The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Category: Musings

“That’s something we write for white people”


I know, I am super late to the game. Everyone worth his or her salt and MSG has already written about Calvin Trillin’s piece about Chinese food “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in the New Yorker.

I was quite nonplussed at his poem; it was a fairly tasteless poem, at best skirting around blandly with race while trying to give the impression that it was edgy and exciting. However, I was rather intrigued by the second stanza.

Now, as each brand-new province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away near Tibet?
Have they run out of provinces yet?

I’ll explain why that stanza piqued my interest after this fun story:

Near where I live, there’re a couple of Chinese takeout places. One claimed to be Hunan, but was probably about as Hunan as Trillin’s piece was insightful. Maybe the owners were indeed from Hunan, and that Hunan takeout restaurant merely meant “Hunan people making Chinese American food for people”. In fact, my neighbourhood being primarily Caribbean, Haitian and African American, their best seller, aside from General Tso Chicken Special, was actually fried chicken wings with french fries. Every time I go in there and wait for my order, most of the clientele would order “Fried Chicken Wing w FF”. I was probably the only one who bothers to look at the menu.

One night, after work, I was feeling kinda lazy and I just wanted Chinese takeout. As anyone in the U.S. knows, on Chinese takeout menus, under the noodles section there are usually “chow mein” dishes. I had no idea what chow mein was exactly, but since I speak Mandarin, I assumed it was simply fried noodles, because it sounds like “chao mian” (炒面). In my experience of ordering fried noodles, they’re usually fried wheat or egg noodles. So I went up to the acrylic-shielded counter and ordered in Mandarin, “I’ll have an order of barbecue pork fried noodles (叉烧炒面), number 18.”

She responded back in Mandarin, “Number 18? Oh you want fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉, chao mi fen)?”

I was confused. I asked, “Hang on, doesn’t number 18 say ‘chow mein’? That’s fried (wheat/egg) noodles, right?”

“Ohh. no,” she said. “That ‘chow mein’ is simply something we write for white people. While ‘chow mein’ does sound like fried noodles, it actually refers to rice vermicelli here. White people order ‘chow mein’ and get rice vermicelli and they don’t know the difference anyway.”

“Ah, I see. Uh, ok, so can I get the barbecue pork fried vermicelli then?”

“Sure thing.”

“So who orders the chow mein if most of the people here order fried chicken wings and french fries?”

“White people.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Simple days of chow mein but no stress,/When we never were faced with the threat/Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”? Trillin, I was pretty stressed out ordering that chow mein. I went into that Hunan takeout place expecting to go home with an order of fried egg noodles and left with an order of fried rice vermicelli instead. I’m not sure if universally in New York chow mein is always rice vermicelli, because some of my friends attest to them actually getting egg noodles, but they always order in English. In another Chinese eatery (cha chan teng) in Chinatown, I saw a sign for chow mein, but it was thankfully accompanied by the Chinese characters for rice vermicelli. I confidently ordered the chow mein this time expecting rice vermicelli.

It’s hard enough to be an expert on Chinese food, even as a Chinese person. But Trillin, when you claim that life might have been better in the simple chow mein days, I’m afraid you’ve simply been eating rice vermicelli all along, and it’s hard for me to take you seriously.

Notes on how to pronounce Malay words in ‘Semoga Bahagia’

Singaporean musical group The TENG Ensemble did a cover of one of my favourite childhood songs, “Semoga Bahagia,” which translates loosely from Malay into “wishing you happiness” or according to Wikipedia, “May you achieve happiness.” Their use of traditional Chinese instruments for the song makes for a wonderful arrangement, led by local indie singer Inch Chua, who sounds great.

However, and some have noticed and commented on the ensemble’s Facebook post about the video, Chua does not quite get the pronunciations of the words right. Chua’s pronunciation is a highly Anglicised/Americanised vowel/consonant map, informed by her Chinese background. If the TENG Ensemble ever wishes to redo their video — and I think they’ve indicated their interest in doing so — here’s my notes on how to get the Malay words right. An understanding of IPA transcription will help in understanding this post better but even if not, I’ll try to transcribe it in an easily understandable format.

Note 1: The Malay language uses flapped/tapped r’s (/r/), which is similar to the r’s in Spanish, Japanese, and many other languages in the world. It does not use the rhotic r (/ɹ/) English uses.

Note 2: Vowels in spoken Malay tend to be preserved in their lengths and rarely shortened unless spoken very fast. Therefore words like “jiwa” should sound like “jee-wah” (/dʒiwa/) rather than “juh-wah” (/dʒɪwa/). When singing, it’s especially important to preserve the vowels since they become very apparent when shortened.

Note 3: Malay does not usually do aspirated consonants. There is strong aspiration in Chua’s d’s in “pemudi-pemuda,” which is how we usually pronounce d’s in English. Thus the Malay “d” sounds different from the way one would pronounce “dog” in English, which has an audible breathy release in the initial consonant. (Contrast the d consonant in “dog” vs. “dandan 淡淡”)

Note 4: In Malay orthography, “ng” is the velar nasal (/ŋ/), even if it’s between two vowel. Thus “dengan” is “duh-ng-an” and not “deng-gan.” (/dəŋan/) Same with “c” it’s a postalveolar affricate (/tʃ/) as in “ch-urch” and never an “s” sound.

And now for the second-by-second analysis! My comments will be in the form of (observation); followed by suggestion if applicable.

  • Pandai cari [0:35] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • pelajaran [0:39] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • jaga diri [0:46] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • kesihatan [0:49] — Chua said kAH-see-ha-tan; kuh-see-haa-tan, preserve e vowel, don’t aspirate t.
  • Serta sopan santun [0:53] — mispronounced, rolled r; SER-TA sopan santun.
  • dengan [0:58] — good job on de-NG-an!
  • bersih serta suci [1:23] — rolled r; do flapped r instead, preserve all r’s.
  • hormat dan berbudi [1:27] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • jaga tingkah [1:29] — k consonant dropped; preserve the k sound in tingkah, but lightly released.
  • Capailah [1:38] — diphtong aɪ changed to vowel a; don’t drop the i in ca-pAI-lah.
  • pemudi-pemuda [1:42] — aspirated d’s; don’t aspirate d, especially audible in pemuDA.
  • kita ada harga [1:48] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • di mata dunia [1:50] — good job on the d! This is the example of the unaspirated d.
  • kalau kita [2:10] — a vowel changed to e (/a/ to /ə/); preserve A vowel, kAH-lau instead of kUH-lau.
  • lengah [2:12] — added a g consonant; there is no g consonant, it’s pronounced le-ng-ah, not len-gah.
  • serta [2:13] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • hidup [2:15] — Chua said he-daap (/hidap/); it’s pronounced he-doop (/hidup/)
  • sia-sia [2:16] — Chua said saya-saya (/saɪya-saɪya/); it’s see-ah see-ah (/sia-sia/)
  • jiwa [2:19] — Chua said juh-wah (/jəwa/); preserve all vowels, it’s pronounced jee-wah
  • besar sihat serta segar [2:19] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • dengan (2:23) — good example of dengan.
  • perangai pemudi [2:28] — rolled r, aspirated d; do flapped r instead, don’t aspirate d.
  • cergas [2:31] – Chua said sergas, rolled r; it’s pronounced CHeRgas, ch consonant, do flapped r instead
  • suka rela [2:35] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • berbakti [2:37] — rolled r; do flapped r instead. This word is also an example of unreleased ‘k’
  • sikap yang pembela [2:38] — vowel was changed to p-uhm-bUH-la (/pəmbəla/); preserve vowel, it’s p-uhm-bAY-la (/pəmbela/).
  • berjasa [2:41] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • capailah [2:44] — see before
  • pemudi-pemuda [2:47] — see before
  • rajinlah supaya berjasa [2:52] — rolled r; do flapped r instead.
  • semoga bahagia [2:56] — bahagia was pronounced as bUH-ha-g-i-a (/bəhagia/); preserve the A vowel in “ba,” making it bAH-ha-gi-a (//bahagia/). It’s ok to break “gia” into “gi-a” for stylistic purposes but “ba” should remain “ba.” In Malay, “be” (/bə/) and “ba” (/ba/) are contrastive.

Hey, no one ever said Malay was easy, right?

Here’s an example of the song sung by a Malay person (I’m assuming) with all the right consonant sounds, although I think it’s interesting when he overdoes some of his r’s and turns it into a trill [0:33].

It’s a lovely touch that gives it a very folksy flavour, that I’ve heard sometimes older Malay Singaporeans do than younger ones. It’s not quite dissimilar in Japanese, where the flapped r can become a trilled r, called makijita (巻き舌 or rolled tongue), and it is sometimes associated with rural communities, and — interestingly — with the Yakuza and in war cries (“uorrrrrrryaa!”). Pay attention to how he pronounces his d’s, r’s, t’s, and k’s.

Hopefully this will help the TENG Ensemble and Inch Chua make a better second version of the song hitting all the right sounds of the wonderful Bahasa Melayu. After all, nobody wants to hear an ang-mor-cised version of our Chinese songs, do we?


(Woe…. da…. zheeeah.. gay woe! Eee shwaang zheeaan ding zhhh paaang….!!!)

Aftermath of a Singapore Election

The sun rose, as it always did, but one would not have noticed it. It hid behind a haze, some say the courtesy of Indonesia, but I know better. Hanging thick in the air was a calm that belied people’s true feelings from the frenzy of live tweets, climbing numbers, excitement and disappoint and clamour the night before.

An elderly Chinese man, pushing his bicycle along the foot of a HDB flat, walks up to an elderly Indian man. “Ehhh! PAP ar?” the Chinese man said, shaking the Indian man’s hand. “Ya,” replied the Indian man as they both shared a laughter, and then they parted ways.

The kopitiam was divided. Laughter and merriment rang from some tables, while nearby sullen tables glanced angry sidelong glares, with some shaking their heads.

Wa lau eh, why like that?” piped one.

Bo pian, what can we do?” said another, showing characteristic Singaporean spirit.

“Well, at least Lee Kuan Yew got what he wanted before the ghost gates closed. I guess his spirit can now return in peace.”

“Eh, I ask you ar, do you think his spirit went to heaven or to hell ah?”

Aiyoh, you think leh?”

“…aiyah my GRC no fight one lah! But then hor, I still voted opposition anyway just to show them what for!”

“I know it’s not going to make a difference, but I don’t want the PAP to become too complacent mah. They cannot keep on doing what they’re doing without answering to anyone right?”

“But even if you did that, got change anything meh?”

“So you stay up until how late last night?”

“I stay until 12 midnight, then I buay tahan liao. Anyway next day wake up see the results, see on the spot, also the same what.”

“So what you think? Who did you vote for?”

Aiyoh I tell you then still call elections for what?”

Nearby, an incense paper shop owner gave instructions on how to burn the offerings as the Hungry Ghost Festival drew to a close.

And Singapore lived through another General Elections.

The interview that never got published


As some of you may know, I am currently writing for the International Business Times. On the day the snowstorm was supposed to hit, I pitched a story wondering how various cities in the United States Northeast were going to help the homeless. I got to go to the historic Bowery Mission in Manhattan, and the operations director Matt Krivich was kind enough to show me around. Beyond that, he helped with my request to talk to one of the homeless who was seeking shelter from the storm.

I got to interview Gerald Hudson, an African-American Vietnam War veteran. As much as I wished I could have written the interview as it was spoken to me, I had to quote Hudson as I would in an article; that is in the third person. Here is how the interview went as Hudson and I spoke.

Me: Are you keeping warm from this storm?

Gerald Hudson: I’m just trying my best, man.

Me: Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?

GH: Sure thing! I just want to let you know, thanks to this Mission, I have the warmest equipment around.

Me: What do you mean by “warmest equipment?”

GH: A jacket, man. This Mission gave me a jacket.

Me: Is that the one you’re wearing right now?

GH: No way. I only wear that specially when I go out. I ain’t gonna wear that in here. Do you want me to show you?

Me: Is that alright with you?

GH: Sure! Come, follow me!

(We walk to the chapel)

GH: I’m a grateful man, and I’m always grateful for what this Mission has done for me.

(We walk to the pews where Hudson has his stuff. He lifts his bag off the pews, and hidden underneath is a nice brown jacket)

Me: That’s a very nice jacket.

GH: Yeah, it keeps me warm when I go out.

Me: So how did you know to come in here for the storm? Did someone tell you?

GH: No, I’ve been here for two weeks.

Me: Oh, so you didn’t just come in for the storm?

GH: Nah, I’ve been here for two weeks. But trust me I’m trying to get a place to live. The last time before that was six months ago.

Me: I’m sorry?

GH: I don’t want to be here too much. I’ve been here for two weeks, and the last time I had to be here was six months ago.

Me: Oh, Where were you during the time you were not here. Did you have a place to stay?

GH: Yea, kind of.

Me: What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?

GH: Bad things happened, violence and stuff. I’m just trying to get a permanent place to stay, you know that? But I’m just waiting for the right time for that to happen.

Me: I’m sure that will work out for you one day.

GH: I’m a vet, you know that? Vietnam War.

Me: I’m grateful for what you’ve done for the country, as I’m sure many others are.

GH: I came back, and I had a hard time. I’m at the epitome of… of… (can’t remember what he said here)

Me: Are you a religious man?

GH: I’m a believer, I’m a believer in God, in the Father, and that he will take care of me.

Me: Well I hope things work out for you.

GH: I hope so too. Hey man you know I gotta try, but would you by any chance…? (hand gestures) But I don’t think you can right?

Me: I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to give anything. I wish you all the best.

GH: Alright you take care too, God bless.

Singapore’s obsession with “tsap”

These four have something in common: "tsap".

These four have something in common: “tsap”.

Many of Singapore’s many iconic dishes: bak chor mee (minced meat noodles), chilli crab, Hokkien prawn mee, to name a few, tend to have a commonality — more often than not, they all have “tsap” (汁) or sauce/gravy in them. No matter Malay, Indian, or Chinese, Singapore dishes are sauce-heavy and gravy-generous. Singapore’s love for sauces and gravy doesn’t stop at local dishes, but extends its saucy reach to foreign cuisines localised in the country. It is hardly ever talked about, but even in “tsap” can we tease out what it means for a dish to be “truly Singaporean”.

How does Singapore’s love affair with “tsap” contribute to establishing identity? The answer lies with how we localise foreign food. Cuisine localisation anywhere in the world takes into consideration local preferences, and modifies the dish accordingly. For example, mapo tofu in the United States is generally always saltier and less spicy than its Asian counterparts (true can be said for most Chinese food in the U.S. really).

Now in Singapore, discussion of food localisation usually surrounds taste: food is usually made less salty, less greasy, etc. But modification of texture to imported cuisines goes unnoticed, because something as simple as sauce is so basic to a dish that we forget it exists, just as we don’t think about how we breathe and taste. That does not mean we cannot learn something about our psyche and approach towards food from “tsap”.

Case in point: carbonara pasta and pasta with marinara sauce. Carbonara in Singapore is usually heavy on the cream sauce — Singaporeans want to see their pasta sitting in a pool of it, and one of Singapore’s biggest pasta chain Pastamania serves their pasta carbonara swimming in sauce.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore's largest pasta chains.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore’s largest pasta chains.

However, real carbonara is actually pretty dry. Be it in the United States or in Europe, most of the carbonara I’ve had outside of Singapore tend to not drown the noodles in “tsap”.


Proper carbonara lightly clings to the pasta. Not only just with carbonara, but Pastamania’s marinara dishes are akin to soup.

Pastamania's marinara vs. some other country's marinara

Pastamania’s marinara vs. some other country’s marinara

Of course, one can say that Pastamania, as a chain restaurant, isn’t representative of how the food is supposed to be served and that they serve bad pasta, but that is besides the point. What we’re looking at is how these companies think Singaporeans would like these foreign cuisine best, and their verdict: swimming in a lot of “tsap”. In my experience, not only Pastamania, but many other local pasta establishments, from chain restaurants to slightly fancy “atas” restaurants tend to be heavy-handed on the sauces.

Has anyone ever stopped to think “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?” Many will quickly point out that spiciness is an aspect. But just as Singaporeans can be pointed out in a crowd in a foreign country purely by accent alone, “tsap-heavy” food is idiosyncratic to Singapore and is an identifying element when local dishes are compared internationally. An example of “what makes X food so identifiably X?” would be Japanese dishes and their philosophy of preserving the natural flavours of the ingredients, so much so that they serve individual dishes on separate serving dishes so as not to mix flavours.

A reason, I suspect, why Singaporeans love gravy so much could be our mantra of being kiasu, or the fear of losing out. The idea that “more is better” sticks very close to our heart — why would you have less gravy when you can have more? Singaporeans get ecstatic when their dishes come more liao (料), or toppings, and having extra “tsap” comes close. Just think of how people advice when ordering cai png (economic rice) to never forget to ask the server to drizzle/drench the food with sauces, curry, and gravy in hopes of getting extra food morsels. Our desire for value (or fear of losing it) manifests itself in extra “tsap”, so much so that the gravy is sometimes as much the dining experience as the entrée itself.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

Another possible reason could be that Singaporeans are culturally averse to eating anything that is purely dry. Compare eating a baguette with eating a baguette dipped in chilli crab sauce or curry. Compare eating a plain roti prata with roti prata drowned in curry. Think about how even when we eat Khong Guan biscuits, there is a desire to dip it in hot Milo or kopi. I wonder if the heavy usage of steam and moisture in many of our cooking have led us culturally to prefer hot and moist food. Many Americans I know have no qualms about eating cold pizza (gag). In the Chinese language, hot food can be described as re pen pen (热喷喷), literally hot and spewing, and I imagine it is spewing steam; an element of moisture. I guess in English there is “piping hot”, but it conveys less the image of moisture as it does purely heat. I cannot speak for the other major languages in Singapore whether they have similar food adjectives. Gravy and “tsap” do have excellent heat-retaining properties, and are pretty wet too.

What does this say about us as a culture and the way we like our food — which is hot and wet? Well, not much, except that we like our food hot and wet. It is possible to extrapolate and say that philosophically hot food to Singaporeans is a source of comfort, and that gravy on our food not only adds flavour but serves additional soothing properties, but that is a bit of a stretch. However, simply being able to distil what makes Singaporean food so Singaporean is an exercise that can be applied to many other aspects of our lives — what makes Singaporean writing so Singaporean, or Singaporean English so Singaporean, etc etc?

So the next time someone asks “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?”, the answer is: If we love it, we lin (淋) a lot of tsap on it.

Adding South-east Asian pizzazz to pizzas

SEAsianpizza2When you think about pizzas, there are really three essential components to every pizza: the crunch (the crust), the goop (the saucy base), and the bite (toppings). If one is able to recreate these three mouthfeels, one would get a decent pizza.

By distilling the essence of pizzas down to these components, I started thinking, “Does pizza always have to have cheese or tomato sauce as a base? What if I have something else that’s also goopy, would that then make for a good pizza?”

And then I started thinking, “Has anyone ever tried to make a south-east Asian pizza that isn’t simply dumping south-east Asian ingredients on top of what is still essentially an Italian pizza, with cheese et al?” I know that people have experimented with all sorts of toppings, but invariably the goopy base always boils down to tomato sauce or cheese.

So perhaps, if I could make goop from south-east Asian cuisine, I could substitute cheese and tomato sauce for the base and make a pizza that is actually truthful to the original taste of the dish!

So on my train commute to work, I sat down and went through all the Singaporean/Malaysian dishes I knew of, and started thinking about their textures. I eventually came up with a first round of dishes a few months ago that I thought could viably be transformed to recreate the three mouthfeels that go into a pizza.

SEAsian Pizzas Round 1

southeast asian pizzasThe first round of pizzas I made for my friends were: (from left to right) Mee Rebus, Char Siew, Baingan Bharta, and Daging Rendang. These pizzas had an additional tweak in that they represented all the major ethnic groups in Singapore, but also covered all the major proteins including a vegetarian option. I’m going to list each pizza and their components.

Mee Rebus Pizza

A dish which in Malay simply means “boiled noodles.” Very unassuming sounding, but is a sweet and spicy curry that’s thickened with mashed potatoes and topped with a hard-boiled egg. I discovered that by increasing the amount of mashed potatoes in the curry gravy, one could achieve the consistency of cheese. I used the gravy as a base. There are, funnily enough, no noodles of course in this pizza, so maybe it should really be called Tak Mee Rebus Pizza, but then that just means “No boiled noodles pizza.”

I don’t really speak Malay.

I topped it with hard-boiled eggs, but also fritters. A recipe I found suggested cucur udang bawang (prawn and chive fritters) but I had a friend at the pizza dinner who is allergic to shellfish so I replaced it with chicken, making it cucur ayam bawang.

Char Siew Pizza

A Chinese barbecued pork dish, glazed with honey, maltose, garlic, and spices. I learnt to make char siew from scratch, and I discovered that the sauce is already kind of thick, perfect for setting as the base for the pizza. This one was a no-brainer, and not much alteration was necessary to make char siew into pizza. Garnished with garlic and cilantro.

Baigan Bharta Pizza

A spicy Punjab dish made from eggplants. Granted, Singapore major Indian ethnic group is Tamil, but I found baingan bharta the easiest to work with. By mashing up the eggplants, they became very goopy, which I used for the base. I then topped it with mushrooms and tomatoes, because why not? This dish is vegetarian.

Rendang Daging Pizza

A Malay dish of spicy caramelised coconut beef, where the beef is original stewed in broth and left to slow cook until the broth evaporates and is absorbed by the beef. The cooking process then turns from stewing to stir-frying.

I took a portion of the stew and thickened it, and used it as the base. I topped it with rendang, and garnished it with chilli and cilantro.

The crust for the pizza, because I’m not really an accomplished Italian chef, was some simple pizza crust recipe I took from the internet using olive oil, flour, and salt.

Since a lot of south-east Asian pizzas are usually eaten with a staple, such as rice or noodles, it made sense to replace the staples with the crust, successfully blending what is traditionally a rice or noodle dish into something completely new, while preserving all of its original flavours (sans the flavours of the rice and noodles themselves).

After the success I had for the first round of pizzas, I proceeded to make more a couple months later (which was a few days ago).

SEAsian Pizzas Round 2

SEAsianpizza2From top left clockwise: Thosai Aloo Masala, Otak-otak, Lor Mee, Singapore Chilli Crab

I decided to go further this time, and represent Singapore’s ethnicities better, while keeping the custom of varying the proteins. I also had the sense to take pictures of the making process this time. Once again, I’ll describe the pizzas.

Thosai Aloo Masala with coconut chutney

In Singapore, the food most people think of when Indian food comes to mind is immediately roti prata or thosai. I decided to go with thosai, because I’m an abysmal prata maker (I’ve tried).

Known in New York as dosa, and thosai in Singapore, it’s a vegetarian Tamil rice-and-lentil crepe dish, topped with any variety of things, from eggs to potatoes to magic. The batter is thinly poured over a flat tawa, just as crepes are. I’m very proud to say I made my own batter, fermenting idli and dal, but there was a necessity to make my own batter.


Regular thosai/dosa is too thin to turn into pizza, and I had to thicken it somehow. Simply pouring more on the tawa isn’t sufficient, because it’s quite liquidy and wouldn’t stay in place. Thus, I had to alter the proportions of rice to lentils, to achieve the consistency I needed to make a sturdy enough crust to hold the toppings, while still retaining the taste of the thosai.

aloosabzi coconutchutney

I made coconut chutney, and thickened it by reducing the water in it. That formed the base. It’s also one of my favourite chutneys to use for thosai. I topped it with aloo sabzi, a potato filling with curry leaves and turmeric. I had a baking tray that I greased, put it in the oven until it got really hot, and thickly but evenly poured the batter over it, and put it back in the oven for a couple of minutes. I then took it back out when it is lightly cooked, poured the chutney and topped it with the potato masala, and put it back in the oven. It came out as a flatbread sorta pizza, and I was pleasantly surprised how well it turned out.

Otak-otak Pizza

Otak-otak is a Peranakan dish, making it the first time I’m representing this ethnic group in Singapore with pizzas. It’s a spicy fish custard with coconut and eggs. Unfortunately, my otak-otak had the right smell and taste, but wrong consistency, as it failed to custardise properly. I think in my zeal, I put in too much coconut milk, causing there to be too much liquid for the custard to form. I’ll need to try again.

otak sataysauce

But anyway, I still had the fish soaked in the otak custard dip, and at least the flavours stayed. I used a satay peanut sauce as the base, and topped it with the fish

Lor Mee Pizza

A Chinese braised pork noodle dish, usually topped with a braised hard-boiled egg and a variety of other toppings, in a soy-vinegar broth thickened with starch and egg. Once again, lor mee means “braised noodles,” and the lack of noodles in this pizza (replaced instead with a pizza crust) should really name this dish “Lor Ang Mor Peng,” or braised Caucasian pastry, which doesn’t make it sound any more appetising.

lor mee sm

(I forgot to take pictures of the lor bak, lor neng (egg), and lor tsap (sauce), but I did make lor mee the night before so here it is a picture of it)

I lor’d (braised) the lor bak (braised meat) for two days, the egg for one day, and extra thickened the braising sauce with starch, flour, and egg, to form the base. The pizza was then topped with the pork and egg, and garnished with cilantro and fried shallots.

Singapore Chilli Crab

I learnt that whole live crab is cheaper to buy than fish fillets in New York. Maybe it’s because I’m paying for all that shell and whatnot.

Did you know that if you buy live crabs and put them in the fridge, they’re still alive 12 hours later? I put them in the sink to wash them, and they came back to life, like daisies!

So, I guess the Singapore Chilli Crab is a Chinese spicy crab dish, with tomato puree and egg and a bunch of other stuff that unequivocally makes it Singapore’s signature dish. Just google “Singapore signature dish,” and chilli crab usually comes up tops.

And because I wasn’t going put a whole crab onto the pizzas, I had extract all the crab meat manually. I also didn’t have a shell cracker tool. All I had were knives, chopsticks, and a pair of needle-nose pliers.

crabThis small unassuming bowl, containing over a pound of mud crab meat, took TWO HOURS and many an injured finger.

I then prepared the sauce and stirred the crab meat into the sauce, making a thick chilli crab goopy thing which was perfect as a base, no topping needed. I guess ideally I would have preferred the meat to be more in chunks and as shredded as they turned out to be, but hey try removing crab meat manually with chopsticks and needle-nose pliers and we’ll see if you can do it without destroying the meat.

But it turned out well enough and tasted great, so that’s that.

I altered some of the ingredients in the pizzas to account for allergies within my testing group. I took out the belecan (shrimp paste) from the otak, because someone was allergic to shellfish, but kept it in the chilli crab because he wouldn’t have been able to eat it anyway. The good thing about south-east Asian dishes as pizzas is that, not only is it novel, they’re all lactose-free, because we don’t use milk very often in our cooking. So my lact-arded friends get to eat what passes as pizza, I suppose.

Makes me wonder why I’m not pursuing culinary as a profession sometimes.





Bot or Not? Poetry does not compute


Passing Time
Your skin like dawn
Mine like musk

One paints the beginning
of a certain end
The other, the end of a
sure beginning

Do you think the above poem is written by a human, or generated by a computer program? That’s what site bot or not seeks to achieve: a Turing test where people try to discriminate computer-generated poems from human-written ones. By the way, the above poem, “Passing Time,” was written by a human Maya Angelou.

I have previously written about reconciling the idea of programming code as poetry, whether it’s possible to achieve “poetic beauty” in code. I posited that there might possibly be an inherent “poetic beauty” in poetry that we recognise when we decide a piece of writing is a poem. With bot or not, the idea of what makes poems poetry is taken in a different step: by identifying whether the “poems” are human or computer-generated, there must be something common with human effort that is visibly distinguishable.

That means that any piece of writing that is seen as containing enough of the essence of “poetic beauty” to be counted as a poem, can be further sub-divided into being human effort or algorithm-derived. There must be commonality between “computer poems” and “human poems” that we can decisively say, “Yes, this is the work of a human” or “This is clearly computer-generated.”

The Showcase

The site lists some of the top poems easily recognised as human or computer-written.


Generated by botpoet using JGnoetry (93% said “bot”)

Published on desserts and from pink. Symptoms
Start, 2013 as other poetry does anyone
Word in thailand and write reading one mother
Order they deserve. Well, 2013 recently released
My pants and serve throw from is a beautiful
Insane surreal once hours playing once.

Personal Space

Generated by botpoet using JGnoetry (87% said “bot”)

New poetry I might help you currently
Have been, snapping male, but it’s a rocket,
Kid man been forever idea of
My wearing a punk and brought old robot
Smog thing. Professional grown-up looking
In dusty old men remaining his tibia.


Generated by Jim Carpenter using Erica T Carter (85% said “bot”)

The name ghosts second, destroying.
The quite normal letter to the dutch throne after one year destroying the still stuck ridged snow, interpreted.
Undimmed radiance curves, primming like the column.
Lounging, as other as very high score.
Loafing a booby.
Lounging and spends.
Normal occasion joints.
Early letter gets the personal experience from the individual.
Getting, tarries however in cell.
Obsesses the disturbed surface.
Obsesses the abyss.

As can be seen, the above poems are mostly verbiage, and make no sense. We compare that with the poems most recognised as being written by humans.

The Fly

William Blake (87% said “human”)

Little Fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want 
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.


Shelby Asquith (86% said “human)

His smile was loud,
and me in my silence—
I thought it was meant
for me. Momma warned
me about boys like him.
Told me that the kinds
of boys that shined a little 
too bright might just be 
trying to distract me from 
the balled fists, the fury.
I was a fly and he lured
me straight into the light.
And oh how he burned
me, how he burned me.

O Fool

Rabindranath Tagore (84% said “human”)

O Fool, try to carry thyself upon thy own shoulders! 
O beggar, to come beg at thy own door! 

Leave all thy burdens on his hands who can bear all, 
and never look behind in regret. 

Thy desire at once puts out the light from the lamp it touches with its breath. 
It is unholy---take not thy gifts through its unclean hands. 
Accept only what is offered by sacred love.

Especially with Blake’s poem, these top poems display some things that computers can scarcely replicate. In Blake’s poem, there is a very strong meter and rhyme scheme going on. The other two read very coherently, where the ideas contained within the lines agree with each other, and a message flows from the poem to the reader. What does it take for a piece of writing/poem to resemble human effort? We look at computer-generated poems that people thought looked human.


Generated by Janus Node using Janus Node (69% said “human”)



          in the
           lines on the



   inscribed in
         the depths

A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

Generated by Poets using Ray Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet (67% said “human”)

A wounded deer leaps highest,
I've heard the daffodil
I've heard the flag to-day
I've heard the hunter tell;
'Tis but the ecstasy of death,
And then the brake is almost done,
And sunrise grows so near
sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the despair and
frenzied hope of all the ages.

some men

Generated by Every Google User using Google Predictive Search (67% said “human”)

some men just want to watch the world burn 
some men just want to watch the world learn 
some men just want breakfast

In these instances, how did algorithmically-generated sequences of words suddenly gain the verisimilitude of human effort, whereas the computer-like computer-generated attempts shown above failed? Finally, we look at poems written by humans that people thought were computer generated.

Cut Opinions

Deanna Ferguson (76% said “bot”)

cut opinions tear tasteful
hungers huge ground swell
partisan have-not thought
green opinions hidden slide
hub from sprung in
weather yah
bold erect tender
perfect term transparent till
I two minute topless formed
A necessarily sorry sloppy strands
hot opinions oh like an apple
a lie, a liar kick back
filial oh well hybrid opinions happen
not stopped

Cinema Calendar Of The Abstract Heart – 09

Tristan Tzara (69% said “bot”)

the fibres give in to your starry warmth
a lamp is called green and sees
carefully stepping into a season of fever
the wind has swept the rivers' magic
and i've perforated the nerve
by the clear frozen lake
has snapped the sabre
but the dance round terrace tables
shuts in the shock of the marble shudder
new sober

Red Faces

Gertrude Stein (69% said “bot”)

Red flags the reason for pretty flags.
And ribbons.
Ribbons of flags
And wearing material
Reason for wearing material.
Give pleasure.
Can you give me the regions.
The regions and the land.
The regions and wheels.
All wheels are perfect.

The Experiment

That we have seen the most human-like human/computer-written poems, and most computer-like human/computer-written poems, can we draw parallels for what constitutes human effort in poetry? On the technical side, can we say that, as per Blake’s poem, prosodic and auditory cues such as stress, meter, and rhyme give poems a sense of human effort, such as where by reciting “Tiger, tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night,” we can not only hear the rhyme but feel a sense of constant rhythm to the poem?

Surely that can only be achieved by humans? Not rightly so. Assuming a bot program has access to a dictionary, and the stress, meter, and phonetics of all words contained therein all mapped out, how hard would it be to code for something that reads like human poetry? (Following is not real code, but an idea of how the code should behave)

<write human poetry>
component: alternate stress, strong-weak
component: vowels at end of line match; SET1:AAB SET2:CCB
component structure line1: [pronoun][conjunction][pronoun]
component structure line2: [verb][preposition][location]
component structure line3: [verb][noun]
component structure line1: [pronoun][verb]
component structure line2: [conjunction][verb][noun]
component structure line3: [conjunction][pronoun][verb]
And I just described:

Jack and Jill
went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down
and broke his crown
and Jill came tumbling after.

A bot could browse through a dictionary and probably come up with something similar. Granted, I “retro-wrote” the code, where I already had a poem in mind and wrote the “code” after, but if I can break “Jack and Jill” down into an algorithm that can be reproduced, using auditory and prosodic cues, then surely it is solely not that that determines human effort in poetry? However, if a program relies solely on prosodic and auditory cues, what’s to prevent it from putting in random words that fit those cues but make no sense in sequence? For example:

Bird and ball
swirled by the mall
and cocked a round of seaweed

Truth flew out
where running lout
and cops were sniffing soft beads

The prosodic and auditory cues of the above poem match “Jack and Jill” yet it makes no sense, and it is likely that people would judge it to be written by a bot. So what else is required for poems to be recognised as human effort?

The other thing you’ll notice where human-like poetry trumps computer-like poetry is coherence of ideas. In the poems that read human, most of them have ideas that agree with either a general theme, or the lines preceding and following them. The ideas contained in each line also display a progression, where there is something being explored or developed. The computer-like poems tend to show disjointedness of ideas.

Perhaps humans are predisposed to pass continuity and coherence as hallmarks of humanity.

Is coherence then unique to humans, or can computers imitate coherence as well? Let’s see if we can imitate coherence with an algorithm as well, with added prosodic and auditory cues. To achieve that, we need thematic cues. I’m going to use the following poem, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

<write coherent poem>
component: alternate stress, weak-strong
component: SET last line: [alternate stress, weak-strong]=false
component: vowels at end of line match; SET:ABABCC
component: [CENTRAL X(n)] designate IDEA
component: [CENTRAL X(n)]; X=verb, noun, adverb, preposition, adjective
component: [CENTRAL X(n)] must agree with THEME
component: [CENTRAL X(n)] must agree with [CENTRAL X(n±≥1)]
component: [CENTRAL X(n)] either expand or progress [CENTRAL X(n±≥1)]
component structure line1: [pronoun][CENTRAL verb(1)][adjective][preposition][CENTRAL noun2]
component structure line2: [conjunction][CENTRAL verb3][adjective][preposition][CENTRAL noun4][conjunction][CENTRAL noun5]
component structure line3: [conjunction][adverb][pronoun][CENTRAL verb6][noun]
component structure line4: [noun][adjective][CENTRAL noun7]
component structure line5: [preposition][CENTRAL noun8][preposition][CENTRAL noun9]
component structure line6: [CENTRAL verb9][conjunction][CENTRAL verb10][preposition][CENTRAL noun11]
(1) verb-noun agrees with (2); (2) agrees with THEME
(3) verb-noun agrees with (2);(4),(5) agrees with (2); (4),(5) agrees with THEME
(6) verb-noun agrees with (7)
(7) agrees with THEME
(7) preposition agrees with (8),(9); (8),(9) agrees with THEME
(10),(11) verb-noun agrees with (7); (10),(11) agrees with THEME

Does the above make any sense? It took me a while to try to break down “I wandered lonely as a cloud” into a vague enough algorithm that in my opinion still represents the poem while hypothetically still able to reproduce another poem. Let me explain the above “code.”

The poem has various components, including a weak-strong stress meter; but the last line of the set breaks the meter. The last phonetic features of certain lines must match; in this case ABABCC. Within the poem, there are certain things, designated as [CENTRAL X] where X can be a verb, noun, preposition, adverb, or adjective. These [CENTRAL X] designate a contained IDEA, which is a sense of what that line means. The [CENTRAL X] must agree with a preset THEME, which in this case, is “nature”; where the words must be somehow relevant to “nature.” such as “hill,” “daffodil,” and “cloud” being all words related to “nature.” Not only must [CENTRAL X] agree with THEME, it also has to agree with each other, one or more preceding or following it. It does so not only grammatically, but also has to expand or progress it in a logical way.

IDEA1 contains [CENTRAL (1),(2)], which progresses into IDEA2, containing [CENTRAL (3),(4),(5)]. IDEA3 contains [CENTRAL (6),(7)] which progresses into IDEA4, containing [CENTRAL (8),(9),(10),(11)].

You know, even after so much postulating, I’m still not sure I have successfully “retro-coded” Wordsworth’s poem. Maybe it is coherence of idea that seem unique to human effort, and that humans are predisposed to finding order in nature. My head hurts from trying to break poems down like that. Maybe someone else can do this better than I can. Feel free to leave comments.

Bespoke education and entertainment, or risk it?

bespokeTwo days ago, I was at work transcribing an interview one of the interviewees used the word “bespoke.” That was a word I haven’t heard in a while, and I just shared my thoughts on Facebook, “I think “bespoke” might be my favourite word of the day, today.” It’s a simple word that means something one would not associate with how it looks and sounds: it basically means something that is tailor-made to individual preference.

My friend Kevin Allison, who hosts a podcast and runs the live comedy show The Risk! Show, commented, “I tried to cut it from a recent RISK story because I didn’t know what it meant.” I asked if he could not have simply checked the dictionary and he said something that struck me: “If I don’t know what a damn word means, plenty of listeners won’t either!”

This forced me to think a lot about the role of those delivering informational content, be it via print or broadcast such as newspapers (print/online) or the radio. Is it our role to expand the vocabulary of those watching/reading/listening, or should we create a bespoke program easily digestible and understandable by readers?

I’ve always been impressed with the balance of hefty words and simple terms that the New York Time achieves, and constantly learn new words or remember old ones I’ve forgotten. English is a beautiful language, the bastard amalgamation of some many languages from continental Europe, that in its plenitude are niche, forgotten gems we should celebrate.

But in our consideration of the audience, especially here in America, we (content producers) amputate ourselves to fit the ready-to-serve boxes that the audience expects. As my journalism professor once said, “Why used ‘dollar words’ when a ‘fifty cent’ one suffices?” Maybe because sometimes there is beauty in the complexity contained within the brevity of “dollar words.” The best uses of difficult words are those placed supremely in a sentence where the context allows the readers to read and extract the meaning without having to stumble over it, and upon reflection on the use of the word, appreciates that that word is not run-of-the-mill. Where a “dollar word” is pivotal in the sentence, and the meaning known only to Webster-Merriam, that is untenable. We use many clues in context and morphology to help us understand words we don’t, harkening back to ye ol’ grade school days of “reading from context.” Morphemes like “un,” “mal,” “pro,” etc. contribute to the understanding of the word, even if the reader doesn’t know the word, and writers should take that into consideration when trying to achieve beauty with their words.

But ere we lose the readers in a mire of SAT vocabulary list, there is nothing more exhausting than having to refer to a dictionary every couple of sentences. I think content producers, in an ideal world, should challenge the limits of the audience’s knowledge every now and then, and achieve a balance between inspiration and information.

[Reblog] Dropped – The story of how the world’s greatest juggler fell off the face of the world

Image credit: Grantland

Image credit: Grantland


Why did Anthony Gatto, the greatest juggler alive — and perhaps of all time — back away from his art to open a construction business?


The greatest juggler alive, maybe of all time, is a 40-year-old Floridian named Anthony Gatto. He holds 11 world records, has starred for years in Cirque du Soleil, and has appeared as a child onThe Tonight Show, performing in a polo shirt and shorts, juggling five rings while balancing a five-foot pole on his forehead.

His records are for keeping certain numbers of objects aloft for longer than anyone else. Eleven rings, 10 rings, nine rings, eight rings, and seven rings. Nine balls, eight balls, and seven balls. Eight clubs, seven clubs, and six clubs. To break this down a little: There’s one person in the world who can juggle eight clubs for 16 catches,1and that’s Gatto. As for seven clubs, maybe a hundred people can get a stable pattern going — for a couple of seconds. It’s difficult to evenhold seven clubs without dropping them; your hands aren’t big enough. Gatto can juggle seven clubs for more than four minutes. “That’s insane,” says David Cain, a professional juggler and juggling historian. “There’s no competition.” …Read the rest of the story here.

This fairly long article speaks to me a lot about what it means to be a performer and what my craft means to me. Anthony Gatto, whom the jugglers I grew up amongst raved about all the time, fell off of the face of the performing world, after having received so many accolades. Were there to be a “king of juggling,” even today I believe jugglers in the know would not hesitate to crown Gatto still.

Fangone, the writer, did not manage to actually score an interview with Gatto, which is disappointing, but supplements his article with thoughts and analyses to try to explain why Gatto stopped performing to go into construction. Fangone wrote about, or quoted some of Gatto’s words that struck me as circus folk:

By now, though, Gatto’s relationship with the juggling community had shifted. He no longer regularly attended conventions or entered competitions. Gatto didn’t want to impress other jugglers. “Nobody cares about good jugglers in the performance world,” he later wrote in an Internet forum. “They care about entertainers.”

and this

Gatto’s frustration with young, Internet-native jugglers boiled over in 2008, when he got into a sort of arms race with Galchenko, the YouTube phenom. It began when Galchenko appeared on an NBC show called Celebrity Circus. He was there to set a record for doing as many five-club, five-up 360s as he could in one minute. He ended up doing the trick 21 straight times without dropping, breaking the previous record. After the show aired, Gatto posted a video of himself doing 24 five-ups in a minute, breaking the record Galchenko had just broken. Galchenko then posted footage of himself doing the trick 29 times in a minute. It went on like that for several more rounds.

A reporter for the Boston Globe called Gatto at the time and asked why Galchenko’s TV appearance had bothered him. Gatto praised Vova as a “great juggler,” but he also said of younger jugglers, “Until those kids grow a personality, they’re not going to wow anybody. The audience doesn’t care if you juggle 20 rings.” The reporter added, “Gatto now says he regrets getting involved in the 360s competition — though he says he can still go higher — because it sent the wrong message. The only way to judge a juggler, he says, is to watch him onstage, under the bright lights, over the course of a career.”

And finally.

(Gatto) gave in. He grew to accept the necessity of kissing the ball and lobbing it gently into the crowd with a grin. He also learned to make hard tricks look hard, to pantomime the exertion and self-doubt of a man working at the edge of his ability even though his ability stretched on and on. He learned to entertain, because for some reason, even though we exist in a physical universe defined by the relative attractive powers of massive objects, the mere demonstration of a lush and lovely control of gravity is not enough. He labored to please an audience that could never appreciate his greatness. Then he got older and watched a new wave of jugglers abandon the stage for the flicker of computer screens, sneering at the bright-light mastery he’d worked so hard to gain.

It’s at times when reading things like these that makes a practitioner of a performing craft wonder: What am I, and what do I want to be? What do I want to achieve what I want with my craft?

Do I want to push the boundaries of technical circus? My own skill have been stagnating for a while — even though I’ve over 10 years of unicycling, poi/flag spinning/etc. under my belt, my skills have not leapt beyond those “Youtube whizzes” who pick up the sport mere months ago and are coming up with insanely technical and difficult Youtube videos on their progress. I picked up the pirouette on the unicycle maybe six years ago, and the pirouette is very flashy and crowd-pleasing, but I haven’t picked up much else since then. It was only recently, as of a year or two ago that I started to push myself to go beyond, and learn something that would please less the audience and more those in the know; circus folk.

But very often I wonder if it’s worth it, as Gatto might have, when the fancifulness of its difficulty is lost on the audience. I’m not sure Gatto ever fully achieved that stage, where he could reconcile his integrity as a practitioner of juggling and perform to the extent of his ability, with what the audience can see and understand.

Answering the question, not the counterfactual

The above image made its rounds on Reddit the other day. The question asks “If you choose an answer to this question at random, what is the chance you will be correct?” The options are:

a) 25%
b) 50%
c) 60%
d) 25%

Since the randomly choosing one out of four answers is a 25% chance, so it’s a)… and d)? So since there are two correct answers, out of four choices, that is 50%, which is b). But there’s only one b), it’s 25%, so it’s a) and d)… ad nauseam.

STOP. You’re doing this wrong. Let semantics easily (and hopefully painlessly) tell you how to solve this question.

Let’s look at the question again.

“If you choose an answer to this question at random”

Let’s break it down:

IF [You] [choose 1 answer randomly] to [this] question, [percentage answer=TRUE?]

The secret is in the word, “IF”. It summons a counterfactual version of you, that you are able to discuss things in an “if” world, while not being constrained to answer by “if” rules. Thus, [counterfactual You] is supposed to pick 1 answer to [this], where [this] is self-referential to a world that has 2 correct answers out of 4. The answer is 50% for you in this world, not the world [counterfactual You] inhabits.

Hence, in your reality, not the [counterfactual You] in the question, just answer the question that they asked about counterfactual you, simple as that. An equivalent question, substituting counterfactual you with a third person, is:

Kevin has to randomly pick 1 answer out of four. However, 2 of the answers are identical and correct. What is the percentage that Kevin will pick a right answer?

Don’t sweat the counterfactuals, just stick with this reality. The right answer is B.

(No need to read the below if you don’t want technical explanations)

If you want a really convoluted discussion about semantics and counterfactuals and why we can discuss counterfactuals without being constrained by counterfactual rules, it’s simple. In counterfactual semantics we often discuss the death of Aristotle (or was it Plato?), such as “Aristotle might not have been a philosopher if he had died as a kid.” This relates to the topic of indices and what names refer to, largely researched and discussed by many linguists and philosophers, such as Kripke.

A quick answer, without going too in-depth, is that if we are bound by the indices of the counterfactuals we refer to, we will be unable to talk or respond because the counterfactuals are in an infinite loop. Thus, we can talk about Aristotle’s death without having to go back in time to kill him, or talk about what would happen at the end of the world without destroying the world to be able to talk about it. Take the following multiple self-indexed sentence.

If I were you, I would kill me

There are two people involved in the conversation, “you” and “me”, yet to our minds there seems to be a conventional understanding of what the sentence means. It means that “I am such a terrible person that if there were another person, and that person were talking to me, he would hate me so much that he would kill me.” For such a short sentence, it takes such a long sentence to elaborate. Thank goodness for indices! This is how the above sentence works with indices:

IF [counterfactual I][sees]me, [counterfactual I][wants][kill] me.

There you go.