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.