Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Friday, December 30, 2005

And Now For A Breath of Different Air

A mysterious figure crept cautiously from his dark corner into the open space, enshrouded by a turbid murkiness as thick and dense as pea-soup. Cocking his head to one side, he appeared to be listening for something in particular: a signal or a warning perhaps. For that night, he felt instinctively that something was wrong, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. The area in which he stood was usually terribly packed, with hardly any room to move or space to breathe. But over time, the crowds had thinned, and now he found himself solitary, and actually, a little lonely as well. While he would have never called himself a social butterfly in any way, shape, or form, the sight of the desolated square (well, what he could see of it through the gloom) filled him with sadness. Sadness? Was it sadness? Never having been much of an orator or writer either, he racked his brains for the proper words to describe his feelings. After a while, they came to him. It was not sadness or loneliness that so gripped his heart. It was a feeling of mild terror—not enough to send him screaming into the night, but enough to make the very hairs on his legs quiver ever so slightly in alertness. He must be on his guard.

He stood now before the Great Screen, claiming an enviable spot directly in front of it—a spot which, in the past, he would have never been able to obtain without a great deal of pushing and shoving, and even then, he would have been able to hold his position for a few minutes at the most. Long gone were those days, and long gone were the multitudes, jostling with each other for the privilege of a glimpse into that other world, although on a night like this, one could only make out their immense figures if one really squinted. That other world would never change. He felt sure of it. Its cycles of alternating illumination and darkness, activity and quietude, would never cease, would continue long after his own demise into the far reaches of eternity. It was this aura of immortality that had the power to draw the crowds, to hold them mesmerised until they forgot the existence of anything apart from the magnificent creatures before their eyes: strange-looking gods and goddesses who congregated regularly to feast and celebrate, and their servants clad in red and black who spent their lives perpetually setting up and dismantling for banquet after banquet after banquet. The lives of these immortals were so vastly different from their own, helped them to escape their cramped existence spent in the confines of this prison. Even now, he felt a wave of calm washing over him--a wave so strong that he felt as if he were being lifted slowly off his feet and out of the water. So this is what happened to the others, he thought sluggishly to himself. Still, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the Great Screen.

* * *

“My apologies, Madam, but this is the last lobster we have left. If you find him unsuitable, perhaps you would like to choose something else for your main course this evening?”

Murgatroyd held the lobster aloft before the guest so that she could inspect it. He held it firmly, so that the lobster wouldn’t flick water onto her clothes, but elegantly, to maintain the ambience of fine dining so assiduously maintained at L’Abattoir; not too close, so that the guest would not be subjected to the fishy stench of the tanks, but not too far away, so that the guest could easily spot any defects which might cause her to reject the lobster in favour of something else.

Back on the Homefront: "Experiencing" Singapore

Whenever I settle down in a place for the long term, I tend to neglect to do the touristy activities in area and only end up seeing the sights when a visit from someone else forces me out of my complacency in order to show them around, and in the process, show myself around too. So on the (double-decker!) bus-ride back from visiting the publishing firm I interned at one summer, I decided to get off at Chinatown and wander around specifically for the purpose of wandering around. No buying or browsing of merchandise allowed (no mean feat in Singapore, the land of wall-to-wall malls). Just roaming and observing at large.

In Singapore the Chinatown is a bit more difficult to differentiate from the rest of the city than in, say, Boston, or San Francisco, or London. In those cities, you can pretty much tell that Chinatown stops where the Chinese lettering and chickens hanging in the window do. Singapore, on the other hand, is about three-quarters Chinese, and consequently, is sort of a large Chinatown in itself. But "Chinatown" proper seems to be characterised by lots of brightly-coloured colonial-style buildings, and a denser concentration of "Chinese" establishments like herbal medicine shops, Buddhist shrines, and stores selling joss-sticks and paper money.

I lingered for a while near People's Park Complex where the rickshaw drivers park when they're not trying to convince sweaty tourists to take a ride. The construction of a stage had already begun in the square for Chinese New Year, when free dance shows and Chinese opera are put on for the public. There were also a lot of old retired men there, sipping coffee from cups made out of tin cans. The tops of the cans had only been partly cut away when opened, producing a hinged metal flap for the cup. A plastic string, looped through a hole bored in the flap, allowed them to dangle it from their wrist or a bicycle handle. The old retirees were congregated around marble tables with black and white grids, playing Chinese chess and a form of checkers which I can only describe as "Big Checkers" (since it involved the use of a 12 by 12 square board instead of the usual 8 by 8.)

I hung out here for a while watching the games before realising that I was getting funny looks as I was the only one there who was female and below 50. So I continued on and wandered down various side-streets.

I came across:
-a bookstore/cafe called "Whatever" which sold overpriced teas and fruit juices and lots of fuzzy, feel-good, spiritual self-help books which, for some reason, nauseate me since my conversion to Christianity.

-small rooms which would house exclusively a large Buddhist shrine, (the equivalent of a "store-front church" I guess?)

-a stretch of "stores" which didn't seem to be stores at all, but which looked rather dubious and might potentially offer other "services", and not services of the acupuncture variety either.

-a fancy-looking boutique hotel called "1929" decorated in purple-funky-goth. (Because everyone knows that purple-funky-goth was all the rage in 1929.)

After wandering for about an hour, I suddenly got a nostalgic urge to go to Farrer Park and find the tennis courts where I played my first tournament.

So I took the MRT to the Farrer Park station, trekked across a large football field, and found the courts, which I remembered looking much more impressive as a child. It was located behind an old, dilapidated boxing gym, and I remember sitting near the gym playing "cheats" with the other girls with whom I took lessons. I was living in Indonesia at the time, and our tennis instructor had signed us all up, including her daughter, for a tennis tournament in Singapore. We got to stay in a hotel and got free shampoo samples from the tournament sponsors!

The coach's daugher did really well and came in third place. I managed to come in fifteenth out of sixteen, and the only reason I didn't come in last was because the girl who came in sixteenth didn't show up for any of her matches. The only one I played whom I stood a chance of beating was a girl from Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, she was also my rooommate, and kept informing me that if I beat her I was going to sleep on the floor that night. I think I ended up losing 7 to 9. Standing on the stone steps of the boxing gym, surveying the run-down tennis courts, I could practically hear the threats ringing in my ears as if it were only sweet yesterday!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Back on the Homefront: Encounters with Elderly Eccentrics

I'm back in Singapore!

Ah, Singapore! Oh gritty, super-developed, cosmopolitan port-city of Asia! Your mornings filled with the stink of decaying fish and the hearty cries of the coollies! Your evening thoroughfares jam-packed with jingling horse-carriages and the vengeful downtrodden masses clamouring for the heads of the French aristocracy!

Or as Carl Sandburg so eloquently put it when his second cousin twice removed showed him a postcard picture of this quaint and bustling Southeast Asian seaport:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

But enough with high falutin' poetic references and dramatic, exaggerative descriptions ending with exclamation marks!

I always forget when I'm away from Singapore how many elderly eccentrics my family seems to be acquainted with. "Real characters," as my family likes to put it. The morning before yesterday, my mother and I were eating breakfast at my grandparents' house (which is just next door to our house) when all of a sudden the dining room door burst open and in staggered a portly, old Chinese man in polo shirt and shorts, bearing a huge cardboard box of pomegranates.

"Wah! What is this?" my grandmother exclaimed in shock.

"Pomegranates!" he proclaimed. "Very good for the health! Got antioxidants! Season's almost over, so around this time I usually buy and distribute to friends!" the elderly man said, setting the box down in the corner of the room before setting himself down on a chair for a breather.

"Hi Uncle!" my mother said, and then noting my confused (and amused) expression, introduced me. "Tiff, say hi to Uncle G.K. G.K. Goh."

He reached across the table and we exchanged a brisk handshake before he got back to the serious business at hand: the bountiful health benefits of pomegranates (to which my grandmother kept saying, "anti-oxi-what?") and, "Where's Piet? Awake yet?" (Piet is my grandfather.)

"Already, already, Uncle," my mother said. "He just bought breakfast from the market. Uncle already eaten or not?"

"Already eaten! Been up since six, you know!"

"Wah! How come Uncle is up so early?"

"Got things to do! Pomegranates to deliver!"

At this point, my grandfather enters the room. "Oy! I knew it was you! Who else can be making so much noise? Real troublemaker, this one!"

"Oy Piet! I'm just here to drop off pomegranates! Very high in antioxidants!"

"Anti-hah? Thank you very much! Eat breakfast! I just bought porridge!"

"No, no. Sudah makan. Sudah makan. [Already eaten, already eaten.]"

"Try a bit! This is famous porridge, you know! From Tiong Bahru."

"Eh, thanks Piet, but really sudah makan."

Many more exhortations and refusals to eat later, Uncle G.K. Goh drove off, presumably to spontaneously bear more pomegranates to various acquaintances.

As the front door closed, my grandfather chuckled and turned to me. "Real colourful, that one, G.K. Real character."

Of course, my grandfather isn't exactly the most uncolourful old man himself. He is peculiarly obsessed with food, and has no qualms making his children and grandchildren go through hell and high water to procure him a food item he's been craving. For a period of time, he took to using the term of endearment, "pussycat," for all of his grandchildren, until we told our grandmother to tell him the...uh...slightly shady connotations of that word and to please stop using it.

Also, he really likes to bite cute babies. I've seen him do it! We were standing in line at an airport and there was a mother holding a chubby little baby standing in front of him. With a diabolical glint in his eye, he exclaimed to the mother, "What a cute little rascal!" And before the mother could say a word, he grabbed the baby's leg and sunk his teeth into it.

That was memorable, to say the least. These kind of hijinks have earned my grandfather the title, "Naughty boy," from an elderly eccentric friend of the family who is also ignorant about the various dubious overtones possessed by certain words. Mr Hui (whom we often refer to as "Old Man Hui") is originally from Cambodia, has a heart as big as a house, and eyebrows that look like they're going to take over the world. When he jokes, he will frequently tell my grandfather that he is a "very naughty boy," and my mother (more scandalously) that she is a "very naughty girl."

A typical phone conversation between Old Man Hui and either me or my sister will consist of the following:

Me/Sis: Hello?
Old Man Hui: Hello? Wendy there? (Wendy is my mother.)
Me/Sis: Oh. Hi Mr Hui. She's not in.
Old Man Hui: Oh.

Once, when I found a stray kitten on the street outside our house, I called my mother to ask her if she knew anyone who wanted a cat. (The SPCA here has very limited facilities, so cats don't have very long to find owners at the shelters here before they're put to sleep.)

"Does anyone want a cat? My daughter found a cat." I heard her ask the people she was having lunch with.

"Call the SPCA," someone suggested.

"She said they'll kill it."

Then I heard Old Man Hui's voice. "Don't kill the cat! Don't kill the cat! I'll take it!"

Another voice asked jokingly, "Mr Hui, what are you going to do with it? Eat it?"

"No! Not for eating! You naughty boy!"

Later that day, I went to deliver the cat to his house and was greeted at the door by his wife, Mrs Hui.

"Hello Mrs Hui."

"Oh! Hello!" She peered into the cardboard box I was carrying. "What a cute cat!"

"Uh...yah. It's for you."

"HAH?!? For me???"

"Didn't Mr Hui tell you? He said that you would take the cat."

"No! He didn't tell me!"

At that point, Mr Hui came bustling out in his pajamas exclaiming, "Ah. The cat!"

Mrs Hui: She said, you said, the cat is for us?

Mr Hui: Yes! The cat is ours! Otherwise they kill it!

The cat is fully grown now, and is named Baby. It gave birth to two kittens a few years ago, who have been named Carrot and Celery.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Would You Like Music With That?

This article hails from Reuters' "Oddly Enough" news section. Who needs water-cooler talk when you can sit solitaire in your cubicle, listening to your sandwich? (Excerpts below):

"LONDON (Reuters) - Tired of the same old lunch at your office desk? Help is at hand. A British supermarket is launching the ultimate life-enhancing snack -- the musical sandwich."

""It's designed to provide busy office workers with relaxing music to make eating lunch at their desks more enjoyable than ever before," he said, adding that the concept could be easily adapted for Easter, Valentine's Day or Mother's Day.""

"But further out, flavor/song combinations under consideration include Prawn To Be Wild, Let It Brie and that old Julio Iglesias favorite, Fillings."

Let's play a game. Any ideas for winning musical sandwich combos? My brain is somewhat fried, so I can't be devastatingly original.

Friday, December 02, 2005

"If the eyes are the windows to the soul, this is my balcony."

A cute and quirky link sent to me by my Wellesley little sister, Jo Hunter. She is from South Africa and is brilliant. The two may not be related though. But don't trust her with your MRI machine...she has a notorious track record.

In the immortal words of Marx, "MONOBROWS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!"