28 January 2009

Year of the Ox(idential)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy New Year! 2009 (or 4707 on the Chinese calendar) is the Year of the Ox. One characterization describes Ox as patient people who speak little and inspire confidence in others. However, an Ox can be bigoted, eccentric and anger easily. Ox people are mentally and physically alert. They are easy-going, yet remarkably stubborn. In essence, Ox people just want to spend the day in a sunny meadow minding their own business and if someone or something interrupts, then they’ll get the horns. I read somewhere that President Obama is an Ox. James is a rabbit. I am a horse.

The Chinese Lunar New Year began on Monday, 26 January. I spent the week leading up to the big night researching and preparing. It was my first and I wanted to celebrate, as was the norm. I researched traditions, symbols, and customs that stretched back for centuries. One week wasn’t enough time to learn the details let alone prepare for the Reunion Feast on the 25th. That is the big night when families celebrate togetherness by eating a big dinner and exchanging Hung-Bao or red packets. I decided to stick with the basic decorations and food stuffs.

To guarantee a good year, according to tradition, I had to clean house, get a haircut, buy new clothes, and payback any money owed. I also had to buy decorations and food. James’ co-workers warned me that the city shuts down for days after the 25th, so food we was on the top of my list. It took a full day to scrub, sweep, and clean the apartment and patio. The haircut would have to wait until I found a salon or stylist specializing in westerner’s hair, but I planned to do it up for the Reunion Feast. I bought a new top. The only money I "owed" was a Verizon bill in dispute, but it had to wait until after the Lunar New Year. I finished the week by focusing on decking my halls with fu.

With checklist in hand, I set out to buy decorations and fruits. All around the city, I noticed business centers, hotel lobbies, and public spaces decorated in observance. The city was colorful and bright. When I entered Chinatown, I was completely blown away! Every square inch of every block in the district was festooned with banners, baubles, blinking lights and, of course, ornamental oxen. The streets were closed to vehicle traffic, but open for business. Red-tented stalls lined the sidewalks and people were busy moving from one booth to another gathering the necessary things to ensure wealth, abundance, and prosperity in the New Year.

Pagoda Street was a sea of red and gold, with a sprinkling of other colors. It was a dizzying display of candies, fruits, tschokies, souvenirs, costumes, and fireworks. The works! Music plinked over speakers tied to light posts and, just like the Ohio State Fair’s Lausche Building, there were booths featuring wonder products being sold by salesmen speaking into microphone headsets while giving live demonstrations. The more I walked the more I heard other hawkers selling their goods while talking into microphones - talking above the people in the streets and the music in the air. It all sounded like Dr. Seuss language: yekko, nizzards, sneedle for sale.

Chinatown was Tschoka Nirvana. However, it didn’t feel like heaven with the heat, humidity and hustle. Trying to fulfill the list would have been easy with all the choices, but I was too stunned by the action to hunt and peck for my New Year decorations and treats. I was pushed, elbowed, and even screamed at in one booth! I managed to purchase a fu and a paper pineapple, as well as a gold ox ornament with red tassel and a small rubber Mickey Mouse ornament with red tassel. The vendor chuckled when I asked him the symbolism of Mickey Mouse in the ancient Chinese New Year tradition. Feeling completely overwhelmed, I went home before I completed the list.

Sunday, 25 January, was the night of the Reunion Feast. We’d been looking forward to this night all week. James made reservation at our favorite restaurant, Scarlett, where the rooftop dining room overlooks Chinatown. It was the ideal place to ring in our first Lunar New Year and to celebrate James’ two-day break. We should have known something was wrong when the wait for the taxi after texting took nearly 20 minutes (it usually takes 3), but we just guessed that the city must be busy, like NYC on 31 January. We were wrong! The taxi driver laughed at us when we told him our destination. The town was dark and empty, like downtown Columbus on any given night. When we reached the restaurant it was closed – Chinatown and the surrounding area was closed. Ooops! James checked his Blackberry and remembered that the hostess said they were closed on Sunday. He made reservations for Monday instead. We shared a laugh with our driver and toured the city looking for an open restaurant. The driver made clear that the Reunion Fest is a night to be with family. That explained why all businesses, buildings, and bars were closed. He suggested we return to Chinatown around midnight when people enter the streets cheering and lighting firecrackers.

After about 15 minutes, we found a neon shamrock burning bright at the Dubliner pub. An Irish pub doesn’t look anything like a Chinese restaurant. Fish-and-chips don’t taste like dumplings and a pint beer doesn’t sip like a glass of champagne. Yet, that didn’t stop us from celebrating with Chinese spirit. We toasted our good fortune of finding an open restaurant, the wealth of laughter, and our blossoming life in Singapore.

19 January 2009

TV Censorship: Eat What's On Your Plate

James is the guest writer for this week's post.

Sunday night at home. Madeline and I were watching a bit of TV on Starhub, Singapore’s cable network. Halfway through Snatch, Guy Ritchie’s tribute to profanity, tongue-in-cheek violence, and the lighter side of England’s ethnic stereotypes, I began to wonder whether I had suddenly become oblivious to “strong” language in film. Our first time watching Snatch was in NY around the time of the movie’s release. Regardless of which character was speaking, the word “Fuck” was, as per memory, prominently featured in any dialogue. The adjective was so prevalent that it was almost a character unto itself. But this time, here in Singapore, “Fuck” had been written out of the script. And with the Fuck character dead on the censor’s floor so too had died other large portions of dialogue. I began to wonder who has such power to cut and omit? Who can so dramatically alter a film and make it decisively less dramatic? Was it an “it”, a “they”, a “he”, or a “she”?

Doing a small bit of simple investigation I came across several articles on the subject. I was hoping that the censorship was a self-imposed effort by Starhub, or some other commercial vehicle, concerned about public perception of its own product. At least this would allow for some wiggle room - for free market artistic interests to emerge. But the reality is that the effort is managed by a central committee, the MDA, or Media Development Authority, which is located in the brightly colored Old Hill Street Police Station. Having been created in 2004, ironically their mandate makes what we consume less colorful. And equally ironic is the fact that they produced a rap song to help clarify their mission and which is available on youtube. Appropriately, it’s a bit bland and short of the mark, but it's a must-see just the same:

While unsurprising, the fact that all media is controlled by a central committee is a bit numbing. Yet in reality the appearance of predictable guidelines on artistic expression was a welcomed change by local artists. Until that point the capricious nature and “heavy handedness” of the government in maintaining a lock on media outlets made it a constant struggle to determine just how far was “too far”. And with a process in place local theaters and film producers now had an outlet for appeals.

But these changes do not restrain the MDA in its oversight of foreign films coming into Singapore. Until then, we must make peace with the possibility, and the probability, that any film presented by a media outlet, especially TV, has been significantly altered by the government authority. While I’m thankful Singaporeans are not told what to watch, it makes it a bit more difficult to watch what they watch.

13 January 2009

A War Welcome

For Christmas, James and I gave ourselves a New Year Eve’s weekend celebration in Hanoi, Vietnam . Hanoi is an attention-grabbing, delicious city full of action, architecture, coffee, and cha ca.

The city is almost in conflict with itself. Architectural forces clash – stately French colonial buildings next to narrow Vietnamese tube houses next to austere Soviet structures next to ancient pagodas. Motorbikes rule the roads, easily outnumbering automobiles 50 to 1. They battle each other, cars, and trucks for riding space. Vendors, makeshift cafes, and parked motorbikes on the sidewalks force pedestrians into the right-of-way fray in the streets. The traffic is honking and beeping and moving through directionless, unmarked avenues and through it all, tourists, pedestrians four wheels and two wheels, walk these Vietnamese women wearing pointed, cone-shaped hats and carrying baskets on a long pole balanced over their shoulders. Whether on the sidewalk or in the streets, all movement seems to pause for these women carrying on with tradition.

We rang in the New Year at the grand Metropole Hotel where Charlie Chaplin honeymooned with Paulette Goddard. It is also where Jane Fonda gave her protest speech during the Vietnam War - only blocks from the infamous Maison Centrale prison, a.k.a. Hanoi Hilton where John McCain spent his years as a POW.

I think it would be difficult for any American to visit Hanoi without thinking of war. Even though the city has historic treasures, including the Opera House, Quan Su Pagoda, and the Temple of Literature, the War Museum fascinated us the most.

Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors,” so we wanted to know American’s place in Vietnam’s history. At the War Museum, it came to no surprise that America was Goliath to Vietnam’s David, but it was provocative nonetheless. Tanks, aircraft, and bombs were on display along side American servicemen’s uniforms and kit like trophies in a high school hall of honor. James felt it was an interactive museum, which not only allowed visitors to see and read about the war, but to participate in its victory. A group of young Vietnamese boys in military uniform did just that. They jumped on top the American tanks and planes smiling, shouting, and posing while taking each other’s pictures. It was jaw dropping to witness these boys celebrating their nation’s pride and freedom while I was mourning our nation’s death and destruction.

More important than being on the winning side of history is the lessons learned from war. And what lessons do we learn from war? Statistics. Both sides die in war. Both sides keep score. While you read some counts of the Vietnam War, click on the link below and listen to a number by Paul Hardcastle, “19”


9, 087,000 military personnel served on active duty during the war (5 August 1964 – 28 March 1973)
2, 594, personnel served within the boarders of South Vietnam (1 January 1965 – 28 March 1973)
Of the 2 .6 million, between 1 to 1.6 million either fought in combat, provided combat support or were at least fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack.
Peak troop strength in VN was 543, 482 on 30 Apr. 69
Hostile Deaths: 47,359
Non-hostile deaths: 10, 797
Wounded in action: 303,704
Severely disabled: 75,000
Missing in Action: 2,338
Prisoner Of War: 766, 114 died in captivity

From 1965 – 1972, America released 5,382,000 tons of bombs, inflicting 200,000 casualties (80,000 deaths) and 70,000 orphans.
From 1965 – 1970, America spread 76 million liters of dioxin into 607,500 hectares of forest and 89, 500 hectares of cultivated land of South Vietnam.
Serious consequences have resulted from the war in Vietnam: about 2,000,000 disabled, 2,000, 000 dioxin-affected, 500,000 children deformed, and more than 300,000 missing.

In America, we view war differently. We have official statistics, but we don’t have an official War Museum. We honor soldiers of a particular war, rather than pay tribute to war. Like other nations, though, we have not learned to keep from entering war and it doesn’t look like war will end anytime soon. South Korea exported $1 billion worth of arms in 2008 and hopes to sell $3 billion worth by 2012. South Korea’s main customers are Middle Eastern states and the US. The US has a free trade pact with S. Korea pending legislation. China & Russia just installed a military hotline so the two armies can chat freely.

04 January 2009

The Name Game

Organ Pies. Aping Sore. Aegis Porn.
Hmmm. What do I name my blog? Using my Scrabble tiles I thought I could create the perfect name by creating an anagram for Singapore, the city I’m living in for the next few years.

When no matches were found, I swapped tiles to create an anagram for my name, Madeline Rae.
I Neared Lame. Alien Read Me. Deem Anal Ire.

Naming a blog using a sentence is a good idea, but again, no anagram reflected what it is I plan to write. So, the thought process continued. Instead of a board game I switched to a parlor game.

Porn name?
Putsey Stanwood

Soap opera name?
Babe Spencer

DJ/Rap Name?
Maddy Mad

Drag Queen Name?
Rae Markable

And then it hit me!

And like that I not only created a blog name, but I created its basis. With my blog I plan to remark on my life in Singapore and my travels through out Southeast Asia. I intend to write about history, events and newsmakers in the region. After all, a personal blog, in its most basic form, is a collection of observations about people, places and things…and the opinions that follow.