Malay Kueh, Kaya + Butter on Charcoal Bread, and the Authentic Christian

Working is hungry business, especially when you use alot of brainpower (due to your brain obviously not being very efficent).

Came upon a Malay kueh seller at the Serangoon Central bus interchange who sold me a plastic-bagful of this lovely stuff for S$2. There’s a time and place for everything – more delicate kuehs from Bengawan Solo and the like are fine for tai-tais and high tea, but for someone who’s constantly famished from thinking, whose current criteria for choosing food is: “how many calories can I consume in a meal so I won’t have to eat again so soon”, these go a good way to keeping the tank filled:

Malay kuehBut the woman on the SBS bus (cf. man on the Clapham omnibus) would be screaming (silently, so as not to disturb others and fall victim to a Stomp-er): artificial food colouring! Glutinous flour! Empty carbs! Refined sugar! Weight gain! Poor diet! Unhealthy eating! Ugliness!

So the reasonable person is usually so steeped in his/her own culture and time in human history that it would take a great effort to examine all the presuppositions and preconceptions that underlie the thinking of that era. For us in Singapore (and also in many “Western” countries), authenticity is a big thing. To summarise/add on to what has already been looked at in The Authenticity Hoax, the roughly-hewn badge of authenticity carved from heritage driftwood would go to someone who:

  • eats non-GMO organic food, preferably locally-grown, or better yet – self-grown, or even better – has its growth linked to some social enterprise;
  • is attempting to conserve some heritage site or curate some heritage food etc;
  • is willing to be honest about their shortcomings and failures, and even create a whole talkshow about other people’s shortcomings and failures;
  • has decided to accept themselves as they are, and so, “keep it real”;
  • don’t follow the beaten path, don’t cave into parental or societal pressures, don’t go on conducted tours or stay in tourist resorts but get the authentic experience by hanging out with the locals at local joints that you can’t find in guidebooks.

Andrew Potter has already shown how fake our requirement of authenticity is, and how we squirm when faced with the real thing (eg. the reality that a certain organic brand is owned by Kellogg, or the reality that politicians being human will have the usual human foibles, or that the terrorist who keeps real his desire will attempt to get rid of all Western civilisation and influence, or that the rustic kampong toilet contains snakes and no flush).

kaya + butter on charcoal toastUndoubtedly, contemporary Christians too are stewing unthinkingly in the authenticity culture. The authentic Christian, we assume, is someone who:

  • is engaged in some social enterprise (while wearing organic cottons not made by sweatshop labour, handmade crafty accessories);
  • traces his/her spiritual heritage back to the Church Fathers, or the Puritans, or Calvin, or Luther etc.;
  • is raw and transparent, who doesn’t pretend to have it all together like those older folk in church; who lets it all hang out;
  • is open about how bad a Christian he/she is – always late for church, always forgetful, clumsy…they make him/her oh so relate-able!;
  • is happy to listen to what we share about our arguments with boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses, the sinfulness of our parents/children, what we dislike about church or the pastor or other church members;
  • has had a tough time – growing up in a broken family, turning to a life of violence and drugs, before seeing the light and cleaning up their act (but not their tats, those are way cool). He/she has street cred. Much more real than those privileged kids who grew up waited hand-and-foot by maids, went to the best schools, and sailed into work as bankers and lawyers;
  • knows how broken and sinful he/she is but is happy to live boldly in his/her brokenness and sin, because, he/she proclaims with great faith, God’s grace covers all.

Boy, are we dangerously wrong…

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SingaPlural 2015 (99 Beach Road) and Existential Authenticity

Primary by Brandon Tan? SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporePrimary by Brandon Tan?

Pleased to be in town this time for SingaPlural 2015 (99 Beach Road, facebook), part of the Singapore Design Week 2015.

Salad Dressing's "Royal Stinker". SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeSalad Dressing‘s Royal Stinker

Incandescence by Desinere x Tinge. lamps, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeIncandescence by Desinere x Tinge

In the courtyard, a playground of Heveatech wooden furniture by the Little Thoughts Group product design collective (facebook), constructed in collaboration with Samko Timber, and inspired by local places and heritage structures and a good dose of nostalgia. Ponggo by Alvin Sitoh, The Last Tiger by Andrew Loh, Icons of Sembawang by Chan Wai Lim, PlayStool by Jane Tang, Tempinis Forest by Lee Chang Tat, Open Play by Leonard Bahroocha Tan:

My Hood, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore The Last Tiger by Andrew Loh, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Chan Wai Lim's rocking animals (Icons of Sembawang). SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore You could take a lovely bike from Coast Cycles (facebook) for a spin as well… Coast Cycles, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore

…while watching out for an army of giant ants! Big Feast by Joyce Loo. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Big Feast by Joyce Loo. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeBig Feast by Joyce Loo

We were slightly antsy about being ushered into the Airbnb hut by chirpy girls, thinking of the hard-sell of time-share resorts and the like. But what fun! 3D image projection of, we were assured, real Airbnb rental sites around the world!

Airbnb Hut, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore

Airbnb Hut, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Airbnb Hut, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore

Airbnb Hut, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Airbnb Hut, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore

A lot of the other installations were pure interactive enjoyment as well, even if many of us didn’t bother with the intended message of the exhibit (sorry!):

Dream A Little by RSP Architects, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Dream A Little by RSP Architects, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeDream A Little by RSP Architects

Heads in Cages by Josephy Louis Tan. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeHeads in Cages by Joseph Louis Tan

Scent Mapping Singapore by Allsense. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Scent Mapping Singapore by Allsense. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Scent Mapping Singapore by Allsense. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeFor someone who with mild prosopagnosia and who therefore tells people apart by their smell (not something to admit to anyone!), the potential of Scent Mapping Singapore by Allsense (facebook) was beyond exciting. However, by the time we got there, most of the scents didn’t quite do their descriptors (eg. Balestier Bak Kut Teh, East Coast Chilli Crab, Paranakan [sic] Pulut Hitam, Dempsey Durian Stall, Satay By The Bay, Kampong Glam Pandan Cake, Boat Quay Tiger Beer, Vanda Miss Joaquim Orchid) justice. If only they did! I’d love to have a whole scent library!

Scent Mapping Singapore by Allsense. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeOn the other table, the commercial blends were doing very well indeed! Ion Orchard White Tea, Tangs Gingerlily, Mount Elizabeth Clover & Aloe, Capitol “X”. More stable perhaps?

Let The Papers Sing To You by Roots. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore Let The Papers Sing To You by Roots (Jonathan Yuen) and Victor Low. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeLet The Papers Sing To You by Roots (Jonathan Yuen) and Victor Low featured infrared sensors hidden within the frame of the table and recordings of fingers being pulled across papers of different textures.

You Have to Know Me to Love Me by Ezzam Rahman. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeYou Have to Know Me to Love Me by Ezzam Rahman

The Marriage by Miun x Lamitak. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore The Marriage by Miun x Lamitak. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, Singapore The Marriage by Miun x Lamitak. SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Road, SingaporeThe Marriage by Miun (facebook) x Lamitak. Amazingly imagined plants and flowers made from laminates.

Many of the white-box explanations next to each exhibit contained phrases like “offers an open conversation”, “this is an exploration”,  “…is a subjective affair” or asked whimsical questions of inanimate objects.

Was this the result of innate emptiness? Was this avoidance of any moral or philosophical stance a symptom of the hegemonic tyranny of existentialist thinking? asked someone.

(Then there was pointing out that this was a “design” event, and then there was pointing out by way of response that the line between “design” and “art” had been crossed when those exhibition blurbs were written, and then there were further attempts to define differences between “design” and “art”.)

But even existentialists are quite adamant about what constitutes their angsty equivalent of The Good Life. On the way home today, N and I discussed existential authenticity. Not persuaded by any of these – they seem a desperate struggle for meaning and a reason why they shouldn’t just kill themselves. But for what it’s worth, briefly:

Søren Kierkegaard problem: the media and the church, mass culture, creates the loss of significance of the individual. Society no longer forms its own opinions but relies on opinions constructed by the media. Religion too has become a tradition that passively accepted by individuals, without authentic thought.

solution: face reality, form one’s own opinions about existence, make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension, a leap of faith into the religious.

Friedrich Nietzsche problem: lack of questioning by the individual, herding animal morality, Christian morality = slave morality

solution: transcend limits of conventional morality to overcome oneself, revaluation of all values, decide for oneself what is good and evil, stand alone and avoid religiously constructed principles

Martin Heidegger problem: daesin has fallen away from its authentic potentiality and fallen into the world, “they” (das man) have relieved us of the “burden” of making our own choices, we live in a critically unexamined way, levelling, averageness

solution: authenticity is not about being isolated from others, but finding a different way of relating to others such that one is not lost to the “they”

Jean-Paul Sartre problem: bad faith (self-deception) is when an individual defines himself through social categorization of his formal identity, morality is a tool of the bourgeoise to control the masses, bad faith is when being-for-itself is replaced with others’ freedom

solution: authenticity is realising that the role we are playing is a lie, good faith is living within the portrait one paints of oneself and overturning set roles

Albert Camus problem: its philosophical suicide when we accept religion to relieve us of the anxiety of not having any guarantee of justice etc, life is repetitive and we live in futility and will soon be forgotten

solution: honestly confront the Absurd, live without appeal, keep life’s questions open, gain enchantment with life

not installation art, SingaPlural 2015, 99 Beach Roadfake blurb: This work draws the viewer to consider the utter futility of existential thinkers in identifying the anxiety caused by the absence of what is essential for authentic life, yet refusing to acknowledge the only One who can provide what is necessary for this life and the life to come.

Killiney Kopitiam and Existential Pedagogy

When we lived on Grange Road, Killiney Kopitiam (67 Killiney Road, Singapore) was my breakfast haunt on Saturday mornings. It was best to go alone, or with someone who didn’t want much chat, score a seat outside, next to the road, and read the Saturday Business Times between mouthfuls of lemak curry chicken and roti prata, finished off with slices of kaya toast. A good time too for thinking.
Killiney Kopitiam, Killiney Road

Am still brooding over pedagogical methods for teaching people to read their Bibles.

Was looking today specifically at the sort of instructional design that emerges from idealism, phenomenology, and existentialism. Might have misunderstood stuff, but here goes anyway:

Idealism is an ontological concept that says that reality consists only of minds. The physical world is only an illusion, a product of minds.

Phenomenology (closely linked with Edmund Husserl) is the epistemological concept that says therefore that all we know is our subjective reality. It is meaningless to seek out an objective reality. Our perceptions and internal experience are all that matter. As Albert Camus put it:

This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world around me I can feel, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.

Existentialism (Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre et al) then says, in light of the above, that since there are no truths about human nature, the individual is free to make his/her life in whatever way he/she wants.

In this worldview, inauthenticity is the biggest crime one can commit. Inauthenticity is when the individual allows him/herself to be defined by social categorisation, by conforming to the pressure to be a certain sort of person, or to adopt a particular manner of living, or to ignore their own moral or aesthetic judgements. Inauthenticity is being a “moral person” because by doing so, one subjects oneself to traditional external ethics.

Authenticity then is to be true to one’s own personality, spirit, character, despite external pressures.

Killiney Kopitiam, Killiney RoadThe aim of education within an existential worldview would be to allow students to learn that the world is absurd and without intrinsic meaning, and their lives are limited and temporal. They must then learn to be authentic by unilaterally creating and re-creating their lives through their own free will.

Of the educational curriculum, James Magrini in Existentialism, Phenomenology, and Education calls us to recognise and seek:

to overcome the injustice of a curriculum that embraces and privileges certain modes of knowing about others, such as an epistemological model favouring analytic-logical-empirical clusters of knowledge over more intangible forms of knowledge, those associated with the arts, which include the intuitive-perceptual model of knowledge…
Curriculum making conceived existentially, as opposed to following a product-process model (Tyler, 1949), which in great part determines the trajectory of the education in advance of actual student learning, would attempt to adopt a process-product line of curriculum development (“curriculum-envisioning”). This would allow for the curriculum to develop and evolve autonomously as the learning unfolds. In this “existentially” conceived curriculum, benchmarks are merely temporary, transitory, and malleable, they develop along with the learning process.

Instructional design then, is along the lines of the constructivist model I looked at previously. Magrini again:

The method of pedagogy must allow for the student’s development of her own unique possibilities, which is why the existentialists would reject a standardized curriculum and an authoritarian model for teaching. An “existential” curriculum would include a diverse content as well as an array of varied pedagogical methods, which would, importantly, include ample opportunities for peer-initiated and peer-directed learning.

Educators should plan lessons that embrace and incorporate aspects of the student’s emotional and intellectual autobiography (Grumet, 1992). However, it is not only the aspects of one’s unique life-story that matter, it is also important that students understand the major role that “history” and “heritage”play in shaping who we become-history’s authentic role not only forges our past but as well contributes to the future enactment of our possibilities that we gather from our“heritage”

The instructional methods employed should not be resemble the out-dated authoritarian model,where the teacher is the “superior” possessor of knowledge and the student the “inferior,” empty vessel waiting to be filled (Freire, 1970). This is model for pedagogy views knowledge at an objective remove from the student, and demonstrates no concern for the place of the existential “lived world” in the curriculum as shared by both teacher and student. Knowledge, according to the existentialists does not reside at a remove from our “lived world”  and in addition is constructive. Thus pedagogical techniques should stress the co-creative, co-responsive, and co-participatory aspects of education. This is not to indicate that the teacher allows the student to dictate each and every aspect of her education, for teachers need to be in command of the subject matter in order to first tailor it to fit the students needs. In relation to this issue, Heidegger (1952) famously stated that the most difficult task for educators was to learn how to let students learn

kaya toast, Killiney Kopitiam, Killiney Road
One’s first instinctive criticism of this worldview would be that there is no evidence or basis for these theories. But of course, that would be refuted by the presuppositions of this worldview – that there is nothing objective that can be quantified or measured.

And the Christian would object that it is God who defines right and wrong and morality, and reality, and the meaning of life, and the certainty of the future. At which, the existentialist would blow a giant raspberry and point to the self-referential pre-suppositions of existentialism.

But hardly any existentialist is a true solipsist of the Eastern mysticism persuasion, I’d think, so while I’m not too bothered with the validity of the worldview itself, its practical application suiting the convenience and what seems to be the natural self-centredness and selfishness is saddening.

However, might some of the pedagogical designs that emerged from this worldview be useful for a worldview that sees ample evidence for divine revelation?

ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road and the Authentic Artist

Having grown up amongst paintings and drawings and their artists, I am particularly fond of art workrooms strewn with unfinished work, a paint-splattered floor, inspiration boards in a mess, smelling strongly of acrylic or watercolour paint. So was delighted for a free hour or two to mosey about the open studios at ArtWalk@Wessex (facebook) and chat with some of the residents.

ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeOther than the happiness of being in a workspace and discovering new art, I had two aims: (i) to subtly help artists sell their work; (ii) to see what sort of artists occupied the Wessex Work Lofts.

ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeTo achieve the first aim was relatively easy. Artists have different temperaments and worldviews:

  • some are in it for the alleged (mostly elusive) easy money. Lots of schmoozing ensues;
  • some want a lifestyle that is non-office droney (or, depending on your perspective, undisciplined) and gives them hipster and authenticity points with their friends and society. Lots of “hey look how cool and alternative and smart I am” ensues;
  • others just want to make art but obviously need to feed themselves so have put on their scratchy best shirt and try their hardest to be friendly to visitors. But they’d rather be in front of an unfinished canvas.

With the last, a few well-placed questions, especially when it was obvious that potential customers in the studio were not quite appreciating the art for lack of commentary, was just the push they needed to them them going. Many collectors like to know the story behind a piece of art, the vision of a work, and several stopped to look more closely after sullen artists started getting more animated and chatty. Hopefully some went from “I’m not sure this goes with our decor” to “actually, I think we can repaint the wall”.

To achieve the second aim, I’ve learned from years of attempting to extricate myself from the over-friendly hard-sell of schmoozers to dress down as much as possible: slippers, shorts, a t-shirt that has seen better days. Artists who prioritise sales more than educating people about their art would ignore someone like that, and a handful did. It was their freedom to do so, and it was great because it helped me concentrate on those who were less commercial-minded and who just wanted to chat about their projects and were curious about the lives of visitors as well.

Frances Alleblas. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Frances Alleblas. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Frances Alleblas. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeFrances Alleblas (2 Woking Road, #02-03)

Max Kong Studio, ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Max Kong Studio, ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Max Kong Studio. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeMax Kong Studio (3 Westbourne Road, #01-01) – sun and moon – he demonstrated how the pieces would look different in daylight and at night without artificial lighting.

Saya Yamaguchi. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeSaya Yamaguchi (also 3 Westbourne Road, #01-01) Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore girl adding to a painting by Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeTsujii Junko (3 Westbourne Road, #03-05) CdeM Atelier & Art School. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore CdeM Atelier & Art School. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore CdeM Atelier & Art School. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore CdeM Atelier & Art School (5 Westbourne Road, #01-02. facebook) by Patricia Cabaleiro. Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeMilica Bravacic (5 Westbourne Road, #01-01) – inspiration from Peranakan tiles.

d'Art Studio - Dick Lim (Chye). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore d'Art Studio - Dick Lim (Chye). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore d'Art Studio - Dick Lim (Chye). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapored’Art Studio (5 Westbourne Road, #02-03). Dick Lim who signs his work as “Chye”. Amazingly versatile artist. Particularly liked the black-and-white canvases with a little thing of red.

Beng (Benny Goerlach). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Beng (Benny Goerlach). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Beng (Benny Goerlach). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeBeng (8 Woking Road, #02-03. facebook), who isn’t the Hokkien vulgarity-spewing long-fingernailed man you thought he would be.

JoyClay Studio & Gallery. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore JoyClay Studio & Gallery. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeJoyClay Studio & Gallery (10 Woking Road, #01-01).

Authenticity in art, in terms not of provenance but artistic motivation, is a big criteria for me. It sounds a bit esoteric but owning a piece of art is like purchasing a sliver of the artist’s soul – and I would like one that is kind and generous and passionate and well-thought-through (about a cause or a message, not Mammon or ego).

Perhaps this comes from being used to people holding out the Christian gospel to others: they do so for the glory of God whom they think should, rightly, be worshipped, and they do so for the good of the people to whom they are speaking – for their salvation. While missionaries, evangelists, pastors, Bible teachers may be paid for their work (just as an ox is fed for treading out the grain), to preach the good news merely for monetary or other personal gain would be anathema!

ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore

Nostalgic for the 1980s? Cakes, Snacks, Titbits, Childhood Games, and the Dangers of Nostalgia

Because I run with the older crowd, there have been quite a few 40++ (“the new 30s”) birthday celebrations since the start of 2015. At that age, it’s not that much of a treat getting stuff since they have the financial means to buy whatever they want. So rather than going with the cake-fad-of-the-month, we’ve had fun searching out retro cakes and snacks for the occasion. You’re never too young to get all nostalgic.

nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore cakes nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore cakesSponge cake slices with buttercream frosting held up amazingly in our hot and humid Singapore weather. They were from Nice Bakery in Ang Mo Kio (S$1 per slice). A few streets away, Pine Garden sells similar cakes for S$1.50.

Biscuit King, 130 Casuarina Road, Singapore. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro Singapore snacksBiscuit King (130 Casuarina Road, Thomson) is almost a one-stop shop for the snacks and toys and games that kids in the 1980s would have counted out pockey-money for at corner mamak shops and the drinks stall in the school canteen:

individually-wrapped hard-boiled sweets like Hacks, Mentos, and that fizzly orange sweet. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro Singapore snacksindividually-wrapped hard-boiled sweets like Hacks, Mentos, Haw Flakes, barley mints, Hudson wild cherry, Sarsi, White Rabbit, and that fizzly orange sweet,

preserved fruits, nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snackspreserved dried fruits (kana?) – grandmothers’ favourite afternoon chew. I only ate these to assuage sore throats,

biscuit tins. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snackstins of biscuits (usually from Khong Guan) – you pointed to what you wanted and the shopkeeper would then weigh your selection. I liked the ice gems (and debating the best way of eating it – icing first? biscuit base first? indulgently, both at one go?), pineapple jam in a flower-shaped biscuit, cashewnut cookies topped with one half of a cashewnut, salty sticks, butterfly crackers, peppery roll crackers.

nostalgic for the 1980s in Singapore? Mamee Monster
nostalgic for the 1980s in Singapore? Mamee MonsterMamee Monster (S$1.50 for a bag containing little packs from discount shops around Singapore) – seasoned instant noodles (in chicken or BBQ flavours) that you crushed in the packet, added even more seasoning to, then shook about to distribute evenly amongst the dried noodle fragments. I’m surprised they haven’t made a molecular gastronomy equivalent of this yet.

Bee-Bee Snack. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacks Bee-Bee Snack. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksBee-Bee Snack (S$3 for a bagful). The sort of fried flour stuff you ate after swimming class or while waiting for the school bus, after you’ve had your deep-fried chicken wings of course.

nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksLigo California Golden Seedless Raisins – supposedly the healthier snack. But with that amount of sugar… Sometimes the raisins were too dry and you needed to work them in your mouth so your saliva plumped up the wrinkles.

Hiro choc cake. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksKinos Hiro choc cake (S$0.40, Biscuit King). Some sort of sponge with a chocolate coating, tasting of nothing in particular. You needed several to fill you up.

Ding Dang. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacks Kinos Tora. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksDing Dang (S$0.60, Biscuit King) and Tora (S$1.00, Biscuit King) also from Kinos used mean wafer balls covered with chocolate. They’ve now been replaced by some cereal bar nonsense and the packaging art has been changed to reflect the lack of chocolate balls. Toys still included.

Apollo Milk Chocolate Wafer Cream. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksApollo Milk Chocolate Wafer Cream (S$0.80, Sheng Siong Supermarket).

Polo peppermint. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksPolo peppermint sweets (S$0.40, Biscuit King) – we offered them to friends, sucked them so that the circle remained intact, then tried to whistle through them.

Chupa Chups. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksChupa Chups. Didn’t know they were a brand of Spanish lollies and that their logo was designed by Salvador Dali! Obscure flavours were the most sought-after. When you were done, you tried to whistle through the empty stick, or chewed on them like you didn’t know about the dangers of BPA, or flicked them onto unsuspecting classmates.

(See also Teck Leong Lee Kee for wholesale prices.)

nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksAh, and what about those childhood games before everyone sat in the canteen and stared at their smartphones? Goli (marbles), national flag erasers, hopscotch, zero point (jump-the-rope with a rope of rubber-bands), snakes-and-ladders, aeroplane chess, pick-up-sticks, Chinese checkers, kuti-kuti (small colourful plastic tokens),

retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Bestman Balloons. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s SingaporeBestman Balloon (S$1.20, from the man outside Sheng Shiong Bedok). A whole box just feels like an indulgence. I think we used to get just one or two tubes each, and had to make it last.

Snap card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Happy Family card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Donkey card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Old Maid card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s SingaporeSnap, Happy Families, Donkey, Old Maid card games (S$2.50 for 4 packs from the man outside Sheng Shiong Bedok, S$0.60 each from Party Mama Shop) – these cards aren’t as good quality as they used to be.

On the bus today, an old man in front of me was commenting to his wife as we passed the graves opposite MacRitchie Reservoir:

“See, look all the graves. There are all these young people, keep getting angry that the graves are taken away. For what? All these dead already. And they think they live so nicely in their houses, go to their schools, drive on all the roads, don’t need to knock down old things? Always complain traffic jam, complain too expensive, complain everything. Ask them to take care of a family, a big family, they can anot? They can fit into one house meh? Cannot, then complain. Why not throw away all the old things, then can fit. We all did it before, why they cannot? Stupid nonsense, think they’re so smart!”

Nostalgia is nice and neutral, but we never stop there do we? We rose-tint the past, we talk about the “good old days” when things were better and easier, when people were honest and caring, things were just more authentic. And we know about the inauthenticity of authenticity.

Mired in self-deception:

  • we become needlessly negative about our present;
  • we fail to learn from history, and in our blind nostalgia deliberately repeat the mistakes of the past (eg. the nostalgic theme parks of Eastern Europe longing for their fascist past);
  • we reject the good that has been achieved by the progress of the intervening years;
  • we are unable to properly solve present problems guided by a clear view of past mistakes and present successes.

iced gem biscuits with a cup of milky teathe aforementioned iced gem biscuits

Good Food and Street Art Wall Murals in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. And Goodbye.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia) -> Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia)

After several years away from south-east asia, my tastebuds were eager to be overwhelmed by the manifold spices of Malaysian/SIngaporean (please fight about authenticity and origination elsewhere) cuisine. A quick stopover in Penang would put that right, I hoped, before an overnight coach down to Singapore.

in the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
view from the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, PenangFoot passengers and vehicles occupied the same space on the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown on the island of Penang.

The UNESCO World Heritage site had retained many of its pre-war shophouses (the original SOHO):
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were old-timey signs, and fake old-timey signs (simulacra ftw!):
Gold Cup Mahjong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Kedai Biskut & Kek Ming Xiang Tai. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were the commissioned Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculptures – a collection of caricatures installed on several streets by Sculpture at Work:
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

And then there is the recent street art or wall murals (or graffiti), both commissioned and, err, spontaneous:
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
faded wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaWould these wall murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic be less authentic as an art form because (i) they were commissioned for the 2012 George Town Festival, (ii) he’s not Malaysian, (iii) they have become objects of tourist adoration – marketed not only on official tourist literature but also reproduced on keychains, notebooks, pens, and other kitschy souvenirs?

Penang street artists sure like cats:
cat, wall  mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
cat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysiaor not:
Bruce Lee kicking cats, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaAnd when is it art and when just eyesore?
dog eating steak, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysia
man on boat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
I want to believe + altar, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
pink elephant, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
gangsta penguins, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
grafitti, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

man cleaning altar street art, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ballet girl street art, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaI remembered reading with amusement how some Londoners wrote asking Banksy to go do his art somewhere else, because the graffiti had been embraced by so many Gen Xers that it was no longer counter-cultural, and in fact was causing gentrification of areas and an increase in living costs for original residents.

kelong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaHis fellow graffiti artists, meanwhile, accused him of selling out for making money from his art. Why should it be less authentic to get money from art? Or why should his message be less real if more people embrace it so much they would pay for it? “Just take the f*cking donut!” says Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking.

Joo Hooi Cafe (more of a coffeeshop really) at the junction of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee managed to retain both its old booth seats and an elderly grumpy drinks aunty. Later, she forgot to be grumpy in her amazement at the amount of food I was putting away. Everything I had was good and full-flavoured, with the right mix of ingredients, cooked at just the right temperature for the right time – something that many of the mainland Chinese employees of Singaporean hawkers could not replicate:

Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
rojak, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
assam laksa, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
teh o ais limau, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
char kway teow, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiarojak, assam laksa, char kway teow (with duck egg)

Outside the coffeshop, two rival carts of chendol vendors faced each other on the narrow Lebuh Keng Kwee. The popular (and some say original) one is the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol (as opposed to the Penang Road Famous Chendol). It’s RM0.50 if you want to eat its icy treats in Joo Hooi, or there’s seating further down the road in a coffeeshop space rented by the chendol vendor:
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ais cendol, from Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

ice kachang, Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaSpent a really comfy night at the newly-opened Muntri Grove – the first and last hotel of the trip. I was sold by the much lower rate per night offered by the nice manager.

Late the next day, strolled over to Toh Soon Cafe, where there was a crowd waiting for seats:
Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
charcoal grilled bread and charcoal heated water, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
iced milk coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
packs of toast, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, tea and coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Shared a table with two interior designers who’d come to Georgetown to see a client. Minimalist designs and the vintage theme, they said, were their most common briefs. The wait for the grilled toast wore on. Hungry, one of the girls went to the coffeeshop at the other end of the little alley and returned with a bowl of wanton noodles to share. The texture of the noodles was “very QQ”:
wanton noodles, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Food was so ubiquitous in Georgetown that every street had some cart or stall to pique culinary curiousity:

you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiaa couple of ladies making and frying you tiao (dough fritters) – like all fried food, best eaten very hot!

Whilst taking a shortcut, saw someone standing outside a faded signboard that read “Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay” (facebook). Went to investigate and found an Aladdin’s cave of kueh delights!

Moh Teng Pheoh Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
framing, Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaThen, just before the Grassland coach to Singapore overnight, grabbed dinner at Lebuh Presgrave. The last of this whole London to Singapore trip:
Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
prawn noodles, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ice kachang, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Goodbye, freedom of the road. Farewell, the materially-simple backpacker’s life. Tomorrow, re-entry into society, with all the roles, responsibilities, and joys that that will bring.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

(For reasons known only to my subconscious, everytime I attempt to speak a foreign language, what comes out is French before that segues somewhat into the intended vernacular. And it’s not like I actually know that much French. Useless brain. So after speaking French to several confused Penangites, I switched to Malaysian-inflected English. As my Singaporean-Malay teacher used to say, if you cannot make it, fake it lah.)

*the last part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

The Modern Fear of Boredom. The End of History. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia)

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaNo more seats left on the Bangkok – Butterworth train, said the man at the ticket counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station.
What about tomorrow?
Not for tomorrow, or the day after, or the rest of the week, or the next week, said he matter-of-factly.

It looked as if I wouldn’t make it back to Singapore in time to meet a friend before he flew back to London. AirAsia wasn’t an option since my passport had less than 6 months’ validity.

I checked out of Lub D hostel anyway (tip: Siam Square one is more accessible than its Silom sister) and returned to the station with my pack, planning to get any train anywhere. On a hunch, asked a different counter if there was a ticket to Butterworth.
Oh yes, do you want it for today? Which seat do you want?
I threw my baht down and did not ask why.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaGrabbed some Thai snacks from a provision shop in the station. Just after the train chugged out the station, a lady came around with menus – there wasn’t a restaurant car we could go to but she said she would bring the food to our seats. The English menu was shorter than the Thai one and there was a slight difference in price. And unlike the culinary desert of the Trans-mongolian train journey, there was also the option of getting something from the itinerant vendors who seemed at liberty to ply their wares, hopping on at one station and off at the next:
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia

After a magnificent sunset that looked like paints of red and orange and yellow and purple splashed across the evening sky, the train attendant came around to convert the seats into sleeping berths, complete with pillow, bedclothes, and curtains for privacy and to block out the light:
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
The carriage was pleasantly clean and would have been perfect, had a screeching toddler not kept the whole carriage up all night.

The second most common question asked about this trip was:”Aren’t you afraid of being bored along the way?”

But exactly is this “boredom” of which they speak? And why is this boredom so dangerous or nasty that it is assumed that any sensible person would avoid it at all costs?

Train attendant converting seats into berths. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaMartin Heidegger considered this existential fear of boredom and consequent craving for novelty and stimulation, a sickness of the modern age. Joseph Brodsky agreed:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. this predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorised onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

By rejecting God, humans found their lives to be merely fleeting moments in infinite time, and completely meaningless, and if there is no meaning, then nothing is worth doing. And a life of boredom is all there is.

A major cause of this boredom, says Andrew Potter in his chapter The Authenticity Hoax: The End of History, is that elucidated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History?: the universal, homogeneous state of human civilization sharing liberal democratic ideologies and free-market driven consumer cultures:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognise its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilisation that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

And by getting “history started once again”, he meant a return to (i) totalitarianism in the form of communism or fascism, or (ii) the ethnic nationalism that liberal cosmopolitans imagine has been lost.
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter sees signs of the first already in the rise of totalitarian theme parks in former Soviet states and the shocking nostalgia for the past – the mass murders and torture and unjust imprisonments and repression of communism and fascism are ignored and replaced with a sepia-toned time when things were more real, more authentic.

And the second has been seen all over the world as countries close their borders to immigrants and nativism is on the rise, and anti-immigration policies are regularly laid-out as voter bait. Radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as espoused by groups like the al-Qaeda (and I guess now the ISIS), says Potter, is essentially an authenticity movement devoted to the rejection of American consumer capitalism. In what Benjamin Barber terms “jihad vs. McWorld“, “religious and nationalist identity-movements [rebel] against cosmopolitanism, mass media, and consumerism”.”In the mind of Osama bin Laden, Qutb’s rejection of Western rationalism became a hypertrophied revulsion for “America”, which was jihadi shorthand for every aspect of the modern world, from politics (individualism, democracy, secularism) to business (globalisation, trade, commerce) to pleasure (consumerism, alcohol, sex).”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaBut while little distinguishes several Western authenticity movements from Islamic fundamentalists in their diagnosis of the problem with the world, their solutions are quite different. The latter petition, rally people to their causes, harass, or just go off-grid; the former want to takeover the world and return us to cavemen – because, Potter says, “the creation and sustenance of an authentic Muslim community…requires a great deal of conformity of thought, of worship, of dress, and of habit” and so is impossible to “settle into peaceful co-existence with modernity”.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter’s conclusion, then, is that first we need to recognise that “the confused and self-defeating search for something called authenticity, is itself nothing more than a hoax”.

In The Authenticity Hoax: Progress, The Very Idea, Potter suggests:

  • “coming to terms with modernity involves embracing liberal democracy and the market economy as positive goods. That means no just conceding that they are necessary evils, but that they are institutions of political and economic organization that have their own value structure, their own moral foundations, which represents a positive step away from what they replaced.”
  • “…perhaps it is time to rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill. Faith in progress is nothing more, and nothing less, than faith in humankind…”
  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the trick to doing philosophy is knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead us awry. When it comes to the modern search for authenticity, the irony is that the only way to find what we’re really after might be to stop looking.”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaI’m afraid I would have to disagree with Potter’s suggestions. He has mistakenly thrown the baby out with the bathwater by:

  • assuming all religions to be alike and not bothering to examine the truth claims of each. If the biblical claims are indeed true, then it is no wonder that, as he so astutely observes, humanity’s search for authenticity must necessarily fail. Because of Jesus claims to be the only person who can reveal what God is truly like, because he is the only person who has ever seen God (John 1), then any other attempt to understand what we were made for and what would be good to do with our lives must fall flat on its face;
  • assuming that human motive and intellect are essentially good (but what is “good”?) and worth having faith in; and
  • assuming that we should just shut up now since we’ve tied ourselves up in knots, rather than realising that he hasn’t found any solution to the problem because he has ab initio rejected the only solution – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created and have their being (John 1).

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapor