Night and day

I. Night

On Monday, I had dinner with a friend from Seoul. She worked in Singapore for a year and a half and moved back to Seoul recently, but can't wait to land a job that will bring her back here again. At dinner also were her friends from France-via-Réunion and Morocco, who have lived in Singapore for three years and counting. "We love it here," they said. "Everything's so easy."

On Tuesday, I had dinner with a former student who now works in New York City. He said he'd come back to Singapore to work if the right job came up. "Why come back to Singapore?" I asked, not provocatively, genuinely curious. He shrugged loosely. "It might be interesting. For a while."

On Thursday, at Polymath & Crust, I eavesdropped on a woman (I think she was French) talking about having lived in Singapore for over twenty years. "It's much better now than it used to be," she averred, "but things keep changing. I can't recognise some places anymore."

On Tuesday after dinner, I walked from Robertson Quay along the Singapore River over to Zouk (yes, I know no one goes there on Tuesday nights, that was kind of the point). The river seemed particularly shimmery that night. I looked across the river, seeing sparkling condominiums, seeing the ghosts of old godowns that used to define the riverbanks. I love my city, mixed-up as it is.

II. Day

I've been assured that there's been a wave of responses to "Once Bonded", though many must be invisible to me because they're on Facebook and non-public Twitter pages. At any rate, the comments that are public and the responses I've received have been plenty to digest. The essay seems to have tapped into what I've been calling a vein of unarticulated dissatisfaction --- though now that I think about it further, I'd rather describe it as a disquiet that dare not speak its name.

The spectrum and tenor of the responses are also fodder enough for another s/pores essay, but I'm not sure yet if I'll write that one. Maybe when there's been some distance and fresh perspective between this essay and the next.

I haven't added anything to the comments because I've said all I want to on this subject already. It's most welcome and intriguing to hear from readers, but hey, even if I were still a teacher, I'd say go talk about it among yourself and work out your own conclusions.

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Once bonded

The article I was working on earlier this year has been published at s/pores. I gave it the title "Once Bonded" --- you can decide for yourself if you think it's appropriate. What's it about? Here are the opening paragraphs:
When I was 19, I inked my name on a legal document to affirm that I would enter upon and diligently continue in an overseas university course specified by the government of the Republic of Singapore, complete it to the best of my ability, then return immediately to Singapore to serve the government for a period of eight years (hereinafter called the ‘Bonded Period’) in any body or organisation whatsoever in any appointment which the government might deem appropriate.

In exchange, the government would foot the bill for my education, pretty much.
I think you know where it goes from there. Don't worry, it doesn't exactly re-tread the ground I've explored on this blog before (here and here).

s/pores is a multi-disciplinary online-only journal that focuses on "Singapore studies". Besides my article, the issue contains Ho Weng Hin's "Reminiscences on a HDB Point Block" and Lee Huay Leng's "学语以外 : Beyond Language Learning". I was very pleasantly surprised to be invited to contribute something, and I'm doubly pleased at how the article turned out (even though the writing of it didn't come easy). Thank you, Pin (guest editor for this issue), and the friends who chipped in with comments and suggestions along the way.

This new issue of s/pores will be launched at a casual drinks session at food #03 on Sunday, 26 July at 6:30 p.m. Come by for some Vitagen vodka, fair-trade coffee or yummy vegetarian food (cash bar basis), and I promise to show you my "wilting, yellowed copy" of my scholarship contract with the government. Alternatively, we can just chat, and I promise not to, um, drink too much organic red wine.

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Get your Grammar Nerd Corrective Label Pack

I've been admiring the artistic stylings of Dylan Meconis for many years, and this week she put up these awesome Grammar Nerd Corrective Label Packs for sale at her online shop.

As Dylan notes: "For a low introductory price of $3, you can now pedantically correct your neighborhood signage!"

Given how signs tend to be worded in Singapore (sangsara didn't start the SGFAIL Flickr group for nothin'), I can see these coming in mighty useful.

Assuming, of course, no one arrests you for "vandalising" a sign.

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As it is spoken

Upside-down sign

One of the first things my friend visiting from Australia asked me on Sunday was, "So what language do people speak here?" Which surprised me because he'd already had breakfast at the Fairmont, not to mention successfully navigated his way from Harbourfront MRT station to the backpacker place Ali's Nest in Little India the night before. He's a bright boy --- how had he not figured out that we speak English, yo?

Well, he'd thought it was English, but had been confused by the babble of languages that swirled around him. "On the train, there were, like, these Chinese girls speaking French."

Okay, that's pretty unusual.

"Almost everyone speaks English," I told him, "we all learn it in school. In fact, if you meet someone who doesn't speak English at all, they're probably foreign and didn't go to school here."

Some hours later (this might've been when we were wandering around Tiong Bahru), he asked, "So how do you greet people here?"

I gave him a look. "'Hello.' Or 'Yo, wassup?' Okay, fine, Chinese, it's 'ni hao.'" I didn't get into the rest of Singapore's official languages (Malay and Tamil) because, "This isn't Vietnam. You don't have to learn to say xin chao to break the ice."

He laughed.

That night, when we were sitting around a coffeeshop table having dinner from Big D's, one of the people at the table was from Beijing and her mother was in town visiting. There were polite introductions all round in Mandarin, which was all her mother spoke, but even though all of us except my Australian friend had studied Mandarin in school, only one person was fluent enough in the language to carry on a proper conversation with her for the rest of the evening.

Needless to say, it wasn't me. I wish I could've, but I'd've had to spend the afternoon swotting up first.

So now that I think about it --- my friend's reaction to Singapore's mixture of languages (a mixture he found pretty cool after Vietnam), juxtaposed with the older woman from Beijing, surrounded by (mostly) Chinese people in a country that's predominantly Chinese, but where only one person besides her daughter at dinner could converse in Mandarin with her while the rest of us chattered effortlessly in English --- well, there you have it, the kind of place Singapore is. Visibly Asian, audibly Asian (mostly), but not only Asian, not anymore.

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Singapore is a fine city

A woman has been fined $30 for eating a sweet while riding the MRT --- all captured on a video news report to boot.

Note to self: Stop eating breath mints while on the train, even if breath might be stinky. Le sigh.

(Via Junfeng on Facebook.)



A crash-course tour of Singapore in less than 12 hours

Taking off

Start time: 1 p.m.

1. Meet at Raffles City.

2. Lunch at Yet Con along Purvis Street: old-school chicken rice, with some sambal kangkong for extra kick.

3. Hop on a bus to Chinatown, where Maxwell Hawker Centre serves as Exhibit A for introducing the concept of hawker centres. Interlude: sugar cane juice and deep-fried sweet potato dumplings. Marvel that at least 15 people are waiting in a very slow line for Tian Tian Chicken Rice.

4. Wander over to BooksActually, so I can pick up Concave Scream's new album. Peek into cool old clan association buildings on Ann Siang Road along the way.

5. Mosey further down Smith Street and the madly touristed-with-souvenir-stalls Trengganu Street. Puzzle over the juxtaposition of souvenir stalls with sex shops with eating places with traditional Chinese medical halls and a doctor's clinic that looks like it's permanently stuck in the 1950s. Admire Majestic Theatre from the pedestrian bridge linking Pagoda Street to People's Park Complex.

6. Hop on a bus to Tiong Bahru. Refresh spirits with ice cream ice kachang (that's not a typo), a cold bowl of cheng tng and a cup of ice-blended cappucino --- all from the same stall at Tiong Bahru market.

7. Maunder around Tiong Bahru, admiring Art Deco architecture.

8. Hop into a taxi to Beach Road market, so that the friend can get a Singapore flag cloth patch to add to his round-the-world collection.

9. Hie over to the Arab Street area and mooch around the food festival going on at the Malay Heritage Centre. Snack of the hour: prawn vadai.

10. Shuffle across the street, just in time to see the men coming out (or is that going in?) for evening prayers at Sultan Mosque. Finger fabrics at the cloth shops along Arab Street, peer at the indie-ish cafes and boutiques along Haji Lane, and nod approvingly at graffiti on the walls wherever you see it.

11. Pop into Parkview Square, 'cause it's the only crazy Gotham-like building we have in Singapore.

12. Nip into the National Library, so that I can use the toilet. Meanwhile my friend finds some kind of nifty touchscreen newspaper-browsing device.

13. Hop onto a train to Buona Vista. We're early for dinner and there are no tables available at the coffeeshop anyway, so poke around in the adjacent NTUC Fairprice supermarket and cool off in the air-conditioning.

14. Settle down at the coffeeshop for dinner.

15. Dawdle for a couple of hours over Peranakan food and Western fare, as one ought to at Big D's.

16. Adjourn to Udders for dessert, since the friend has declared, "I have a separate ice cream stomach."

17. Drop the friend off near his backpacker place at Little India, after helpfully pointing out Mustafa as a landmark and all-night shopping option.

End time: 10:45 p.m.

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CornWare you can eat off

At the buffet spreads for Friday night's art show opening and Saturday's one-month celebration for a friend's kid, I was delighted to find that both the caterers in question had provided CornWare, made-in-Singapore biodegradable disposable tableware. It's made of corn and yam, yet is a lot sturdier than most varieties of disposable tableware. When I was giddily pointing this out at the party on Saturday, one of my friends promptly asked, "So how long does it take to biodegrade?"

I said, "Er ... I don't know." Which was kind of embarrassing because I've known about CornWare for months, since ampulets used it at a potluck party.

So the friend --- who barely spends any time online but is always happy to suggest "projects" for my blog --- suggested that I take a (clean) plate home, hang it by the kitchen window and take a photo of it everyday to document its biodegradability.

I took the plate out of my bag last night, but before I did any stringing up today, I checked out the official website FAQ and wouldn't you know it:
4. What are the conditions necessary for CornWare to biodegrade?

It will need to be buried under a thin layer of earth and exposed to water and heat for at least 90 days prior to biodegradation.
Perfect for a landfill in Singapore, not so much for the conditions in my apartment, which completely lacks a thin layer of earth.

So much for that experiment idea. But still --- CornWare! You can find it at lots of local chain supermarkets, shelved and priced much like environmentally-unfriendly varieties (ampulets got theirs at an NTUC Fairprice supermarket, for instance). Stock up for your next party or harangue your caterer to get it.

PS: If you're in the US or Canada, you can check out biodegradable cutlery made from potato starch (via Smart People I Know).

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Where the week went

I meant to blog this week, but then it seemed like nothing much, er, happened. Work time --- and there was rather a lot of it --- was expended on tedious yet essential details such as endnotes, indexing and incidental proofreading. Non-work time was spent watching Kaki Bakar, checking out an art exhibition at Osage, and chowing down on tau huey (soya bean curd) at Selegie Road and luncheon meat fries at Wild Oats. Yes, first I feed my mind with the good stuff, then it's more plebeian fare for the stomach.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the sudden urge to book an air ticket, pack a bag and get the hell out of town --- not because there was anything I suddenly disliked about Singapore, but because I suddenly felt like, okay, I've had my dose of it, and it's time for something else now. I couldn't actually up and go, because of work commitments, but the urge, augmented by a recent conversation with Adri, has got me flipping through travel guidebooks and thinking about where to go next, even before I finish start my writing for Korea.

Tomorrow I get to play tour guide to a friend I made in Hoi An last year. He's from Australia-via-Vietnam-via-Kuala Lumpur and has done a round-the-world backpacking trip, so I'm not sure what I can show him in Singapore that could possibly surprise him. Maybe we'll just park ourselves at a kopitiam and drink a lot of beer.

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Rambling about Korea

Makgeolli for everyone

If you would like to hear the story behind how I wound up hiking huffing and puffing my way up a hill south of Seoul with these three fine Korean yangban (colloquially, gentlemen), then come by the Korea Culture Event at Woodlands Regional Library tomorrow. My presentation is going to be something along the lines of "Travelling in Korea: Seeing beyond Seoul (even if you don’t speak Korean)". There'll be two other speakers to talk about Korean food, language ("How to learn Korean via YouTube") and pop culture.

I can't find the details on the NLB website (natch), but the event is running 2 - 5 p.m. in the Amazon Room at Woodlands Regional Library. I'm the last speaker for the day, so how long I ramble for depends on how many people are still awake at that point.

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Oh all right, I found my work ethic

Mounting panic'll do that to you. I even did some work after dinner. Just wait and see what happens when I hit sheer panic.

Coming home from dinner and groceries tonight, I ran into my next-door neighbours outside our respective front doors, for the very first time since I moved into this apartment in January. The two men (of the three who live there) were putting on their shoes to go out, and I said hello. One said hello back; the other moved off towards the elevator without an acknowledgement.

At least the guy who said hello back struck a friendly enough note.


"The work, that is another thing"

Ah, Cary Tennis. Always hitting home with the hard truth. From "Should I leave L.A. after one year?":
There are dreams and there are career plans. They are not the same. Some dreams are compensatory: visions that we retreat to in times of stress, like blankies for infants, things that comfort us and tell us what we need to be told. The dream of being a famous writer can be like that: a dream of infantile power and attention that disguises the more immediate need -- for safety, self-love, serenity, peace in our hearts.

But the work, that is another thing. The real work is staggering; the real work is work. It is not dream. It is pushing against the wall; it is hearing what we do not want to hear; it is doing the numbers; it is learning the new terms as they come along; it is sitting through evaluations and self-evaluations. It is an eternal object lesson in our powerlessness and our smallness. The real work is grinding and slow.

When I look at all the writers who have won coveted prizes and all the filmmakers and artists who have had success, what I notice is that they are the ones who actually filled out the applications for fellowships and sent their work around for critique and rejection; they are the ones who locked themselves in rooms and worked at it; they are the ones who did what was required; they are the ones who allowed themselves to be beginners and to begin at the beginning and do the next obvious thing.
(Via alf.)

I've resumed a leisurely pace of work this week, which is an improvement over last week but still not clip-cloppy enough for my liking, and certainly not clip-cloppy enough for any dreams to be realised. I need to work up to a point where I can start locking myself in a room ...

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Your North Korea dossier for today

North Korea has starving citizens, but it found time and money to make its very first TV advertisement, for Taedonggang beer.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mike Kim
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

Crossing Borders founder Mike Kim gets interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart about his work helping North Korean refugees to escape via China (via ROK Drop).

While researching, I also came across a Singapore travel agency that runs tours to North Korea (via Wikitravel). Surprisingly, a 10-day tour costs only S$1,999 (excluding taxes). I really thought it would run higher than that.



At the National Day Parade 2009, get ready to ...

I've noticed recently that the National Day banners have gone up all over Singapore, proudly bearing the theme for this year's National Day Parade: "Come Together".

"Come Together".

In an age of rampant internet porn and off-colour humour, I'm really, really surprised that this passed committee.

I mean, it's "Come Together", not "Let us come together" or "Come together to celebrate ...". And even though the full theme is "Come Together --- Reaching Out, Reaching Up", I'm not sure the subtitle improves anything.

Also, the official logo makes it really all about, well, you know:

Plus: note all the bursty stars.

Insert your own joke here.

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Tiong Bahru walkabout III

What a week. I'm not sure where it all went. I mean, if I sit down and look back, yes, I know where it went, what I was doing. But it spun really quickly, a haze of conversations where drinks, food and cigarettes (not mine, Mom) were the excuse, not the object.

And then, broadsided at the end by bad news, the kind where no one knows the right thing to say.

This is what I read this week:
These are some new words and phrases that I learned this week:
  • "out of pocket" --- not with reference to business expenses but to one's contactability (see a recent Language Log entry).
  • "sitzfleisch" --- courtesy of "What Is a Master’s Degree Worth?"
  • "dots" --- you'll have to ask sarah (or me) about this.
  • ossement --- okay, it's French for "bone", which in itself isn't a remarkable word, but there's a heartbreaking story associated with it that I'm filing away for future use.
Happy Fourth of July, everybody

Today I attended a wedding, a funeral wake and a Fourth of July celebration. There was almost a mahjong session to round it all off, but we settled for Citadels instead.

I wonder how long I can keep spinning for.

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