Song to a lost Malaya and a different future

Major ear-worm weekend after watching 7 Letters on Friday night! 

A film funded under Government's SG50 initiative and bearing the theme "home", it was easy for this Royston Tan-led project 7 Letters to go the way of celebratory contrivance. I am glad it didn't.

Each of the 7 shorts ended with a quote from the directors. Tan Pin Pin's seemingly cryptic "We are what we know" (interestingly the only short film to gesture at a future) was for me one of the ways of approaching this film. 

So what do we know?

The strongman's tears when announcing Singapore's separation from Malaysia has been the definitive moment of the nation's birth. Not a mother's, but a father's tears. So singular and protected has this image been that we are hard pressed to write another narrative. In any case, history - whether official, dominant or re-visioned - is so thinly examined that we are at best left with nostalgia. 

6 of the 7 short films investigated the past. And a nostalgia, wonderfully teased out with humour, was indeed their rose-coloured tone - be it Eric Khoo's tribute to Singapore's bygone era as the centre of Asia's multilingual cinema world, Jack Neo's kampong idyll, black-white archival photographs at the end of Kelvin Tong's film, or Royston Tan's perfectly-timed HDB paean. 

There was some inevitable exoticising in the process. This lost greater Malaya that seemed more glorious, more beautiful (oh see, seductive pontianak!), more exciting (oh watch, scary pontianak!) and dramatic than what we know of present day Singapore. 

But I think the filmmakers were also creating alternatives to that official image of trauma, separation - and birth. The short films lived in the aftershocks of separation that are deliberately personal and familial instead, but no less emotive, painful, even romantic (for what greater romance than unrequited or unconsummated love). 

And in so doing, I like to think they also give us alternatives to the present narrative; alternatives that were told through all of Singapore's wonderfully varied languages and dialects.

[warning: spoilers ahead]

Boo Junfeng's inter-racial romance in the 60s is further doomed by cross-border separation. Even as the elderly Malay man returns to present-day Singapore to reconnect with his past, he discovers that what separates them has only widened with time, dementia, a train station that is no more, urban redevelopment, and continental migration. Of course, the film hints of a more tolerant Singapore today - and in that, some relief. 

Royston Tan brings together a latchkey Chinese kid and his elderly and seemingly lonely Malay neighbour through a minor "water crisis" (yes, we are joined to Malaysia that way too), kueh, and Dick Lee's evocative "Bunga Sayang".  And in a Tsai Ming Liang-style musical interlude, we see the child and stand-in-(grand)mother unite in a technicolour paradise. 

Kelvin Tong's film has a different kind of border crossing. In his version, a family makes their annual visit to their grandfather's tomb in Malaysia. But death and borders don't separate as much as the threat of indifference and amnesia. Against this threat we must tell and re-tell our journeys. And it is the grandson's inheritance of this journey-telling ritual that gives hope. 

Rajagopal's tightly acted black/white family drama takes place on the day of British withdrawal from Singapore. He places before his protagonist the choice of following his father to seek British citizenship or to remain in a Singapore where he is born, met his wife, and about to raise a family. It is a moment of separation, but also a moment of independence, however painfully wrought, broken plate and all.

Tan Pin Pin's understated and intelligent drama of cross-border adoption, where the child's "tummy mummy" is from Malaysia's "Pineapple Town", is perhaps the only film that casts its thoughts forward. For that (plus I am biased!), it is my favourite of the 7.

In the film, the adoptive mom and the whole family are shown traversing the causeway - this architectural symbol of separation and of both historical and biological ties. They do so precisely not to deny and bury the past, but to embrace, learn and know of the past and their identities as individuals and as a family.  

All this can happen for us if we, too, are somewhat brave and foolish - as the film's tummy mummy and adoptive mummy has proven. It is the mother's courageous seeking and confrontation of the truth, not the father's tears after all, that promises a different future.

7Letters has ended its gala screenings. It will be screened during the National Day weekend (8-10 August) at the National Museum - visit the museum website for ticketing details. If you still can't get tickets, check the film's Facebook page here for updates. 


time to read

Stone school bench in the Open Book cafe at Grassroots Book Room, Photo by J

Grassroots Book Room 草根書室 is fast becoming one of our favourite places on this tropical island. Although my Chinese is not good enough to figure out half the books there (or less!), on a Saturday night, that place is an oasis. There is a respective silence, the books so lovingly arranged, and the bookstore owners know their stuff and never bother you.

Last Saturday, we realised only when we got there that they were hosting a Q&A session with a Malaysian writer who lives in Taiwan. We didn't know who he was but the conversation seemed interesting enough for J to bear with the crowd.

Towards the end of the session, as the questions thinned, the host invited a student to speak, impromptu, on behalf of her peers. Somewhat stunned, she took a while to gather her thoughts -

"I... I... I... I... You...[the audience laughs] you...you said that young people today are glued to our mobile screens, so I would like to ask...how can we ensure that literature does not become irrelevant (the Chinese phrase is 脫臼, which has the sense also of being left behind, dislocated) to the young?"

The writer was unfazed by this innocent attack.

"I think literature can be useful for young people as it will help them better articulate and express themselves." *Ouch* I paraphrase liberally the rest of his reply: "Whatever it is, even if contemporary writing does not appeal to you, it is ok - I would still recommend to a young person that they at least read the classics. Literature has such a long history - everything about human experience has been written about. There is nothing new that hasn't been written about. Love, loss, elation, sorrow, suffering, loneliness ...you will find every facet of human experience already expressed and examined in books."

That night, I walked out of the bookstore with Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman (NUS Press, 2014), Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng's recollection his student years in Ireland. The prose is confident, direct, unclouded, honest.  What is said of infatuation and love, friendship, worship, self-doubt and assurance in those stories of one young man's experience in the 50s are no less real today.

Time has a funny way of working when you read.


a coming-of-age dish

As a kid, there are some things you would eat only if threatened with a journey to hell and back. Spring onions. Chinese coriander. Celery. Ginger. Century egg (which 3/4 of the world, even the grown ups, won't eat).

They are adult foods. And one day when you find that you don't really mind eating them, and may, in fact, quite enjoy their taste - aha, friends, you have grown up. Officially.

This ain't no food blog. But this dish is vegan, delicious, and has all that stuff to prove you are no longer a child. I call this dish - Grow up & eat ginger, you! In short, G.U.E.G.Y, which you can pronounce as Gu-Ee-Gee.

Ingredients for 2-3 hungry adults
The main ingredients are:
  • 1.5 cups of long grain rice (black, red, brown or white - I use black rice because anything black is *cool* ha.)
  • 2 pieces of Firm tofu  (Tau Gwa)
  • 200-300gm of Mushrooms (I use Korean Shimeiji mushrooms)
  • Cherry tomatoes (20 of them? Go with the flow.)
  • Wolfberries (1 handful)
  • Sesame seeds (optional)
But the really important ingredients are:
  • Chopped garlic (3 cloves or more)
  • Chopped young ginger (2-inch. If you are not quite sure about the adult world, start with 1 inch of ginger.)
  • Spring onions (5-8 stalks. Chop the white-ish parts, and cut the green parts into 1.5inch bits. Keep the green parts for the last)
  • 1-2 regular red chillies (Slice, remove seeds. Don't use chilli padi, the ginger is the star here, please.)
The seasoning is just:
  • Chinese cooking wine  
  • Soy sauce (the most fragrant kind you can afford!)
7 steps (30-45mins) to G.U.E.G.Y.! 
1. Cook your rice first. While the rice is cooking, cut and chop all your ingredients.
  • Start with the really important ingredients, which can all go into the same bowl.
  • Cut each tau gwa into 3, then slice each piece into half-inch pieces.
  • Half the cherry tomatoes 
  • Slice or quarter your mushrooms
2. When the rice is cooked, loosen it up and leave it to cool. In the meantime, pan fry your tau gwa when the rice is cooked. When the tau gwa is lightly browned or have shrunk a little, take them out of the pan/wok.

3. In the same hot pan/wok, fry the really important ingredients - add a little more oil if necessary. It smells amazing, and it's all because of the the ginger, I kid you not.

4. When you have your fill of smelling all that ginger-garlic-spring onion-chilli mix, add the mushrooms, tomatoes and wolfberries into the pan/wok. Stir well, and add your chinese cooking wine... generous dashes! There should be some liquid from the cooking tomatoes...

5. Add the tau gwa, and then add the soy sauce - to taste (maybe 4-5 tablespoons?) There should be more liquid in the pan/wok and it should be good.

6. Add the rice and the green parts of the spring onion. Stir, taste and add more soy sauce if you think necessary. You can sprinkle the sesame seeds over the dish.

7. Eat your G.U.E.G.Y. and feel all grown up.

As my nephew in all his three year-old sweetness used to say: "you try, you try".



J looking like he is 33. Oops, he is 33 in this photo.

10 years 2 months ago, we launched this T-shirt under our homemade "ampulets supplies" label. A man lies staring at the night sky, dreaming of the world's best BBQ chicken wings.

"Starry Starry Wings" was inspired by the world's best BBQ wings in the world, found right in Toa Payoh's Lorong 8 market.

Friends, the wings are no more. 

Don't bother making the trip with an empty stomach. And we won't be bringing them wings to your potluck sessions. Despite our pleading with him to reconsider his decision, Wing's mind was set. He has had enough of standing in smoke all through the night and the escalating price of frozen wings.

For some nostalgia, here's why we think they are the best wings in the world; and here's something about the neighbourhood that once had them.

As J and I walked past the market this evening under a full moon, ah - the absence of that smokey fragrance of five-spice in the air led us to compose this mournful eulogy to the opening melody of "Vincent":

Starry Starry Night
My chicken wings have taken flight -
Toa Payoh Lorong 8's joy and pride -
My tastebuds, they might as well have just died.

[Impt announcement: Wings has decided to get back to making the world's best BBQ wings in October 2015. In the meantime, he is warming up with satay. Woohoo.]


and the point of all this is?

J: How many years have we been married?
Y: Hmmm. I don't know leh.
J: 11?
Y: *%#... Com'on, it doesn't feel like so long...
J: No meh?
Y: ... I know, let me search our blog! I remember there was a post!

And so friends, that's what a blog is for. A public archive of sorts for failing memories. And on the occasion of an approaching anniversary, allow me to indulge in revisiting a selection of silliness that arose back when we were trying to be "incognito" on this blog...

And an encore, for my favourite watermelon man -


if you had three wishes

Photo by J - he wishes for us amps to hold hands everyday. Heh.

J says I am an diehard optimist. So it seems out of character for me to have a distrust of an optimistic activity, however structured and organised. 

A few weeks ago, such suspicion was stirred when a group of old folks were invited to write their wishes for the future, and to float these wishes on inflated spheres in the Marina Bay. Surrounded by the indifference of glimmering skyscrapers and integrated resorts, it was not difficult to start thinking - Com'on, who would fulfil their wishes? For whom do they wish? What difference would this make for their lives, our lives? 

Some of the old folks I was chatting with appeared at first a little surprised at the request. Maybe no one had asked them about their wishes for the future before. After all, this was a question more often asked to 8 year olds, it is the young who have aspirations, dreams, a future - there are always wants with the young.  But we seldom asked those older than us, even our parents, about their wishes. The old folks surprised me with their readiness to offer their views, the earnestness which they seemed to take this exercise. I should be ashamed of my lack of... perspective, belief?

With many not being literate, they asked if I would help them write it all down instead. And watched as I did so; repeating to make sure I caught what they said. So what did I find myself transcribing? Give me more money? More love? Or perhaps in yusheng-tossing fashion, "huat ah"? 

They wished, almost unanimously, for these three things, and in this order: peace for the country, health for everyone, and joy everyday.  

I was hanging around an afternoon concert today where the average audience age was maybe 60 or more. The singer laughed and said that this was a roomful of "been there, done that" people, and the audience cheered in affirmation. 

Friends and my sweet J, if you've lived a life where you could say "been there, done that" or even just "been here, seen this", would you persist in wishing peace for the country, health for everyone, and joy everyday? 

And to think that I almost forgot, ampulets actually reads 安普樂, the three characters for peace, the everyday, joy. 



Kidnap Bob understands that growing old can sometimes make you grumpy. But friends, grumpy ain't your brother! So before the year ends, leave behind that heavy load that's making you unkind and impatient.
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