Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Media Res

T. S. Eliot, in his choruses from The Rock, asked:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
One might add, 'Where is the information we have lost in media?'

I am driven to this question by the saddest (as in, most pathetic) of things: I was annoyed by comments on the internet. Such pettiness would normally not be worth more than a moment's hyperventilation, not to mention a blog post. But this recent ugly round of online irresponsibility has interfered with my sheer sense of joy and wonder that on Sunday, Singaporean director Anthony Chen won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, Ilo Ilo (爸妈不在家) . This is the first Singaporean feature film to win at Cannes. Chen had also, in Cannes in 2007, garnered a special mention for his short film Ah Ma. Rejoice! I thought. Things were to prove more complicated than this.

The sorry story of the online shenanigans is told here and here. In short, some persons online decided to set up a fake facebook account with the name of 'Cindy Toh' to spread an utterly spurious story about how Chen had sought support for his studies and filmmaking from the PAP government and MPs and was repeatedly turned down. This was parroted by many online commenters as it seemed to fit into what they wanted to believe: that the PAP government was useless; that it neglected local talents; that it was only now trumpeting Chen's success (Chen received laudatory mentions on the Prime Minister's facebook page, for example) because well, he had succeeded. "Whatever" you think: the internet is a hive of misinformation anyway. But the weirdness comes next.

Minister Lawrence Wong responded to these comments by pointing out that the Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore did provide funding for Chen and the film. (If you check out the film's twitter feed, it thanks the MDA.) These online provocateurs than responded, and I kid you not, that they had successfully baited the minister. Mr. Wong, in pointing out that the government had provided funding for the film, had in fact admitted that this was a government propaganda effort to normalise the presence of foreigners in Singapore. Their fake facebook troll and rumourmongering had paid off! One observation to made from the off, which Mr. Wong made, is that this is not news. A quick search on Google will reveal that Chen
recently completed his MA in Film Directing at the National Film and Television School, UK with a scholarship from the Media Development Authority of Singapore.
If one looks at the official site for the movie, the logo of the Singapore Film Commission, part of MDA, is clearly visible on the bottom left corner of the page. So much for 'baiting' Mr. Wong then -- it appears internet provocateurs aren't very good at using the internet. On the whole, it was plain upsetting that we couldn't simply celebrate Chen's triumph, and were exposed to the strange minds of conspiracy theorists online. But again, you say, nothing new. The internet was designed for conspiracy theorists. (Though conspiracy theorists will tell you otherwise, of course.)

What was worse was that various online news outlets, including the fairly well-read theonlinecitizen and also publichouse.sg, among others, repeated this story. As pointed out, if these editors had bothered to google the stuff (as I did), they would have realised what the truth is. The question I have is simply this: isn't this sloppy approach an argument against your very existence? The onus is on these online news outlets to prove that they're as good as, if not better than traditional media. That way, journalism in Singapore will be improved -- and that's the way they can best justify their existence. If they're going to descend to reporting rumour that simply confirms their own and their readers' cognitive biases (as the online comments on their posts seem to show), then what's the point? Why should a discerning reader support alternative media/online news/whatever you call it if they can't even verify news? Then, today, like an omen, the MDA announced a new licensing scheme of online news websites.

The moment hasn't been ruined, despite a few hours of annoyance. I am very happy that Ilo Ilo, a film about a Filipino domestic worker (from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines, hence the title) in Singapore, the Asian financial crisis and family pressures, has won. I am even more happy that it's a win for Singapore (and really, I would argue, for the Philippines as well). I can't wait to watch it: my family employed a Filipino lady -- whom I am still in touch with and still love very much -- when I was growing up, to largely take care of my great-grandmother. She taught me many things, cooked many lovely Filipino dishes (like stuffed milk fish, or rellenong bangus) , spent many idle afternoons with me, playing and drawing, made sure my great-grandmother was comfortable and happy till she died and is now still providing help to another family. I recall a friend's mother telling me that without maids, she wouldn't have been able to be a career woman. I'm not going to let these idiots ruin this for me, and neither should you. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Memoriam: the St. Giles' Café, Oxford

I woke up this morning, like all mornings, feeling sundered from the Divine and dragged back to squalid earth. This was made worse though, by a text from my good friend, Tom. Tom informs me that my old breakfast greasy spoon in Oxford, the St. Giles' Café ('Café' was a real misnomer) is now under new management, no longer does bacon and chips, and offers an 'earthy breakfast' and 'asparagus with home-cured pancetta'. The diner seats are gone, replaced with wooden tables and chairs. There are now placemats with quotations from Martial. In short: it has been captured by hippies. 

I don't have separate memories of my many meals at this institution. Instead, they are all congealed (like the bacon fat in my arteries) into a single ur-Memory, the proto-St. Giles' Café experience. It runs like this: a night of excess with one or two or three too many pints of ciders; waking up at eleven in the morning; struggling to find the floor; walking down the boulevard of St. Giles filled with regrets and hope, wishing my head was more well-supported, somehow; meeting up with Tom, who has just had a tute in American history at St. Anne's; and finally, with the sign of the Eagle and Child just visible, with the sun on my face, filtered by the leaves of the huge London planetrees, we enter this hallowed hall. There are red diner seats, metal tables and a single alley leads up to the counter. (The walls, for reasons I've never figured out, were absolutely covered with framed black-and-white photos of Oxford scenes, as if the place wanted to make satirical genuflection to Oxford.)  Service, if one wishes to dignify it with that name, is brusque. Tom gets a coke. I get a cup of tea. We both order a variant of chips and bacon. They give us our tickets, with a number on them. We then pick a seat, usually nearest the door, in the hope of avoiding leaving the place smelling as if we'd just fornicated with a deep-fat fryer. (There was also the chance of some light.) Waiting. Conversation made half-hearted by anticipation. And then our number is called out. 

Thereafter, bliss. Very little talk as we exhaust the possible combinations of egg, bacon, chips, brown sauce and ketchup. (I only got the sausages once: they were horrid.) The bacon was the star: thickly cut to give some bite, but fried expertly to a crisp. Sipping my cup of black tea, my delicate state giving way to contentment, I feel a complete serenity, as if I were one of the stones of nearby John's, ancient and unchallenged. 

So the barbarians have come. Have fun, you hippies. I hope your allotment catches fire. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Value, Wealth and Richness

'Rocks and Vegetation, Chamonix', John Ruskin (c. 1854) 

Can't stop staring at this picture. Chamonix was where Ruskin composed his intervention into political economy, Unto this Last, which inspired Gandhi, among many others. To capture the drama of this moment in 1860, when Ruskin published this provocative work, I (shamelessly) quote a piece I wrote a while ago: 
A great Victorian art critic, arbiter of the nation’s taste, suddenly turns his intellect and wits on the orthodoxies of the day — in this case, the revered science of political economy. In a series of four articles published in a popular, widely read periodical the critic condemns the very epistemological basis of classical economics. It is, he says, “the most cretinous, speechless, paralysing plague that has yet touched the brains of mankind”. His once docile, admiring and thoroughly middle-class audience is horrified. He is, in his own words, “reprobated in a violent manner”. He is denounced in the press variously as “crazy and ignorant”, “a womanish man, who has run foul of a scientific truth”, “a mere baby”, “a mad governess”, and so forth. But the man does not relent. He spends a good part of the rest of his life lecturing and writing on society and economy. He stubbornly describes his economic writings as “probably the best I shall ever write”. That, in short, is the story of John Ruskin’s foolhardy foray into social criticism. The four articles, a call to infuse economics with affection and morality, were published in the Cornhill magazine as Unto this Last, from August to November of 1860. In time, more sympathetic ears would transform his words into action: his message would inspire Octavia Hill, Gandhi, and scores of other acolytes.
In fact, a survey of the first batch of elected Labour MPs in 1906 revealed that Ruskin and in particular, Unto this Last, were an inspiration for them, a name and a book they invoked more than any other writer or title. The issues Ruskin raised haven't gone away, in an age when inequality is worse than ever, when Thatcherism is still declared triumphant. As Ruskin said,
it is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists.
We need to go back to those debates. Rather, we need to always have them -- in any good society. What is value? what is wealth? and what does it mean for a person or a country to be rich?


And this should be in every shop and house, again from Unto this Last:
what one person has, another cannot have; and that every atom of substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much human life spent; which, if it issue in the saving present life, or gaining more, is well spent, but if not, is either so much life prevented, or so much slain. In all buying, consider, first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands; thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put; and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed: in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alternative Histories

We could be making Portuguese egg tarts, frying up tempura and speaking Singaporean Portuguese now... (Also another nail in the coffin for that myth of Raffles 'discovering' Singapore -- not to mention that the regional Malay princes and the Chinese already knew of it before the Europeans.)


Some extracts from Jaques de Coutre (a Portuguese diamond merchant), ‘Information about Building Some Castles and Fortresses in the Straits of Singapore and Other Regions of the South, etc.’ (1620s), a memorial addressed to King Philip III of Spain and Portugal. 

‘In the middle of the Singapore Straits there is an island [present-day Sentosa] ... this island forms a stone peak ... called Surgidera ... Your Majesty should order that a very strong citadel be built on this peak; all the vessels that pass through these Straits, through the Old Strait as well as the New Strait, stop and drop anchor around the said peak.’ 

‘It is necessary to build a second fortress or citadel in the Johor River estuary at the promontory of the Isla de La Sabandaria Vieja [present-day Singapore; around Changi]* ... The second citadel situated at the Johor River estuary and the first one at the Singapore Straits can lend each other assistance either by sea of by land ....Your Majesty ... should become the lord of this port, which is one of the best that serves the Indies. Your Majesty can build a city there and become the lord of this kingdom.’ 

(adapted from Peter Borschberg, The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century (Singapore, 2010), pp. 245-8)

* This translates as 'Island of the Old Shahbandar's Compound'. I should note that the 'Shahbandar', a Persian term, was a port official of the Sultan of Johor, who supposedly had a compound here for the collection of dues and tolls. So Singapore was already a port of sorts, under the Johor sultanate, but we know regrettably little about it. Vieja is simply the Spanish word for 'old'. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Partying like it's Nineteen Eighty Something

Brief thought: North Korea's belligerence has now brought the (distant) prospect of nuclear war back to people's minds, a fear that was rampant, unavoidable and utterly haunting in the 80s. To quote Martin Amis' incredibly evocative article, 'Nuclear City: The Megadeath Intellectuals' (Esquire, 1987): 
When nuclear weapons become real to you, when they stop buzzing around your ears and actually move into your head, hardly an hour passes without some throb or flash, some heavy pulse of imagined supercastastrophe.
At the same time, Margaret Thatcher's death has provoked a memorialising of the same decade, filling the air of a week in April, 2013 thickly with the remembered actions and words, nostalgia and hatred intermixed, of Thatcher herself, but also Reagan and the still-living Gorbachev. An odd, hopefully brief, shadow has been cast. I thank the conjunction of world events for bringing back to life the decade before my birth. Please stop at this stage, though. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Top Five

I've decided to record this list at this stage in my life, so I can look back and compare profitably in say, ten years.

(in alphabetical order)

1. Martin Amis
2. Jorge Luis Borges
3. James Joyce
4. Orhan Pamuk
5. J. R. R. Tolkien

But in terms of top five books, that's a slightly different list:

1. The Lord of the Rings
2. Ulysses
3. The Anatomy of Melancholy (Robert Burton) 
4. The Dream of the Red Chamber  <<红楼梦>> (Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹)
5. The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk)

As I was saying to someone, Shakespeare isn't here because that'd be like putting 'The English Language' on the list. No point comparing the celestial with the merely mortal.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guicciardini on Politics

When I think about politics in the Italian Renaissance, I am drawn not to the much-maligned meditations of Niccolò Machiavelli but to the writings of his more aristocratic, pessimistic colleague, Francesco Guicciardini, the Florentine historian, statesman and political theorist. Guicciardini saw more service than Machiavelli, which accounts for his more realistic and sceptical politics. He is thus a good foil to Machiavelli (who despite his reputation was really an irrepressible optimist) though he's been somewhat forgotten, except by students of the Italian Renaissance. Guicciardini is the historian's historian, refusing to draw simplified lessons from political events, and often distrusting of Machiavelli's aphoristic pronouncements on matters. Contra Machiavelli, he doubted the value of historical parallels, claiming it was a mistake to be 'quoting the Romans at every turn'. In his Maxims (Ricordi), Guicciardini says that even if valid parallels existed
the names and surfaces of things will be so altered, that he who has not a quick eye will not recognise them
Above all, Guicciardini is troubled by complexity. The problems of Italy at the turn of the fifteenth century were so complex, claims Guicciardini in his History of Italy (1537-40), that
they could not be cured with simple medicines; rather, as so often happens in bodies overflowing with corrupt humours, a remedy employed to cure one disorder in one part generates even more pernicious and dangerous ill   
The problem that bedevils political action, says Guicciardini, is uncertainty of judgement and mistaken common opinion. We are told that 'wise men do not always discern or pass perfect judgements', that 'it is impossible ... to form a judgement as to the course of events ... our opinions must be formed and modified from day to day'. The world is full of 'erroneous and unfounded opinion'. In such an environment, policy is often impossible and as he notes above, one is sometimes hard-pressed not to do more harm than good. Politics is often defined as the 'art of the possible'. Guicciardini seems to me to ask, 'Do you even know what's possible? And how do you know?' Of course, Guicciardini is then free to construct and exploit his persona as the ultimate insider, somehow privy to the truth lurking beneath appearances. Yet in an age where T. S. Eliot's questions, from The Rock (1934)
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  
are more unanswerable than ever, I think Guicciardini's vacillations have some use. But it is this passage, from his Dialogue on the Government of Florence (1527), that I find striking
Consider, too, that our city is now old, and as far as one can conjecture from its development, the nature of things and past examples, it is now declining rather than growing. It’s not like a new-born or a young city, which is easy to form and set up, and receives the habits given to it without any difficulty. When cities are old, it is difficult to reform them; and once they have been reformed, they soon lose their good set-up and always remember their original bad habits.
This sense of senescence and exhaustion must be immediately recognisable to even the most casual observer of politics. Countries are old, as are their systems and governments. Politics sometimes seems  to have calcified along unchanging lines. The debates seem to be fought with nothing but ancient clichés, incendiary watchwords that serve as substitutes for thought, as automatic, unthinking calls to arms. (Class seems to be one such category, in Britain at least.) Guicciardini reminds us how truly difficult politics is; how even more difficult change is; how limited the power of politicians, even in the highest office, can be; and how policy is not for the faint-hearted, requiring steely consideration. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Missing the Dead

"... all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another" -- John Donne, 'Meditation XVII', Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
So says Donne. Yet, sometimes, it is hard not to feel that the death of a great man or woman is a tearing out of a page in a book. The death of Roger Ebert and yes, Margaret Thatcher, reinforced this for me, but not as much as reading a collection of the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. I have to admit that I half-expected his letters to be slightly embarrassing, a bit like encountering the unreconstructed opinions of the elderly. (And I was also ready to forgive him for them, out of the love I have for his fiction.) But in fact, the letters speak to me, and move me greatly, with their intensely felt warmth (towards his children and friends) and in their painstakingly well-constructed and well-thought out opinions. I should have expected this, of course. I found myself longing for a time when people wrote considered letters to each other, and also for a time of conviction, not hasty, cowardly judgements: Tolkien comes across as resolute in his opinions, calm and yet struggling with matters entirely human. To just give a taste of how surprising his opinions can be, however, let me excerpt a letter he wrote to his son, Christopher, on 29 November 1943:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang', it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. 
Another surprising glimpse is of Tolkien as a young, career-minded don in Oxford: something which must have been a part of his life, but not really how one imagines Tolkien. There are also, for the Oxonian, lovely spine-tingling moments when he speaks of Oxford and its places -- which reassures me that one can still commune with the dead. This letter, again to this son Christopher, dated 30 Jan 1945, happily combines both, with a dose of comradeship with C. S. Lewis. Also proves that college administration never improves, through the ages:
 But I got to Magdalen, where after a brief shiver over 2 depressing elm-logs (elm won't burn) we decided to seek warmth and beer at the Mitre: we got both (pubs manage their business better than bursars: upon my word, I don't think the latter gentry would even hold down a Kiwi job in the R.A.F.!). A good many things happened then. My rest was rudely broken by a 'phone call on business from which quite incidentally I learned the startling news that Prof. H. C. Wyld died on Saturday. God rest his soul. But he leaves me a legacy of terrestrial trouble. For one thing I've got to make up mind what to do about the succession. Five years ago I'd have been thinking of how to get the Merton chair myself: my ambition was to get C.S.L. and myself into the 2 Merton Chairs. It would be marvellous to be both in the same college — and for me to be in a real college and shake off the dust of miserable Pembroke. But I think prob. not – even if there was a chance.
Which leads us back to Death. Reading Tolkien's letters made me miss him; it made me really wish he was still around. One realises what a huge, sucking vacuum the death of someone like him leaves. All the accumulated erudition, time-tested relationships, the meaning and significance of the deceased to each person who knew and interacted with him -- all of that is sunk when a person dies. And one is expected to just move on?


More excerpts from Tolkien's letters, because I absolutely cannot resist. Some glimpses of his reaction to Americans, who must have continually surprised him, first with their mannerisms and then their astonishing fervour for his work.  Quoting a fan's letter to Christopher, 25 October 1944:
'Dear Mr Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description ... Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular ... If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names?' 
John Barrow 12 yrs. West town School, West town, Pa.' 
 It's nice to find that little American boys do really still say 'Gee Whiz'.

On 5 June 1955, in the New York Times Book Review, there was an account of Tolkien and his writings:
What, we asked Dr [sic] Tolkien, makes you tick? Dr T., who teaches at Oxford when he isn't writing novels, has this brisk reply: "I don't tick. I am not a machine. (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.)"
And for the geeks, from a letter of 4 November 1954, an instance (among innumerable others) of Tolkien taking his world very seriously, approaching it not as an inventor but as a chronicler and expert, this time on the objection that Gandalf's resurrection was 'cheating', and clarifying the powers and nature of wizards or the Istari:
Gandalf may be enhanced in power (that is, under the forms of this fable, in sanctity), but if still embodied he must still suffer care and anxiety, and the needs of flesh. He has no more (if no less) certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian. In any case none of my 'angelic' persons are represented as knowing the future completely, or indeed at all where other wills are concerned. Hence their constant temptation to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power: by awe if not by actual fear, or physical constraint.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

'The Paradise of Cities'

(Donato Bertelli's Map of Venice, 1566)

The Victorians -- John Ruskin comes to mind, in particular -- visited Venice because they enjoyed the characteristically Victorian blend of melancholy and moralising. For them, Venice was a warning to England, an example to be heeded. Ruskin, in the Stones of Venice (1851), saw it his task to
trace the lines of this image before it be for ever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the STONES OF VENICE.  
The sight of Venice's melancholy desolation, its unbearable beauty, and its ethereal, watery existence provoked especial thrill. To quote Ruskin again, Venice
is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness
Venice and its history were, to put it crudely, being consumed as a pornography of decline and ruin, much like the gawking that happens with photographs of a disused and decaying Detroit.

This nineteenth-century mindset is still very much with us and shapes much of Venetian tourism. It has been heightened by vague environmental awareness of the dangers and perils facing Venice. Tourism itself, and this is another commonplace, threatens the very soul of the city, even as it is utterly indispensable to the Venetian economy. Rising prices, lack of local communities are turning a living city into a dying museum, sending local, real Venetians fleeing. The point of going to Venice, even if it's for a day (an incredible, deplorable 70% of visitors to Venice are day trippers), is to see it before it inevitably sinks into oblivion -- physically and in spirit. Or so you'll hear.

Yet the impressions I received on this trip seemed to add up to something slightly more complex. Sure, in the melancholy of the sestiere (district) of Cannaregio where I stayed, with its decaying buildings and dark quiet, one could at times feel like the consummate connoisseur of decline. But Cannaregio was in fact incredibly lively, populated with locals and quality bars and restaurants. The city was well-run and efficient, overturning stereotypes of Italian misgovernment. Case in point: the waterbuses (vaporetti) were never late. (The only delay in my entire journey was due to Easyjet.) My landlord, a local Venetian, was extremely proud of Venice, its history, the history of the place he ran, the quarter he lives in -- and many Venetians I met were similarly proud, almost defiant. (Venetians seem to live as much in the past as in the present. Over an excellent espresso, my landlord openly lamented Napoleon's barbaric looting of Venice, in front of all the guests, who aside from myself and my companion, were all French.) The winged lion of St. Mark, prominently depicted in the Venetian flag -- which was everywhere -- seemed to represent this spirit of defiance: passant guardant and staring down doubters. Like the decline of the humanities, such predictions of demise, and the accompanying decrying, are often a sign of vitality and strength. I reckon Venice will last a long time yet.

(The Lion of St Mark, Vittore Carpaccio)

The relation to tourism is, to my mind, complex too. Venice was, after all, always a city of visiting merchants and migrants. (Hence the existence of places like the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, once the living quarters of the city's German merchants.) Comments about how Venetians were outnumbered by aliens went back a long way: at the end of the fifteenth century, the French ambassador Philippe de Commynes acidly remarked that 'most of their people are foreigners'.

(The Fondaco dei Tedeschi, just by the Rialto bridge.)

Yes, the day-trippers, who simply catch a glimpse of St Mark's Square and are then quickly evacuated back to the mainland are fools. But Venice has always cultivated extraordinary tourists, who fall in love with the city and proceed to champion its cause. One has only to note the number of funds and charities dedicated to rescuing and restoring Venice. It is through the eyes of famous tourists -- Ruskin, Byron, among countless others -- that we first view Venice, even if we outgrow their views and come to develop our own. And these distinguished visitors -- and also those less so -- have always been part of Venice's history. More so now than ever, it needs enlightened tourists, willing to defend it as if they were the inheritors of Venice themselves. I think again of Ruskin, who played a crucial part in Venice's conservation and restoration. His less famous piece on Venice was St Mark's Rest (1877-84), subtitled 'The history of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments'. I have no doubt such champions exist today, and will continue to do so.

Long may it live, defying the prophecies of ruin! 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Overmuch Study

I've been submerged under much reading, hence my absence from this space. (Furthermore, I often don't find it worthwhile to broadcast my opinions and emotions until I've thought them through quite a bit. This is an exception.) On the topic of study though, an old teacher of mine has reminded me of this passage from Robert Burton's incomparable Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), on 'overmuch study'. It deserves further circulation:
hard students are commonly troubled with gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradiopepsia, bad eyes, stone and colic, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting; they are most part lean, dry, ill-coloured, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains, and extraordinary studies. If you will not believe the truth of this, look upon great Tostatus and Thomas Aquinas's works, and tell me whether those men took pains?
That last line, I often think, hits just the right note. Burton should have taken some of his own advice though, and anyone who cares to peruse the Anatomy will understand.

(Funerary monument of Robert Burton, pseudonym 'Democritus Junior', Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford) 

Speaking of teachers, the spate of nostalgia-ridden posts on facebook (including my own) commemorating the Anglo-Chinese School's (ACS) Founder's Day has cheered me up, even if it's saddened me too. Like many thoroughly postmodernised trainees of the academy, I think I tend to react sceptically towards most claims of identity and in particular, institutional ones. But there is no denying that ACS is the one school in Singapore that seems to command such fierce and undying loyalty. (I expect angry letters in response to this claim.) We must surely be doing something right.

Happy Founder's Day, ACSians. The best is yet to be. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Django Unchained and the Old World

SPOILERS ALERT: This post presumes knowledge of Django Unchained and includes spoilers.


Reviewers have commented on many aspects of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, like its violence and its take on race relations and slavery. (A lot of this commentary is remarkably juvenile, as if we were still at primary school debate levels. Is the violence excessive or not? Is it racist or not? Who gives a flying toss?) But I haven't seen much about the film's treatment of the Old World. 

Dr. King Schultz, phenomenally played by Christoph Waltz, is in a way, the foremost representative of the Old World and, by behaving in his own, eccentric way, a repudiation of America. He is glib, sophisticated and much better at the English language than its supposed native speakers -- who deem him 'fancypants'. He also seems to be a civilising, and therefore destabilising force. He despises slavery, treats Django as his equal and acts oblivious to the consternation he causes. In teaching Django how to read, for example, he is the crucial facilitator for a new understanding of the black race -- by blacks themselves and by whites. It is also significant that Schultz is German, of course, for the plot. (I shan't say more.) But as a German, Schultz is able to tell Django the story of Brünnhilde (corrupted to 'Broomhilda' in the New World!) and Siegfried. Schultz's reading of Django as a real-life Siegfried awakens a romantic impulse, animating the otherwise cynical Schultz to help Django rescue his wife. 

It is when Schultz, Django and Calvin Candie, the owner of a huge plantation and Mandingo fighting enthusiasts meet that Schultz's role as representative of the Old World is fully realised. We hear that Candie is a Francophile who prefers to be called Monsieur Candie. But Schultz is then warned not to speak French to him, lest he embarrasses Candie, because of course, the vulgar Francophile speaks no French. (Django senses this too, and he mocks Candie when addresses him, Frenchifying 'Candie' when he addresses him.) The ultimate irony hits when Schultz points out that Alexandre Dumas, whose Three Musketeers Candie admires, was in fact black. Schultz's presence serves to expose Candie's pretensions to civilisation (which includes an appeal to the false science of phrenology). Indeed, the civility and hospitality of Southern aristocracy -- built on slaves and ill-treatment of slaves -- is shown to be a sham. (Briefly: it is in this context that the gruesome violence of Mandingo fighting and other instances makes sense, thematically.)

Schultz dies, because his role is fulfilled. He isn't meant to impose the Old World on the New. Rather, he is meant, like purifying fire, to destroy one vision of the New World and usher in another. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Food and Identity

I'm a big fan of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations series (now sadly concluded). For those who haven't heard of this great man, Bourdain's a chef turned world-roaming gastronomic picaro. I am sometimes incredulous about his success -- one can't quite believe that he gets paid (a lot) to do this: to turn up in various parts of the world, eat, face the camera and talk. But it works. Bourdain, like the best TV personalities (Jon Stewart comes to mind), trades on mensch-ness, an essential authenticity that says, 'I'm just a good guy'. His TV food-talk, unlike some of the aberrant varieties of food porn, is funny and evocative, with just the right level of lavish, fawning description liberally laced with profanity. I bring up Bourdain because watching him, one is always reminded of the importance of food -- real, earthy food of the people -- to community and cultures. He doesn't essentialise and simplify the cuisines of cultures and yet somehow often manages to penetrate the core of the place (and its people) he's visiting.

As a Singaporean, as I've mentioned before, I have an inalienable birthright: an entitlement to good food. Understanding Singaporean food is one way to understand Singapore -- as a story of ongoing cultural experimentation. Singapore is often introduced to foreigners as a gateway to Asia, or as Asia-lite. In Singapore, people are often told, one can get Malay, Chinese and Indian food. I've done this several times as well. This clever, neat story really obscures what's going on, which is a tale from deep history.

I'm most familar with the Chinese story, so I'll stick to that one. When the Chinese descended from the Southern China and started settling in parts of Southeast Asia and the Malay Archipelago -- way before the British and other colonists had come -- they probably thought they were simply feeding demand and more importantly, themselves. Much like today, China was hungry for resources, often local produce like rice, gambier, sago, tin and pepper. As they settled though, new forms of culture and ways of living came into being, evolving as the generations passed. The Peranakans (sometimes called Nyonya/Baba or Straits Chinese) are sometimes upheld as the prime example of this: offspring of mixed Chinese and indigenous parentage with distinctive dress, food and customs, mixing Malay and Chinese elements. The reality, however, is that all the Chinese who came to the Straits started to live differently, interacting with the indigenous Malays and then the British and the Indian labourers that came along. And so did everyone else. The food, again, is the evidence of this. Singaporean Chinese food is often unique to at least the Malay Archipelago, if not Singapore itself. The same can be said of Singaporean Indian and Malay food.

Imagine for a moment: a stall in a hawker centre in Singapore selling 'Indian-Muslim' food, usually with a signboard of green type against a white background, with the Islamic crescent at one side. It might sell these items: roti prata, mee goreng, roti john and Indian rojak. The first, a flaky, buttery fried pancake, cannot be found in quite the same form in India. The second, a plate of eerie red stir-fried noodles, uses Chinese-style noodles. The third is French bread coated in egg and mutton mince and fried -- and it bears an Englishman's name. The last is the Malay word for 'mixture' (but it's nothing like the rojak the Chinese sell, which is a salad): it is a collection of various fried dough fritters, but it also includes fried beancurd and cuttlefish. The place is run by a Muslim Indian, perhaps of Tamil descent. Just what is going on here? It's the story of nearly every dish in Singapore. Try it: point to something, think about its origins, and one often finds a story of cultural interaction. It won't be some timeless element of an ancient cuisine: more likely, it's a fairly recent invention. (Our food bloggers, like Dr. Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost, have done a great job -- and tremendous service -- uncovering these histories: like that of chilli crab.)

Truth is, in the restless world of globalised capitalism -- and in a ruthlessly globalised city like Singapore, very little stays the same for long. We shouldn't despair though, because Singapore was born under the sign of globalisation, as a critically placed port city riffing off larger trends, whether in trade or culture. We have been for a long time, even before the British came, a crucible of cultural experimentation, a forerunner of the globalised world. (In a long history of globalisation, Singapore, along with places like Macau and Penang, would feature very prominently as the ur-globalised cities.) To fully embrace Singapore as a cultural phenomenon one should celebrate continual change and more importantly, resist simplification. I've seen this many times overseas: the complexity of our identities often causes us to simplify the Singaporean condition, to reduce ourselves to something we think is more comprehensible, to explain ourselves by capitulating to seemingly more dominant cultures. For example: we speak English and Mandarin Chinese in our own way, and we shouldn't feel insecure about this, nor should we regard the ways in which the English, Americans or Beijingers speak it as somehow more authentic. This truth seems self-evident when we talk about Singaporean food. It is however, true of nearly all aspects of Singaporean life. And this, perhaps, is the closest I will ever come to trying to understand what being Singaporean means.