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Be Kind, Reboot

3 minute read

[The Beach](
Sunset in Nikoi island

It’s no secret I’ve lost interest in writing a blog — I’m not sure when that happened. It just did. Uni came and went. Life and love took me places. I got caught up in my projects, and soon the fun that blogging once was paled in comparison with real life.

I still wanted to keep this site around, but it went through something of an existential crisis, not knowing what it wanted to be. Before Twitter came about the dichotomy was easy to understand: offline, long form writing, was in magazines, newspapers, academic journals; everything else was here. It is now hard to write in the same intimate, personal way I once did. I hope I still can. I have good reasons to be less forthcoming. In any case, Twitter served instead as a fast and dirty way of getting all that other stuff posted. Life stopped being so dramatic. In turn, I had little to report.

For about a year after university ended, I had the time of my life because I learned I could spend all my time writing, taking pictures, riding in planes and buses, and get paid for it. I stopped living in Singapore full time in 2008 and went through Spain, UK, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Oman, India, Thailand, Philippines, Germany, Sweden although I never really thought it was possible.

Some time beginning 2009, I began to exhibit signs of wanting to settle down. I began working on an aviation startup with a business partner, and although I have moved on to other things since, I learned a great deal from the scene, the experience, and the people I worked with. I’m now between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and Bangkok, getting my two companies up and running. Business is picking up, and I will link to it once our new website is up, and I am still learning and making it up as I go along. One of the companies designs and develops on the web, and also publishes lifestyle publications; the other, just a day old, specializes in iOS development. We have had the luck to work with some great clients in our early days, and we continue to learn new things everyday. We have done some good work, there are cool things happening at the moment, there are iOS titles we will soon be publishing that I can’t wait to tell you all about, and everything’s new and exciting and shiny at the same time.

I still write, but when I put down my bags and signed on for a two year lease and for animals, I told myself that I will save what little time and focus I have left after all the other stuff I want to do, for writing that matters to me. Offline, I will resume writing for a number of good publications that I like, on topics that I give a damn about. I will post links here as they happen (there’s a story slated for 12 February in the Indian paper, Mint). Online, I will save this space for the long form writing I want to do more of. Twitter and Tumblr will serve as the repository for the off-the-cuff ideas and thoughts that tend to become fragmented and scattered after a while.

I will be saving a whole section on this site for India, as it’s probably about time. I don’t think I will ever run out of things to say about India, even if I don’t write about anything else. I intend to start writing more about my work as well. In previous incarnations, the mystery wasn’t so much of one, as it was my complete and utter inability to get organized. Now that I’ve finally managed to define what I do, and to keep tabs on each aspect, I should be able to share them more thoroughly and frequently.

So why did I pull the plug on the old site? I haven’t. The old site and all its archives are still available here. I felt I needed to reboot my online life to make a complete break from the old way I used to write, and the person I used to be. I don’t know if this version is 100% different, or better, but I’d like to find out. I could no longer allow my 16 year old rants — no matter how eloquent or interesting I think they might be — to define my online self.

So we start afresh.

Two Hundred and Nine

3 minute read

A year in review

2009 was a year of many things: it was the year of change and death. More so it was the year of change because of death. Many famous people died that year; my grandfather, who was not famous, somehow also did the same. In April I called him from a phone booth in Beirut at US$2 a minute and had a 30-second conversation with him about minced pork noodles. In May I called him from London and had a 30-second conversation with him about minced pork noodles. In June they called me 3 hours after I landed in Kuala Lumpur from London, on the brink of my new life not far from home. 12 hours later I was sitting by his hospital bed, in a hospital 5 minutes from where I have lived all 24 years of my life, feeling like the last 24 hours of travel was about to change everything I knew about those very 24 years. By the middle of the month he was dead, and I didn’t get to see it. All I know is that 3 different people woke me up at 6 in the morning that morning and told me in 3 different languages that my ah gong was gone.

In Chinese familial taxonomy, the standing of every person in your family is relative and also language-dependent. Depending on your relationship to that person, and which linguistic branch is dominant in that side of the family, you call him or her a different thing. So your father’s mother is ah ma, your mother’s mother is gwa ma — if both sides of the family more or less speak the southern Min languages like Hokkien or Teochew, like we do. Your father’s younger sister is one thing, older sister is another; depending on their position among the siblings, and your own relationship to that person, each person is called something else. Like knowing whether tables, ties, or street lamps are feminine or masculine in French, everybody inherently knows this. But ah gong was only ah gong. To all of us.

I lived with this man and his wife almost every second of my existence. Then I grew up, travelled madly, lived abroad, and came home expecting not very much to change but instead everything did: no old Chinese man berating me about cigarettes and alchohol, no grumpy old man coming into my room at 3am every morning to check if I was alive, no funny old man who was a head and 3 foot sizes smaller than me telling me his slew of so bad they’re funny jokes that weren’t really jokes.

Then bloody 2009 took him away from me. We found out he was born on the same day as Michael Jackson. (Chinese lunar calendars and their ever-changing dates; we only found out when the date went up on his tomb.) A week after that, Michael Jackson died. Sometimes when I think about it, I think it was cosmically timed so that my ah gong could shine his torch at MJ’s face, laugh at his nose, and tell him that in Singapore we’ve immortalized him in a soya bean milk and grass jelly drink, after the ambiguous colour of his skin (and his famous song).

The rest of it in a nutshell, because they just don’t seem as important: I lived in the United Arab Emirates. I went to a camel market. Some camel trader offered 20 camels for my hand in marriage. I said no. I went to Yemen. Missed two bombs. Called my parents to tell them I was alive, and they said “okay, good”, because they were asleep and thought I sounded too happy for someone who’d just had a bomb scare. Happened to be in Pattaya and Bangkok at the precise moment the Red Shirt/Yellow Shirt April demonstrations erupted. Swatted flies with a tennis racket electric mosquito swatter while watching Thaksin on TV, with all his evil. Did my ultimate roadtrip: Beirut, Bekaa Valley, Damascus, Palmyra, Homs, Aleppo, Adana, Antalya, Goreme, Istanbul, London. Messed around in London for a while. Went home. Ah gong died. Mourned for a long time. My friends say India is my Prozac, so I went to Chennai, Fort Cochin, and Mumbai for a while to, well, “find myself”. Moved to KL. Settled. Got a dog. Started a business. Spent the new year with my love without having to spend a thousand dollars flying to see her.

2009 was good; but I can’t wait for this one to really kick off.

You Asians Have Two Stomachs

7 minute read

Some friends from Turkey came to visit this past weekend. I had a great time hanging out with Melissa and Emirhan in Antalya when I stopped by en route to Istanbul (from Damascus), so I naturally returned the favour and put them up at my place. After three dinners (not at the same time, albeit the same night), Emirhan gave up at the sight of three relatively small Asian girls chomping away at their 20th meal of the day and said it must be that we all have two stomachs, the other one being the one that leads straight to refuse.

Kuala Lumpur is a funny place. It contains no immediately obvious tourist attractions (not to me anyway) and the lay of the land is hard to grasp. It’s a sprawling mess of cities, townships, and everything in between; the lack of acceptable public transportation makes it hard to get around. In other words it’s a city not for tourists, but for visitors who have the time and ability to stay, sit around, drink teh tarik, and make new friends.

Unless you’re here to eat and have both the ability and desire to match us locals on our tremendous stamina for eating.

To say “eating” is a national pastime and obsession is not merely stating the obvious, it also woefully understates the true extent of the obsessive nature of this common indulgence which is the mark of a born-and-bred Malaysian (and to an extent, but less so, Singaporean). It is neither a task nor a hobby — it is a way of life. Every aspect connected to the act of eating is performed with loving care and preponderance; the final act of eating is nowhere near a climax, for there is no start, nor finish. Evidence: have an awesome lunch or dinner with a group of Malaysians (or Singaporeans), the ones who are passionate about food (almost everyone is, but there are some who are far long gone). Say nothing. Listen to them speak, and make a mental note of what their conversations are about.

I’d wager that 90% of the conversation is about food. Not about the food they’re eating at that very moment, no, not at all (beyond the expected “this is good”, “this is fucking amazing”, or “this is awful”, which pervades in the first five minutes or so) — it’s more likely to turn into a rare moment of Malaysian/Singaporean introspection and cultural analysis. “This is far better/worse/comparable to/cheaper than/better value for money compared to…”, the connoisseur declares, not with the pomp or authority of a food critic, but with a heart of tender love, “but I’m afraid to say the hawker in (insert any other part of town) is better.” He is bound to be accosted with fierce interjections, because everyone’s a passionate food critic in this part of the world, and sometime cultural and culinary commentator too.

If you’re truly lucky, and understand the local vernacular well enough, you might be witness to a display of shocking real-time food gossip, one that knows neither state nor national boundaries. We all do this to some extent — we know exactly how many of the famous hawkers got started, how their families fell apart from intra-family bickering, how the secret recipe diverged into dozens of different locations and took on their own styles, which one remains true to the original secret, right down to the very last minutiae such as “the chilli in the 4th brother’s version is inferior to the one made by hand daily by his 2nd brother. However the cousin’s newly revised version (open from 10am to 8pm at this other location), is by far the best.”

We even plan our holidays around food. I know my family does, and so do many of my friends. In fact it was no big deal to find that so-and-so’s family had just driven 8 hours northwards to spend a night in northern Malaysia, in order to eat wanton mee at that location, nor was it surprising that they would choose to drive back down not on the expressway, but through the trunk roads that would take them through certain other locations where they could, you guessed it, eat some more (hard-to-find versions of food we love).

From the time I was 15, I developed a strange habit of stealing my passport and bringing it to school with me. I had the good luck to have gone to school in a fine educational establishment. It gave me many wonderful things: it developed my writing abilities, and my school-time activities in those days taught me how to multi-task like crazy and how to play truant, but above all its location on Bukit Timah Road, Singapore, featured one untapped resource — bus 170 to Johor, Malaysia. I hopped on it frequently to lunch (alone, for I was an introvert — and still am) in my school uniform. Then turned back around and went home to a suburban estate in Singapore like it was the most normal thing.

Because it was. At least where I came from.

Moving to Malaysia made this even more unavoidable. I am surrounded 24/7 by fantastic local food, much of it towering heads and shoulders above the Singaporean versions which, despite sharing the same characteristics, are now mostly inedible from a combination of neglect, lack of innovation and tradition (at the same time), rapid development killing our long heritage of ‘street’ food, and other things like that. Say what you will about how the food is better here because it’s ‘unhealthier’ or ‘dirtier’ — I don’t care. (The free use of pork lard is a Malaysian Chinese habit I fully endorse, and begrudge our Singaporean hawkers for not indulging in.) I wake up most mornings in Malaysia thinking about eating noodles. I have travelled far and wide but I care for little in the world (with the sole exception of jamon iberico) than a good bowl of southern Chinese Southeast Asian noodles. bakchormee in Singapore; pork noodles, soup or kon lo in KL. And wanton mee, the northern Malaysian version of which I find far superior by far to our chilli and tomato-addled sickly versions down south. When I am not thinking of noodles, I am thinking of nasi lemak. The very idea of eating noodles and rice for breakfast is alien to many. No scene is more striking than one onboard any airline leaving or entering Malaysia or Singapore on a long-haul flight, when breakfast is served at 5.30am. Stewardesses, onboard Emirates, Malaysian Airlines, or Singapore Airlines flights, come by patting passengers on the shoulder with breakfast options, having to explain the only local option, nasi lemak, to those who don’t know. “Rice steamed in coconut milk… served with chicken curry… fried bits of little fish.. and… a big dollop of spicy sambal.” Of course, all the locals happily tuck into our spicy chicken curry coconut rice at 5.30 in the morning, while most other passengers think us insane.

So while we didn’t have very much time to re-educate Melissa and Emirhan on the wonders of local food, we tried our best. Since there are few pleasures greater than the delights of a superb Ramly burger, the sort that can only be found in Malaysia, we headed straight for one. Followed by satay Kajang. Followed by two rounds of lok-lok. (A lok-lok truck is a contraption of a truck that’s been pimped up to allow for the display and storage of fresh sticks of meat and seafood, to be dipped into communal vats on the rims of these trucks, each filled with boiling hot soup, into which one cooks your sticks of food in a DIY fashion. It went out of fashion (or was outlawed) in Singapore even before I was born, so I eat at one every other day in Malaysia and find great pleasure in it.)

By this time Melissa had already given up on the idea of eating anymore, but Emirhan tried his best. We had one round of lok-lok, rested for beer, and returned an hour later for more.

That’s when I realized how much of a stereotype we had all become. Scurrying to the truck at 2am, we noticed most of the sticks of food had been packed away for the night. Anxious, we all did a spontaneous mini-sprint to the steamboat — separately. In another moment of unplanned synchronized gluttony, we immediately took out our phones from our pocket… and laughed. We knew precisely why the other person was doing it.

We had to check the time the lok-lok truck stopped selling food… because… we just had to.

And then we ate. And ate some more. And went home and planned what to eat in 5 hours’ time.

That’s when I knew I am indeed native to this land. A gluttonous, perpetually hungry native.

The Torino Express

2 minute read


Downtown Beirut was swanky. Saifi Village was strange. I had to duck into a hair salon and get my hair cut by a gay man in Ashrafieh to avoid the guy following me on his scooter, and the other guy trying to sell me drugs. All I wanted was a steak. Walking around Beirut, glamorous, fashionable Beirut, the party capital of the gay Middle East, where everyone, straight, gay, and in-between, was artsy or beautiful or a bit of both, was mind-bending. Here was a United Nations tank, soldiers armed with rifles. Here was a pockmarked building, riddled with gunshot wounds, the architectural reflection of Beirut’s own wounded but eternal soul. In the fashionably frumpy quarter of Gemmayze, I joined the artsy young Beirut set for a night. Saturday nights in Gemmayze’s many hole-in-wall bars and clubs felt right; in early 2009, this was where Beirut’s heartbeat was to be found. Every couple of years, that changes, according to my friend Dana. Like many Lebanese, she left the country as a teenager because of the war. Never quite settling elsewhere, she joined the permanent Lebanese diaspora in Montreal and then in Dubai. I cannot imagine what it’s like to call such a beautiful, vulnerable strip of land “home”; it must be hard to juggle so many identities. “The New York Times Travel page just ran a story about how ‘Beirut is back’. Bars, clubs, it’s so hip now, yada yada,” I said. “Oh, please. Every five years or so the New York Times “rediscovers” that “Beirut is so different from the Middle East” and “and how we’re a party town,” she scoffed. “It’s a surprise only to them. Every five years or so somethings blows up, the shit hits the fan. Then we’re okay, and we make the New York Times again. And again.” Meanwhile, a gorgeous gay Lebanese man held hands under the table with his strikingly handsome French partner, while Dana ordered us more beer and whisky and expounded at length about how weird it is that Middle Eastern culture places so much importance on what’s been between her legs. I remembered what a foreign correspondent once said about this city being every old-school foreign correspondent’s dream: you could interview the Hezbollah at lunchtime and count on foie gras, wine and beautiful people showing at your parties after, on the other side of town. I love this place.



And The Living is Easy

3 minute read

Weddings, funerals and fortune tellers depress me.

Weddings, I’ve been known to say, make me linger too long on the idea of happiness. Not that it’s ever been bleak on the romantic front. The wedding type of happy simply seems worlds apart from the love type of happy to me, but then I was the odd one out in too many ways. I was that strange little girl who distressed, not too silently, over the idea that any impending happiness had to come from a Prince Charming, a white dress, a ring, or a HDB flat. I squinted hard in the horizon and tried to see some kind of prince heading my way. I made mental concessions, I had to. “If this prince has long hair, a beautiful face, and soft hands to hold,” I often wondered aloud, “then I guess it’s okay.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t have too many friends in primary school. I like the idea of marriage. But weddings, and ceremonies or rituals of any sort that spell out the rules of what can’t be done more than what can, just depress me. Gay people usually feel we have to work twice as hard in everything: to excel at sports even though you’re a faggot, to make it at the workplace even though you’re a dyke, to be happy even though you’re a sad homosexual. And now I have to work twice as hard to fly somewhere else, book a vineyard, buy two dresses, find the right girl, and fly everyone there and know not everyone I love will be happy for me? I don’t know. I don’t know how that compares to cold jellyfish, PowerPoint slides, sharks’ fin, yum sengs and bad singing from the groom. Maybe happiness doesn’t need other people’s approving — or disapproving — looks.

Funerals are something else altogether. Losing a loved one is a terrible thing and, I’ve been told, doesn’t get any better with practice. There is nothing pleasant about a funeral. Grief and loss is the sum total of the pain of heartbreak and disappointment, magnified. They remind us of our own mortality, the things not yet done, the things we will never do. Aspirations, ambition, dashed dreams, lost loves, happiness, the abruptness of death, what little time you have left and what you still need to do. Death makes every obstacle in life seem ridiculously small in comparison. My grandfather died a few days before Michael Jackson. It destroyed me. My ex is getting married in three countries to the same person, just a few months after my niece was born and a few days after one of my good friends gave birth. It’s supposed to be revitalizing. I find this all chilling. Exciting, eventful, but some days I crave normalcy. Yet I’m finding, rather late into young adulthood, that everything we did in English Literature class — love, loss, death, other such milestones and the cycles of life — are not overwritten cliches. How Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in Stoppard’s version, spent all their lives trying to find out their destiny only to be ultimately disappointed; trapped within the wheels of pre-determination?

And those high priests of pre-determination, fortune tellers. They are to most people, beacons of light. For the less superstitious like myself, they disappoint me greatly even if they have only good things to say. That’s it? That’s life? That’s all love is about? How the hell do you know this anyway? I’ve been to quite a few from Singapore to Dhaka to Antalya and Istanbul, just out of curiosity, and I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe I just don’t want to know. Maybe all I want is to fumble my way through life attending as few funerals as I can. Travel even more. Give up smoking. Drink as much good wine and spirits as I can, not at the same time. Be a good person. Send my parents on nice vacations every now and then. Give my best in everything I do. Love bravely, truthfully, fiercely and without fear; not of anybody else, not of each other. Be loved in equal amounts. Have a long distance relationship only once, but make it count. Give to charity. Be kind to cats. Live in as many cities as I can. Turn 24 in three months time but not 10 000 kilometres away from the person I love, ever again.

Maybe even learn to be more optimistic about weddings if I expect to still have friends in my middle age. Or do a better job of pretending.