Rhythms and repetitions in Taipei 2015

Good Sweat 3 from ampulets on Vimeo. Neighbourgoods in a foreign hood.

It's old news that some things in Taipei don't change...and neither does the itinerary of our visit every other year. [See http://ampulets.blogspot.sg/search/label/taiwan for past trips]

But as with every trip, we would always discover a few nice spots in the city.  Here are some we were at first loathe to share because we wanted them to ourselves, but hey, our friends and the city have been generous to us, so we can only be generous back!

*Most of the places mentioned in this post are logged in on Google Maps. Images by J to follow soon...
** Warning: long post.


Good Sweat again!

Good Sweat is a project that is always very close to our hearts because it allows us to work with folks we admire in a simple but meaningful way. And for J, it is right up his preachy alley. 

So while we thought hard about whether we should bring it back, when we finally decided to do it, we had an even harder time thinking about who to feature - there are just too many people whose work and person we love, and who embody the spirit of sweating the Good Sweat!

This year, we are real pleased these 5 individuals agreed to come on board:
  • Kenny Leck / BooksActually, J calls him his favourite Ah Beng bookseller whose tenacity and persistence can only be admired.
  • Theseus Chan / WORK, J's nickname for Theseus is the "Godfather of Singapore design". Theseus is a real gem, too cool for words!  
  • Tan Pin Pin, a dear friend and our all time favourite filmmaker who gave J his first "job"almost 10 years ago when he quit his "proper" job.
  • Edwin Low / Supermama, I don't know how he does the things he do. But when we first stumbled upon Supermama years ago when they had first opened at Seah Street, we didn't think such a store was possible in Singapore. 
  • Carrie Yeo / The Freshman. How many indie singers in mandarin do you know? How not to admire someone who pursues their dream everyday?

And of course, J cannot resist adding in one more phrase for the 6th hankie this year. 

This year, each Good Sweat hankie also comes with a calendar-poster that features all 12 phrases from 2010, 2012 and 2015.

As with 2012, we will be making a donation in the name of the project and from the sales to a charity. Most likely it will be to the same charity as 2012 - the Chen Su Lan Methodist Home for Children.

Each time it is always challenging finding companies in Singapore who will work with us in making these handkerchiefs. Partly because J is very particular about the quality of the work and people whom he feels he can trust. Secondly it is hard finding the right fabric. Thirdly, embroidery of the elaborate traditional/繁體 Chinese characters on thinner and finer fabric is more difficult to perfect...and more costly as a result. So we were real chuffed to find a young Singapore company Kamilinen to work with, using 100% linen from ethically sound sources. We like their youthful enthusiasm and attitude to doing good work.

So friends, check out our Neighbourhoods site for the latest www.neighbourgoods.sg; or like us on FB www.facebook.com/Neighbourgoods/ to not miss out anything.


Slow-boiled assassin

With culinary metaphors, it is hard to get lost.

If you are in a pressure cooker, you better find ways to get out fast. And if your head is on the chopping board, then buddy, I hope for your sake that the knife is swift and sharp. Being in a pickle, well, there's always sour aftertaste. And that hardboiled detective novel is all dark, cynical, tobacco-chewing, drugs, bullets and sex, minus the rock and roll. 

In this family of metaphors, the slow boil seems ambiguous. A slow boil suggests the pain of a long arduous torture (think mesapotamian torture method for your worst enemy!) but also a complete and thorough accomplishment.

A slow boil is how I think of Hou Hsiao Hsien's The Assassin Nie Yin Niang 刺客聶癮娘. Hou has spent years reading about the Tang dynasty and preparing for this film. And there is nothing in the film that is extraneous. He shows you enough for you to do the rest of the work, piecing both the narrative and characters together - it is still on a slow boil in my mind!

So in that spirit of precision and editing, all I have left to say is this:

Friends, go watch the film before it disappears from the big screen (it is a big-screen film!). It is also screening at The Projector, for those of you who want more of the indie vibe. And if you need any more convincing, there's Zhang Zhen and Shuqi in the movie, both good-looking but still not as stunning as the cinematography and art direction.


dancing, as I imagine it to be

J doing the robot move with Kidnap Bob

Among all the performing arts in Singapore, dance probably has the smallest audience. Yet in the last ten years or so, it grew to have the next highest level of participation, after playing an instrument or singing in a group. Folks young and old are signed up for classes in street dance, social dance, line dance, belly dance, folk dance, tap dance, classical indian dance, ballet, pole dance...and zumba.

We are made to move. Working the fields, walking to gather our food, running away from danger, and moving as a group and as in a ritual to symbolise our being part of one body. Play music to a baby and it [oops] he/she responds to that rhythm, even if in the slightest of movement - that curling at the corner of their lips. Toddlers dance freely. And when we are happy, our foot steps quicken with our heartbeat, not in haste, but in flight.

I imagine that when we learn how to dance, as in learning a sport, we turn the instinct into discipline. And hopefully,  instinct and discipline becomes one, a memory and a new language for making meaning.

And like a child learning a new language, I imagine that learning how to dance can be immensely liberating. It is one more way of being alive. The parallel I draw is a nice run in the nature reserve when your mind, body and the environment or space around you are in sync.

J never understands why I sometimes enjoy watching contemporary dance when I don't have any real knowledge of the form, its histories and tropes.

So friends, if you are like me, here are some ways you can enjoy contemporary dance:

1) At a simple aesthetic level, enjoy it for the physicality and beauty of the body, its movements, and the images formed on stage. I marvel.

2) Sometimes the movements, however abstract, are making patterns from which meaning emerges. Not only symbolically or representationally, but in their ebb and flow, their geometry and length, their lightness and weight, something is being constructed together with the lighting and staging. A pattern, a building, an idea, a statement, an emotion, a drama. I engage. As if solving a puzzle.

3) Sometimes the dance is just speaking simply. Like a hard slap across someone's face is a hard slap across someone's face. I cringe. Like someone slipping on a banana skin and slips on a banana skin. I smile. There's nothing to decode. Your body will respond to what it is seeing.

4) Sometimes with all the meditative movement and music before me, my body tells me it needs to sleep. I allow it to. I shut my eyes, drift into a random thought, pray I don't end up collapsing against my neighbour, and inevitably, wake to a new tableau on stage. I enjoy it like a dream.

And in the best of dance performances, all four happens.

If you are curious, ahem, my shameless plug here is go for Esplanade's da:ns festival 9-18 October! Let me know if you need specific recommendations...

Torobaka at the da:ns Festival, with Akram Khan and Israel Galvan loving and battling it out through dance! 


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".

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