Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

I am a Cat

Last night, an old woman gently pushed my nose towards a  newspaper covered with fish bones and lemongrass. A rat ran over one of the sparkly shoes under the table full of women from The Golden Place and two of them screamed. The man who sells pens came by, so did the man with the folding rattan chair. Distracted by  the hissing of an intruder, I stepped on a hot cigarette butt. The man with the burnt face gave away perfume samples he pulled out of a new duffel bag. The monk looked into the eyes of everyone, offered his bronze bowl to a few.  I listened to happiness, drunkenness, boredom, and suspicion. Music played from little radios. Barefoot children stared at me. Now it is morning and I’m lying in the shadows of the red plastic chairs. Coins are being counted on a metal table and the man behind the Chinese newspaper is smoking and drinking coffee. When I used to live in the place with big windows I only worried about rainy days. I had no scars, no friends and both of my eyes.

Apophenia Near the Causeway

the following is being  rewritten and is very far from the most current version. the conversation I had with Alvin was great; this blog post is so-so...

Alvin Tan, photographed by Stephen Black at Art 52 Gallery, Johor Bahru, Malaysia

  Our greatest challenge may be learning to bear incoherence. “The officer pulled me into the search area. Went through my car, my wallet, my personal letters,” Alvin says without emotion. The incident took place about thirty years ago. ”A friend had handwritten the Chinese characters for ‘democracy’ on a flyer. The officer asked me about it and I said it was related to an artwork I had done.’ Don’t distribute this,’ he said, and he let me go.” Tiananmen Square,1989: we had been talking about it. At the time, I was living in Tokyo and working at ABC News. All of our cameramen and sound guys were over in Beijing. One had hidden an 8mm video camera in a box and documented the demonstration. One afternoon during that time I was at home with our baby. On TV a student demonstrator was asked a question; her carefully pronounced answer made a reference to Abraham Lincoln. I was moved to tears. Fragility, innocence and youth amidst an unplanned massive demonstration in the most influential historical area in Asian history. During Tiananmen Alvin had been involved at The Artists Village(TAV), the first artists commune in Singapore. He made an installation in an unused chicken coop, entitled Personal Views, China’s Democracy and there was Blood. Tang Da Wu did a performance within the installation. Tang Da Wu founded TAV and is regarded as the founder of contemporary art in Singapore. At the time, the influence of TAV was felt throughout Southeast Asia. Even now, TAV members like Lee Wen, Amanda Heng , Zai Kuning, Koh Nguang How, Vincent Leow and others are exhibiting work in Singapore and internationally; their works usually reflect the activism and sense of social responsibility that were part of the TAV experience. Koh Nguang How is a documentary artist now; he was working in a museum at the time and visited TAV whenever he could. In preparation for my interview with Alvin, I sent Koh a Facebook message, asking if he had any questions. Koh’s attention to detail is impressive; he told me Alvin’s wife is from Taiwan and that Alvin did not speak Mandarin. Koh wanted to ask me if Alvin had any problems teaching in English. Mandarin was the language being used at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, where Alvin taught Western Art History, Aesthetics of Art and Psychology of Art.”Nanyang” is a Chinese phrase that translates as  “Southern Seas”, though it often refers to all of Southeast Asia. During the years that Alvin was teaching, Singapore was continuing to define itself.English became the language of instruction. Koh’s question highlights the complexities of language in Singapore, especially in regards to Chinese dialects. Mandarin is the one of the four official languages of Singapore and the official language of China. The word translates as “speech of officials”. “No, I didn’t have any problems, as English was so widely spoken. My classes became so popular we kept adding more. Even students who only spoke Mandarin wanted to attend. I told them they could, but that they would still have to write a term paper, even if they wrote it in Mandarin. Students were very hungry to learn about art then.” Alvin has studied in Oakland California, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur and Rome. In Rome he became involved with a community and an exhibition, that made the most of an abandoned building owned by the Vatican. Those experiences prepared him for the possibilities of TAV. The Artists Village: in our conversation, silence often follow the phrase. Like the Impressionists in Paris, Andy Warhol in New York or Damien Hirst in London’s world of advertising, TAV is associated with a specific time and place. TAV is, perhaps, most noteworthy because it was a pioneering achievement. The internet, numerous art schools, globalization, the commodification of art and changes in government policy now make the Singaporean art world very different than it was in the Eighties. “We should not encourage escapism” is a phrase I wrote down years ago,  upon viewing an exhibition about Singaporean art in the Sixties. It felt like the Singaporean art world then was lost. Alvin mentioned the West’s first art critic, Giorgio Vasari and his book, Lives of the Artists. “A book about TAV is a good idea,” he says. I let the topic drift away. I could throw myself into creating a reading experience based upon the Artists Village, but I would not want to write a book about the Artists Village. A movie script, maybe, though where would the drama lie? Perhaps there were personal dramas at TAV: romances, scandals of some sort, infighting, egotism, probably betrayals: but if so, they are unrecorded. An unimaginative movie script would follow a three act structure: Act One: Tang Da Wu revolutionizes and modernizes Singapore’s contemporary art scene by establishing TAV and attracting the island-nation’s youngest, best and brightest. Act Two: Utopia at the end of a coconut tree-lined kampung dirt road; Pure Art, but with weekly visits by the police. Act Three; Exile and Loss. On our table is the catalogue of Alvin’s paintings, in which he wrote: I hope my paintings trigger an original sensation within the viewer; natural and freely formed  without history or preconditioning. And so it is with this writing; I hope to give you, the reader a sense of our conversation, a sense of the topics we touched upon. Alvin, TAV and the quiet street in Johor Bahru where we talked are all worthy of narrative writing. But I haven’t been inspired to write logically, just as Alvin is not inspired to paint realistic landscapes. Perhaps I am like an Expressionistic painter, using sentences and ideas instead of brushstrokes and pigments. Hijikata’s widow told me that her husband, the co-founder of butoh, and the writer Mishima and had fistfights over differences in aesthetics. Now...eyes glued to “smart”phones, plastic souls bury themselves in low-level radiation screen displays. Facebook comments pass for heated debate. Articles I want to read: TK Sabapathy. “No way out” The Strait Times, Singapore Art & Entertainment May 20, 1993 Jennifer Tan. “Art that faces up to problems of the world” City Weekly, Singapore. May 13, 1993 “No Bed of Roses For Alvin” New Straits Times, Malaysia October 28,1987. I learned the word “apophenia while researching the phenomenon of seeing faces in clouds, a concept I wanted to compare to the act of viewing Alvin’s paintings. I also discovered  molybdomany, shadow people, pareidolia, patternicity  and the work of Chonosuke Okamura , who won an Ig Noble Prize for his reports of finding tiny, tiny humans in ancient limestone. "There have been no changes in the bodies of mankind since the Silurian period,” Okamura wrote, ”except for a growth in stature from 3.5 mm to 1,700 mm." My word research also found this phrase; "a specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness". Finally, this fact: a person withschizophrenia initially experiences delusion as revelation. If there are patterns in this text, I must find them, for discovering patterns where there seem to be none is a very good thing.  My life, my meeting with Alvin, the historical events that occurred within our lifetimes; there must be patterns. Banksy. The Beatles. The kway teow I’ve just eaten, the breeze and the frangipanis above us, the patterns of the tiles below. This is a Sunday afternoon, March 12, 2017. I met Alvin a week ago; our lives share some of the same patterns. Visas, passports and turnarounds. The last painting in Alvin’s catalogue, is called Late Arrival. I cannot judge his brushstrokes, nor if there is actually detail in the completely black areas. On the upper left of the painting, is a soft-edged raggedy flag-like shape of blue and blueish-white. Close to, and parallel with, the left edge of the painting is a warm brown horizontal shape like a tree branch or rifle. On the bottom right, a spike, the same tonality asthe brown on the left. Untitled Indigo is the name of first painting in the catalogue. It is a remaking of the yin yang symbol in soft fractions. A whirlpool. A map studied at twilight or dawn. Related post: http://www.blacksteps.tv/amanda-heng- performance-art- in-context- a-singaporean-perspective-by- lee-wen/ The italicized sentence which begins this essay is from an article which appeared on the Psychology Today website on July 31, 2012. Being Amused by Apophenia, waswritten by  Bruce Poulsen Ph.D. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reality-play/201207/being- amused-apophenia Thank you very much Koh, and Eric/Art 52.

Coccoon by Alvin Tan and craftsmen from the Orang Asli community. Iskandar Puteri, Johor Malaysia  (2016) photo by Stephen Black

Touching Johor Bahru 1

I've plenty of notes about this place, as well the nights I've spent with the present owner at the 123 Cafe... http://johorkaki.blogspot.com/2012/01/indian-curry-puffs-salahuddin-bakery-in.html?m=1 https://m.facebook.com/pages/Salahuddin-Bakery-Jalan-Dhoby/151382781582630 https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g298278-d7139589-Reviews-Salahuddin_Bakery-Johor_Bahru_Johor_Bahru_District_Johor.html

Are You In a Film or In Reality?

We’re on one of the few picturesque streets in the old quarter of Johor Bahru. We see three Malaysians loading a truck with furniture that they are carrying out of a big red colonial house. Now we see a man quickly walking; he is late: BIFF DANKLE, an American with long hair that may or may not be fashionable. He pulls at it constantly; BIFF’s nervousness is obvious. He's carrying a manila envelope. BIFF approaches SIMON MURRAY and smiles respectfully. SIMON crushes his cigarette and puts his hand out. He is in his early sixties, in excellent shape, and with movie star good looks. BIFF immediately gives SIMON the envelope and sits down. The two are on a black wrought iron bench in the shade of a frangipani tree in full bloom. The weather is unpleasantly hot and humid, the sky is blue and filled with big white clouds. Strings of round Chinese lanterns hang over the street like strands of red paper pearls. SIMON reads quickly. BIFF pretends not to study SIMON’s face. BIFF again recites to himself some of the films that SIMON worked on: The Last Emperor, Life of Brian, Titanic, Distant Voices Still Lives, La Vie de Boheme, Indiana Jones... He’d seen photos on SIMON’s website; his pals like Madonna, Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr.. SIMON is humble, but not afraid to mention those with whom he’d enjoyed himself, famous or not. One moment SIMON might mention Sir Laurence Olivier, the next moment, nearly in tears, he'd describe the cheerful, sweet innocent face of Jimmy Wu, the bespectacled little boy with Backlington Syndrome who had hobbled six miles through a minefield in the snow in the dead of night to gaze upon the glasses that SIMON had made for Harry Potter. One moment SIMON might explain the influence his mother had upon British postwar playground design; the next he'd be describing an Oscar party he’d attended with both Playboy’s Miss January 1983 and a former Miss Texas who had “worked with Elvis”. BIFF remembered wistfully how SIMON once had effortlessly segued from a naughty casting couch story set in a Viennese penthouse to a description of his father’s meeting with Gandhi, to tips on how to get building permits in Los Angeles. SIMON knows both the dark secrets surrounding the present location of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper costumes and the simple joy of sharing 
sewage pipe in the middle of the road “This is surreal,” SIMON says. BIFF’s heart leaps. He hadn’t thought that the script he’d risked his health and sanity for would be considered “surreal”. But if SIMON MURRAY thought it was surreal, then his script was surreal, goshdarnit! Great! Actually, BIFF’s aim was to write a mashup; something like Waiting for Godot meets Mission Impossible. One draft had been titled Waiting for the Pink Panther. “Absolutely surreal” SIMON repeats. Eventually, BIFF understands, sadly. His script is not surreal; SIMON's mind is preoccupied with Something Else....The  Meaning of Life. The Undefinable Power Which Pervades Everything Yet Cannot Be Proved. Malaysia. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.The fact that Life is unscripted, yet filled with countless scenes containing countless varieties of brutality, no matter how much we think otherwise. SIMON lights another cigarette. We hear only the sound of diners in the cafe across the little street. BIFF becomes aware of  the aroma of herbal soup. ”OK… No bulldust”, SIMON says. “Your script. Some good ideas, but... don't do  two things at once. You can’t be both opera and MTV. Ballet or gangsta rap. You must decide. Hemingway or The Bard. Whattsap. Commitment. Your  Mr. Yellow character is unbelievable; I am unclear as to whether he has Parkinson's or just a silly walk. Your script should be a ticket away from reality. It's not." SIMON looks at the truck. "I had hopes..." Suddenly SIMON  starts barking like a big basset hound; the loudness he makes is the sound of being upset and surprised yet happy. The men packing the truck stop. SIMON is amongst them immediately. He shows them how to pack properly.

Stephen Black: VR startup in Singapore. Why?

An outline of reasons as to why Singapore is the place for Stephen Black's planned  VR startup.
  1. As Creative Director/Producer for the CDK, a CG-generated VR project for a Singapore-based joint venture, SB became very familiar with Singapore's working environment, including government policies and business practices. (The CDK is described more fully elsewhere on this blog.)
  2. As a long-term resident based in Singapore since 2002, and the author of a bestselling book about Singapore (i ate tiong bahru), SB has a familiarity with Singapore as well as a personal and professional network.
  3. The government of Singapore provides support for VR and VR-related startups. https://www.spring.gov.sg/Nurturing-Startups/SEEDS/Pages/spring-start-up-enterprise-development-scheme.aspx VR in Singapore
  4. As a teacher of VR-related educational software in the Singapore educational system, SB has experience "in the trenches", regarding the demands of institutions, schools, teachers and students. The Singapore Ministry of successfully tested the CDK and  presented the results at an international educational symposium.
  5. Singapore is a regional hub, with strong connections throughout Southeast Asia,India, China and Japan. This fact, combined with SB's living experiences in Japan, Hong Kong, Paris, New York and Bali create a strong  possibility for an active beta network that will be an influential force for global take-up.
    two male avatars in a very red gallery

    Stephen Black and Eugene Soh in the virtual lobby of gallery.sg, the location for the SPOKEN exhibition

    6. Safe and stable, Singapore has trustworthy legal and business infrastructures. 7. English: yes! Other languages? Yes, yes, yes and yes! 8.Singapore's multicultural population is also very smartphone savvy.

Jumpcut Workshop/Discovery Channel/Nicholas Reed

The last time I worked fulltime in network television was 2001, when I was the head of the on-air promo department for Fox in Tokyo.  In 2002 I came to Singapore to work for a startup that was doing something like Youtube (3 years before Youtube started) and creating a 3D-some-might-call-it-virtual-reality game development kit for children and educational purposes. In 2007 I began writing books. In the second half of 2016 I re-entered the VR world and, because of that, have found myself happily becoming re-associated with network television. To get to it, I recently attended a two day workshop organized by The Discovery Channel.  My notes and links....not in any order. Nicholas Reed introduced himself and the film that won him an Oscar.http://nickreed.com/  Why should we watch this video? To learn how we can live a happier life...   Lady in Number 6 Youtube Channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQMSukDFUzrZUU8ayePauTw ...when discussing the way to go about things/discuss changes , be objective, not subjective... data or examples can be more persuasive than an opinion... Nick recommended the book called Save the Cat. On the second day, he gave another presentation, this time focusing on viral marketing.Nick's company is called Shareability.... they made this: DON'T POST UNLESS IT'S GREAT! Dollar Shave Club...fantastic success story, started by a $50,000 video. As for pitching Nick told  a story about Korey/Karey ? Edwards, who carries an imaginary samurai sword on his back whenever he goes into a pitch. That gives him confidence when he tells them about the greatest idea in the world. Vomit draft-a draft quickly executed to get the main points down on paper, without thinking too much. SO many interesting ideas, experiences and comments, ranging from Santa in bondage to Tibetan car trouble to how to frontload a pitch. JumpCut Asia Bootcamp Rundown Day One 16 Dec Friday 9am-930am Registration and Coffe 930am – 10am Opening Address by Charmaine Kwan, Head of Products, Discovery Networks SEA 10am – 11am So You Won An Oscar… Masterclass with Nick Reed, Oscar-Winning filmmaker and founding partner of LA-based viral company, Shareability 11am – 12pm Developing the Development Panel: Jasmine Ng, Film Director and Series Producer for Singapore Stories Rohit Tharani, Director of Content Curation Discovery Networks SEA Tan Chih Chong, Executive Producer, Sitting in Pictures Moderated by: Bryan Seah, Head of Original Content for Discovery Networks SEA 12pm- 130pm Lunch 130pm – 215pm The Biz of Business Affairs Masterclass with Daniel Whittington, Senior Director, Business & Legal Affairs, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific 215pm- 3pm Production Management Masterclass with Melissa Turnbull, Director, Production Management, Discovery Networks Asia- Pacific Day Two 17 Dec Saturday 9am-930am Registration and Coffee 930am – 1030am The DNA of a Viral Story Masterclass with Nick Reed, Oscar-Winning filmmaker and founding partner of LA-based viral company, Shareability 1030am – 1115am How to Market Your Film on Social Panel: Derek Tan, Co-founder of Viddsee Ser Young Puah, Associate Creative Director, BBDO/Proximity Moderated by: Gerald Ang, Director of Audience Engagement, Discovery Networks SEA 1115am – 1215pm Survival Stories from Singapore Stories ‘15 Panel: Kylie Tan, Filmmaker, Man vs Birds Victor Tang, Filmmaker, Birth of a Marine Park Yong Shuling, Filmmaker, Growing Roots Moderated by: Caroline Chan, Assistant Producer, Discovery Networks SEA 1215pm -130pm Lunch 130pm – 215pm Pitch It Win It Panel: Jim Ribbans, Head of Business and Content Development, Beach House Pictures John McKenna, Head of Studio, One Animation Zaihirat Banu Codelli, CEO, Oak3 Films Moderated by: Bryan Seah, Head of Original Content for Discovery Networks SEA 215pm -3pm Production: Murphy’s Law in Motion Panel: Mark Chua, Director and Managing Partner, Freeflow Productions Sarah Bagharib, Producer and Director, Make Productions Brian  McDairmont, Director/Cameraman Two Chiefs Sean Kneale, VP Content and Senior Executive Producer, FremantleAsia Moderated by: Rohit Tharani, Director of Content Curation Discovery Networks SEA (Thanks to Gue Lee Yuan for helping me with this list)   Global quality, local stories. Data cannot tell you what to make. Likes are nice, but shares are much better. Microchannels...rushes and unused footage can be re-packaged. Content marketing story, story, story same but different http://www.scriptmailer.com/screenwriters/how-to-sell-your-movie-tv-idea-to-hollywood.html Tropes  http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/developing-a-strategy/ Deadpool Marketing campaign webtvasia Finally, a video shared by Nick...

Deepavali at Galicier (the second of a two part excerpt from i ate tiong bahru)

Hi! The first part of this post is here.

Gula melakka is easy to melt and difficult to burn. It’s in many of Galicier’s treats: steamed tapioca, putu mayu, onden onden, kaya jam, ongol ongol and, of course, huat kueh. Gula melakka is used in breads and cookies as well, but its taste can become subdued when used with yeast. Potassium, iron, nitrogen, zinc, selenium and other minerals are all found in gula melakka. It’s the only plant-generated source of B12, which is necessary for red blood cells and a healthy nervous system. Yes!

After getting Soh Kee Soon’s approval, I pick up a few shavings. Gula melakka is softly crystalline, like fine moist sand. Almost gooey. On my tongue, the shavings become a sweetly wholesome syrup.

Customers walking into Galicier are greeted by shelves full of macaroons, containers of kaya jam, lady fingers and at least five kinds of breads. Cakes: Black Forest, chocolate, mango, pumpkin and more. Here and there traditional bamboo containers are used as decorations. On a table, a small wall made of plastic tubs full of cookies of all kinds. Almond combinations abound: coffee almond, cinnamon almond, chocolate almond, green tea almond and more. Like any Peranakan bakery, Galicier has pineapple tarts.

Power 98 reports that the thunderstorms will continue all afternoon, then wishes everyone a Happy Dewali before playing a Guns N’ Roses song. The rainy national holiday seems like any other day. The flow of customers has been steady. Most walk in, but a few park on Tiong Bahru Road, turn on their blinking hazard lights and run in to order.

Speaking in English, a woman tells her two children about the photo of Tan Lok Wee. The woman’s father used to take her there. Jenny, speaking in Teochew, had told the woman the Tan Lok Wee/Galicier story. The woman is excited and emotional. The kids are bored.

Jenny says this sort of thing happens all the time.

Next door, on the corner, is the Prata Paradise. A few doors away on the other side is The French Bookshop. At night, on the other end of the block, the packed tables of Sin Hoi San clog the passageway. Sin Hoi San specializes in seafood. From inside their bubbling tanks, risks of lobsters, casts of crabs and porns6 of geoducks intimidate those waiting at the bus stop.

Most evenings the manager, Cheong Seck Wee, weaves his motorbike through the tables and begins cruising through the streets of Tiong Bahru. His ride is covered with lights, decals and flags. When I lived on the third floor of Moh Guan, I’d watch him from the window. Classic Chinese ballads softly played from speakers on his glowing, blinking motorbike. He rode slowly, like the lost ghost of a parade.

Next to Sin Hoi San is a provision shop, a time capsule from the days when customers bought 20 kilo bags of rice. Now, in the age of supermarkets and 7-11s, the shop sells small things like canned drinks, instant noodles, fruits and bread. A few times a year, there will be baskets of green spiky durians in front. The uncle will sit beside his weathered stand with a knife and gloves nearby.

“Galicier is stuck in the Seventies,” says a newspaper clipping on the wall. I would disagree. Galicier is as timeless as gula melakka, pure water, honey or bread.

(i ate tiong bahru is available on Amazon)

Deepavali at Galicier (the first of a two part excerpt from i ate tiong bahru)

i ate tiong bahru is a self-published book by artist/writer Stephen Black. Despite having received almost no support from governmental or media institutions, it has become a national bestseller and preparations are now underway for a second edition. The success of  i ate tiong bahru has been due to word of mouth and I am very grateful to those who have enjoyed iatb and told others. I apologize that the format of this post does not follow that of the book....

Dewali in Galicier

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks.


The back room of Galicier, the pastry shop on Tiong Bahru Road. Rain taps the tin roof as Pricilia and I stand near the shiny, tube-like contraption.


“Let’s do it!”

I lower my head slowly; I could be scalded. Pricilia quickly lifts the lid. Flavored steam rushes at me. My open mouth, my nose, my chin, my eyelids, even my forehead; all suddenly become one happy tastebud. I gulp the delicate, narcotic vapor. Immediately I become an angel in a heavenly cloud of butterscotch. I become a warm knife gliding over soft pancake butter and maple syrup. A streetlight in a tropical mist of caramel, a kite in a windy molasses sky. I am steamed gula melakka.

Pricilia smiles. “That is why I like making fuat kueh.”

Gula melakka thrills me. It’s organic – yes! Produced in the countryside, it allows people to develop their own businesses without moving to cities – yes! It’s full of vitamins – yes! It tastes great – double yes! Gula melakka is a traditional “medicinal sugar” in the Ayurvedic tradition and one of the world’s first spices. Long produced throughout Southeast Asia, gula melakka is known by many names, including jaggery, gur and palm sugar. The word ‘sugar’ is derived from the Sanskrit equivalent of gula melakka.

Strictly speaking, gula melakka is made only from the Palmyra palm. However, gula melakka is often made by small independent producers, each likely having a different production method. Some producers, for example, include refined sugar or add sap from other types of palm trees. Interestingly, the pure, fresh sap from the palmyra palm tree is also the basis for the alcoholic drink known as toddy.

The owner of Galicier, Mr. Y.S. Tan, grew up in a kampung where gula melakka was made. He often saw men quickly shimmy up trees to then slice and smash flowering buds with mallets. The men would then affix a “Mongolian pouch” or clay pot to the wounded buds and climb back down. The next morning the sap was collected, boiled and poured into bamboo tubes or glass molds. After the water vapor evaporated, the hard pieces of gula melakka were wrapped in paper and sold.

When Jenny was a child, gula melakka came wrapped in coconut leaves. Over eighty years ago, her grandfather, utilizing the skills he’d learned “from the Europeans,” set up a bakery named Ton Lok Wee. After he returned to Hainan, Jenny’s father took over the bakery. Mr. Tan began working for Jenny’s father in 1969, when he was eleven. Eventually, Tan Lok Wee closed, mainly because of the expansion of Orchard Road. When Mr. Tan decided to set up his own bakery, he had a partner: Jenny. The two were married thirty-three years ago.

Half of the people in Galicier gathered around me, trying to explain its Chinese name. To write something like ‘Ga-li- cier’ in Chinese, three characters are used: ka li jiaKa means something like ‘invitation to an event with the feeling of a wedding or family get-together’. Li could mean ‘power’ or ‘profit’ and jia means ‘family’ or ‘good’. Something like that. Mr. Tan also told me that Galicier is a city in Brazil.

On the wall behind the cash register, are two photos of Ton Lok Wee. The largest, a black and white street scene of Orchard Road, was taken in 1975. Behind the bakery is a wallsized advertisement for the “natural living color” of Setron TV. Also in the photo is the famous parking lot that, at night, became filled with food stalls, strings of lights and people eating and drinking, all surrounded by colonial architecture.

Jenny moves her finger over the photo, remembering the Cold Storage, the bottom of Emerald Hill Road, Centre- point and her father’s bakery. Taped onto the photograph’s white sky is a faded color photograph of Ton Lok Wee. In front of the bakery a young girl smiles at the camera. Her name is Soh Kee Soon and she’s Jenny’s eldest sister.

Soh Kee Soon is now seventy years old and sitting next to me. She is methodically cutting blocks of gula melakka; shaving and crumbling it. The shop uses as much as three kilos a day. The radio plays Madonna and Eighties dance music, but the rhythm of Galicier is the tapping of Soh Kee Soon’s knife against the cutting board.

(i ate tiong bahru on Amazon)

notes on the book Seen and Unseen by Russell Darnley

Russell Darnley's experiences in Asia are somewhat like my own. We've both spent considerable time in Bali, Singapore, and Indonesia, where Russell lived for a number of years. I lived in Japan, another place that Russell wrote about. Russell is Australian; I'm American.  Seen and Unseen is  a collection of short stories  based on Russell`s memoirs but, as I read, I often found myself remembering similar situations, or comparing his descriptions of a certain place with my own. Russell's  ability to speak Indonesian put him in the midst of the hospitals and makeshift morgues of Kuta immediately after the Bali Bombing. Reading his words, I felt like I was there. This sense of being beside  the author occurred  throughout the book, and thankfully, often in much more positive places than Kuta during that terrible time. Russell's writing style is, for the most part conversational. He recreates dialogues and places them within a chronological structure. This simple method allows him to provide easily understood insights into complex matters. Russell gracefully overcomes the challenges of using non-English words in an English language text. We can understand, for example, an Indonesian word because of its context or by the way it's used by a character. Russell  spent a significant portion of his life in Indonesia. The result of all of this is that we can how political decisions affect peoples lives, especially those political decisions involving more than one country.

photo of Russell Darnley from www.anza.org.sg

In short, I enjoyed reading Seen and Unseen because it was like having an intelligent older relative sharing with me the details of a life well lived. To give you an idea of the scope of the book, I present you with a few titles of the book's twenty-nine chapters: Sid Thompson and D Company Red Poppies and Janur An Encounter With White Australia Surviving the Sixties Balikpapan: Looking Backwards and Forwards Kampanye- The Campaign Procession An Unusual Kind of Thunder Singapore 43 Years on I should mention that Russell gave me a copy of Seen and Unseen in the Tiong Bahru Market, which is where we met. Finally, I wrote  a book, Bali Wave Ghost, that constantly makes reference to the Bali Bombing. Seen and Unseen on Amazon FWIW, Russell has been spotted in The Oak Bar. (I apologize for the formatting of this post. I am unsure as to why my previews always show a much more attractive spacing and layout, but once I publish, the posts look like this one...)  

What would Tony do? (International Coffee Day)

Today is International Coffee Day... Cheers! I had first thought that I would dig out some old photos of Tony's coffee chop, Hua   Bee. Orange melamine saucers, thick porcelain cream-colored cups and the old, white-haired coffee maker in his singlet, pouring out  a stream of black liquid from his silver coffee maker. Pale blue walls,  kaya toast on at least one of the tables, softboiled eggs somewhere... Something nostalgic, with a bit of a postmodern touch as a nod to Michael Lee, artist and curator, with whom I ate countless bowls of mee pok... But then I thought..."What would Tony do"? And I thought Tony would look upon today as a chance to make money! So, no nostalgic photos today! Instead I, channeling the spirit of Tony, ask you to consider getting one of the few remaining  print copies of i ate tiong bahru or an iatb ebook, or an iatb T-shirt, or one of the glass iatb cups that, very soon, will be featured in a crowdfunding campaign on Zingohub. artreview-asia-review-of-iatb Although there is one short story in iatb exclusively about coffee, something entitled Blued Coffee, the following is an extract from the story called Fa Fa Away. Cheers....and just leave your money on the table. Tony likes it when you leave coins... sb .......................................

Mr. Tang is not at Tony’s.

Tony’s is not yet busy.

Tony’s wearing one of the pale yellow Izod-like shirts he always wears. He moves back and forth from the cooler in the back to the tables on the sidewalk. He takes someone’s order and brings out somebody’s kaya toast. He does little things by the cash register. He ignores me, like he always does. I don’t mind. It’s a compliment, I guess. An inexplicable one.

Finally, he whizzes by. I barely hear him.

“Kopi C kosong?”

I give him the slightest nod possible.

“KOPI C KOSONG,” Tony blares out.

In the back, by the stove, the potbellied and nearly bald magician shuffles up to his stage. Wearing a white cotton T-shirt, shorts and sandals, he begins to make magic with brown powder, water, a long-nozzled silver pot, a well-used cloth strainer and a blue ring of fire.

Tony! He leaves my coffee and slides away his coins. Instantly he’s taking another order, talking with someone.

Good coffee in a thick, white ceramic cup, the faded orange poster from the Seventies explaining the ‘new’ money of Singapore, the simple pattern of the blue tiles on the floor, the ambience of fifty years ago... Not even a radio... Just the sounds of conversations.

I enjoy this, but I’m neither naive nor nostalgic.

This area used to be cluttered with trash of all kinds. Pigs were raised everywhere. Trucks filled with gangsters armed with big knives and steel bars used to roll by, almost daily. The kampungs were so dangerous that the police only entered in pairs, guns drawn. The newspapers were full of crime stories: acid attacks, suicides by hanging, rapes, extortion, stabbings, “intent to traffic heroin,” and all kinds of counterfeiters and thieves. Arrests were made because someone had “waylaid a compatriot,” or “committed an affray by fighting in public.” There was once a “strangling with a black negligee.” In 1986, one of Malaysia’s most wanted criminals was in his sister’s flat in Block 78. The police surrounded the place. He took a hostage. He, the hostage and his accomplice made their way to Kim Pong and Tiong Bahru Road. They boarded a bus. Shots were fired, the last being that of the fugitive ending his own life.


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Crime was not the only danger. For decades newspapers and the government had warned that the kampungs were fire hazards. In 1961, it happened – again. The Bukit Ho Swee fire, Singapore’s biggest, destroyed 60 acres and left 16,000 homeless. Over 8,000 people took shelter at the Kim Seng Road School. The kampungs were completely erased; photos show pigs roaming amidst piles of tin roofs and little more. Within nine months the HDB built five public housing flats, the start of the Bukit Ho Swee estate.

I’ve ordered mee pok and no matter where the auntie sets it on my table, it will be picture-perfect. Yellow noodles and fishballs in an orange bowl, two well-used wooden chopsticks on top. Next to this a tiny bowl of cut chillies soaking in a mixture of soy, sugar and spices.

Tony and the magician who makes coffee have worked hard for a long time. If they want to sell the shop, then more power to them. (I assume they own it – who knows?) It would be nice, though, if the new owners knew a bit about history, had a sense of taste and contributed to the local and global community. (Yes, I am naive. Indonesian, Australian and Japanese speculators don’t usually have this mindset. Not to mention Singaporeans and mainland Chinese.)

My table is like the other round marble topped tables, my chair like the other red plastic chairs. The man with the long moustache is here, smoking his pipe as he checks the race results. His tobacco smoke is always sweet. Maybe the woman in the blue skirt will be here.

And, perhaps it would be nice to have a big coffee chain here, one with comfy chairs and jazzy, slightly ethnic music; an edgy, cool place for hipsters and the wives of expats to chill in the hood. Perhaps not.


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