets was hard to come by. 'I started sending articles to newspapers and magazines when I was about 15, hoping to earn $15 here, $20 there,' he says. It was a big achievement for Wong, who learnt to read only at the age of eight. He pursued his studies and eventually enrolled at the National University of Singapore, where he gained an honours degree in English literature. He worked in magazines and edited FHM's Singapore and Malaysia editions, before becoming features editor at The Sunday Times. In A Life Less Ordinary, Wong often draws on the smallest detail or a seemingly irrelevant quotation to illuminate his subject. For instance, Turbo Ang, a woman who's planning to undergo a sex-change operation, tells him, 'I want to be able to stand and pee.' Corina Cheng, who is paralysed, has made a hobby of collecting wedding photos. The key to finding out people's stories and secrets is being a good listener, Wong says. 'I also don't have a threatening presence or aura, so people generally don't have problems telling me things. You have to be sensitive and respect boundaries. Just make them feel as though you're chatting with them, and never talk down to them. Sooner or later, you'll develop an instinct - when to press, when to retreat, when to just stay silent.' His empathy for his subjects has, on occasion, led to Wong shedding tears with them. It's hard not to be overwhelmed when they break down, he says. Although each person's story touches Wong in a different way, he has a soft spot for Cheng. 'She has a disease that renders her totally immobile. She's lost several siblings to the same disease, has never gone to school, can't even move her head and the only time she ever leaves home is on a stretcher in an ambulance to the hospital. But she's one of the spunkiest people I've met, with a great sense of humour and a fantastic outlook on life.' One insight Wong says he's gleaned from writing A Life Less Ordinary is that Singaporeans aren't as straight-laced as people believe. 'We actually have some really interesting people in our midst - some bizarre, some courageous, some strange, but all very human,' he says. The human angle is prominent, too, in the award-winning film Be With Me, co-written by Wong and directed by long-time friend Eric Khoo. The Singapore film touches on the themes of human interactions and communication, and is anchored in a real-life character: blind and deaf Theresa Chan, who was featured in A Life Less Ordinary. Wong is proud of Be With Me, which attracted a standing ovation when it screened as the opening film of the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes last year. Aside from screenings in Singapore, it opened in Paris last October and will premiere in London in May. This year, Wong has been keeping busy as a screenwriter, having wrapped up a new film project with Khoo called No Day Off. The digital short film, part of a compilation of works by three filmmakers, addresses the plight of foreign maids in Singapore. 'We look at how we Singaporeans treat our maids, and realise that a maid is more than just a washing machine, that she actually has a life.' Wong says he has no lofty ambitions about changing the world, 'but if my articles can help people become less judgmental about things and people, I'd be quite pleased. Mind you, I'm struggling with being less judgmental myself.' Open-minded as Wong is, no politicians or dissidents have made it to his newspaper column. 'Politicians and dissidents always have agendas,' Wong says, 'I'm just interested in ordinary Singaporeans with colourful lives.'