The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: Singapore

Second Saturdays

I regularly attend what is known as the “Second Saturdays” reading series — an open reading session that showcases Singaporean and often American writers. People — amateur and experienced writers alike — are invited to share their work and at the end, a featured writer usually reads from his or her published work.

For the last session of Second Saturdays, before it goes on hiatus for the summer, I decided to read something that came from my own work and also that of Josh. I always saw the series as a great way to bring Singaporean and American writers together, and what better way to end the season than a piece that came from both places?

Before Josh died, he was very protective over his writing and never let anyone read anything he wrote — I’ve scarcely seen any of his work. Upon his death, with access to his lifetime of thoughts, notes, and writings, I wondered if his ghost would be angry at me for 1) reading something he never felt comfortable sharing 2) sharing a part of his work with strangers 3) deriving a piece from his and my collection of words.

Combing through his thoughts was difficult: his verses were often dark and macabre; testament to his life’s tribulations. But to represent his true self to others is to preserve his words in their entirety — life, death, foolishness and wisdom unedited.

Combining Josh’s work and mine was an endeavour. He had a penchant for profusion, I gravitated towards brevity. His ideas were surreal and mine were grounded in observational reality. Quite like the differences in our personality, our writing styles clashed. It was a wonder being together had even worked out. I had thought I would need to weave in and out of his poetry to integrate his words with mine for the collaborative pieces — that attempt felt contrite and was a failure. In the end, I found out that the best way to marry his work with mine was simply the way we had worked out — by coexisting side-by-side, without needing to become one.

The three pieces I read at the session are: An excerpt from a 10-part poem he wrote, a poem I wrote on my recent visit back to Singapore, and finally a poem which I had used his poem fragments and a part of one I had shared on this blog.

A Southern Gothic

3.
Pairs of lampposts
thunder towards us
at 60mph — two eyes
that widen, and then are overcome
by the next pair of posts,
more crooked than the last.
Tributaries of concrete,
the bloodlines of an efficient world,
blast their way through forests
and limestone walls.
Mechanical beasts shift their trunks
into the sides of pumping stations
and savor the black blood of the earth.

From time to time I will be at the wheel
and awake with a start:
Am I heading the right way?
And my grandmother whispers in my ear,
Let them pass you,
let them pass,
as they always will,
let them face the wrong way signs.

And now I can face the fireflies — the one spark
in the dogwood on the left,
then a torch of beings on the right
that ignites the forest into an enormous,
seizing strobe. Canals of concrete writhe
with the bodies of fallen bugs,
blinking like turn signals,
like lighters at a funeral,
like a child’s sparkler
on a hot and hazy
Fourth of July —
flowing as a gluttonous river
into the eye of blindness.

Washing Machine

When I was young
my father once punched a hole into the washing machine.
We were suppose to leave on a trip
but my mother had dallied.
I remember the yelling, the gesticulating,
and in a coup de grace,
he slammed his fist into the toploader
and plastic gave way to flesh
but not before leaving a gash
and he held in blood and pride
with a paper towel.
My mother was left speechless —
not solely because the appliance had been left splintered
but what is one to do when your husband
batters a daily household convenience?

I used to peer through the hole of the washing machine
and watch my worries spin cycle away.

Today,
the strength which punched a hole into the washing machine
now stoops and pauses to take more naps
as the anger has left
and all that remains is bitterness
from memories of an era bygone.
The rage which punched a hole into the washing machine
has crystallised into salt
that the elders supposedly consume — more than we do rice —
as we sit around and nod our heads
in obeisance.

NPY

I watched you bargain with the end of your cigarette,
contemplating, ruminating,
obsessing
with the concept of a minute
and how you wished you didn’t understand it.
You exhaled
and life and smoke exited in a curlicue.
“Everything is a spiral motion,” you said.
— Embracing arms, ivy choking a tree,
adulthood, regression, the corkscrew plot of our later years.
I frowned, and you silenced prematurely the dying ember
that hangs from your fingers.
We taste each other with our bodies
and read the future in our bones
and in our newfound knowledge,
we roll over to sleep.

I woke up and found that I have wet my bed
with tears that I cried into cupped hands
that slowly seeped through my fingers
because I forgot what you looked like.

A pile of clean laundry lies on one side of the bed
because I can pretend that you are there
as you used to enjoy jumping on top of it
when it is fresh out of the dryer.

Who will help me put the covers on the comforter?

I still sleep on my side of the bed
with my head faced away from the middle
I still try not to snore when I sleep
so as not to disturb your ghost.

On Art and Cultural Appropriation

Someone shared with me this delightful bit from McSweeney’s titled “A Short Description of Cultural Appropriation for Non-Believers” by Rajeev Balasubramanyam.

1. Your new friends Bob and Rita come to lunch and you serve them idlis, like your grandmother used to make.

2. They love your south Indian cooking and ask for the recipe.

3. You never hear from Rita and Bob again.

4. You read in the Style section of the Guardian about Rita and Bob’s new Idli bar in Covent Garden… called ‘Idli.’

5. You visit Idli. The food tastes nothing like your grandmother’s.

6. Your grandmother dies.

7. Rita and Bob’s children inherit the Idli chain, and open several franchises in America.

8. Your children find work as short order chefs… at Idli.

9. Your children visit you in a nursing home and cook you idlis, which taste nothing like the ones you remember from your youth.

10. You compliment their cooking and ask for the recipe.

11. You die.

It’s simple and effective in getting the point across. The line between appreciation and appropriation is thin and blurry, but the concept of profiting seems to suggest when it falls into the latter category, especially when the originator is uncredited. Worse still, is if the appropriation is hailed as the innovator and the originator languishes, and is subjugated in some sense.

I often worry whether I cross into appropriation territory. At one point, I was reading up on bharatanatyam and was very inspired by its history and spirituality. It also reminded me of back when I was in primary school, where to celebrate Indian dance and culture, my school’s Indian dance club would perform it and I was mesmerised by it aesthetically but also how different it was from my own culture. I never really sought to learn more about it growing up, until when I came to be reacquainted with bharatanatyam.

I wondered if I could incorporate elements of it into my own circus performing. I read up on texts and watch videos of the classical dance. I learned about the karanas and what each was suppose to portray, and pondered if I could portray the message of performance the way karanas do. At the end of my study, I tried to record a video of my efforts in integrating circus performing with the concepts of bharatanatyam. When I was done, there came a surge of worry: Oh no, have I simply adopted a different culture to elevate myself and made a mockery of the dance with the video? Despite coming from what I felt to be a genuine case of admiration of Tamil Indian music, dance, spirituality and culture, I still felt a twinge of guilt from appropriation.

Given the intensity of racial discussions here in America back home in recent weeks/months/years, such concerns are necessary: how does one respectfully engage with elements from another culture, especially if that culture is systemically in a minority dynamic and subjugated? We seem to have entered a time where having the ethnic majority merely reproducing the minority’s culture as appreciation is insufficient — more needs to be done. But what?

I don’t think I can be the one to answer that question — I think that has to be a process involving a conversation between the appropriator and the appropriated. That’s an interesting situation for me since I exist as a racial/cultural minority in America, but am a majority in Singapore. This is certainly a unique situation where I get to participate in discussing with people what I feel are appropriations of my culture in one place, but have to listen to the same conversation from the other side.

In the meanwhile, I can only hope that as I go about my life and art, I don’t accidentally take other cultures’ idlis and pass them off for my own.


Interesting related reading: Rich Chigga and the Difficulties of Keeping It Real [New Yorker]

Anyhow Noodles

“What are you making?” you asked, as you walked into the kitchen. “Ugh, you’re using that giant ass wok. It’s such a hassle to wash,” you said.

“Hey, this wok is feeding your ass so don’t complain,” I replied.

“So what are you making? It looks like you’re just randomly throwing things into the wok and frying shit up.”

“That’s right, I’m making ‘Anyhow Noodles.'”

“Anyhow Noodles? What the heck is that?”

“It’s where you randomly throw things into the wok and fry shit up. When you understand cooking enough at my level, you can throw anything into a wok and it’ll turn out fine.”

“So what goes into Anyhow Noodles?”

“You have to have noodles, that’s why it’s ‘Anyhow Noodles’ and not ‘Anyhow Rice,’ right?”

“I can see that…”

“And then, you add in vegetables, meat, brown sauce and you’re done!”

“Wait hold on. Brown sauce?”

“Yes. Brown sauce. It’s sauce that’s brown.”

“And what goes in brown sauce?”

“Brown flavour.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“It does back home. Everyone knows what ‘brown sauce’ is. It’s an established flavour.”

“You’re making shit up. You’re fucking with me.”

“If you don’t believe me, go ask your friend Cassie. She’ll know what ‘brown flavour’ is. All Asians know it.”

……

“Ok I don’t believe it. She told me ‘brown’ is totally a flavour. Her mum makes food with it too, what the fuck. That’s so weird.”

“Well I’m sorry the food you’re eating is weird.”

“Ok then what’s the meat that goes into Anyhow Noodles? ‘Has-legs’? ‘Living-creature?’ ‘Matter???'”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just beef.”

Wontonception

20161210_153203

Everyone knows what goes into a bowl of wonton mee (云吞面). You typically have egg noodles, baby yu choy or equivalent greens, char siew (roast pork) and wontons, of course.  It’s a fairly simple dish with no frills. However, what if you wanted to frill it up and make it unnecessarily complicated for a potluck party in which you would fish for compliments?

Then you flip the script and create mee wonton.

You see, I go to this potluck party fairly often where people have come to expect that I bring something interesting each time (I brought kueh pie tee previously). But I can’t keep bringing new dishes all the time! Even new animals and drugs are discovered at a faster pace than new dishes are invented. I wracked my head for concepts and deconstructed a dish I practically ate all the time as a kid.

The concept I had in my head was: take the mee, take the vegetables, take the char siew and put them all into the wonton. If you had a wonton stuffed with wonton mee ingredients and put the wontons in a bowl of wonton mee, you can achieve wontonception! I had no idea how to achieve that since I wouldn’t consider myself an expert wonton maker. However, I was determined and set out to try.

My first attempt involved brushing two egg wonton wrappers with oil and putting it into a muffin tin, putting the ingredients in and baking it. It didn’t work. It resulted in a thin-crackling skin that was not very palatable. You see, I was trying to avoid deep frying anything, since deep frying always resulted in grease lingering the air for days. My kitchen did not have a vent and I had to manually vent anything out of the window with a box fan.

Plus, using two wrappers on top of each other wasn’t enough to contain enough ingredients to make for a satisfying bite. I had to figure out a way to expand the working surface area of the wonton, and came up with the idea of overlaying wonton wrappers and then gently rolling them to compress them into one oversized wrapper.

20161210_140100

On it, I had mee pok noodles, baby yu choy, char siew I made from scratch and fried shallots. I used mee pok (flat egg noodles) rather than mee kia (thin egg noodles) because mee pok is the superior noodle and gives a more substantial bite than mee kia anyway. I tossed the noodles with fish sauce, a little soy sauce, and some of the char siew sauce I used to make my char siew. I stirred some sesame oil into the vegetables. The oversized wrapper has roughly six points, like an odd hexagon, and I folded it top-down, lower left and right corners, and then the upper left and right corners before sealing it with some water.

I tried baking the wonton again in a muffin tin. I was really trying to avoid deep frying anything. When the wonton came back out with a disappointing skin, I was like, “Ok fine. I will deep fry you bastards.” And so I did. The smell of grease permeated the air and mocked my failure at avoiding deep frying. But the wontons came out fine. Deep frying solves everything.

I cut into a deep-fried wonton and the contents tumbled out, a mess of char siew, vegetables and mee pok. My job was done. I had created a chimera that I will parade around the dinner party and bards will sing praises of my endeavours. I brought along some sambal belacan chilli I had made to go along with the wontons.

Most people didn’t stop to listen to my big exposition before eating the wontons at the party.

Sanctuaries

stonewall

Yesterday, I was feeling very affected by the attack on LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I did not directly know any of the victims, was not there, nor was I Latino — the majority of the victims — and my only connection to the incident was that I was a QPOC. But it wasn’t that connection that stirred something inside me. It was the idea that our sanctuary has been so easily trashed that struck me.

In 2009, I was bound for New York for college, and it would have been my first foray into the United States. In preparation for the journey, I researched as much as I could about the city, and learned that it was a haven for the LGBT community and the Stonewall Inn was where the LGBT rights movement first started. At the time, I had never experienced or dabbled in anything of that nature — I was too concerned with school and extracurriculars to be even bothered. Never been inside a gay club, never kissed, never held a hand.

But I learned about the concept that there are spaces where one could go and be amongst like people. Places where for while, one could let one’s hair down and not worry — nay not think — about disapproving stares, much less the fear of rebuke and reproach. Sanctuaries.

One of the very first few things when I had landed in New York and had generally unpacked was to pump up my unicycle (my preferred mode of transportation) and go for a ride in the city. I was curious about this Greenwich Village and Chelsea, spoken of in Wikipedia (Hell’s Kitchen had yet to be linked into the Gay Village Wikipedia article at the time, or I wasn’t looking very closely) and unicycled down the legendary Christopher Street I had heard so much of.

I wasn’t too disappointed. Back then in 2009, the West Village was on its way to being gentrified but still clung on to the vestiges of its gay subculture. I still saw, in broad daylight, men in leather suits and heels and caps, LGBT people openly holding hands and kissing, bears, daddies, twinks, dykes and all shades of the rainbow and I smiled.

“This isn’t too bad. I think this place could work,” I thought.

I hit the end of Christopher St, past the leather and daddy bars, past McNulty’s (love that tea/coffee merchant) but did not go to the piers, as I didn’t know about it then. I then made a U-turn and then back up 8th Avenue, all the way into Chelsea.

There, I saw a different gay people of a different ilk. Men with buzzcuts in their 30s and 40s bulked up with muscles exploding out of their inexplicably tight tank tops (I dubbed them the Chelsea gym bunnies), skinny gay men yakking all the time and the smattering of sex shops selling underwear, poppers and porn. I didn’t dare go into any of them then, but yet I still felt safe standing in the streets even as I was among some of the people physically quite unlike me — in skin colour, size, and much more. Yet I felt like I belonged.

I was merely standing in the streets of these gay-bourhoods and already I felt for the first time I was surrounded by a community of people like me, a refreshing change from the dour looks back home. I wasn’t even in a gay club (that’s another story) but even though I was in a strange land, I felt safe, despite having been traipsing New York City roads and traffic on one wheel on one of my first few days here.

“Welcome to sanctuary” the city seemed to be saying to me.

And over the years, I have made many friends, created many communities, have been accepted by many communities, and created my own family here in New York.

The Pulse club was one such sanctuary for many gay men and women to enjoy a night out without the fear of “faggot” being yelled their way. A place where LGBT people who were not yet ready or able to openly hold hands in public without being attacked to hold each other. A space where the only judging going on were eyes sizing you up whether to say “hi” and bring you home for the night, and not whether you were abominable sin.

But that night, all around the country, LGBT people were reminded that they were still from being safe to walk upright. That despite being surrounded by “allies” and the recent developments in gay rights, all it takes is one mentally ill person, one hateful person, any straight person welcomed into a gay space but ultimately striking fear into the gay people around him because he was told to quiet down, to make us question how safe are we, even in our sanctuaries.

And that was why I was perturbed.

Reddit Kim

pisai

So I made something, after having been inspired a reddit comment that said that Singaporeans would never waste money buying reddit gold for others. Hence I came up with this idea, for those kiamsiap (stingy) Singaporeans when they don’t want to buy the real thing. (Well it’s not like reddit gold is of any use anyway)

Other ideas included the nose picker projectile flicking the booger, culminating in a giant explosion. But who has time to sit down and draw/animate all that?

Made with 25 stills drawn by mouse using Adobe Photoshop, animated with Premier Pro. Done in one sitting from 8pm to 3am.

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….!!!)