The Thought Collective’s Diverse-city Trails: Little India Trail

Enjoyed The Thought Collective‘s Diverse-city Little India Trail. With such a groan-worthy pun, no prizes for guessing that there is a link Ben & Jerry’s, of the delicious ice-cream-with-corny-names fame.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeThe aim of these Trails (there are two others in this series – one in Toa Payoh and the other in Jalan Besar):

Thinkscape’s [Learning Experiences (LEs)] are designed to help people see current issues and institutions in a new light. We hope to help participants develop a sense of ownership over these issues, and propel them towards meaningful and much needed action. Thinkscape also aims to be a citizenship portal for young people. We encourage youths to explore and form opinions on issues critical to Singapore’s survival and success, maturing their own narratives and building harmony with our nation’s broader story.

The pedagogical approach appears to be one of curated social learning (if there’s such a thing! and vs. social constructivism) through the lens of narrative inquiry:

Thinkscape creates experiences that advocate new perspectives on industries, institutions and issues in Singapore. We believe that experience is a powerful means to bring conviction and reality to our learning.

Thinkscape’s Learning Experiences (LEs) take the form of trails and workshops, and are designed by The Thought Collective, which comprises of educators, social innovators and advisers from public agencies and civil society groups. Through building narratives for Singapore, we aspire towards transforming the social and emotional capital of our nation.

Having just returned to Singapore, I was keen to get to know certain areas again. Little India was one of the places I’d spent quite a bit of time in the past. Still, the trail was eye-opening.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeSome part of the trail (tour!) was an introduction to the Little India world through the lens of a Indian transient worker, usually working in the construction industry: here is where you’d go to get comfort food when you are off sick, here is where you watch your beloved cricket matches, etc.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Other bits helped us interrogate the architecture and use of space of the area – to understand the demographic and social changes that (may) have taken place in the last few years.

We were fortunate to meet the one of the few garland weavers left in Singapore. He had previously spoken to our trail leader of the frustration of not finding a worthy successor. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Certain structures and signs (green fences, an open space converted into a car park, a row of shops, prohibition signs, and void deck obstacles were pointed out. They were put in place to discourage the congregation of foreign workers in those spaces, especially during the weekends, and to stop them from cycling through the void deck. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

We peeked into some living spaces in pretty old terraces along Rowell Road, and then took a brisk walk through the red-lit back alley of Desker Road: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Then there was the opportunity to talk to people in the Lembu Road open-space: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

The pedagogical methodology of “experience and explore” rather than “educate” meant the trail leader’s commentary was somewhat ambiguous, though leaning slightly to the left. This seemed merely to reinforce the perceptions already in the minds of the participants (by sample size of people paying good money to walk around their own country, probably already laden with certain sympathies).

If I’d led the trail, I’d wanted to have been explicit about the concerns and cares of all stakeholders concerned in each case.

Assuming the first step to social cohesion is understanding the perspectives of a group you would not normally hear from or sympathise with, then airtime must be given to both the perceived victim (in this case, the migrant workers) and the perceived oppressor (usually, the rich, the ones in authority – the government or employers, the majority race):

  • not just to transient workers who may be lodged in overcrowded dormitories and have fallen foul of poor workplace practices, but to their employers who may have taken all measures to prevent such things from happening;
  • not just to foreign labourers with no place to congregate, but also to the old people living in the flats above who find themselves living their twilight years almost as if they themselves were in a foreign land, or think themselves in constant danger (a fear either baseless or based on experience) of being forcefully robbed and falling and hitting their head, etc.

I think we have all already been well-fed on the usual tropes of poor victimised migrant worker, and rich fat cat oppressive people in power. But the world is more complex than that, and there are more narratives (and not very straight-forward ones at that) from sinful people than we would like to listen to. Not all poor people are honest or un-opportunistic or non-manipulative; not all the rich got that way by stealing nor will they always fail to care for their workers. We need to be able to give all sides a fair hearing to be able to empathise, and seek real solutions. This is what justice looks like.

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:2-3)

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. (Leviticus 19:15)

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeGot a bit fed-up with an Australian on the trail, who rolled out the usual “look at all the shiny condominiums and skyscrapers you have in Singapore, built by the blood of Indian workers. You don’t bother with proper safety regulations. And when they fall sick or have an accident, you send them home. You use and dispose them. Exploitation!”

When different groups spoke with various workers chillaxing in the square, they cheerfully assured us that not only were they cognisant of the necessary safety requirements (helmet, vest, ropes, belts, practices), they also knew the Ministry of Manpower guidelines for pay, overtime work, days of leave etc. And they were happy here. There was no work at home, so any sort of work in Singapore was a godsend.

And I recalled acquaintances in the real estate industry wringing their hands over how, much as they tried to implement safety practices on worksites, holding weekly nagging sessions, checking safety gear at the gate, implementing spot-checks, and even fines, terrible accidents still occurred. Some workers, convinced that this namby-pamby society was encumbering them with all sorts of unnecessary safety equipment took them off at every opportunity.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeIn addition to the need for multiple perspectives on certain social issues, I thought there was too much conflation of the purported aim of the trail. The trail leader kept asking what could be done to help transient workers to “integrate” and “assimiliate“. As a Malaysian Indian and I pointed out, (i) it takes two hands to clap; and (ii) transient workers aren’t interested in integrating or assimilating. They were here to earn money to pay off agent fees, then send the bulk back to family, and hopefully save enough to return home and raise their kids and start their own business. And this isn’t just the goal of transient workers but also more generally of the bulk of white-collar types like teachers, IT professionals, researchers.

Being clear about the aim helps us craft solutions more specifically. So while there is no need to help them to assimilate into Singapore society, there is alot that can be done to make them feel welcome in our country, just like you would a visitor to your home.

Little Vietnam (Guillemard Road) and Immigration Policies

Had my pho fix on the way home from London, but we were quite happy to help F satiate her Vietnamese food craving at Little Vietnam Restaurant (facebook, 511 Guillemard Road, #01-25, Grandlink Square). Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Possibly because the place was staffed by Vietnamese people, the pho, bun bo hue, bun xeo, and fried quail tasted exactly right.

What a pity if Singapore, like so many countries in Europe and in the rest of the “Western” world, were to close her borders to immigrants. We would lose more than good food from around the world.

Remember Philipp Rösler, the dynamic Vice-Chancellor of Germany a few years ago? He was born in Vietnam, adopted and raised in Germany, and identified as a German. Yet, his “Asian face” was raised as an issue, instead of his achievements as Health Minister and Federal Minister of Economics and Technology. Whether or not this was the reason why his party did badly at the polls, he resigned as chairman of the Free Democratic Party thereafter, and is now on the board of the World Economic Forum. If race had indeed been an issue, it would have been stupid of the Germans to deprive themselves of a good public servant just because of a problem with the colour of his skin, not with his intellect or leadership or integrity.

A few months ago, I commented to an Indonesian friend that the dislike of foreigners seemed quite rife in the Singapore society I’d returned to.

“Not dislike, she’d said,”outright hatred.”

“The government keeps bringing in foreign talent who take our jobs” goes the common refrain, not just in Singapore, but all around the world. But surely this xenophobia bodes especially badly for Singapore.

quail. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Taking a leaf again from Rawls and applying the presumption of good faith, I thought to examine Lee Kuan Yew’s past speeches to understand the rationale for our immigration policies, and not only that but how the need for talent for the survival of the nation impacts taxation and education policies:

  • the need for talented people to lead the country:

    From 23 years of experience in government, I have learned that one high-calibre mind in charge of a Ministry, or a Statutory Board, makes the difference between success and failure of a major project. A top mind, given a task, brings together a group of other able men, organizes them into a cohesive team, and away the project goes.

    That was the way Goh Keng Swee set about the Ministry of Finance in June 1959. He picked Hon Sui Sen as his principal lieutenant, Permanent Secretary (Ministry of Finance), and then in 1961 made him Chairman of the EDB. Hon Sui Sen collected an able team in the EDB and Singapore’s industrialization slowly and steadily gathered steam.

    Even in 1982, I find it difficult to imagine how we could have made the economic development of the last 23 years without the ability, the creativity, and the drive of these two able men. Whenever I had lesser men in charge, the average or slightly above-average, I have had to keep pushing and probing them, to review problems, to identify roadblocks, to suggest solutions, to come back and to discover that less than the best has been achieved.

  • the inability of Singapore to withstand potential harm brought about by mediocre leaders:

    Decline into mediocrity disastrous

    There may be those who believe that having sound men with modest minds in charge of the government will not make all that difference. Indeed, an anti-elitist ethos prevails in many Western countries, especially amongst New Left groups in Britain. They glorify mediocrity into a cult. They condemn excellence as elitism. They advocate wild programmes to dismantle their own institutions of excellence because the children of manual workers are under-represented in these institutions.

    There is a heavy price to pay if mediocrities and opportunities ever take control of the government of Singapore. And mediocrities and opportunities can accidentally take over if Singaporeans, in a fit of pique or a moment of madness, voted for the politics of opposition for the sake of opposition. Five years of such a government, probably a coalition, and Singapore will be down on her knees. What has taken decades to build up in social organization, in industry, banking commerce, tourism, will be dismantled and demolished in a few years. The World Bank has a queue of such broken-back countries waiting to be mended: Jamaica, Uganda, Ghana, Nicaragua, to name a few recent casualties seeking emergency World Bank aid. At least they have land for plantations or mines to dig from, or rivers to be dammed for hydro-power and irrigation. Singapore has only got its strategic location and the people who can maximize this location by organization, management, skills and, most important of all, brains. Once in disarray, it will not be possible to put it together again.

    Singapore, a small, barely established, nation, cannot afford to have anything less than her ablest and her best, to be in charge of the government. If we are to preserve what we have, and more, to build on the present, and achieve further heights, we cannot have mediocrities either as Ministers or Permanent Secretaries. Prompters and ghost-writers are a luxury for those who have large margins of safety due to their large size, great wealth, and considerable institutional strength.

  • the negative knock-on effects of having mediocre or bad leaders:

    Here we see a law similar to Gresham’s at work. Gresham pointed that bad money drives out good money from circulation. Well, bad leaders drive out good men from high positions. Idi Amin was a bad leader. He killed or drove out good Ugandans, ruining Uganda for decades. Solomon Bandaranaike was not an evil man like Amin. But he was a bad leader who brought race, language and religion into the centre of political debate. He ended up, intentionally or otherwise, by driving out good Ceylonese, and later Sri Lankans, from politics, whilst able administrators took jobs in UN agencies, leaving their own administration impoverished of talent. On the other hand, a good leader, in government or in large corporations, attracts and recruits top talent to reinforce his own capability to overcome problems. Hence the high quality of Germans in top position under Konrad Adenauer, and of top Frenchmen under Charles de Gaulle. Charles de Gaulle’s Cabinet included Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, both to become French Presidents.

Ok great, one might say, so where can we find this talent? What about within the Singapore population?

  • the lack of natural talent in Singapore due to its small population:

    What was the most important single factor for Singapore’s rapid development since 1959? Without hesitation, my answer is the quality of the people. For not only are our people hardworking, quick to learn and practical, Singapore also had an extra thick layer of high calibre and trained talent . In the protocol list of the first seven persons in Singapore, I am the only Singapore-born. The President, CV Devan Nair, the Chief of Justice, Wee Chong Jin, the Speaker, Yeoh Ghim Seng, the two Deputy Prime Ministers, Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam, and the Minister for Finance, Hon Sui Sen, were not born in Singapore. One Singapore-born out of the top seven Singaporeans! This is the size of the contribution from the non-Singapore-born. If we had relied solely upon the talent of our natural population pyramid, Singapore’s performance would not have been half as good.

  • well what about giving scholarships so that our best and brightest will, in return for university expenses being paid for, come back to contribute to society? Well, we know how that’s going – scholarship holders accuse the government of violating their rights and tricking them into bondage for a few years while they were still teenagers! They feel justified in breaking their bonds for better job offers elsewhere.
  • the lack of a wide range of talent even amongst remaining non-bond-breaking scholars:

    Let me spell out our talent problem. Most of our scholars went into medicine, the law and engineering, but none into banking or finance because they were professions that were not open to our bright students. Even now our banks want to reserve their top jobs for the sons of the families that control them. Moreover we draw our talent from only 3 million people. A short mountain range is unlikely to have peaks that can equal Mt Everest. You need a long mountain range like the Himalayas…

  • the lack of necessary leadership traits in remaining non-bond-breaking talented scholars:

    Alas, not all of these bright minds have strong characters, sound temperament, and high motivation to match their high intelligence. I have found, from studying PSC scholarship awards for the last 15 years, and reading confidential reports on their work in the public service and the SAF, that the scholars who also have the right character and personality, effectively works out to 1 in 3,000 persons. In the 1970’s, our annual births went down to 40,000. The numbers of talented and balanced Singaporeans will be between 12-14 persons per annum at one per 3,000.

bun bo hue. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

That’s tough. How can we get this paltry number to stay in Singapore? Well, there are school programmes to instil love for the nation in schools but many teachers and students and parents dismiss them as mere propaganda, not realising that it’s not the PAP who will lose out but they themselves. And perhaps, also, it means we can’t assume that all theories of distributive justice and equality of opportunities are right in all circumstances and can be applied wholesale to the Singapore context:

  • preventing brain-drain by instilling patriotism and self-respect, and holding off punitive taxation:

    Now, we ourselves may be threatened by a brain-drain of Singapore-grown talent. These figures have serious implications for us. The figures for engineers and other professionals are less devastating only because they are less professionally mobile across national boundaries. Unless we are able to instill patriotism and self-respect, unless we succeed in inculcating a sense of commitment to fellow-Singaporeans in our talented youths, we can be creamed off. We shall become diluted like skimmed milk. We must ensure that because Singaporeans value their Asianness, they will not want to be tolerated and patronized as minorities in predominantly Caucasian societies. Therefore, any policy which denies trained talent its free-market rewards by punitive taxes, as in Britain, must lead to a brain-drain and to our inevitable decline. It is the chicken and egg cycle. As long as we are able and growing, our talented will stay and help our economic growth. Because they stay, we can offer them comparable standards of life, and decent prospects for their children’s future. Furthermore, we can attract talent from abroad to work in Singapore. The reverse cycle will be devastating and swift in bringing about our ruin.

    The Singapore-born must be the pillars on which we can place the cross beams and struts of foreign-born talent to raise us up to higher standards of achievement. If we begin to lose our own Singapore-born and bred talent in significant numbers, then the pillars are weakened, and additional cross beams and struts cannot make up for pillars. The Singapore-grown talent must, by the nature of his upbringing and schooling, be the most committed, the most emotionally and intimately attached to Singapore. We shall lose our own Singapore-grown talent if our policies punish the outstanding and the talented by progressive income tax with the objective of income redistribution. It has happened in an old established society like Britain.

  • amidst the usual sometimes green-eyed chatter about growing income inequality, and the common sneering at elite schools and disdaining the perceived elitism of the Gifted Education Programme, training and rewarding the talented might actually be the best for the whole society:

    It is in the interest of the not-so-talented that the talented should be adequately rewarded for the contribution they can make to the total progress of Singapore. Drained of our trained talent, Singapore will be like a man with a truncated right arm, unable to function effectively.

    If a brain-drain ever happens in Singapore, if our brightest and our best scatter abroad, because of populist appeals to soak or squeeze our able and successful professionals to subsidize those who are less able, less educated, and less well-paid, Singapore will be ruined. The sufferers will be the mass of the workers and their families who cannot emigrate because they are not wanted by the wealthy and developed English speaking countries.

And since we have such a small local pool of talent, who may not even stay in Singapore, how can we entice foreign talent to come and help us survive in the future? Foreigners “prepared to start life afresh in a strange new environment, are usually exceptional in enterprise, drive and determination to succeed – key attributes for high performance”.

  • Everyone knows that Shanghainese are the brightest and sharpest of people. But few know why. It is because for over a hundred and fifty years, ever since it became a treaty port for the foreign powers it has drawn the ambitious, energetic Unless we change our mindsets, we will be out of this race. We have to go out to tap talent. To get top talent, you must take in those who have not yet reached the top but are on their way up because when they are in their 30s we do not know which of them will make it to the top. You will only know when they are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. This is the way to protect our future.

  • Singaporeans must realize and accept as desirable the need for more of the able and the talented to come to work in Singapore. We have to compete against the wealthy developed countries who now also recruit such talent. We have to make these people feel welcome and wanted, so that they will make Singapore their permanent home and contribute to the overall progress of all our people. We should encourage them to take up permanent residence with a view to citizenship so that they can enjoy the same opportunities to buy HDB executive flats and HUDC homes as Singaporeans, and to shoulder the same responsibilities. They can give that extra boost which has lifted our economy andour society to heights we could not have achieved if we had depended only on Singapore-born talent.

all quotes a mash-up from: “THE SEARCH FOR TALENT” BY LEE KUAN YEW, PRIME MINISTER

And also this arrow from LKY:

Instead of getting high quality men; we have imported over 150,000 unskilled workers as work permit holders. Instead of importing first-class brains, we have imported unskilled brawn. To continue this policy is to court disaster.

LKY was a magnificently holistic thinker. As Christians though, we have even more reason to welcome foreigners whether of the brain or brawn variety. Though we are not part of a nation like Israel, nor do we intend to build a nation in this world, the rationale for care-for-sojourner still stands:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Actually, our incentives are greater – we haven’t just been rescued from slavery and brought to a mere physical Promised Land as the Jews were; we have been rescued from spiritual darkness and eternal death and brought into the light and given eternal life. And we have been given God’s Spirit in us who helps us think his thoughts after him. So if God does not change, then his compassion for the weak, helpless, and the foreigner has not either.

Culture Shock and Eating in Beijing, China

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)

Beijing was a bit of a culture shock.

I’d worked in Shanghai before of course, but had been driven around in company cars or taxis, and stayed in hotels where every requirement and request had been met efficiently by the concierge. (Shanghainese friends would say disparagingly at this point that the superiority of Shanghai has nothing to do with this.) Now, my backpack full of Mongolian winter clothes and I were being pushed towards the exit of the 北京火车站 (Beijing Railway Station) by a sea of humanity, drowning in the cacophony of shouting and high-pitched women making the announcements.

I held up a bit of the tide enough to ask a security guard about left luggage, but could barely hear her replies or, be heard.

“Can you speak-a English!” she shouted, waving her handheld metal detector about.

“I AM SPEAKING ENGLISH!” I replied. To no avail. She was not familiar with such a business concept, and said kindly that I could leave my bag with her if I wanted. Outside the 北京火车站, after buttonholing several groups of security personnel, one man left his post to show me to the door of the left luggage facility. It was on an upper floor, but its entrance was along a row of similar looking shops with gaudy red signs.

A further problem: Beijing yuan, or the lack thereof. Surprisingly, there were no moneychangers at the railway station. Across the overhead bridge, the Postal Savings Bank of China did not have a foreign exchange service, but perhaps I could try the bank a street away? That bank did not accept British pounds or Singapore dollars, perhaps I could try another bank a block away? Yes that bank did accept British pounds but they did not look new enough.

I did end up with just enough money to pay to leave my backpack in safe hands for a few hours while I went exploring, avoiding the innumerable globs of spit all over the tiled floors and pavements. Everywhere, you could hear people behind you and in front of you about to hack another to join its fellows on the ground. I could not tell if it was the notoriously polluted Beijing air or the Beijingers’ rampant smoking that caused them this trouble. Worse were the pedestrians who stopped suddenly in mid-stride to empty the contents of their leaky noses onto public walkways.

However, for once in the last few weeks, food was readily available along the streets, and relatively cheap.

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

smoking indoors, 老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China老北京炸酱面大王 (Lao Beijing Zha Jiang Mian King) was rather bland, even after a week of Mongolian mutton. Note the lack of ban on smoking in enclosed restaurants.

 After this hiccup, there wasn’t another bad meal in Beijing:

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, Chinabao in fast food eateries and in holes-in-the-wall along the pavement, one basket for just 10,

Beijing, China

Beijing, Chinadeep-fried garoupa with chilli, washed down with a light Yanjing beer,

Beijing, Chinagiant cotton candy clouds,

Beijing, China北京酸奶 (Beijing fermented milk drink or yoghurt drink),

oh, and those amazingly diverse food choices along dedicated food streets (aka. night markets):

东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

centipedes, beetles, spiders, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

hearts, livers, and other organs, x东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

deep-fried crab, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

how to eat so your clothes stay clean, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

potato spirals, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

skewers of candied fruit, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, Chinawe were early at 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), but already, thick clouds of cooking and frying enveloped us as we walked along, deciding what to sample. Would it be 串儿 (chuan er, lamb skewers, كاۋاپ in Uyghur)? Or star fish and frogs and sea urchin? Or beetles and centipedes, finished off with a hairy tarantula spider? Or hearts, kidneys, livers, and other organs and spare bits? Or just deep-fried whole crabs? Or spirals of fried potato? Or colourful skewers of candied fruit?

A few minutes away, equally interesting food on offer at 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market)

singing noodle hawker, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

quail eggs, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

baby scorpions, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, Chinaa singing noodle hawker, quail eggs on a stick, two men pounding peanut brittle candy, and squirming baby scorpions on skewers.

Not sure what to think of the Chinese costumes – the half- 长衫s with mandarin collars with frog buttons, etc. On one hand, it panders to the Western orientalist (in the Edward Said sense) gaze that would prefer photographs of fake pig-tails to Jeremy Lin basketball shirts. It is a simulated authenticity staged for the benefit of the tourist yuan. Even further, it mixes orientalist signs with authentic differences of language and foods to further confirm themselves as the Other, the Altern, for the consumption of foreigners. On the other hand, why not?

At Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant though, there was modern sophistication a world away from the costumes of the street stalls. Ah, but do the white crockery, white table cloths, chef hats, internal water feature, dramatic setting of the duck ovens not constitute a different category of signs?

北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

aubergine stack, 北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

different ways of eating duck, 北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China“Look, the eyeball!” exclaimed B, who was determined not to act the part of the squimish Brit,
北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, Chinaand promptly wrote home about her authentic experience. I do love B, and also truly loved the irony. 🙂
Beijing, China

Onboard the Trans-mongolian Train 24 from Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) to Beijing (China)

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)

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

PB130424Train 24 on the Trans-mongolian Express route from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (China) was such a nice change from the Chinese stock I took from Moscow to UB.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWhether or not due to the presence of the unsmiling Mongolian provodnitsa, the interior of the compartments were comfortingly clean and the bunks properly-made. The bed-linen wasn’t stained or dusty.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingOur compartment attendant was on her knees scrubbing the corridor several times during the 1 day-journey. And naturally, the stainless steel toilet almost sparkled.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingInstant coffee and salty milk tea were provided, and paper cups in which to mix your drinks with the hot water from the samovar at one end of the carriage. I shared a second-class compartment with an elderly Korean sailor who had been in Mongolia for the last 6 years. Or so I think he said – he either changed his story several times in the course of the journey or we were suffering terribly from the effects of Babel. Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWe shared food – I brought biscuits to the table, and he, some fried bread.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingHe proved to be quite a character – I would awake suddenly from naps to find him staring intently at me, not too far from my face. In the photo above, he is standing and staring into the provodnista’s compartment which she had just entered with a change of clothes.

For a change of scenery, I headed to the restaurant car: Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingThere were some Americans there, one of whom was throwing a tantrum about foreign food and how the cook was not doing his steak just the way he liked it back home. Felt bad for his friends who were trying to explain to a thoroughly confused waiter what the problem was, and then trying to counsel him that this was all part and parcel of travelling.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSat back and enjoyed the passing beauty of the Gobi desert. Here, a family of wind turbines; there a few yurts or gers; in the distance, a cluster of dots – cattle? camels? It was fun to speculate along with the rest of the restaurant car. “I see a hump!” “I see two humps!”

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSoon, we pulled into an assembly line to have our bogies changed at the Chinese border from the 1,520 mm Russian gauge used by Mongolia, to 1,435 mm standard gauge that the Chinese use. Now, life on board the train revolves, amongst few other things, around the loo and its availability. It’s usually locked at railway stations (for hygiene reasons) and here, it was out-of-action for more than 2 hours, causing a little distress amongst those who hadn’t the foresight to do a little bladder management.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingIn the morning, the view outside the clear train windows had changed remarkably. There were golden fields of wheat, and mountains just out of a Chinese painting. I finally understood the scenery my Chinese art teacher was trying to get us to portray.

Q: How much does the different sort of native scenery impose on artistic method (versus, say, easy availability of materials)?

Q: Further to a previous musing, how much do political borders delineate existing differences in genetic pool, culture, language, ideas, worldviews, and how much do they incite differences in these areas?

Curious minds want to know.

Meanwhile, here’s a gratuitous photo of what some fellow passengers claimed was toilet waste: frozen toilet waste, Trans-mongolian TrainYou’re welcome.

Michael Sorkin’s “All Over The Map: writing on buildings and cities”

Photograph Michael Sorkin's "All Over the Map", sourdough baguette, le vache de chalais cheese by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Do we like certain books because they give us fresh ideas or because their ideas cohere with and confirm our existing ones?

  1. The Center Cannot Hold – “Here in Tribeca, we are at the end of a familiar cycle in which a neighbourhood moves from a mix of warehouses, manufacturing, offices, and housing, to an “artistic” neighbourhood, and now to the climax form of gentrification, an extreme high-end residential quartier. The corollary is that the jobs and people formerly employed here have either been eliminated or moved elsewhere…We have scrupulously preserved the architectural character of Tribeca, but at the expense of its human one.” (p23)
  2. Security – “…the culture is suffused with incitements to anxiety as the media fixates on the imminence of terror…We measure the environment against our perception of its perils…Our problem nowadays is that we are creating an urbanism predicated primarily on risk avoidance – one likely, in its more extreme versions, to have a terrible effect on fundamental ideas of a good city. To the degree that we acquiesce, we become complicit in a cycle of exacerbated paranoia, creating a bunker mentality…Given the genuine risks we do face…the question becomes whether there is any meeting ground between the need for precautions and the ongoing project of urban amelioration – the construction of cities that are humane, democratic, and sustainable.” (p42)
  3. The Avant-Garde in Time of War – “All architecture is political. By marshalling and distributing resources, organising social space, and orchestrating encounters, architecture is the medium through which human relations are given dimension. Since 9/11, images of assaults on buildings and cities have become ubiquitous symbols of political action, surrogates – in a war without corpses – for our own corporeality.”(p82)
  4. Caveat Competitor – “Why have architectural competitions? For practitioners, they offer the chance of a job without the grief of negotiation or self-promotion, and they can sometimes jump a small practice to the next level. For clients, competitions provide the opportunity to choose from many alternatives, show sympathy with architecture, and – in most cases – to do it on the cheap. For the public, competitions carry the seal of meritocracy, seemingly outside familiar cronyism. But the process is easily corrupted. For starters, there is something exploitative about the huge amounts of uncompensated work required to keep the system going. And there are plenty of opportunities for log-rolling, deal-making, back-scratching, insider-trading and the rest. Juries can be dramatically affected by plane schedules, blood-sugar fluctuations, personality conflicts and low-common-denominator compromises: differences in taste cannot be adjudicated except by someone giving in.” (p100)
  5. Entering the Building. [you’ve just got to read the entire piece in full glory] (p110)
  6. Urban Warfare: a Tour of the Battlefield – “It is possible that the only answer to persistent “terror” is a police state. The two form a perfect symbiosis, and it is easy to understand the utility of regular attacks to the authors of the US government’s “Patriot” Act, the breeders of sniffer dogs, and the private security firms that have become such a growth industry. To produce both legibility and intimidation, the whole panoptic repertoire of spatial and social control is deployed with little objection.” (p117)
  7. Crippled in the City – “We cripples see the city a little differently…I now find the city reorganised as an obstacle course…unevenness of surfaces is a major issue for urban mobility. This can be encountered riding in the street; walking down the sidewalk and negotiating curbs; or within buildings where loose stair treads, missing tiles, unsecured carpet, and a thousand other perils present themselves. The range of barriers is great. Heavy doors are tough. Revolving doors are too fast and too small. Narrow spaces are challenging.” (p135)
  8. Advice to Critics – “1. Always Visit the Building 2. Style is Seldom the Issue 3. Credit Effects, Not Intentions 4. Think Globally, Think Locally 5. Safety First 6. Who Profits? 7. Consult the User 8. History is Not Bunk 9. It’s the City, Stupid 10. Defend the Public Realm 11. Keep Your Teeth Sharpened 12. Play Your Favourites” (p147-150)
  9. Seven Chairs – “Modernism revolted against the sentimental distortions of representation. Every representation pares and distorts, proposing a way of seeing as well as a vision of its object. Modernism bridled against this, understanding representation as constraint, and produced the idea of abstraction, conscientiously diversifying this methodology by steady degrees…But even abstraction always represents something, if only the idea of representing nothing.” “Duschamp’s “discovery” of the ready-made insisted that the act of seeing differently was a sufficient definition of artistic practice, with the power to “turn” objections from one thing to another. Whether this meant a urinal brazenly hung on a gallery wall or a deft bike-part bull, this mode of art-making used the mass-produced consumer object as its medium. However, its critical relation to this means depended on devaluing its useful status to convert it to mere contemplation, bringing it in line with traditional styles of artistic valorisation. Art’s crisis was one of both meaning and use.” (p170)
  10. Sincerely, Jane Jacobs – “Although preservation has emerged as the planning equivalent of motherhood…, its spawn – gentrification – has become the soft form of urban renewal, still removing the poor but lovingly restoring their former homes.” (p231)
  11. How I Invented Asia – “While the memory of tradition may inhere in particular forms, its life does not necessarily. Tradition is a set of practices that are weighted…by constraint, and it is clear that traditional societies live in symbiosis with both the fact and idea of their boundaries. This is an extremely fluid concept. Following Edward Said, Janet Abu-Lughod has pointed to a kind of postcolonial diffusion effect in which the idea of tradition is re-circulated as an instrument of domination by the colonizer, setting the boundaries from without rather than within…These arguments are obviously crucial as a critique of the dumb bivalence of received wisdom: tradition is at once potentially the product of a kind of enduring empiricism – tested by time – and radically uncritical. As a signifier, though, tradition is particularly buoyant, especially now. The folding of tradition into the various insistent discourses of identity that characterise contemporary politics means that every “tradition” on earth, once marked, is inescapably contaminated by somebody’s gaze, if only by that of those operating “within” the tradition who consciously seek to protect it fro the baleful influence of those without. We live in a world in which everybody is constructed as somebody’s other, and the force of tradition, increasingly is taken up in an idea of the political, is more and more directed outwards. (p248-249)
  12. Go Down Moses – “At the level of planning, I am disquieted by the growth of so-called “public-private partnerships” which often represent not simply the abdication of the duty of the public sphere to assure that the common good will contain a full measure of equity in results, but also an end-run around democracy itself, bypassing the hard work of guaranteeing that the voices of all citizens will be heard and acted on with equal weight.” (p276)
  13. The Jungle Urban: Welcome to Petropolis – “In 1993 a modified plan was put into place in which the Huaorani were nominally incorporated into the administration of the combine entity. For them, this meant jobs as security guards (in their own formerly peaceable homeland), oil workers, and new – and desperately inappropriate – houses for some, generally clustered in what can only be described as concentration camps. This for a people that has, for millennia, lived nomadically. It also meant the ravages of imported diseases and a rapid education in modernity.” (p279)
  14. Asian Alterity: What’s the Difference? – “The spirited defense of difference that has formed so much of the core of our politics during the past quarter-century is the product of a mingling of liberation and anxiety. Perhaps the most nuanced propositions have flowed from feminism and its efforts to negotiate not simply the crucial idea of sexual difference but its historic and contemporary reduction to essentialist positions: singular and immutable readings that pinion the idea of woman, refusing both cultural and individual fluidities and the complex dialectics of relationship, as well as the liberties of choice that must underlie any democratic account of how we become who we are.In the cultural territory, similar essentialisms dominate both in the vulgar reaches of the left, with its too expansive, quasi-biologistic formulations, and on the right, with its fundamentalisms of civilizational clash and flat-earth maps of the distribution of virtue. Such distortions notwithstanding, difference is indispensable, both the animator of our subjectivity and a bulwark against the fascist honogeneity and tight control of the neoliberal corporatist politics that have succeeded modernist universalism, extracting useful sameness from any memory of the project of justice.

    But the celebration of “authentic” difference runs its own risks, and we are obliged to question the sources and meanings of the differences that confront us. We must fear not simply the tyranny of essentialism – unnuanced ideas of “woman” or “Asian” or “Western” – but also the false distinctions of a culture that thrives on the production of illusory segmentations based on the need to create a blizzard of meaningless choices that will dupe us into the hysteria of consumption that makes the system go: the Terriyaki Burger in Tokyo, the Kimchee Burger in Seoul, the Curry Burger (strictly veg) in Bangalore.

    Even more threatening than this is the risk that an under-examined insistence on the abstract value of difference will threaten the vital idea of equality. Ideas of alterity can be used as instruments for manipulating the kinds of inequalities on which political and economic power thrive. And they can be used to dilute notions of justice by exaggerating the claim that human values and rights simply and “naturally” differ from society to society in such fundamental ways that we can evade the real distinctions between democracy and authoritarianism, whether in the guise of cultural choice or some form of political inevitabilism. We stone you for disagreeing with us because that’s how we are: how dare you take our patronising orientalist attitude to this!” (p285-286)

Double B Coffee & Tea, Moscow

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia)

Photograph Double B Coffee & Tea, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500pxFlat-white drinking is never more pleasurable than when it is to warm a body that has been trudging through Moscow streets in sub-freezing temperatures.

Photograph Double B Coffee & Tea, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Double B Coffee & Tea, Moscow, RussiaDouble B Coffee & Tea, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
Scored a seat in Double B Coffee & Tea (Милютинский переулок, 3 (Milyutinskiy pereulok, 3)) and thought it extremely cute how the usual coffee drinks had been rendered in Cyrillic. Yes, they’d said, of course they could do a flat white even if it wasn’t a menu. Where was I from?

Photograph flat white, Double B Coffee & Tea, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Then, the coffee chat trope about beans and machines.

Photograph Double B Coffee & Tea, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

On the next table, a group of university boys were talking loudly about going to Singapore in a mixture of English and Russian:
“Where is it?”
“What language do they speak there?”
“That’s very far away! Is it safe?”
“Wow, you’re very brave to be going there.”

How do I love thee Moscow? Let me count the ways

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia)

I would like to say that Moscow was far more than I’d imagined. The trouble is, I hardly have expectations of anything or anyone. But I did really enjoy my time there.

Photograph Burger King in Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

1. Everything was in the vernacular. No one spoke anything but Russian, all the signs were in Cyrillic (except for a few places right in the touristy bit of Moscow). Amazed myself by learning to read Cyrillic in a day or two out of sheer necessity (also, it’s a little like Greek). Love a challenge.

2. Everyone assumed I was native and were physically taken aback when I replied in English. And I did, in fact, meet many Chinese-looking people. “ру́сская?” they’d ask. “нет,”I’d reply,”Singapore.” But few had heard of it.

3. No one smiled much, so I didn’t feel I had to. Since I’m generally lazy on the facial expression front, what’d been interpreted as unfriendliness in London was the norm in Moscow. Cosy.

Photograph dorm-mates dancing, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

4. I stayed in a cheap Russian dormitory for almost a week and got to know other dorm-mates pretty well. They were guarded at first, but whether it was the passage of time or the fact that I wasn’t China-Chinese or Mongolian (it’s confusing since I’ve relatively light hair and eye colour), they started to enjoy talking to me, asking me about my day, wanting to see my photos, even though my Russian wasn’t quite up to chit-chat standard (I could barely follow the news on Ukraine). There was lots of maternal nagging and clucking, and sometimes there was dancing. One woman was from Azerbaijan (she smelled familiar, though by no means in a bad way, like an Indian friend), another was from a small town outside of Moscow, and the third was a singer who slept all day so she could perform in clubs at night.

Photograph Kremlin, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

5. I loved the show-of-power architecture of the Soviet state: the Kremlin, the State Historical Museum, the Seven Sisters. Stalin wasn’t at all shy about it.

Photograph St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

6. I loved the show-of-power architecture of the Russian Orthrodox Church: the Cathedral of St. Basil, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Photograph Metro, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Metro, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

7. Oh, and the magnificent metro stations – the “Palaces of the People”.

Photograph borscht, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Stolovaya No. 57, GUM, Moscow by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph herring in a fur coat, Stolovaya No. 57, GUM, Moscow by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

8. The borscht I had here was thinner than probably inauthentic interpretations abroad, but happily much of the other food was stodgy enough for the cold weather (hovering around -3°C). In stolovayas (canteens, a good cheap holdover from the Communist…err…oh wait…), we had herrings in fur coats, and dumplings (Georgian, pelmeni), and kvas, and frilly table covers.

Photograph Крошка Картошка (Kroshka-Kartoshka), Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph blini, Теремок (Teremok), Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

9. And on the street, similarly good stodgy baked potatoes (from Крошка Картошка (Kroshka-Kartoshka)), blinis (from Теремок (Teremok)).

Photograph pine nut milk by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

10. Pine stuff! Pine-nut milk. Pine syrup.

Photograph kefir, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

11. Kefir!

Photograph warm sea buckthorn juice, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

12. Sea buckthorn cakes, sea buckthorn juice, sea buckthorn everywhere. I liked it immediately, and was disappointed later to read that it was one of those “miracle berries”. I liked it for itself and not what it could offer in health benefits.

Photograph Yuka the Baby Mammoth, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Yuka the Baby Mammoth, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Yuka the Baby Mammoth, Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

13. Yuka the baby mammoth. SRSLY.

14. Does the security industry have the largest share of the Russian service sector? Uniformed security guards, or soldiers, or policemen everywhere.

15. Oh, and this gem: the dorm-mates, upon hearing that I’d lived in London for years exclaimed: a single woman, all alone, living in London?! How dangerous! England is so dangerous! You must be very brave!. I did not at any point admit that the English were similarly wary of Moscow. Ah, the suspicion of other lands and peoples.

Photograph Moscow, Russia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Yet, there was the nagging sense that all these imposing buildings and severe men in uniforms were at best temporal and fragile. Not even Putin riding a bear or those nuclear bunker underground stations would not be able to protect the Russians from He who came the first time to save his people, and will come a second time to judge the whole world.