All posts in 2024
  • You Asians Have Two Stomachs

    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


    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

    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.

  • There Is Always Chicken Curry at Funerals

    Last Rites

    Living in Singapore is not easy, one can quickly see. Could it be that we tire quickly from our programming — the PSLE, the Os, the As, the university, the serving the nation, the feeding your family and all these things? Or is it that we pack the rush hour morning and evening trains daily, increasingly unable to recognize our neighbours or the languages they speak?

    If you thought the living was uneasy, just you wait and see.

    Being dead in Singapore doesn’t seem particularly different.

    As if being alive and drawing air here didn’t already call for us to live packed closely together in high-rise public housing, since we lack “space” in the corporeal sense, not two hours after you’re gone your family members will be making plans to pack you into spiritual equivalent of the flats you’ve lived in all your life, as I found out last week.

    – “Ah Gong will be living in Block 206 ok? Any objections?”

    – “What level?”

    – “Level 6.” (No lifts or floors with lift landings here, I’m afraid.)

    – “Unit 281.”

    And on and on it goes, debating the merits and the cons of the block (C, D, or A?), level and unit, direction it faces (“sea- or ‘mountain’- facing?”), until somebody, i.e me, goes, “Explain to me what the difference is between Ah Gong ‘living’ there and in another block, level or unit?”

    – “$200. The uncle say ah, if you want to choose the unit, must pay.”

    Turns out it wasn’t just $200 that made all the difference. The Chinese/ atheist/ Buddhist/ Taoist dead (categories which tended to overlap with each other) got the lower floor. The Christians — who tended to be Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian — were upstairs. Upstairs seemed to get a bit more air, a bit more sunlight, and didn’t heat up too much at mid-day, unlike at the other blocks I’d been to. Not that it mattered to Ah Gong. Ah Gong survived poverty and hunger in his childhood in China, a cleaver-attack on his head in mid-life, and a smart alec grand-child in his late years… he’d adapt.

    – “Sorry, if you want to put him in a Christian block, you need to show a baptism certificate for him or for an immediate family member.” Unbelievable — racial/religious quotas… for the dead? Turns out the Christian lots are in such high demand, like our schools, that everyone, even non-Christians, wanted to be there.

    Keeping your urn in a randomly assigned spot: no extra charge

    Wanting your urn to be in a specific spot: $200

    Pre-booking your urn spot next to your loved one: $1500, depending on religion, site, and race

    – “Better not to pre-book lah! Sekali here also kena enbloc then how?”

    – “Then die lor. Oh budden die orreadi hor.”

    It read like there was a statutory board (with an appropriate death-related acronym) administering this thing.

    The funeral director was a man named Fred who, like all and sundry who call our sunny shores ‘home’ these days, was foreign talent. He worked long hours, spoke perfect English, left the Chinese dialects to the middle-aged Chinese men he hired, and unlike these middle-aged Chinese men, seemed to genuinely care.

    He, and everyone involved in this, was so efficient that within 3 hours of Ah Gong’s passing at the hospital, he was returned to us at home — embalmed, coffin-ed, dressed, ready to go. Ready to lie down for a few days while people sat around pretending to look at him, eating peanuts, collecting money. Even the cartons of Yeo’s packet drinks, in winter melon, chrysanthemum and lemon barley flavours, had been bought.

    Because our estate is currently in the throes of HIP (Home Improvement Programme), having recently undergone HUP (Home Upgrading Programme), there was no space at our void deck for the wake. So at 10 am, all of us lined up at the opposite block, uniformly dressed in our funeral whites. The tentage had been up for hours, the chairs and tables had been put out, as had their corresponding plastic sheets and peanuts.

    Some dramatic music sounded from the back of the hearse, out of its improvised 2.1 system (speaker+flower+coffin).

    We lined up to welcome Ah Gong home. Except that in this homecoming version, he wasn’t breathing. And he was in a shirt and tie, which convinced me something had REALLY gone wrong this time.

    The shit hit the fan several times, but he always came home in his white singlet — the only thing he bothered to wear, in all the 24 years I’ve known him. He only wore a suit once in his life: at his wedding, or rather, when his wedding portrait was taken. Even at my brother’s wedding he compromised only slightly by wearing some kind of short-sleeved shirt over his singlet (unbuttoned so his Flying Goose brand singlet was unmistakable). I never thought I’d see him in a tie.

    I never thought I’d see him dead.

    I never thought that behind the white tents of the void deck, the ones I’ve walked past often in all my years living in a HDB flat, would lie someone I knew, someone I loved.

    I never thought I’d be, three days later after the fact, walking glumly and sullenly through the carpark not because I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t want to go to school, but because my uncle was carrying a large photo of the man I’ve come home (and left home) greeting every single day of my life: ah gong ah ma wa tyng lai leoh! That we’d walk lock-step to the hearse, that I would find myself making a mental note to remember to tell my children to pick a non-peak hour when I “chuk sua” — the impatient Singaporean drivers would really annoy me even when I’m dead, honking the way they do in trying to overtake a coffin while people are crying behind it.

    It only seemed right to share with the world what the recently deceased were known for. In writing his eulogy, I hopped about with a notepad and a pen tucked above my ear, asking all my cousins: “what did Ah Gong always say to you?”

    Da Jie said, “si sua ta!” (“Anyhow say!”)

    Er jie said, “sark suk!” (“Silly!”)

    My brother, his favourite grand-child, said, “Dua cha.” (“Big blockhead”.. which was his nickname)

    To my other cousins who spoke Mandarin instead of Teochew, he took great pains to translate his terms of affection. “Ben ben!” (“Stupid stupid!” in Mandarin) “You mei you mai liu lian?” (“Did you buy durian?”)

    So I wrote him a eulogy and I got to say si sua ta, sark suk, dua cha and liu lian all at the same time.

    I stood before the crowd and I introduced myself. I cried instantly.

    I tried to say my Teochew name for the first time in my life (vastly different from my English name and my Mandarin name), but I could not: Ah Gong had sabo-ed me, again! The only time I ever heard my name being said in Teochew was when he talked about having named me. He always said it in a way which rhymed with the hour. jit tiang, nor tiang, sa tiang! So I stood there and introduced myself as li- ‘hour’. People in the audience laughed loudly and my uncle, who reminds me most of Ah Gong, called out: and your name is also two o’clock and three o’clock! And si- tiang too!

    Ah Gong, ni you pian wo! His eulogy was delivered, not entirely flawlessly, in Teochew by me and in English by my brother. I wrote an essay in Teochew called “Torchlights and Alarm Clocks”. I talked about how it’s going to be weird not having him tie pink ribbons to my backpacks so I can see them come out of the baggage carousel, how he’d write my Chinese name on everything I owned, even the cool ones; my brother and I both said growing up with him was about having a torchlight shone on your face at 3 am every night, just so he knew we were there. I cried a lot. I laughed a lot. He was a silly, funny man and he made us all laugh. We said in heaven he’s cursing all day on sweet potatoes (his only bad words were Teochew vulgarities about stuffing your mouth with a sweet potato, and something about your mother’s eggs). I think in heaven Ah Gong is back in his singlet, shaking his leg like the China-man he is, with Bruno his favourite dog. And his alarm clocks are going off all at the same time, and his torchlights never need their batteries replaced.

    ah gong wa tyng lai, lv zu kee loh.

    I never got to say goodbye.

    I miss you so damn much.

  • Ah Gong and I

    Let’s just say I don’t do death.

    I’ve never had to deal with it, never thought about it, possibly because I never had a pet, and never had family or friends who’d passed on or contracted anything major. People lived, in my family, and lived quite long.

    Especially my grandma and grandpa, who seemed to just go on and on. If that’s a skewed perspective of old age that might be because I have seen them go on everyday from the moment I was born: they have lived with us forever.

    Ah Gong was always in the next room. He never laughed; he sniggered, he chuckled slyly, he was grumpy as hell — in the most endearing way possible. He was a traditional Chinese man — born in China in 1930, adopted then brought to Malaysia, saw his adopted father beaten to death by Japanese soldiers during the war — who, for most intents and purposes, kept his feelings (and thoughts) to himself, avoiding actions or words of affection like the plague, but was the sort of man you warmed to anyway.

    I like to think he waited for me long enough, given how well-timed the whole incident was — he only fell drastically sick when I was due to return, and I at least managed a week or so with him, despite his sedate state, despite how he was barely there at all. I had expected my trip to the Middle East and London this last time to be like any other — I’d be back, he’d pretend he barely cared, but he’d get quite quickly to the only way he seems to know how to show any love: verbal-sparring with me in our secret language, Teochew.

    Instead, I got back this time and found the house strangely empty. No Ah Gong pottering about finding things to amuse himself, no Ah Gong waking me up with 8 alarm clocks and 1 mobile phone call, no Ah Gong to play hide and seek with when it came to the subject of how cigarettes mysteriously appear in my bag all the time, in increasingly strange (or secret) compartments or methods of concealment. He always found them, he always out-talked me, he was always right, he figured out stuff quicker than I could think, and he laughed and smirked because he liked being right much more than the fact that I was doing what I shouldn’t. In his last days Ah Gong sat mostly on his wheelchair, his mind still sharp and observant, and his temperament still endearingly grumpy.

    But life and love doesn’t go on and on, I’ve come to find the hard way, and as he lies there I can imagine him saying: every single time you go abroad you buy me a clock, and the one time you haven’t I’ve really gone.

    In Mandarin to “gift a clock” can also mean to send someone off at their funeral. It’s thus taboo to give your elders time-keeping devices of any sort. But we had a special relationship based on the two great loves of his life: torchlights and alarm clocks. He never said I love you, or I care about you, but when he did, he gave you a torch. Or two.

  • And All The Roads That Lead You There Were Winding

    I came to the Middle East to do just one thing: see a part of the world that I felt I needed to learn more about. Its language was alien, but familiar – many Malay and Hindi words have roots in Arabic. Its customs and food strange, but not dissimilar – much of the Indian subcontinent that I love and call home was influenced, for the better and the worse, by centuries of Mughal rule. Dubai and Singapore had many things in common, and then not at all.

    My months through the region are coming to an end. As I travelled through Dubai I fell hard for the United Arab Emirates, but not for its most famous, brashest city. I loved Abu Dhabi and I loved Al Ain. I loved the weekend drives into the desert, and camping trips to Oman. I discovered the lengths people will go to for bootleg alcohol, when liquor licenses and hotel drinking start to dry up (driving to Ajman to get bootleg supplies etc).

    And as I embarked on my quest to see the real middle east, after giving up on Dubai – I was in for a treat. Yemen, bombs and all, shook me; it was like nothing I had seen before. Then my ambitious overland journey, beginning with Beirut. That’s now drawing to an end.

    The last month or so that i’ve been properly on the road, I’ve navigated my way around Lebanon through Syria through Turkey, without once knowing how to drive a car. I’ve met ridiculously awesome people. I’ve had countless cups of tea with strangers. I’ve seen some sights.

    And the sights I’ve seen, I’m amazed by the opportunity – and good luck I’ve had in seeing some of these wonders. From a castle built by one man, still alive, in Beiteddine, to the phenomenal Kraks des Chevaliers in Syria (the embodiment of all childhood castle jousting fantasies, says Theroux, and he’s right – again). The ancient cities of Damascus and Sana’a. The friends I’ve made all through Beirut, Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo, Antalya, Cappadocia and Istanbul.

    The long bus rides. I left Damascus last week and 36 hours later arrived in Antalya, but not before being stranded in Adana with too many Syrian pounds but no Turkish lira – and no money changer or warm clothes in the freezing cold of an eastern Turkish morning.

    Done with my last bus ride (12 hours from Goreme to Istanbul), I now sleepwalk through Taksim Square at 7 in the morning, pleased to be back to one of my favourite cities in the world. One that makes me thankful for the beautiful people I call my friends, who last shared this city with me

    But journeys never end, only their chapters do. It strikes me now that for all my complaints and grievances about the middle east, this region is truly special and needs to be seen to be understood. And I’m glad I had the chance to see it while I could.

    If I could do it again, I would do a few weeks in Iran. But that will have to wait.

    For now, long Turkish bus rides and what’s left of my Istanbul days – one filled with lots of ‘midye dolma’, wet hamburgers, fish sandwiches, Bosphorous views and raki when the sun goes down, I’m sure.

    Then London. Then moving into my new pad in Kuala Lumpur. Then a new chapter in life, love, and adulthood. I think I have airtickets booked or planned for every month from now through January, though, so the adventure doesn’t end – it’ll be the last of the middle east and Europe for some time, but more awaits.

    Time to finish breakfast, put on my heavy backpack, and walk the last 1km to my hostel. It shall be the last hostel in awhile – I’m not giving up backpacking, I’m just… Upgrading. Life, travel, trading in my hobo life for the chance of getting to own things beyond my baggage allowance for the first time in a while.

    I’m happy.

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