Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy in Sri Lanka is a town, not a city. There are no Starbucks, no McDonald's, no malls. There is a lake, and steep hills looming over the low-rise buildings. Even further away, shrouded in fog and jungle, is a promise of mountains, called the Knuckles for their anatomical resemblance.

Heat-suffocated Singaporeans are most impressed by the temperature in Kandy. Even in sunlit June it hovers around 27 degrees in the day time, the wind picking up a little towards nightfall. It gets colder when it rains, practically cardigan weather. The waters of the lake ripple in the breeze and the overhanging trees shake leaves onto the surface. Traffic is busy, but when a monk enfolded in orange robes wishes to cross, a policeman holds up his hand and the vehicles jam their brakes. Stray dogs seize the opportunity to follow, limping across to search out charitable packets of rice and vegetable curry tucked in the crevices of a whitewashed pedestrian bridge.

Women arrayed in white sarees and dresses pick their way down the pot-holed sidewalk, on their way to school or work or temple. The Sinhalese wear their sarees differently, with a girlish ruffle at the waist, and their freshly laundered cotton is plainer than most other South Asians', but I like them the better for it. The Kandians reserve colour for the town itself. After all, to borrow Diana Vreeland's over-quoted line: "Pink is the navy blue of India." Compared to the hot tones of its neighbour, Kandy pink is turned down to a lower volume. It's a shade found peeling on century-old Catholic churches, faded signboards and floor tiles. Kandy pink is endangered, giving way to red fume-choked buses, red and green auto-rickshaws and glowing neon signs ('DINA(blink)PALA') perched atop prosperous businesses.

Still, grey concrete seems to be the dominant theme of Kandy's buildings. Stained, smeared, weathered by rain, age and innumerable hands, objects and animals trailing over its uneven surface: the concrete has the look of ruins, archaeological finds for a future millennium. It's not always ugly, please understand. Sometimes it rises above the dust and dilapidation to achieve self-satisfied triumph: concrete over time, man over nature's laws. Then you round the corner and find a leaking pile of trash, a man in ragged clothing squatting on the ground, waiting.

Two days is more than enough for Kandy town itself. There's not much to do beyond touring Buddhist shrines and inspecting strands of pearls, gemstones and beads. I wish we could run up the mountains, check in at a decadent hill resort with rose petals in the tub and wild boars ambling past the front door, but we're here to attend a family wedding and the rest of our time is occupied. In the hot, stuffy cultural hall, where we stand on stage and watch the interminable sequences of Hindu marriage rites, I sway on my high heels dreaming of cold air, mist rolling down mountain summits, and the morning soundscape of the forest. One day.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Benevolence Riots

If you like rock music, even the poppy variety, the current decade is most definitely not kind. But once in a while something good comes along, even if it's so young it creeps me out a bit.

This is Benevolence Riots by Gang of Youths, from Sydney, Australia. I first heard them on Triple J. I never used to listen to Triple J much when I was in Melbourne, but they've got an interesting cover series that's on YouTube. Most of the covers are by aggressively hipster types, performing ironic takes on Taylor Swift or droning their way through obscure indie B-sides released three months ago. Then along comes this five-man band who do an absolutely sincere, cracking cover of LCD Soundsystem's All My Friends (now that's a track I'm saving for my funeral) and it's been a long time since I've heard anything so goddamned fun, and how old again did they say they were? 22?

The band is so new that they've only just completed their first tour of Australia in support of their debut album. The brain behind Gang of Youths is evidently the vocalist and songwriter, a half-Samoan in thick-framed specs and a nose ring. I note his race because I love how multi-racial the band is, so truly reflective of modern Australian society. It was only ten years ago that I switched on the TV and realised that everyone was white, when half of the city outside my window was yellow, brown and black. It was also only ten years ago that "losing my shit on the sidewalk/covered in strangers' eyes" was a real possibility, before the comforting anaesthesia of just getting older numbed everything and I realised it was indeed possible to keep trudging on, day in and day out.

I've bought all their available tracks on iTunes and they haven't disappointed. Sure, the music video above is cringe-worthy crap (and pretty similar to AWOLnation's jock anthem, Sail) but they're just starting out. The song posted here - Benevolence Riots - is still amazingly self-assured. Like most of their album, it stems from a failed relationship between the vocalist and a girl who had cancer. (That's a lot of shit to deal with by 40, let alone 22.) There's also a catchy track called Evangelists (the band members met in the Hillsong church movement): "I have made more friends in hell/than I've made in Jesus land." Hey, me too.

I hope they make it big, and they don't do drugs or descend into petty griping and group therapy (see Metallica), and they last a long, long time as mates in a band. At 22, the future always seems like forever.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cafe Culture

Last year a coffee and sandwich cafe opened up across the road from me. It joined a wood-panelled organic frozen yogurt shop, a French patisserie and a perpetually crowded ice-cream parlour slash art gallery. These outposts of the brave new gentrification sit uncomfortably next to coffeeshops, barbers, maid agencies and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Old men and women shuffle from one void deck to another, some collecting cans or stacking cardboard. Stray cats amble over to the wet market stalls, waving their insolent tails at the durian-seller with his cleaver poised to whack open a D24. It's that kind of neighbourhood.

I do tend to visit the new shops more than the old. My Mandarin is bad enough that I can't speak properly to the people at traditional stalls, but good enough that I can understand their exasperated grumbling about me. Why go through the inevitable stress and grimacing, when I can simply walk into a designer space with Moroccan tiles and order a freshly ground, single-origin flat white? I can have lunch seated comfortably at a long wooden bar, where the sunlight is perfect for an Instagram snap of my smoked salmon and arugula sandwich.

Lately the novelty has been dying out. It's not that cheap, for starters, to buy a $6 coffee and a $14 sandwich and finish off with an $8 biodynamic coconut fro-yo. And there's something unbearable at times about the chirpy, clueless teenaged servers, the constant rotation of Josh Groban and Feist, the owners' friends who drop by to reminisce loudly about their corporate warrior days and express opinions about the media, politics, terrorism. Stabbing into a wetly dressed salad while listening to all three of the above, the moment feels overexposed, an inept photograph passing itself off as deliberate art.

I've never wanted to own or run a cafe. I don't have the people skills, or the desire to clean toilets and kitchens on a daily basis. But I sometimes daydream about what an ideal neighbourhood cafe would look like. The kind of place you can visit regularly, feel almost at home in.

In doing so I often find myself returning mentally to a cafe in Melbourne's Hardware Lane, an alleyway with a minor reputation for being touristy and filled with touts. This cafe was shabby, small, tucked in a nondescript corner. It was dark and cool in the early morning, with dusty pickle jars like cucumber glass tombs squatting on marble-topped tables. They had a black monolith of a 90s'-era CD player in a corner. The blues were playing, turned down low in order to help customers ease into the day. There was no avocado or flaxseed on the menu, just your basics: espresso, latte, flat white, ham and cheese. They did tell you which farms the ham and cheese were from, though.

It was great. If I had known it existed I would have had breakfast there every day. The blond server was freshly scrubbed, friendly, efficient. The white marble was cold against my elbows and the hiss of the espresso machine and the clink of cup against saucer were the only sounds coming from the counter. Not that the workers were monkishly silent, just quiet, low-voiced. Laid-back.

Other cafes along the stretch were more crowded. They offered superfood green fritters, poached eggs, cold-drip coffee and Japanese filtration methods. They had tattooed servers with ironically waxed moustaches and certificates in teaching yoga. Going into one of these cafes felt like making an effort to keep up and be part of a constantly moving newness that was raw and exhausting.

In Singapore, the closest to my ideal cafe that I can think of is the PS Cafe outlet at Palais Renaissance, which is arguably the oldest, least hip of the entire chain, apart from their in-mall outpost in Paragon. I like the fresh flowers, the black and white tiles, the brass details and high ceilings. It hasn't changed in 20 years. Expensive, of course, but that's Orchard Road for you.

If I had a cafe in my neighbourhood I would keep it open late at night, and early in the morning. No Pinterest rainbow cakes, or red velvet nonsense. No craft beers with cutesy names. Dogs allowed, larger dogs preferred. Zinc countertop for the bar, pendant lighting, those marble-topped tables. Everything a bit scratched, beaten up from use. A place for grown-ups to sit, have a coffee, a bite, a little time to think. You'd walk in, say hello, survey the specials, get your usual order. Inhale the scent of baking bread. The servers would respectfully leave you alone and you'd feel free to walk up to the counter to grab napkins, straws, whatever. If it rained you wouldn't mind waiting it out. Lean back in your seat, elbows on the marble, watch the world outside get wet while you stay dry. Flash photography banned, food bloggers thrown out on sight.

If I had a cafe, it would go bankrupt in two weeks. But it's always nice to dream.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Teenage Wasteland

The other half is overseas for a week. I thought I would have at least one lazy evening spent in front of the television with the dog, renting animated kiddie movies with his credit card (the husband's, not the dog). But my parents essentially kidnapped me (and dog) after work on the same day, so here I am ensconced in the bosom of the family home. The dog is very pleased.

I'm not ungrateful. It's nice to have my mom make me breakfast in the morning, and my dad buying home dinner, and my brother around to walk the dog and chat about technology and travel and show me funny videos. We have tea-time at four p.m. (pot of tea, sugar cubes, little teaspoons) aided by my mother's snack pantry - a little side table topped with a blue Japanese tea-cloth, laden with cookies and pineapple cakes and nuts and seaweed. The flat is wonderfully clean and tidy and comfortable: it smells like clean sheets and eucalyptus-scented candles.

It makes me realise that I am somehow still not fully grown up, and most likely will never be, according to my parents' standards. My own home is best described as "semi-controlled chaos", and my own snack pantry consists of one half-eaten, expired pack of Tim Tams. It doesn't help that in the rush to pack (my dad was waiting in the car) I forgot to bring most of the accoutrements of adulthood: contact lenses, perfume, moisturiser, lipstick, grown up clothes, designer sunglasses. Squinting myopically through glasses, I look like I did at 17, minus the soft bloom of youth.

At 17 I slumped around the house on weekends, assiduously avoiding chores, bewailing the fact that I was bored and had no plans for Saturday night. Today I slump around the house offering to help with the chores, but my mother - very out of character for her - keeps telling me to have a little holiday and relax. The downside, of course, is that my social calendar has also been replaced by theirs: "You should come to your baby cousin's birthday party tomorrow night."

"I can't," I told my mother. "I have... uh.... hang on, I'm thinking."

My usual go-to excuses - "laundry" or "cleaning" or just "I already have plans" - are obviously no longer valid now that I'm here, plainly within view. I am not used to this level of scrutiny anymore. One of the greatest joys of adulthood is that you can just say "no, thanks, I'm busy" and nobody ever says "What are you so busy with?"

I must find some way of avoiding these events while I am here - they have a cell group meeting scheduled tonight, very awkward - but now that my friends are adults like myself, it's not like I can call them up (on their home phones!) and ask if they want to hang out in four hours' time. They have their grown-up lives, whereas I've temporarily time-travelled back to the year 2000. My own need to plan meet-ups three weeks in advance has really backfired on me now.

I wish I could bring my dog to the mall. We would go to Nando's and just order chicken livers and iced water. Then we'd watch a movie (he'd want to see Cinderella, but I'm paying, so we'd pick Kingsman) and I'd pick out a nice cravat on-screen to buy for him off Mr Porter. Then we'd walk home and hunt for rats in the long grass. (No wonder my husband says I'm a crazy dog lady.)

Anyway this whole experience has given me a new sympathy for my students, who frequently express frustration and boredom with eeeeeeeeverythiiiiiiiiing (rolls eyes, sighs heavily, slumps down on table in defeat). It's tough to be a teenager, even when you're 31.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Depeche Mode - Home

When life gets a little bit rough, hunker down and keep going with the help of Martin Gore's sweet tenor. Growing up at the tail-end of the 90s', Depeche Mode had already become that weird old band on MTV, one of their last singles (It's No Good) on repeat five times an hour as I slumped half-asleep in front of the TV. I liked their shiny, dark aesthetic but found them a little monotonous, being a shallow 14-year-old.

The next time I noticed them, I was working as a relief teacher in my former secondary school and caught my old Literature teacher - who must have been in her late 20s then - twirling down the carpeted corridor in the deserted teachers' room, lustily belting "I want somebody to share, share the rest of my life..." She was unfazed by her unexpected audience, but I fled in embarrassment (mine, not second-hand). It was a bit like catching your parents making out.

While I've always gravitated to the harder-sounding Depeche Mode singles (sorry, not cool enough for the B-sides), I find Home very soothing late at night, almost hypnotic. It's both depressing and uplifting at the same time, as Martin Gore delicately mourns: "Finally I've found/That I belong here". You have to be a little bit older, a little beaten by life to appreciate that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Places I Want To See That Might Be Wholly Imaginary

Pale marble ruins, afternoon shadows lengthening in the sunlight. The smell of ancient stone cloisters, sad-eyed statues, feathered wings taking flight outside. Black and white squares, walked on for a hundred years and more. Cracked, yellowing plaster and wavy glass: an old man behind the counter hawking Catholic dogma.

Shocking blue aquarium pools and green waxed leaves, cool rainforest and warm sand. Two gardenias for you, sings a dolorous trumpet playing late into the night. Coconut-white petals unfold, ice cubes clink in a sweating cocktail glass, an open-air bar somewhere in South America. A stray dog saunters past, tending to its own business. Insects call to their mates in the dark.

A clean glass bubble in the snowy barrens, centrally heated. Fur covers, rustic Scandinavian blankets, a snowdrift of pillows. The green-red-pink aurora shifting, playing in the otherworld above: a message from God if you're feeling religious, or just a cosmic disco. Turn the lights off, huddle in bed and watch the stars glitter in black space, as distant and familiar as the ice frosting the earth beyond.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day Playlist

It's that time of the year again, one that I don't actually celebrate. But I do like Valentine's Day. Outside of the overpriced dinners, slave-labour flowers and capitalist cashing-in (you can tell I'm a real romantic) it's a fun occasion without too much pressure, and it takes my mind off the Chinese New Year festivities.

This February I've been listening to some new(ish) music - fine, mostly old music. First up:

1. Pulp - Do You Remember The First Time

Pulp's superiority lies in its lyrics, which somehow manage to tell wonderfully evocative stories within three and a half minutes while being sly, sexy and even humorous at the same time.

Their charm of course emanates from Jarvis Cocker, who is a true original: a lanky, myopic bug of a man thrusting elegantly on stage, affecting surprise and hauteur behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His interview with Stephen Merchant is incredibly funny - he tells stories about falling off a balcony to impress a girl, and stopping a gig half-way to search for his missing specs; the joke always lands gently on him, somehow.

I was initially taken by this particular track off their His 'n' Hers album (1994) because of the candid follow-up line to the title in the chorus: "Do you remember the first time?/I can't remember a worse time" - so unexpected, but so true! The narrative, true to Cocker-form, is about sleeping with a woman who's already got a boyfriend, one that naturally seems very dull in comparison to Jarvis Cocker's languid seduction: "Now I don't care what you're doing/No I don't care if you screw him, just as long as you save a piece for me".

Towards the end, the frustrated desire swells into a crescendo of contempt and disbelief: "Well at least there's someone there that you can talk to/and you never have to face up to the night on your own/Jesus it must be great, to be straight". (This is a track just begging to be covered by a lesbian with a great big growly voice - sorry, Sophie Monk, but your BBC cover is decidedly a lightweight).

The music video may give you nausea, but I generally don't look at the screen and instead sing along at top volume, scaring the dog awake from his nap.

2. Kylie Minogue - All The Lovers 

I somehow made it through the last 15-20 years of pop music consumption without realising that Kylie Minogue is a really good performer, a tiny firecracker in glittery minis and leopard print heels. Like, good enough that I would seriously consider paying to watch her live.

This is All The Lovers from her 2010 album Aphrodite. It's a great dancey pop track, one that puts you in a good mood automatically. How can you not be, when Kylie is asking you so sweetly to dance, and give her a little bit more?

Another nice thing about Kylie live is that she often re-arranges her old hits, so there are probably at least ten different versions of All The Lovers floating around YouTube, not including remixes. I'm partial to her Motown version of The Loco-Motion (BBC2, Maida Vale gig). She does a purer pop-orchestra version of All The Lovers on her Abbey Road Sessions album, but it seems to lose a little of its edge. The original is good enough for me.

3. Disclosure - January

I was a bit depressed to learn that Disclosure were technically half-in their teens (!) when they produced their critically acclaimed Settle album in 2012. What was I doing when I was 17? (Answer: wearing ripped jeans, still listening to Green Day and Blink 182.) I cheered myself up by introducing my teenage students to Disclosure, pointing out that while some of them were still struggling with past and present tenses, the baby-faced Disclosure brothers were pumping out UK hit singles and being very, very cool.

I know everyone loves Sam Smith and therefore they also love Latch, the massive Disclosure hit featuring his rather sheep-like bleat (don't get me wrong, it's not unpleasant - well, in small doses) but I favour January from the same album, which has the added mystery of vocals by Jamie Woon, a one-time promising UK R&B/trip-hop artiste who flamed out in 2012 from an undisclosed (ha ha) injury and hasn't been heard from since, apart from this track.

I have no idea what the significance of 22nd January is (graduation night? first kiss? O-level results?) but it goes down so smoothly, like quicksilver for the ears, no cheese at all. It's unfair that some people are so sophisticated at such a young age, but I don't mind if it means they have more time ahead of them to keep crafting electronic beauties like this.

4. Roxy Music - Over You

Last and best of all, the inimitable Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music with Over You, from their Flesh and Blood album. Yes, the video I chose is not actually Bryan Ferry, the reason being Roxy Music is ancient enough that YouTube has only fuzzy TV recordings with shitty sound quality. So here's a British cover band, Roxyrama, with a Bryan Ferry soundalike who's almost perfect - a few too many floppy head tilts, but otherwise just as insouciant and debonair as the original.

There's a great Roxy Music performance floating around that has Bryan Ferry smoking a cigarette while singing Over You - the long instrumental break allows him to enjoy a slow drag on it. The year is 1980 and his voice hasn't broken down yet. I recognise that this is a sick personal preference (one that's been proven hazardous to health), but I adore the way he holds his cigarette oh-so-nonchalantly and raises it to his mouth while dancing - OK, humping the microphone stand. I can see how he ended up scoring with his son's ex-girlfriend.

The lyrics are ridiculously simple, as befits a song written in five minutes. But what else do you need to describe the no man's land of unrequited affection? "Oh baby/this is nowhere/wish I was somewhere/over you." It moves briskly on to a common-sense coda: "Some day/yes it might come babe/When I'll be babe/over you". Not poetry, but the last thing you need in a situation like that is deathless verse. You need a quick pop fix, an optimistic guitar solo and a jaunty wave goodbye. Save all that romance nonsense for the next single.