Friday, July 11, 2014

We Now Pause to Bring You a Very Important Message

The Pink Dog, showing his (OK, our) support for Pink Dot 2014.

The recent rise of bigoted, anti-homosexuality sentiment in Singapore is extremely depressing. Over in the States, Barack Obama is president, the Moral Majority have faded away, and 50 per cent of Americans now believe in the constitutional right to gay marriage (Washington Post). Over here we are still debating whether gay people are entitled to a legal existence, and Singaporean evangelicals are enthusiastically employing tactics taught to them by American rightwingers to dominate the public discourse, and cry 'reverse discrimination!' and 'beware the hidden gay agenda!' whenever their vitriol is met with disagreement. Just today they have succeeded in upholding a ban on three children's books that featured gay penguins and lesbian households. As expected, they are proud of themselves.

I grew up in a Christian household, and every single member of my maternal extended family are Christian - some are even part of the anti-gay Wear White movement. I was enrolled in Christian schools for the first 16 years of my life, joined a Christian co-curricular activity of my own accord, attended Easter and Christmas services, and for a few short weeks was sent to Sunday School until my constant sobbing grew too much for the teacher and I was returned to my embarrassed parents. My first books were a picture Bible and an illustrated collection of Bible stories. I wore a cross until I was in my early 20s.

Yet I never took to the religion, or any religion for that matter. (My parents remain baffled, disappointed, hurt.) When I was a child and sang 'Jesus loves me, this I know', my performance was entirely innocent of any understanding. When I was slightly older I would answer "Christian" to any questions about my religion, but it was like saying "Chinese" to the race question, or "O+" to the school nurse inquiring about my blood type - an automatic reply, free from analysis or even much thought. Being Christian was not a matter of deep importance. Similarly, my parents didn't go to church regularly - I guess the occasional service was enough, a biannual vaccination against Satan.

In secondary school I was exposed to the pumped up, hands in the air, fire-and-brimstone preaching of the evangelical movement, with its emphasis on active engagement with one's religion. Very different from the mild, sleepy sermons preached at my parents' old church. These young pastors bounced off the pulpit and into the congregation, yelling out, "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" We were encouraged to leave the pews, gather round the altar and weep and swoon as Christian rock music swelled and the pastor's wet yearning tones wrapped around everyone, praying for salvation and a new beginning.

If you were never a Christian in a church like that, then you cannot know how thick the atmosphere is, how manipulative the entire setting can be. You cannot know the shame and fear of being the only one not to be moved by the spirit of Christ, not to stand up. You feel as if the pastor is staring right at you when he pleads, "Anyone else? Does anyone else want to be saved?"

It is not a choice they offer you at all. It is a promise that if you are not saved, you will go to hell, and it will be your fault for rejecting your only chance at salvation. It is a threat.

It's heavy stuff to lay on a 13-year-old. And yet I never went up to the altar. The following year when I was sent to a particularly tough Girls' Brigade camp - endless punishments and drill, cold, disapproving ostracism, screaming leaders to be obeyed, constant sleep deprivation - I still didn't go up during the inevitable in-camp altar call. I thought about trying to escape, and I thought about killing myself, but I never once considered accepting Jesus into my heart. I thought that if He existed, Jesus would never force a terrified teenager to shovel rice into her mouth until she came close to vomiting, and then make her scrub the toilets past midnight for the crime of wasting food. (I couldn't quite manage that last mouthful.)

The sweaty animal fear of ever being controlled like that again has never quite left me. I was only in the Girls' Brigade for four years of my life - only a few years spent hiding in plain sight, an atheist among the flock, not knowing what to say or how to behave, but constantly aware that to reveal myself would be to risk punishment, condemnation and isolation. And that was just for being a non-believer! Can you imagine what it would have been like to be gay, and living in that world?

This is where the heart of my empathy lies. I only experienced a small amount of shame at being different. It makes me nauseous to consider a lifetime spent this way, being told over and over and over that you are unnatural, your desires are not of God, you will never be happy or loved, that you are just plain wrong. Sure, the religious activists will mouth the same old meaningless words - 'love the sinner, hate the sin' - but their concept of sin has been scientifically proven to be an inherent part of a person's physical and mental identity, a basic biological drive. People can stop drinking, gambling, beating their wives. Can they stop loving?

For Christian conservatives, gay rights are only one target among an endless list - abortion, birth control, feminism, free speech and thought, science, art and sexuality, education and state protection from discrimination. It's no secret that many Singaporean evangelicals, like their American counterparts, would like to reshape some of these according to their own standards, limit several others and outright ban the rest. All because of an archaic system of beliefs started over 3,000 years ago in a Middle Eastern desert. No one's really sure what the Bible means, which is great because they get to make it all up to suit their own desires and fears.

Make no mistake, fear is a major part of Christianity. My parents are genuinely afraid that when they pass on, they won't ever see me again, because as a non-believer I will not go to heaven. I understand their anxiety, and I will always regret the heartbreak I am causing them. It used to be my biggest fear as a clingy kid, losing my parents forever. I had regular nightmares about it.

But if there is a God, and if there is a heaven, and if He really is a loving God, surely we will be reunited after death, though I refuse to accept man's broken interpretation of His Word. I believe that my conceptions of the world are right, that we were not made to hate or discriminate, and I am willing to place my own salvation on the line. You might say that in this, I have faith.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Four Movies I Just Can't Watch

There are some movies that I just can't sit through, even if you paid me to. Granted, some of them I've already seen, but I'd sooner scrub a toilet than sit through them again. Unlike books, which are relatively easy to censor as a reader - just skip a few pages, skim the contents briefly - films demand that you sit through the entire scene, cringing or scanning your own lap or squeezing your eyes shut. Horror movies, for example. Can't stand them, let alone those belonging to the torture porn genre (why do people want to watch shit like that? The real world is fucked up enough that it doesn't need Human Centipede visuals). Neither am I a fan of gross-out comedies - there's something so viscerally unappealing about watching human beings wallow like animals in bodily fluids, and this is coming from someone who didn't bat an eyelid throughout the tampon scene in Catherine Breillat's Anatomie de l'enfer (2004).

Besides these too-obvious genres, there are several films that I can't watch/rewatch, even though I kind of want to. Kind of, but not really.

1. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)

This one is pretty straightforward - that pivotal curb-stomp scene scarred me for life. Up until watching American History X I had remained blissfully unaware of this completely fucked up way of torturing/killing a human being. I think the reason why it's so particularly nasty is that it utilises our everyday environment in an unbelievably cruel and imaginative manner. And the human head is so fragile, and it has so many teeth, and the concrete is so unforgiving - OK, it's making me nauseous just thinking about it again. Stop.

It was billed as a film about skinheads, redemption and Edward Norton, so I wasn't expecting anything too graphic when I popped the VCD in (yes... a long time ago) and pressed play. I think the rest of the movie was pretty good and there were some funny moments in the making-friends-with-the-black-guy-while-in-prison subplot, but frankly I can't remember much of anything beyond that mind-searing, brutal scene. Ugh. Still feeling sick.

2. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987)

This one is my parents' fault. When you have a sensitive, high-strung four or five year old who suffers from anxiety and abandonment issues, you might not want to screen a movie about a little boy being inadvertently left behind by his parents in the middle of WWII. He ends up struggling to survive, being exploited by an American asshole, almost dying of starvation and watching his one real friend get shot right in front of him. A great movie for kids.

I remember just being utterly destroyed by Empire of the Sun's gloomy scenes and the idea it introduced - children could be accidentally separated from their parents, and nobody would care! Thanks to Christian Bale's acting debut, I started having nightmares about being similarly abandoned, from which I would wake sobbing and dry heaving. My mother tried to comfort me after I recounted one of these dreams. Patting my back as I choked on my tears, she said, "We wouldn't leave you behind!"

 I replied, crying afresh, "You didn't want to, but you couldn't help it."

3. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

This one annoys me, because I really want to see it, but the book was such a downer I'm not sure if I want to watch it play out in front of me. (Sidenote: wow, Scarlett Johansson is really everywhere! As long as she doesn't try singing again.) I read the book by Michel Faber and it was a page-turner for sure, but one that was pretty hard to stomach.

Some of the worst scenes involve the alien's scarred, mutilated body, the attempted rape (oops, spoiler) and the truly horrific scenes of obese, castrated, tongueless (I think?) men destined to be prime rib or whatever for rich aliens. The book really beats you over the head with the roles-reversed metaphor - yes, I get it, industrial meat-raising practices are bad and evil. But on top of the heavy-handed moralising, it adds a bleak ending that makes you go, I slogged all the way through these pages for this?

I've read that the movie is less graphic than the book - more atmospheric and arty, I suppose - but I'm not willing to risk it. Not even Jonathan Glazer can tempt me.

4. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

OK, I actually just watched this. It's so beautiful, I love the golden smog and Shanghai skyline settling gently over the LA exteriors, it's amazing that no blue was used throughout and the actors are all very good. Even the Arcade Fire managed to hold back on the annoying twee-ness and contributed a decent soundtrack. I can imagine film students of the future analysing Her to death and writing hundreds of pages just on the look of it alone. Loved that adorably foul-mouthed little alien, too. 

But I don't think I can make myself sit through it again, because listening to Theodore Twombly's monologues about his divorce and the mistakes he made with his wife was just too much. It was like listening in on someone's therapy through thin walls. Like so many online commentators have pointed out, Her comes across like it's Spike Jonze's belated response to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, a touted photograph of their marriage prior to breaking down. Not so cute anymore, huh?

If Her had been a he-said, she-said retort - something a little more mean-spirited, angrier - it would have been endurable, but the movie is a sincere apology, a melancholy acknowledgement of how 'we grew up together' and the utter loneliness of walking away from that connection. It's super uncomfortable to watch, especially when bloody Joaquin Phoenix goes all out to make it believable. I mean, I already believe it's true! Stop making me feel your pain, goddammit.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Caviar - The Good Times Are Over

I think barely anyone (except my old classmate Alan and me) remembers Caviar, a one-and-a-half hit wonder out of Chicago circa 2000. For a band that was all over Top 40 radio roughly fourteen years ago, it's pretty amazing that YouTube barely has any trace of their music.

I don't know how to classify them - Spandau Ballet moves to the midwest? ironic pop-rock leavened with sampling? - but really, who cares. They're lots of fun and they don't take themselves too seriously. Without any external aids my natural temperament pulls downwards to dark-blue morose, so when life gets too heavy it's nice to kick back and sing along to playful lines like "She's American as 3.1416/hand on my throttle/leave the city behind/there's not a lot in the bottle, not a lot on my mind". I love that, it always makes me smile. (OK, so it doesn't take a lot to amuse me - I've been known to crack myself up at work and double over laughing while my superior teenagers watch, bemused).

Wherever the individual members of Caviar are today, I hope they're taking life easy - riding in summertime cars with the top down, not a lot on their minds.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sunset for Sybarites

An evening storm brewing on Bang Niang beach in Khao Lak province, Thailand. One of the worst-hit districts during the 2004 tsunami, but you wouldn't know it today. Fell asleep every night to the crashing waves and woke up to the light patter of raindrops on the villa's pool. The Casa de La Flora was all white walls, natural wood, open spaces and clean lines - a Modernist vision set against the wild Andaman Sea and sky. Horrifically expensive, except now in the off-season. But worth it.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Four Quick Perfume Reviews

Scents can be wonderfully evocative - I remember the first time I realised one of the Maths teachers in school smelled exactly like my mother, because they both used the same Estee Lauder perfume. I had to resist the urge to call out "Mum!" every time I went into the teachers' room. While I don't like most women's scents - all that sugar and vanilla and jasmine, ugh, and worse still if they're commercial bilge dressed up in a fancy bottle - I do like a good unisex or male scent. (Emphasis good, because office monkeys who drench themselves in Polo Ralph Lauren or whatever and stand too close on the MRT make me very grumpy and a little nauseous.) Anyway, I'm no expert on scent apart from what I read (and watched) in Perfume: The Story of A Murderer, but here's my semi-tongue-in-cheek opinion on four fancy smells.

1. Atelier Cologne Bois Blonds

A gentle golden vetiver, soft and warm and lazily good-natured - like sunrise in the woods. There's something eternal about it too - the scent remains purely itself, whether accompanied by the brisk rhythm of carriage wheels or the purr of something red and sporty. For time-travellers.

2. Maison Martin Margiela Jazz Club

This one is meant for people who think of themselves as naughty because they read 50 Shades of Grey. 'Oh, I'm dark and mysterious and tobacco-ey.' Half an hour later, in bed: "Um, I think you should know - I'm actually just vanilla.' Disappointing.

4. Tom Ford Neroli Portofino

Too perfect, like a Vogue photo shoot inspired by a classic Italian talkie. An airbrushed idea of a warm afternoon spent aboard a yacht moored in - you guessed it - Portofino. It's beautifully composed, but there's an unsettling sterility lurking. It's present even in the first open-arms hit of bergamot and mandarin orange. I suppose a well-groomed serial killer on vacation might appreciate this.

5. Armani Prive Cuir Amethyste

This scent comes from a Russian oligarch's dacha, deep in the heart of a silver birch forest threaded by a frozen river. The leather and amber notes say 'I am a man like my father, and my grandfather before me' while the powdery violets clumsily acknowledge the singing-mosquito demands of civilisation. This is what Putin dabs behind his ears when he's off to an evening soiree with the European ambassadors, followed by a 2 a.m. black-site prisoner interrogation.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Lately I've been dusting off my comics collection and bringing them to work with me in a desperate bid to get my students to read something, anything. My lower secondary kids get badly-bound Calvin & Hobbes ("Teacher, the pages are falling out again") and my Secondary 4s get the good stuff: Sandman, Hellboy, Y: The Last Man and Transmetropolitan. (Only given to the kids with morally negligent parents, like mine were, thank God.)

I know that letting teenagers paw my precious comics is a bad idea in the long run. Already my Hellboy volume is dog-eared, and one of my Y: The Last Man books has been lost. I wince a little every time I see a kid unconsciously pull the pages back all the way, cracking the spine. But I don't say anything because these books are meant to be enjoyed, and I know from experience there's nothing less fun than someone going "Er... could you not open my book so widely?" I can always buy new copies, but the window of time for my students to develop a love of reading is closing with every passing day. My only request is that they always return the books, so future cohorts can read them too.

I've enjoyed re-reading my old comics as well. I pulled out Transmetropolitan for the first time in years and couldn't stop reading until I'd finished reading the volume's adventures of Spider Jerusalem, a tattooed and shirtless Hunter S. Thompson clone. (I have a thing for bald, cranky journalists who smell like cigarette smoke and sweat.) Set in a chaotic dystopian city of the future, where consumerism runs amok and the sheer number of skyscrapers and flashing screens make present-day Tokyo look like a sleepy fishing village, Transmetropolitan is a profane homage to the power of one gonzo journalist trying to do the right thing in a society that just doesn't give a shit about anything anymore. (Whew.)

Written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Darick Robertson, Transmetropolitan - which ran from 1997 to 2002 - is a roller-coaster ride through futurism. Everything from nanotech to 3D printing to wearable computing to cryogenics and genetic engineering, and lots of other tech I'm not smart enough to name or identify. But the same old problems plague humanity - corruption, greed, exploitation and selfishness. Like a chain-smoking avenging angel, Spider Jerusalem investigates and exposes the hypocrisy of the establishment, taking on government, religion and the police while avoiding censorship, death and torture. He also has a ray gun that causes explosive diarrhoea.

Two things I particularly like about Transmetropolitan: first, the artwork, especially the panoramic centrefolds of the city and its teeming mass of inhabitants. Wonderfully detailed, hyper-coloured and so alive they seem to bounce right off the page. Second, despite being an all-male team - right down to the inker and colourist - there is an underlying respect for women as characters. Yes, women are still relegated to martyr roles (Vita Severn) shrewish bitches (Spider's ex-wife) or the usual gratuitous nudity (Indira Ataturk, in an arc I found rather troubling). But at the end of it all - spoiler alert - Spider's disciples are both women, and one even inherits his role and persona. Which fits the storyline, and the transgressive nature of the series. Batman and Superman are always men, but in Spider Jerusalem's world, women can take on the protagonist's mantle and - most importantly - wear it no differently from him. Maybe it's a low standard that I have for comics, but baby steps. (Now, if only they could've gotten the Asian names right...)

The violent, hyperkinetic world of Transmetropolitan is often very silly, and sometimes pointlessly juvenile. Kind of disgusting, at times. It swings wildly between exuberance and cartoonishly futile rage (against the machine - sorry, couldn't help it). Still, for a character so awash in cynicism, Spider Jerusalem always puts a smile on my face.

On Monday I handed a Transmetropolitan trade paperback to a student, then waited for his reaction. As he flipped through the pages, his eyes grew wider and wider. "Wow. Wow! This is insane!" He couldn't stop staring at the panels, slowing down and lingering at each one. Soon, he was reading.

I knew I'd catch him taking it out surreptitiously later during the lesson, probably trying to hide it behind his worksheet. I was right. I told him to put it away, but the best comics are those you just can't resist taking another peek at - in class, or even in adulthood, years after your first time.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A (Fashion) Film I Love: I Am Love

I am quite a clothing addict, and according to my unimpressed friends, a major snob to boot. So naturally when I Am Love came out in 2009 - Italy, Tilda Swinton, fine dining, stirring violins and Jil Sander! - I wanted to dive headfirst into its depths like it was a swimming pool full of milky ricotta. (Not to mention that super-fine Sikh dude from all the Wes Anderson movies made a little cameo at a dinner scene.)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love relates the dissolution of a wealthy family of Italian manufacturers. The blonde protagonist is Emma Recchi, the younger, Russian-born wife of Tancredi, who is preparing to assume the reins of his father's industrial empire. By marrying Tancredi she has given herself completely over to the Italian bourgeoisie way of life: its culture, emphasis on conformity and tradition, painfully formal relations and calm, unchanging superiority to the modern world without. Her grown children are less impermeable, and they become unwitting gateways to Emma's eventual discovery of love and self.

The beautiful costuming was accomplished by Antonella Cannarozzi, who worked with Fendi for the men's attire and Jil Sander for the women's. There is a lot of signalling performed by the colour and style of Emma's various outfits, but I just really enjoy their beauty and sharp tailoring. In a world where more is more and the neon-glowing 80s' are back with a vengeance, the quiet confidence of Emma's red shift dress really does stand out. Unlike the frantic fuss and feathers of the Sex and the City movies and television series (I never liked that awful dreck) I think I Am Love will hold up in decades to come, alongside Maggie Cheung's silk cheongsams and Uma Thurman's blood-red lips and vampish black bob.

Here's the shift dress, in a clear orangey (?) red that I can never find at Sephora - you try being partially colour-blind and explaining to the bored salesgirl that the lipstick you're searching for absolutely has to be this particular shade:

I love shift dresses when they're made out of good cottons or silks. (Not those dull, cheap-looking polyester ones in black or grey that you see office ladies sweating through on the MRT.) A well-tailored shift dress shouldn't require a stupid skinny belt - it should be perfect as it is. I actually look pretty good in them (yay, a pleasant surprise) but I've given up hope on ever finding something as amazing as this one. The closest I've come is a stretchy coral cotton shift from Esprit, of all places, and a double-faced pale yellow Hussein Chalayan that I scored on clearance. On the hanger it looks a bit like a maxi pad with wings (it's Chalayan, not Cavalli) but when I put it on, it has the same spirit as Emma Recchi's: feminine without being ostentatious, powerful in its simplicity.

(By the way, hers is red because it's meant to signal that she's falling in love. But I'm sure you knew that.)

Speaking of love, here's Emma at a bar in a small town with her paramour, the chef:

This is casual wear for her. I love those perfect marigold tailored pants (also looking for them, but mine will have to be altered by about six inches). All of Emma's belongings and clothes are wonderfully put together, but they also signal that she is an outsider in the world of regular people, even as she battles old feelings of inferiority to her wealthy (second mention, but necessary) Italian in-laws. You can look good, but you can't win.

I love that clothing can mark you out as an alien, even when you don't intend to signal your status as one. I attended a friend's fancy wedding at the Shangri-la recently and wore bright silver stilettos, orange silk ankle-length pants from J.Crew Collection, a white Lela Rose asymmetrical-neckline top and Elizabeth Cole hematite-and-mint earrings. It was very 80s', especially since I wore my hair long and pushed to one side. I thought I would blend right in with all the middle-aged aunties, but I was the only female wearing pants that evening, and everyone below 50 was chasing youth in halter tops and short dresses. It was quite a sight.

While the bright colours signal Emma's slow awakening to love, early on in the film she is subdued in dense, dark blues and shadowy maroons. This is, again, another stunning example of Jil Sander's tailoring:

 The high neckline is what really makes the dress. It exposes a sliver of collarbone, but is almost puritan in its restraint. Ditto the sleeves, which are just a little longer than expected. Yet the dress is not deliberately baggy or frumpy - it's confident enough to step back and showcase the person wearing it. Also, I can't think of any other colour more suitable for it. Black can be very severe, but not formal enough, ironically. Navy blue is serious, profound. Black says you're either an art gallery employee, or still listening to the Smiths. Nobody's sure.

This is where tailoring and material really count, and you won't find anything resembling this dress on the high street. They'll have high-collared navy blue dresses by the carton, but they won't be thick pure cotton. They might have it in rayon, if you're lucky. It's beating a dead horse, but these days when I walk by Zara I have nightmare visions of the entire place going up in plasticky-acrid flames, because everything is 100% polyester. I don't know how women can wear so much of it in our humid, hot climate. Apart from the environmental concerns, how can anyone be comfortable wearing plastic when the thermometer's creeping past 30 degrees?

Talk about an uptight family portrait (check out the loyal retainer seated on the right - all that's missing is the Italian purebred hound). Emma's daughter is in virginal blush pink and navy blue, with a very nice pair of loafers. I like how the look is tomboyish but not childish, which again signals a good deal about the film's storyline. Notice the slight flare of the men's jackets and the traditional tailoring of their pants - these days suits are a lot more slim-cut, but then again these guys aren't big fans of change. They look rich, powerful, complacent, yes - but also a tiny bit ridiculous, in a world that is moving on without them. In her red shift (named for the post-war shift in culture), Emma is at the defiant forefront of both the picture and a brave new modernity.