Catching up on Singapore

Things I learned today while researching a travel guide to Singapore:
  • Mimolette is now just Mimo.
  • Majestic Bar next to New Majestic Hotel might have closed --- can anyone verify this? Another one of my favourite places, argh! (Klee has closed and Handlebar at Gillman Village is on the chopping block.)
  • The ATM Hall at Resorts World Sentosa doesn't let ATM users make deposits? (Unverified till I see the machines for myself.)
  • Select Books has been around since 1976 --- woo!
  • At the Long Bar at the Raffles, the Singapore Sling comes out of a drink dispenser --- just like bandung!
In other news it's hard to imagine (and therefore scribble a few lines about) what the inside of the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa casinos are like, now that both are up and running. Photography isn't permitted inside and travel writing assignments do not usually cover the additional cost of S$100 per casino visit, just so I can stick my head in to have a look.

(For those of you not familiar with Singapore's fine casino establishments, Singaporeans and Permanent Residents have to pay a S$100 "casino levy" each time they want to step inside the casino. Even if I just want to have a look-see and don't carry any money with me.)

Guess I'll have to get to know some casino staff when I get home, or have a friend with a non-Singapore passport pop in and report back to me.



Blips in the programming

Yesterday afternoon, at a weekly lecture on capitalism and cultural studies, the professor asked what the date was. Someone up front told him, and he said, "Okay, so it's been two years, four days" since Obama said he would close down the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. My brain (and handwritten notes) processed this as a 2008 event. A little later in the lecture, he made reference to Daniel Bensaïd passing away last year. I wrote down, "2009", then paused.

What year is it? 2010? 2011?
Wait, how old am I? I don't remember ... I'm 30-what?
Wait, Chinese New Year is coming, is it the year of the ...?

The thoughts must've tumbled over each other in seconds, but it felt longer: suspended in-between time, I wondered what year it was, when I was, what the hell was going on.

Then the cloud cleared, I wrote over the "2009" beside Bensaïd's name in my notes, turning it into a "2010".

What year is it? What does it matter?

I've been trying to take the advice of the Atlantic's Benjamin F. Carlson about appreciating classical music, as articulated in a series of articles on the subject (the first one is here, which I tweeted a few weeks ago). So on the train back from university today, I was trying to concentrate on the piece of music on my iPhone. And then got distracted by other thoughts, but was still semi-soaked in the music, I guess. And then I wondered if I had missed my stop. How much time had passed since I'd gotten on the train, I wasn't even sure.

I looked up at those helpful electronic displays on the train that indicate what stop is coming up next. Honor Oak Park, it promised (aside: don't ask me why this particular station name follows American spelling conventions). I glanced at the Overground route map, or at least at the section of it I was reasonably familiar with. No sign of Honor Oak Park, not even among the stations after my usual stop; in fact it was well south of my train route.

We were in an anonymous black underground tunnel. All I could think was: Where the hell am I? Has my train teleported over to the Honor Oak Park stretch? Were we ... ? What was ... ?

And then the train burst into light, at my usual station Whitechapel, and normality was restored.

It's not easy to encounter one of these moments of existential uncertainty, not when we're surrounded by chiming clocks and flashing mobile phones and chatter. But there is something liberating in that instant of half-panicked suspension, when you're given a quick peek into the depths of the void, before sight and consciousness reassert themselves once more.



Deadlines, damn deadlines

When I was getting ready to move to London last year, friends would ask me what was I going to study, where I was going, and when I would finish. My glib answer was that my dissertation would be due some time in August/September 2011, "but if I get my act together, you know, finish it early, I could just spend the rest of the summer travelling or something."

To which those friends should have rightfully said, "Yeah, right. Like that's gonna happen."

Oh, I wish they'd said that to me.

This is how the rest of my year looks:
  • Now till March --- school, i.e. serious amounts of reading, thinking, digesting and discussion every week. Plus Korean class.
  • End-February --- reading week, short break? But then I have all this reading and prep to do for ...
  • Mid-March --- lit review for this other non-MA academic book project I'm doing.
  • End-March --- writing grant application.
  • April --- submit two three major essays that will determine my grade for the January-March university term.
  • May --- two take-home exams.
  • June --- short vacation? And work on that non-MA book project again. But then soon it'll be ...
  • July/August --- dissertation madness. 13,000 words by the end of August.
  • September --- sleep. And pack up to move back to Singapore.
Not to mention that the dissertation ought to be:
  • Something that helps me get a decent grade on my MA (otherwise one of my scholarship sponsors will be less than pleased).
  • Something that maybe I can, with some editing and rewrites, turn into a publishable item?
  • Something that provides medium-/long-term direction for research/writing for myself.
Would also like to maintain/build friendships, see more of London and other countries, and not lose my mind.

This is why earlier this week, I tweeted/Facebooked:
7-day week not enough to get things done between now and March/April deadlines. 10 days a week, please. Thank you.
I realise it wouldn't actually solve the problem, merely move all my deadlines up by the corresponding number of days. But you know. A girl can dream vent.

Edited to add (23 January):
Further to the list above, I forgot to include:
  • an essay on myth for a student journal that I want to write (deadline: March some time).
  • two papers on different aspects of Singapore culture that I want to write about --- one could be a version of the student journal essay, the other is unrelated and has a fixed deadline in September.

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Makgeolli out of the can

All you need to start a Korean minibar

I signed up for Korean lessons on a whim. Last term one of my friends at Goldsmiths had been telling me about his weekly Arabic lessons with a teacher he'd found on Gumtree. Another friend's been brushing up on her Mandarin at intermediate classes at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). After I got back from the Christmas/New Year vacation, I found myself one day poking around the SOAS Language Centre website. Beginner classes for Vietnamese weren't running this term, but those for Korean were and I could make it for the Saturday morning class.

(Yes, I signed up to get out of bed at 8 a.m. every Saturday, so that I can learn Korean. Ten years ago, I would have sniffed at the notion and closed the webpage without further consideration.)

Admittedly, I don't have a penchant for Korean drama serials, or K-pop, or Korean media celebrities (although certain gay friends keep me regularly updated on the who's who of male Korean cuteness). On the other hand, I really enjoyed wandering around Korea last year, I hope to do it again (whether on a Lonely Planet gig or some other assignment), and I love Korean food. Sure, I taught myself to read hangeul before last year's trip, but as I tell everyone who marvels at the fact: a) hangeul is a very systematic character system and the letters function more like letters do in English, not like ideograms in Chinese; and  b) just because I can read Korean text doesn't mean I can understand what I'm reading.

I also like the challenge of wrapping my head down an entirely different form of expression. Korean is not a Sinitic language like Mandarin, and certainly nowhere near English or French.

I've only had one lesson so far, during which an understandable amount of time was spent introducing ourselves in Korean and learning some hangeul. But there was also time to learn important phrases like "sorry" and "no problem", while correcting my pronunciation of part of "hello" (an-nyeong, not ann-yeong).

The rest of the week, thinking about Korean (and Korea) has got me wandering the food aisles in Asian supermarkets. Last week I came home from Chinatown with a can of sikhye (a sweet drink made from rice and barley malt); today at an Asian supermarket near Goldsmiths, I picked up a tin of pickled perilla leaves and a can of makgeolli (rice wine). Needless to say, the makgeolli doesn't taste anywhere as lush as it did the last time I had it, but it does bring back a certain warm memory of 60-year-old hiking buddies midway up a mountain south of Seoul.

Coming up on my list: dinner with a friend at a Korean restaurant next week (though it's his craving, not mine), and one of these days soon I'll try my friend A Tiger in the Kitchen's recipe for doenjang jjigae.

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For art's sake

Mini art installation

Singapore art-related news that I read in the last 24 hours:

1. "Nude artist taking a break" (The Straits Times) --- An artist from India who presented himself in the nude in a booth, as part of his performance at the inaugural Art Stage Singapore (for which he received the appropriate public entertainment permits from the censorship folks at the Media Development Authority), ceased the performance as of Friday, apparently because the gallery owner was asked to do so. By whom, it is not clear.

Art Stage Singapore is the very glammed-up, hyped-up "premier international event" (see its first press release [PDF]), brought to Singapore by Lorenzo Rudolf, whose touted credentials are that he is the former director of Art Basel, inventor of Art Basel Miami Beach and co-creator of Shanghai Contemporary. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

2. "Gillman Village takes a break" (The Straits Times) (aside: what is with all the "take a break" headlines?)--- The delightful restaurant/bar/furniture store enclave at Gillman Village is being broken up by landlords the Singapore Land Authority, because the land "has been earmarked by the Economic Development Board (EDB) for redevelopment into a premier location for art and creative businesses." Notwithstanding the fact that I'm going to miss Handle Bar, it must be incredibly frustrating for both business owners and customers who just wanted a place for a damn beer, to find out that the space they invested so much time, community and money in, back when it was hardly hip, is now being whisked away just like that.

So the Singapore state wants art. And artists (but not naked, thoughtful ones). And people who will come to Singapore to spend money --- on art, and artists (and perhaps other sanctioned or at least quietly condoned forms of nudity).

And it wants to be able to do all that, by simply adding water and stirring. Who has time for the sweat, toil, thoughtful, unhurried growth, experimentation and exploration, that would let ideas, art practices, artists, their friends and their foes, tug and pull at each other in a rainforest-like tangle?




Playing tourist

All lined up for the dinner rush

I got back from my Christmas/New Year vacation, and then there were friends from Singapore in town: lisiepeasie, thedak and his brother. They didn't stay with me, but we hung out for the better part of their five-day visit. Here's my hit list:
Not very indie, I know. I need to work on that.

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And away we go

Wandering off

As it turned out, the apartment we stayed at in Baden-Baden over New Year's had internet access, but I decided that since I'd declared myself to be offline, I'd try to stick to it. What I couldn't fully switch off, however, was the occupational hazard of being a travel writer, particularly of the Lonely Planet guidebook-variety. Just ask me where Baden-Baden's ATMs, police station and convenience stores are. (Okay, that last isn't a standard LP map item, but since I have so many friends who smoke, I'm used to keeping an eye out for places where they can buy cigarettes.)

That said, it was also nice to be a proper tourist and a) not speak the language, b) loll in the hot-spring baths without worrying about being on a schedule, and c) romp through snow. A few days before the trip, I'd rewatched one of my favourite movies Beautiful Girls, in which the 13-year-old character Marty (played by the delightful Natalie Portman) says:
I like to mash snow. It gives me a tremendous feeling of self-satisfaction.
She's right, especially when it's crisp, white snow and you're miles away from the city. Also, I only realised on our second, maybe third day in Baden-Baden how nice it was to be out of the city at last. Once the town quieted down around dinnertime and there were hardly any more vehicles on the streets, it was gloriously peaceful. Even for a tourist town, on New Year's Day and the day after (a Sunday), there were hardly any shops and cafes open.

They do know how to ring in the new year though: literally, with church bells pealing at the midnight hour, and for further emphasis, with dozens of fireworks displays --- over the casino and town, in the neighbours' backyards, and over the mountain in other towns --- ad hoc and effusive, for about 45 minutes.

And then it was 2011.