Category Archives: Touching JB

Black Tofu Soup and The Reality of a Late Afternoon

I’m multi-tasking; this short piece of writing hops across topics like Southeast Asian cuisine, Bubiko Foodtour, self-promotion, AR, VR, branding, racism, philosophy, and the meaning of life. In short: I’m rambling.

We get out of a Grab car in front of a McDonald’s. A young Malay is standing and eating soft ice cream. We ask where the police station is. He doesn’t know, but asks an elderly Chinese, who does. Both men are friendly. We quickly set off down the covered sidewalk. Our destination is the cart of a vendor who sells kidney bean soup and almond paste. The internet says he is near the police station and he sells out by 5, sometimes earlier. It’s now 4:30.

VRLab! I didn’t know there was one here. This morning I had exchanged emails regarding an interview with Dato Jack, VR Lab’s founder. From outside, I can see two women signing in. I enter, explain my connection with Dato Jack, and am allowed to watch. After a thorough explanation and simple instructions, the two women put on headsets. First, they move their heads in all directions, then they slowly manipulate their hands and arms, acquiring the skills to become virtual archers. I study all this because I am writing a book about VR and haptics, as well as planning an AR startup that will eventually expand to VR.

The TV screens in the room show me what they are seeing: a castle under siege. Suddenly, an axe-thrower attacks so suddenly that the woman with braids jumps. Her headset falls off. I leave after a few minutes, by which time they are fully immersed: crouching, cautiously turning and laughing. They are killing people with arrows.

We rush back outside. The sky is soft and complex: rain clouds/blue sky/sunlight/evening. The atmosphere is fresh and I’m glad to have a camera. We find the soup vendor. He’s surrounded by people, all of whom seem to have placed large orders to bring back home. Nearby is a truck stall selling assam laksa. The aroma is uniquely seductive, like a tart, mysterious fruit beckoning from a bed of homemade noodles.

We are soon seated at a rickety table, experiencing multiple foodgasms from the assam laksa, the kidney bean soup, the almond paste and a plate of perfectly fried kway teow that we couldn’t resist. We finish and head into the U-shaped market. In an hour it will be packed.

Ears of sweet corn! I can honestly say I am a farmboy from Ohio, with many memories of corn fields and corn roasts. However, the corn I picked and the cows I milked were actually in Michigan. (OK, full disclosure, about the cows: There was only one. I was a five-year-old visiting a farm with my family. And, yeah... I was too shy to squeeze anything.)

A sign for Pun Tofu! Word play that is not wordplay. I write, often about food. Eight books. One, i ate tiong bahru, is a national bestseller in Singapore. Stories about my IT/VR/AR adventures in Hong Kong and Singapore will soon be a series on Popularium. This trip to the market is research for the text part of Bubiko Foodtour, an AR project. A stall sells kuehs and this is good: I heart kuehs.

The sky is peacefully exploding. Sharply outlined clouds, bulging with water vapor, dissolve into darkening, ragged zones of blue and orange. More generators are started. The lights of the night market come on as the moon rises in a kaleidoscopic sea of twilight. We eat black tofu. This same stall had intrigued us at another market, but we hadn’t tried it. We watch it being made and find a table. Surprisingly, the chicken soup served with it has the taste of green tea. The news of the day encroaches unexpectedly: skin color and Charlottesville.

I remember an article I found while doing research. In a city in Malaysia, over an unspecified period, the police took action on illegal street vendors. The breakdown: 158 actions against Chinese-based businesses, 103 against Malay businesses, 31 against Indians and 13 on other races. The harmonious flavors in the black tofu soup are wonderful , but not enough to take me away from thoughts about Nazis, Communists and the White House.

We step into the crowd one last time, studying foods like nasi lemak, Vietnamese pizza and salt-baked chicken. Five blind Chinese, all elderly, sit on red plastic chairs and sing Chinese songs. A man plays acoustic guitar, a woman taps a tambourine. There is a bowl at the woman’s feet. We listen as we watch Murtabak Sam make pandan pancakes with bamboo charcoal flour. We call a Grab and wait.

Now, here on Medium, are some of my experiences, my reality at that market. As I wrote this I remembered scenes, recalled what I was thinking and added new thoughts. I input my data into the internet, and now it is all over the world.

…one kind of wonder after another kind of wonder, all in something wondrous...

Can We Call Minnesotapool?

I am now working on the second draft of a 60,000 word book that has been written during my three month stay in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. The book combines fictional stories with essays on travel and food in JB and notes related to my proposed VR/AR startup. The book is called Game of JB.

As she sleeps, I look for bruises on her hands. Last night she kept smashing--really smashing--her fists into the knuckles of Errol, a Swiss martial artist. He’s also a bon vivant, but a hard working one, uninterested in kiss-kiss party talk. We discovered him on the hotel’s rooftop patio.

Errol left a government job to work with his wife, Olga. Together, they document vanishing or unusual cultures. They are in JB for Chingay, the huge procession dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. A comparatively “easy” documentation perhaps, as hot water is everywhere. No waist-deep mud, no clouds of mosquitoes and, at the end of the day, beds with blankets and pillows instead of thin mats on dirt floors.

“Tsuyoi, tsuyoi, tsuyoi!” Errol had started by barely tapping her hands. “Tsuyoi! Tsuyoi! Tsuyoi!” The tapping became a revolving dance, then a serious boxing match. She surprised me with her ferocity; my little lawyer desk mouse had become a tigress. “TSUYOITSUYOTSUYOITSUYOTSUYOI!” Bigger than the roof,their voices; bigger than JB, big enough to be heard in Woodlands! Their fist-banging empowerment ritual happened in the middle of a night filled with the serious conversations of travelers. We leave tomorrow.

Next to the patio was the penthouse, now a subdivided maze of plywood and sheetrock with locks on flimsy doors. These were the cheapest rooms. The patio, with its stone carvings and arches, was an Art Nouveau time capsule, but with laundry racks and tiny bathrooms in yellow structures that looked like Porta Potties. I showered there this morning, when the world was dark indigo. I stepped out naked. I thought about the two letters- my father’s initials, upon a building to my right. Singapore was across the water, on my left. The ledge. The street below my feet. Finally, the dawn began and I went back to our room with something like certainty.

We had talked on the couch, on the tile floor and as we leaned on the balconies overlooking the night market and Meldrum Street. We watched the comings and goings at the musical lounge and the 123 Cafe. Our conversations flowed: Papua New Guinea, Geneva, John Zorn, Iggy Pop, parallel universes, Kryon and time travel. Visas and immigration, of course. Ender’s Game, but no one knew if an actual Ender’s Game game had been made. I listened to Errol’s advice about Wordfence security and how to enhance a media library. We drank cheap brandy. There was a crescent moon.

At one point in the night she asked me a question, not knowing that Errol had returned from the toilet. He was right behind her.“Can you call Minnesotapool?”

“Headpool!” We yelled the word at the same time.

Errol acrobatically tumbled over the couch and down onto the tiles. He rolled over and got up on his hands and knees. “Woof woof,” he said, with a slightly Swiss accent. “Dogpool!” we answered, like game show contestants hoping to win a million in prizes.

He stood on his knees, made himself childish and pretended to hold a sword.

“Kidpool!”

He acted like he had very big boobs and pointed an imaginary gun. He thrust his hips.

“Wada Wilson,” I said,”Lady Deadpool,” she said. “Two correct answers! We have our winners!” We stayed up on that patio ‘til very late.

Until Sarina finally showed up at Western Union, our life was hard, frozen and dry. We’d met her just two days ago. Zero passports plus hunger minus sleep equals desperate logic. Big leaps of faith.But, she showed up. We then ate ham cha and drank ginger soymilk. We found a place where we could check in. Then, healing sleep. We woke up at twilight and found an excellent five ringgit vegetarian buffet. Came back, explored the hotel and met Errol. “I feel alive again,” she said, as we got into bed, “tonight was like high school.”.

“Everything Is Important and Serious. Decisions are heavy dates on calendars or sudden, unexpected jumps through doors, behind which consequences are feared or ignored. Obligations to society or personal growth, sometimes both. Rarely both. Now of course, we know we have almost no control over anything. We’re all puppets. Sometimes we perform for thousands, sometimes we wait in a dark box.” I recited that to her. It was written by my high school sweetheart a long time ago.

“She was so mature at times! I kept that letter from her forever, memorized every line. Her signature was small and cute. Later, she said she wanted the letter back, said the poems were terrible. My first real girlfriend… Do people even write letters anymore? The stamp was the face of angel, looking up at Love USA 55. I remember everything. Our love is a fast summer sea sun in an ice age year. She became a jockey, can you believe that? A jockey, then a financial consultant. A very successful one.”

“Did she like Deadpool?”

I don’t hear her question. I am thoughtfully looking off into the distance. I run my ginger through my hair. My gingernails are wrong. I accept my mistakes and the incorrect suggestions from Autospell as my destiny. Intentional confusion is not confusion. No puppet, no puppet, you're the puppet.

“Did you two attend the Highschoolpool prom?”

“Stop! Can’t you see that ours is a serious narrative and I am a troubled game developer who wants to prove himself as a Serious Writer by writing an angst-filled postmodern novel about love, tribulation and exile during a Millennium of Darkness? Nihilism, woman, nihilism! Not funny stuff.”

“Can we call Minnesotapool?”

“A curse upon you! Woman, I am deaf to your tomfoolery! I shall recite a touching poem that meant so much to me in my use. Then I will hurl a pillow upon your human form.” I again gaze into the distance, again move my ginger through my hair and think of the girl who broke my hat.

Let the Chinese and English lunchroom gang gossip continue; it is not ours. Moonrise is ours, our eyes. Twilight is ours, our ears. La Vie En Rose is ours, our hearts. Galloping, galloping; never drive me home.

“Never drive me homepool...” She laughs at me. ”This is Johor Bahru 2017, dear, not some black and white French high school yearbook. We’re old teenagers now, with jobs and commitments and Trump and Alzheimer’s waiting in the wings. So what? This, this, this… this is our new normal. We've got to make sense of things. Look here. I hate that view. It’s like the condo I had before my ex trashed everything. Holland V Big palm trees and green benches, a little park and a path where I walked my dog. Same fence with barbed wire. I bet there’s a pool in front. And barbecues.”

“What kind of dog?”

“A hairless Chihuahua. Peaches, sweetest dog in the world.”

“Peaches. A hairless Chihuahuapool.” I threw a pillow at her.

The room we are in is cheap; a dirty little rhinestone. A black dusty TV screen on one of the faded blue walls, old white curtains and a yellowed air conditioner. The bed is beneath a small window. She is still deeply asleep. Graceful.Her occasional twitches are like small, calm lightning. I study her knuckles one last time. They are a little red, but she is fine.

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Olga and Errol's documentation of Chingay is here

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Two in the Afternoon ( from Touching JB)

We were sitting on the chairs in front of the wood burning stove when they materialized. Their arms were like Japanese Easter eggs. Finally, the young man stopped with his thumbs and looked up from his phone. On top of his peppery skull was a filet of pink hair. Circular wire eyeglasses, yellow irises. He moved his head a little, then reached for the curry puffs. Started eating before he paid. The girl took hers without looking up.

The man at the counter smiled sincerely, thanked them. Behind him, a wall was full of photos and newspaper clippings, most from when the man’s hair and beard weren’t white. Near the cash register: two playful photos of him and his wife at the Taj Mahal. Once, at the 123 Cafe, he'd told me that theirs was an arranged marriage. She passed away. Lung cancer. He didn’t say more.

The chairs we are in are comfortable. I am eating a piece of cream bread, she is chewing and studying her red bean puff. Saluddhin’s bakery has an authenticity that would usually capture my attention, but now I cannot help thinking about a game called Firewatch. It’s about a man living alone in the forests of Wyoming, a man whose wife may have early-onset dementia.

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Touching JB: a relaxed description of a book and photo project set in Johor Bahru, Malaysia

so far, the best introduction to this project.... Touching JB is being crowdfunded... thanks for thinking of it... https://www.zingohub.com/#/en-GBL/c/touching-jb unrelated