All posts in 2024
  • The One About Scallion Pancakes

    I have a weird story about scallion pancakes. It goes like this.

    Around this time last year, I was walking down my street in San Francisco when a woman waved something at me. I thought she needed help with something, so I went closer. Instead, she clicked something (she was waving a torch, the kind you ignite gas stoves with), and she held the flame in my face.

    I had no idea what she was doing.

    She said, "I'm going to burn you!"

    "Why?" I was really confused.

    "Because you're Chinese."


    That's what was happening. Until that point, I had largely avoided the worst of that stuff. I had no idea what to do. A bus arrived. I got into it.

    As I was leaving, she kept pointing it at me, and she said, I'm also going to burn your dog! She is.. also Chinese!

    I know she wasn't well.

    I know that she needs help.

    But I didn't know what I would do when that happened to me, finally.

    Not much, maybe other than a lot of crying. I got to take time off work. I had therapy. I talked to a lot of people. I thought often of the moment, of what had happened, and I don't remember anything else about her now (I am face blind, that helps). If I saw her again on the streets (this happened around the corner where I live), I would not recognize her. But I remember the flame that she briefly lit, and how it changed everything about my life and my experience of the city that I had, up until that moment, thought of as home.

    I don't think of her very much now. But it comes up when I least expect it. For example, when I took out a package of Trader Joe's Taiwanese Green Onions Pancake.

    Now, it's probably a perfectly fine product for most people, but it's going to be forever remembered in my home now as The Time I Had Trader Joe's Scallion Pancakes and Absolutely Lost My Shit.

    Somehow, the act of eating a frozen scallion pancake had unearthed all kinds of.. feelings. Mainly, why the hell am I here? There's racism, and there's frozen scallion pancakes! I would never accept frozen pancakes for any meal back home! Least of all scallion pancakes with COCONUT OIL made for WHITE PEOPLE, that aren't even flaky or layered.. or good!!!

    I was inconsolable.

    My wife never buys them anymore. She calls it my crying pancakes.

    (We really like this one. It doesn't make me cry.)

    My pancake nervous breakdown, that probably wasn't really about pancakes, but about immigration, identity, immigration, anxiety, concern about the state of the world and my personal safety, led me to book a flight back to Singapore.

    More than anything else, I just needed to know that I was going to have the safety and comforts of home in my family house with my parents and with food I like. Where I was never going to have to eat anything frozen, ever. So I did that, shortly after my pancake breakdown.

    And the first meal that I had when I got there was a scallion pancake. From here. Freshly made. By hand. Not frozen. Available for breakfast. For a buck or something. It was really good, and I did not cry.

    But my parents could not understand why I so desperately wanted to eat a scallion pancake. It was not something I would crave, or ask for. It's not even really... Singaporean at all.

    I could not explain how: between two scallion pancakes, one frozen and one fresh, laid the entire spectrum of my sadness and grief as well as my happiness and joy. I get to be queer, autistic, and to be with the person that I love. But I also get fires in my face, and frozen scallion pancakes that make me cry.

  • Launch of Public Sector AI

    I've been busy. Over the weekend, I launched:

    The motivation for doing so is, I am noticing an increasing amount of YOLO and FOMO with regards to artificial intelligence. Government is at once trying to regulate, as well as to determine how to engage.

    I'm hoping my perspectives as the director of product management at San Francisco Digital Services, the digital arm of the City and County of San Francisco, as well as my personal interest in the ethics of and latest developments in artificial intelligence, can help my fellow public servants around the world make sense of what's happening and how we can meet the moment. Or not.

    Especially if your boss says, we need to use AI! Here are some questions to ask; here's what other people are doing, and what you need to know.

    For now, I'm envisioning the site to be a resource on 'what you can do' / 'how you can think about' AI' and for the newsletter to be on 'state of AI / public sector' (there's a lot of news about AI now, and a lot of hype. Which ones are relevant to you).

    Let me know if you have any thoughts, questions, feedback.

  • The Internet Walgreens Test

    I lived the bulk of my life outside the United States, where I have been for only 6 out of nearly four decades. There are many things I appreciate about the U.S.; San Francisco in particular, which gave my wife and I a wonderful place to build our home and welcomed us at every step.

    One thing that I am not used to though, is the degree of imperial insularity.

    Other than Fahrenheit and imperial units, I think it's the first time I've lived somewhere that is so totally detached from the rest of the world. I feel it in my soul as I realized, with a shock, that bars here play only American sports, American news, and on top of that, hyper-regional versions of all of that.

    I realized that I was not hearing about the rest of the world, except in very negative terms: like in wars or in other crises. This, I noted, is new. (I grew up in a city-state and I think I had to learn the exchange rate to all 10 major global currencies as a teenager figuring out eBay)

    I know it doesn't come from a place of malice. Most of the time, it just is. As the superpower of the world, that's just the way it is.

    To keep myself amused, I have come up with a test that I think reflects my past experience as a non-American, interacting online with Americans who are not aware of their insularity.

    On Mastodon, I called this the Walgreens test. I phrased it a little less well on Mastodon, so I want to post this here for posterity:

    When you are on the Internet, and you ask a question about where to get face wash or shampoo, what do people tell you?

    The people who say 'Walgreens' even when you've stated that you're not in America, are the winners of my Internet Walgreens Insularity test. The idea that your local drugstore is available elsewhere in the world is a frame of mind that I personally do not understand. The idea that you are surprised that there is no (insert your local business) in another country is one that can only occur in an empire.

    Other people had fun ideas too.

    • 'when I talk about wanting to read a book and someone tells me to get it at my local library. but there are no local libraries where i live'
    • 'that Pi Day is 3/14 and only in America'

    Personally, I was really surprised when I encountered a very educated person here who had no idea that other countries used other currencies, and that other countries used other electrical outlets. They had never seen an electrical adapter before.

    I say all of this not to bash anyone, but to really only note that wow, I live somewhere completely different now.

  • Bawling at Birdsong

    From a late night Mastodon thread about homesickness.

    Two years before I moved to the United States, I wrote something called ‘things I will miss when I have to leave Southeast Asia (because I am queer)’. I predicted that I would be deeply homesick, not for Singapore specifically, but for the entire region.

    Even though I was born in Singapore, I lived many years in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

    What I could not predict: that even watching videos of people in YouTube documentaries about Southeast Asia, the birdsong is enough to make me bawl.

    I have such a deep affection for and attachment to that part of the world. The weather makes sense to me. The languages make sense to me. And oh my god I miss the food.

    I’ve been lucky to have such a deep familiarity with so much of it. I went to a hippie run shop in SF the other day and they played ‘mor lam’ on their record player.

    It instantly brought me back to long overnight bus rides through Thailand with my mother.

    In San Francisco, there’s a neighborhood called the Tenderloin. Looking it up on the Internet will tell you it’s the worst place in the world; apparently a literal war zone.

    I live there. There are Thai people, Lao people, Vietnamese people. I walk my dog in my batik pajamas and sandals, just like I would back home. There’s fresh galangal in the grocery store. Sometimes a Vietnamese uncle goes fishing and I’m invited to pick some fish, with other Vietnamese aunties.

    Sometimes people ask me why I don’t live in a nicer neighborhood. But I struggle to think of how any neighborhood where I can’t buy fresh galangal, speak my languages, get free soy milk, buy the only tofu I find acceptably good, is possibly nicer in any conceivable way

    But mostly I am afraid that if I move, my yearning for home will give way to a bigger hole in my soul. Leaving Southeast Asia is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

    My neighbors go to the food pantry every day. They don’t have money. They came here on a scary boat ride, all those decades ago. The trauma of war and that journey still haunts them in many visible ways. They also insist on giving me vegetables that they get from the food pantry. I tell them I am not poor and I feel bad about taking free food. They laugh and say, they just want to give me something. I am the only young person who still speaks to them in their language. They like that about me.

    With the benefits of community also comes the downsides. My neighbors nag at me as though they are my relatives. Don’t order food. It’s expensive. Get a house in Hayward. It’s cheaper. I help them set alarms on their phones so they can wake up to get into a shuttle to go to a temple in San Jose for Tết. They are surprised that I don’t know many traditions, like being vegetarian on the 1st day of lunar new year.

    I don’t know how to say, ‘my evangelical Christian upbringing robbed me of my cultural traditions’, in either Vietnamese or Teochew or Cantonese.

    Every Vietnamese American old person who speaks to me asks me, ‘why did you come here? Isn’t your country better? Cleaner?’

    I also don’t know how to say ‘my country doesn’t accept me because of who I love, so I am here’. In any of the languages that I know. Which is, quite a few.

  • City Hall, Doubled

    a scan of a black and white film negative of san francisco city hall with a double exposure

    An accidental double exposure of City Hall, San Francisco.

    (Minolta Hi-Matic 7S II, Kodak T-Max 400, Xtol stock @ 12:45, scanned on Noritsu LS-600)

  • Octupus vs Bike

    A scan of a black and white photograph of a octopus sculpture that looks like it's sat on the corner of the ledge. a bicycle leaning next to it

    Seen at Crane Cove Park, San Francisco.

    (Olympus XA2, Kodak T-Max 400, Xtol 1:1, scanned on Plustek 8200i)

  • Seven birthdays with my wife

    When my wife Sabrena and I first got together in early 2017, she said I was her early birthday gift. Not actually knowing her birthday, I asked her when it was: exactly two months from when we got together.

    You must understand, at that time I was a bit of a fuckboi and two months was a very long time for someone like me. I had no idea where I was going to be, who I was going to be with, or what I was going to do even two days ahead of time. Happily, things worked out: we have been together for seven years, and married for six of that.

    a photo of a beautiful woman wearing a very distinctive top. the photo is black and white and shot on film

    Happy birthday to the love of my life!

    In 2018, she agreed to marry me, and move to San Francisco with me, sight unseen. She'd never even been to the United States at that point.

    The life we've built together here is wonderful and comfortable; exciting and engaging; fun and full of laughter. Here's to many more birthdays together.

  • The incredible story of my stolen Rivendell Road Standard

    This is a story about hopes and dreams.

    In 2022, I had the opportunity to buy a 1995 Rivendell Road Standard frame—that fit me!— and build it up. I decided to go all out. With the insurance money I got from having my previous gravel bike stolen, I put a plan together with Jay from Scenic Routes.

    the rivendell bike

    1995 Rivendell Road Standard taking me to taco trucks and beyond.

    Here was the build that we planned together:

    Part Model
    Handlebars randonneur 25.4 400mm
    Brake Levers Gran Compe 202 Non Aero Brake Levers, Drilled
    Downtube Shifters Dia-Compe ENE Down Tube Shifters
    Cranks Rene Herse Double Crank 46-30 - 171mm
    Pedals MKS Monarch
    front hub Velo Orange 32 hole silver
    rear hub Velo Orange 32 hole silver
    rims Velocity A32 32 hole polished
    spokes and calc spoke calc and spokes and nipples x 64
    brakes shimano 105
    cassette microshift 11-36
    tires 26″ x 1.25″ Elk Pass Tire
    cables two brake and 2 shifter
    front derailleur dura ace
    rear derailleur Shimano deore long cage
    chain 9 speed in stock

    After a few arduous months, it was finally done. I rode it, happily, for many months. I even went on a YouTube show with it.

    Then early last year, the bike—along with all the bikes in my building—disappeared. My Tesla-driving neighbor had apparently left the garage door wide open, which led to someone coming in and grabbing every bike within sight. I was inconsolable, of course.

    A few things gave me hope:

    A few friends who know a thing or two about used bikes told me they were certain the bike would find its way back to me some day, because my bike was so unique that it would be difficult for the thief to sell; and it would be difficult for anyone thinking about buying it to not know it was stolen.

    4 or 5 months passed, and I continued making sure my post about the bike was updated on Craigslist, Reddit and elsewhere.

    Randomly, I got a Reddit message from someone who said he had seen my bike at Laney Market in Oakland, and bought it. He told me that he worked in bike industry and that, when he saw it at the flea market, knew for sure it was stolen, so he decided he would try to find me. We met near a BART station and he returned the bike to me (I Venmo-ed him what he paid for it, and a bit more). I had also received a few calls from people who had spotted it at Laney Market, but by the time I made it out there I could not find it myself. I'm thankful to the community and to folks for looking out for this bike for me. I love it to bits.

    The bike was returned to me in a really good condition. It was almost as if no one had ridden it at all. Someone had tried to cover its distinctive lugs with ugly markers. That's mostly faded out on its own. I didn't need to do very much when I got the bike back, beyond the flat tires.

    I'm now determined to ride the hell out of this bike. Thank you, bicycle gods, for looking out for me!

  • Chobanicore

    Chobanicore: the style of natural, soft colors and airy composition in branding popularized by Chobani's 2017 rebrand is also known as 'paperback chic' and 'Chobanicore'.

  • Bikecamping in the Bay Area

    One of the things I love most about living in the Bay Area is the easy bikecamping we get 'round here.

    the blogger wearing outdoor clothes at a campsite

    Here are some of my usual rides and camps:

    Samuel P. Taylor State Park

    The very first place I went bikecamping. While you can and should make reservations, state park rangers are likely to find space for hikers and bikers without any.

    "You can camp among redwoods, bike along the creek, explore easy-to-moderate hiking trails, watch salmon spawn, relax in the shady picnic area, and learn the story of its namesake pioneer. When you’ve finished all that, more adventures await just next door at Point Reyes National Seashore." (from park website)

    State facilities here are very good: bring plenty of quarters for camp showers. Lots of water.

    Plenty of hiking opportunities as well: bring a lock, lock up your bike, and go on a walk.

    China Camp

    A very popular camp site near San Rafael. Tent camping in a fairly secluded area with 15 miles of trails. Bring quarters for showers. Definitely book, but they say they have two campsites for hikers and bikers. Firewood available for sale so cooking is relatively easy. Bring a wagon to ferry firewood if needed.

    the inside of a tent

    The ground here is 'hard pack' and I found it very difficult to pitch ultra-light tents (the kind you prop up with a hiking pole). I will bring a normal tent next time.

    Point Reyes

    The 'wildest' camping I did (until I did Yosemite in 2021): no water source, very basic facilities (just toilets, no shower; water from some spouts). But right by the ocean (at Wildcat campground).

    This is a much longer ride than the other two, so I would break it up unless you know you're a relatively strong rider.

    a bunch of tents on the ground

    If you haven't ridden long distance, or you're on an unfamiliar bike (like a rental), I would do shorter day trips across the Golden Gate Bridge and try to do 'credit card bike camping' first. These hills are no joke. If you're relatively confident and / or you're going with experienced bikecampers, then it's a super fun experience!

  • Waiting for dimsum

    Whenever I can, I make the 45 minute walk to Chinatown in San Francisco to Dim Sum Bistro, my favorite 'cheap dimsum' spot. Sometimes, I take photos too.

    I say this every chance I get: dimsum isn't always 'cheap' food. Dimsum can be fancy, and should be fancy, because to make large amounts of high quality dimsum you need a very large team. 'Nice dimsum' is a treat. It's a birthday meal, it's a treat you give your parents, it's going out to linger over nice tea and good ingredients to snack on dishes you probably won't make at home.

    Cheap dimsum also has a place. But it should still be fresh and of relatively high quality. The menu should be large and the 'skin' of dumplings shouldn't be too thick. On these metrics, many of the other Chinatown dimsum places don't pass muster for me. But Dim Sum Bistro always delivers. So I'm glad it's here, and I'm glad I can have good, cheap dimsum.

    a scan of a black and white photo of a machine in a dimsum shop that takes orders and payment. on the wall, menu pictures and items and a person leaning on the wall

    Dim Sum Bistro
    675 Broadway (Map)

    (Photo taken on Minolta Hi-Matic 7S II, Kodak T-Max 400, developed in Xtol stock for 12:15 min @ ISO 1600)

  • Spycraft and statecraft

    Spycraft and Statecraft: A new article in Foreign Affairs by William Burns, Director of the US CIA says "China remains the only U.S. rival with both the intent to reshape the international order and the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do so. The country’s economic transformation over the past five decades has been extraordinary. It is one for which the Chinese people deserve great credit and one that the rest of the world has broadly supported in the belief that a prosperous China is a global good. The issue is not China’s rise in itself but the threatening actions that increasingly accompany it. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has begun his third presidential term with more power than any of his predecessors since Mao Zedong. Rather than use that power to reinforce and revitalize the international system that enabled China’s transformation, Xi is seeking to rewrite it"

    Listening to your body: interoception, or our 'body's sixth sense' is a sense that many autistic people struggle with. I certainly do. But there is now a growing interest in what these signals actually mean, and how they work in the context of brain-body integration.

  • Fish eyes

    Lucas Sin shares how Cantonese chefs gauge water temp: shrimp eyes (80C), crab eyes (90C), fish eyes (99C about to go into a rolling boil). The video is also a good instructional resource on how to prepare and cook shrimp, especially Hangzhou style tea shrimp. Good recipe to come back to and try.

    Hennepin County, Minneapolis has reduced its chronically homeless population by 80% in just five years via a combination of funding, deep community engagement and a housing-first approach that’s matched with real housing resources. Besides cutting chronic homelessness, Hennepin County has also managed to reduce its unsheltered population by 22% since 2019, while the country’s totals moved in the opposite direction.

  • A Year of Creative Endeavors

    1. In 2023, I got to explore a whole year of creativity, namely in film photography, photographic darkroom printing, piano and saxophone-playing, and drawing
    2. Film photography felt like an old friend I was coming back to: I was already shooting film 20 years ago, but dropped off for the digital world
    3. In moving to San Francisco, I also found a community of film photography experts and enthusiasts around whom I could build a creative practice
    4. It's much easier to continue pursuing a hobby when there are events to attend, people to share, and spaces to go to for it
    5. I crossed off the vast majority of items on my learning wishlist for photography: I learned to bulk roll film, I learned to shoot medium format, I learned to develop film in all processes, I learned to scan film and also print (in a darkroom, and digitally)
    6. I'm now reasonably confident in all of those things, enough for me to be able to print photos for art shows
    7. Not sure where I want to go with the printing thing, but it came in handy when I also, in the last two months of the year, started teaching photography at a community space in my neighborhood
    8. I gave disposable film cameras to participants (who are either unhoused or who mostly live in the supportive housing in the area), who then went forth and took photos of their lives and experiences
    9. A local film lab helped us develop the negatives, and I printed out a selection of participants' photos for a small private art show at the community space. I am now working on documenting and showing some of this work online and will share it when I am ready!
    10. In developing a 'creative practice', I've come to see that the work I do in photography or in music (or even meditation) all have similar roots
    11. It's all about establishing a regular practice on something in my life where, maybe I won't ever be a professional, but it's something that I personally really enjoy and can learn from
    12. It's enough joy to be able to work on these hobbies that bring me peace and solitude
    13. When I sit in a completely dark darkroom, that's one of the only times I am away from a screen
    14. The hour or three that I spend in one helps me center my thoughts around creating something beautiful that can bring happiness to someone else (my wife, for example, really likes having prints so she can decorate our home with it. I also love giving prints to friends)
    15. Given that I stepped away from photography for a decade or so because I was burned out by the practice of commercial photography, which killed my love for it and which also made me uninterested in picking up a camera for a very long time, I'm very happy with... this, whatever this is!

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