Monday, September 14, 2015

Elections, Whatever

I don't talk much about it on social media, but I am pretty intensely political. The past general election has been quite a ride, as most Singaporeans know. But now I'm all politicked out; sick of skimming smug analyses, scrolling down long, hostile comment threads, being held captive by ranting taxi drivers (my last taxi fare was paid to a man who insisted that Goh Chok Tong was his MP - in East Coast GRC).

As a liberal, the election results were naturally disappointing. My own cancer-stricken grandfather insisted on being wheeled downstairs to vote for the PAP - he hasn't voted in a long time, for health reasons - because, in his own words, "they gave out money this year". That might explain the 10 per cent islandwide swing towards the men in white: it's the last rattling gasp of the old. Also the sentimental: a truly nauseating meme being passed around via WhatsApp - of course I got it from my relatives, the staunch PAP supporters - shows LKY and his wife ascending a staircase, surrounded by Taiwanese-cartoon style hearts and clouds. A speech bubble in Mandarin reads: "Thank you everyone for supporting our boy Ah Loong." There are no words.

Call me Angela Merkel - or even Margaret Thatcher, if you want to be a bitch about it - but sentiment is no way to decide on your country's future. I was especially disheartened to hear several women I know using it as their reason for voting the PAP this year. They hadn't read the party manifestos, they didn't know anything about the candidates, they didn't read the news - but they voted because they felt an outpouring of emotion for the Lee family (as if the old man, were he still alive, would have given two cryogenically-frozen shits about their sympathy) and by extension, the party.

Ah well. It's all over and done with, and the next five years will be interesting to watch. There's a global recession predicted to happen, so time to batten down the hatches and get through the storm. Time to return to the fundamentals, to stay home and save money and work and think and write, and maybe - the closest I'll ever get to sentiment - to dream a little, inside.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Bit late to the party, I know, but I didn't get a chance to watch it in the theatres when it came out and then I forgot about it until I saw the title pop up on Apple TV.

I read John Le Carre's novel when I was in my late teens, and it was revelatory - neat, surgical writing, paper-dry wit, emerging tendrils of a genuine grief at its buried core. (Of course it led to my bad decision-making right after graduation. A very brief, false start that in hindsight, spoiled me for any future employment alongside other grown-ups.) Le Carre wrote it after his cover was blown by Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five, and his intelligence career subsequently ended. I think the sorrow and anger at his sudden loss turned out to be key ingredients in the novel.

I previously watched director Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2008) and thought it was good, but didn't really care for the story. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic text that has been filmed before, but I've never watched either the BBC series or the Alec Guinness film. I don't think I need to. Tomas Alfredson's effort was beautiful - stylish without being bleak for the sake of it, grey and brooding without tipping over into self-parody. Lots of movies these days - especially pulpy superhero ones, which I suppose need it most - seem to 'go dark' as a cheap way to up the stakes visually and emotionally. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has the darkness pre-built into the script, and the film's events unfold at their own pace. Brutality is delivered plainly, without needing to be heralded or celebrated as if it was a highlight. (I did squeal and cover my eyes at the more gruesome set pieces, though.)

It's been noted that the camera in the film takes the role of voyeur, watching the actors in motion from a distance. My favourite sequence was the scene where Polyakov's wife Irina discovers his infidelity. The viewer takes Ricki Tarr's (Tom Hardy) position in his own hotel room, where he is spying through a telescope on the Russian delegation's hotel across the street. In the lit stretch of full-length windows we see 1) Irina open the front door on the left, and the other members of the delegation weakly attempting to dissuade her from entering the bedroom. Striding down the length of the sitting room, she brushes them off and 2) opens the bedroom door to see Polyakov fucking a brunette in bed, who escapes as poor Irina goes berserk and 3) promptly has her head slammed several times against the window by her not-so-loving husband, whereupon 4) she stumbles into the bathroom on the furthest right to weep, and eventually raises her bloodstained face to confront the viewer's spying eye (i.e. Ricki's, in the film).

Irina's eventual sad ending is particularly awful, given that in her brief appearance she shows a commendable intelligence and self-preserving distrust lacking in the other characters, who are blinded by ego or loyalty. Besides her small part and a token appearance by Sovietologist Connie Sachs, there aren't many women in the film, but then it was a man's world in the 1960s. Actually, a third woman haunts the film - George Smiley's wife Ann, whose face is never seen, but whose absence and betrayal have settled into the very centre of his being. Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a man who has not come to terms with the loss of his wife, but instead has become defined by it.

On a more shallow note, I am absolutely in love with the aesthetics of the film - the smoke rising from cigarettes and pipes, tweed and corduroy and leather, dusty bookshelves and desks piled high with paper in all its forms: books and notes and files and boxes. Every table seems to hold a crystal decanter of something amber and strong, and a cut-glass ashtray smeared with ash. Their world is muted in blue and grey tones, everything worn down by age and use, a little shabby, like Smiley in his exile from the Circus. I wouldn't want to live in that cinematic world - too cold, hate wearing sweaters - but it's beautiful, nonetheless.

I won't bore further with my discount cinema studies undergrad analysis of the film. I'll have to hunt down the rest of Le Carre's trilogy and read them, although I'm aware neither will likely match up to the severe beauty of that first book, an elegy for years of service, torn away by a bitter wind.

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.

*Egregious error - I meant Kill Your Heroes.

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.