25 November 2010

Speak Easy

Thanks, President Lincoln, for designating national Thanksgiving Day. In 1863, America stood divided by the Civil War, yet the Honest One created a day of unity. Of course its meaning didn’t keep the Acton house free from family arguments in between mouthfuls of turkey and fixin’s. Now that I have dinners of my own with friends, I actually miss a few raised voices during the feast. In honor of the delicious and loquacious Thanksgiving dinners of my youth, I visited Singapore’s “free speech area,” Speakers’ Corner.

I set out for Speakers’ Corner on a typical Singapore day. It was high noon. The sun was blazing and the air still. Hong Lim Park was just a five minute walk from the subway stop, but by the time I arrived I glistened with sweat as if I’d been running for five miles. The park is steeped in history. It was the epicenter of public gatherings and political speeches during Singapore’s fight for independence from Malaysia during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 2000 it was chosen as the site for Speakers’ Corner.

The leader of Singapore’s breakaway movement was Lee Kuan Yew. I bet Mr. Lee, the island nation’s founding father, 1st Prime Minister, and current Minister Mentor, staged political rallies and gave countless number of speeches in Hong Lim Park on his way to a remarkable victory of independence. Given its history, it was appropriate to make the park the venue for Speakers’ Corner. It may be the selected spot for free speech, but it comes with an extensive list of rules and regulations.

I expected to find a corner of the park with a podium or designated space. I pictured a fountain and a grassy area shaded by trees with an abundance of colorful flowers. Instead, I saw a police station next to a wooden sign marked “Speaker’s Corner” with a CCTV camera mounted alongside. Trees lined the parameter of the park, but provided no shade for the grassy patch in the center. Singaporeans were required to obtain permission at the police station to use Speakers’ Corner, but now the process is online through the parks department. Other policies involving the free-speaking zone aren’t as straight forward.

The freedom to assemble and freedom of speech is assured in the Constitution of Singapore. However, Parliament has the right to restrict it in order to protect the city-state’s security, to prevent incitement to criminal offense, and to keep public order. It is illegal for 5 or more people to gather without a permit.

I was just one person, so no worries. There I stood beside the Speakers’ Corner sign under a watchful mechanical eye. I wanted to feel the passion of a cause or be moved to inspirational words; however, I’m just a guest in a foreign land. What could I possibly say to Singapore as a tribute to my childhood Thanksgivings in Ohio? All I had in mind was my favorite American anthem, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” In a normal speaking voice, I recited the words of the first stanza to an empty park. I’d like to say that it felt good or that it empowered me, but all it did was make me feel downright creepy. Strolling around the park taking pictures and walking back to the subway I convinced myself that whoever watched me on the CCTV monitor was tailing me.

That night, while drinking a cocktail, I had a big laugh at myself. Throughout the day I had worked my paranoia into a WWII Nazi-occupied scenario where I was sure I’d hear a midnight knock on the door. I saw myself speaking like Peter Lorre in Casablanca imploring, “Save me!” as Major Strasser had me dragged away. With high spirits and ease of mind, I started to outline this entry. I looked through my pictures and gasped when I read Speakers’ Corner Rule 6: The speaker must be a citizen of Singapore.

My goose is cooked. Happy Thanksgiving!

Update: Last Thanksgiving I wrote about my search for a turkey baster in Singapore. My sister, Valerie, came to the rescue! Thanks, Val.

21 September 2010

Locked Up A Broad

A couple stood side-by-side as their cigarettes were counted one-by-one. Their shirts were wet with sweat and sticking to their backs. A woman with a shiny face sat on a folding chair nervously watching while clutching her bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The air-conditioning must have been broken because I was perspiring, too. My heart had been pounding since I heard the three words that stop hearts while crossing international borders, “Come with me.”

It was just a simple getaway to Malaysia. We booked a weekend at a no-nonsense resort on an island in the South China Sea – about a three hour drive and thirty minute ferry from Singapore. J & I each packed a small duffel bag for the three day stay in a rustic hut on a white sandy beach facing the clear blue sea . Along with my bikini, sarong, sundress and sunscreen, I packed travel Scrabble and a bottle of wine. We enjoyed a weekend of sun, surf and sand then repacked our gear and headed back to reality. Simple enough until I discovered that my bag was legal one way yet considered contraband the other.

Crossing the Malaysian/Singapore border is a drag. Both sides do not make it easy. Everyone must disembark their vehicles and go through immigration on the departure side. Then drive about a minute to the arrival country, disembark and go through immigration again. Malaysia's customs isn’t as taxing as Singapore’s. In the fine city- state dutiable goods include alcohol, tobacco, and motor spirit (whatever that is). It is prohibited to import cigarette lighters, chewing tobacco and treasonable materials.

So there I was, shuffling along in the line of long faced people waiting for my turn to pass under the security detector. Beeeep! A customs official asked me, “Is this your bag? Show me your passport.” I said yes and opened the bag. He looked inside and took my passport. I followed him behind a door marked "Customs and Immigration".

The room was small and windowless. A young female in uniform sat behind a table counting cigarettes. J & I sat down on the two chairs next to the table and across the room from the woman with the KFC. My eyes kept drifting to the barred cell in the corner. After minutes that felt like hours a man in his mid-sixties wearing a disheveled uniform but looking cool and in control appeared from behind another closed door and motioned me inside. The bathroom-sized anteroom had two walls of CTV monitors and another with a one-way mirror looking out to the people passing through immigration. An enormous Asian man with his back to me sat watching the screens. A desk was in the middle. My “interrogator” pulled a chair out for me. I removed my hat and sat down. The old agent held my passport and said, “You have committed a major crime by trying to smuggle a bottle of wine into the country.”

Please let me explain. I live in Singapore. I bought the bottle in Singapore, took it with me to Malaysia. I didn’t drink it so I returned with it.
It is unlawful. Didn’t you read the signs?
No, I didn’t pay attention. I bought the bottle in Singapore.
How did you pack it?
It’s just a small duffel bag.
Bring it in.

He inspects the bag and contents, having me open travel Scrabble. Then he asks me to pack it exactly how it was with the bottle of wine. He turns the bottle round and round while he continues questioning me.

Did you know smuggling a bottle of wine is punishable by a fine and additional duty?
I wasn’t trying to hide it – it was right on top.
Do you have a receipt for the bottle?
No. All I have is S$50, my passport and green card.
How are you going to prove that this bottle was purchased in Singapore?
I do not know.

How was I going to prove it? The old agent was sternly staring at me seeming to enjoy the tension of the silence. The bottle of wine was in his hands. I was wide-eyed searching my brain for a solution. Then I spotted it. Little tax stamps are found on all dutiable goods in Singapore. My proof was the bottle! The old agent accepted the evidence and said, “I won’t charge you a fine, but I will have to charge you a tax. How much did it cost?” I quickly replied $20. The big agent pounded some figures in a computer, turned to me and told me I owed S$8. I handed them the cash and they printed me a receipt.

I repacked the bottle of wine in my duffel bag and walked back to where J was sitting. The female agent completed her count of cigarettes and was now counting chicken nuggets.

22 July 2010

Bare Arms

During our summer leave from Singapore, J and I made use of an American right that would bring us a punishment in our adopted city-state of not less than 5 years imprisonment coupled with at least 6 cane strokes.

It happened when we were in Garrison. Vermin live throughout our property, but the snakes, hawks, foxes, and coyotes naturally keep their numbers low. We do not interfere with the circle of life. However, when we discovered a colony of chipmunks destroying our front lawn we couldn't wait to let nature take its course. Their underground city was the size of Atlantis! We had to take matters into our own hands. J's solution: a .22.

Exercising our 2nd Amendment right to keep and bare arms, we set out to buy a rifle. We headed straight for the nation’s largest seller of firearms, Wal-Mart. To our surprise (and fright), all the guns were sold out! We then drove around aimlessly through the small towns of Putnam County to find a proper gun store, but we couldn’t find our target. We were forced to change tactic. We had to make inquiries, but where? It’s not as if one can simply roll down a car window and ask a passerby the whereabouts of the nearest gun store like it's a 7-Eleven. How awkward to pull up to a gas station and say, “Excuse me, but where can I buy a gun?” Do we query a tattoo parlor? Pool hall? A group of boys hanging in the park?

Bullseye! A Hardware Store!

Nestled between an edible florist and a pet store stood the gun and bait shop. As we walked in, a man was finalizing the purchase of an assault rifle that looked as if it could stop a charging elephant. On the walls leading up to the counter I spotted a handful of hooks and one rod and reel amid firearm accessories, such as jackets, holsters and scopes. The wall behind the counter was loaded with .22s and other weapons whose numbers I didn’t know. A man hanging out in the store as if it were a clubhouse bragged to me about owning 50 guns, including a pink pistol. When I asked him why he owns so many guns he replied, “Because they come in different colors.” Right.

After J made his choice, the salesman took his expired NY driver's license and Singapore driver's license and called the FBI for an on-the-spot background check. Just like that, our classic Belgium-made Browning joined the over 300+ million guns owned in America.

Next entry: I Was an Expat-NRA Wife.

14 June 2010

The Yanks Are Coming! The Yanks Are Coming!

2:30a.m. Sunday morning in Singapore I watched the US-UK World Cup football match at Muddy Murphy’s. Thankfully a friend of James’ reserved a table because when we arrived, the joint was jumpin’ like the Varsity Club after a Buckeye victory. The "Irish" pub was full of face-painted UK fans standing and singing shoulder-to-shoulder. Their brotherhood of country is something to behold and it didn’t take me long to get into the spirit.

The camaraderie was infectious and I was inebriated. Americans were outmatched on the pitch and at the pub. Even the non-Brits favored the Triple Lions over the Yanks, but that didn’t keep me in hiding. When the bar erupted singing God Save the Queen I fancied myself Victor Laszlo in Casablanca and stood and sang My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. I wish I could write that I inspired the dozen or so American fans to join me in drowning out the enemy, but all I accomplished was a collective scooching of chairs a little further away from me.

When UK scored "the fastest goal in the World Cup," I lost a bit of my pluck and quietly sat sipping my pint. To me, the game was like watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie: suspenseful. As long as the clock was running, so were the players. Anyone could score at any time. The announcers were good. They didn’t constantly talk over the action; rather they voiced their observations then sat a spell to allow viewers to watch. Behind all the dialogue was the soundtrack of 50,000+ stadium fans humming like a swarm of bees. It was the rhythm section of the pub singers. It’s what had me singing, once again, when America scored its goal.

On my feet with the other cheering Americans, I belted out the chorus from George M. Cohan’s Over There. It just hit me that we are Yanks and we are off to war. I became flooded with national pride thinking about Yankee Doodle Dandy, the millions of Americans watching the goal on a Saturday afternoon while I was watching it on a Sunday morning, and our brothers in arms watching it in their time zone (probably with a bunch of Brits, too).

I’ve got the fever and the only prescription is patriotic song. Have pride, America, and ditch the monotonous and uninspiring U*S*A chant for the following:

Over There, Over There
Send the word, send the word,
Over There
That the Yanks are coming,
The Yanks are coming,
The drums rum tumming everywhere
So prepare,
Say a Prayer
Send the word,
Send the word to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over.

And we won't be back till it's over over there!

22 April 2010

It's A Wrap

If a building falls in Irving and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? We’ll never know because Texans paid $25 a carload to watch a stadium crumble from a ton of dynamite. They paid money to suck in a mushroom cloud of ash, dirt and, I assume, asbestos. Big Wow.

In Singapore structures go up and come down on a regular basis. The average lifespan of an apartment building is seven years. Some say it is because the weather makes them unstable. Others believe the constant rise and fall is in an effort to provide jobs. No matter the reason, the demolition is a mind-blowing art form.

First, the construction crew wraps the structure. Christo could probably learn a thing or two from their performance. Scaffolding rises up and then a mesh canvas is stretched over one storey at a time. The covering may not keep the noise down, but it keeps the dust from rising up and settling on the neighborhood homes and in the neighbor’s lungs.

Once wrapped, the heavy equipment arrives. Cranes pluck backhoes from flatbeds and hoist them to the top of the building. When I watched the process, the entire street stood still. Construction workers from a nearby site stopped what they were doing and took turns taking their picture in front of the action. The slightest blow of wind would swing the dangling 2-ton backhoe as it hung over the 20-storey building...and us!

Systematically the levels disappear. Dump trucks haul the concrete, rebar and other building bits from the site. Before the trucks leave the work zone, two guys stand on either side and hose it off. The load is properly tied down and washed. Then one day the building vanishes.

The deconstruction took several months. I snapped the pictures on my phone for fun – a before and after for my personal memory of life in Singapore. However, when Texas Stadium made international news, I knew I had to share the dynamite process of demolition in Singapore. And people get to watch it for free.

23 March 2010

Law & Disorder

My apartment complex was the site of big news in Singapore. On 3 March, a helper fell to her death from one of the apartment towers at Draycott 8. Here is the story as reported by The Straits Times:

Mar 3, 2010
Maid Attacks Bosses, Jumps
A FILIPINO maid hit the head of her employer's wife with a clothes iron, then grabbed eight knives from the kitchen, cut her employers in a frenzied tussle, before plunging eight floors to her death.

This shocking tragedy happened on Saturday morning at Draycott 8, an upscale condominium on Draycott Park, off Scotts Road.

The 30-year-old maid had been working for a 47-year-old Caucasian and his 45-year-old Japanese wife for just a few months, according to Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao.

Wanbao said on the day of the incident, the maid seemed extremely agitated and suddenly attacked the boss' wife with the iron, causing her to bleed profusely.

Shocked by the maid's sudden display of violence, the couple tried to question her but before they could do it, the maid grabbed eight knives from the kitchen, and waved them by a window at the balcony, weeping and creating a din.

When coaxed by her employers to calm down, the maid turned on them instead, and stabbed them as they tried to bring her to safety. Moments later, she jumped off from the window as the shocked couple watched in horror. She died on the spot.

The couple was admitted to a hospital for treatment for minor injuries, and have since been discharged.

As an American, I am accustomed to reading detailed news stories. Having lived in New York before moving to Singapore, I had the luxury of choosing between three newspapers reporting on the day’s events: The New York Times, the Daily News, and the New York Post. No two articles were ever alike. Plus, I had the added bonus of the Post’s witty headlines, for example "HO NO!" for the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal. No doubt the Post writers would have hit a new low creating a headline for the tragic death, but this is a one-source town so there is no need to be sensational.

The expat community, the blog-o-sphere, and the foreign helpers have all jumped to conclusions about this Filipino woman’s death. Web postings and blogs reported on the death word-for-word as written in the article. (The Chinese newspaper is owned by The Straits Times.) My friends and friends of friends called and texted me to give their helper’s version: a seasoned pro putting her boy through school working for a tyrannical woman would not snap, would not jump. She was provoked, she was pushed. A cafĂ© society blog wrote, “…employer had affair with maid, wife confronts the 2 of them, husband defends maid, wife picks up knife to attack husband, cuts herself in the process. Maid tries to help by throwing iron at wife, husband comes to his senses and throws maid off the building. Couple makes up story. The end.” A forum of Singapore residents wrote that this was a good example of why "it is better to hire Vietnamese helpers than Filipinos."

What really happened? I don’t know. They are my neighbors, yet I don’t know their names. The manager says, “We ask you and your helpers not to talk about it.” The doormen say, “These things happen.” No reporters hanging outside my gate for the inside scoop and no follow-up features. The story is, dare I say, dead.

08 March 2010

A Story of O

Why Oscar? From what I learned, there are several versions of naming the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award statuette Oscar. Officially, it is called the Academy Award of Merit. A bit stuffy for Hollywood, no wonder a nickname was created. One theory gives the Oscar-naming honors to Bette Davis who, in 1935, likened the statuette to her husband. Legend also says that in 1939 an Academy librarian, Margaret Herrick, thought the sketch of the award looked like her Uncle Oscar. A favorite explanation, and the one on most blogs and online sites, is that the name was taken from an old vaudeville joke, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” I do not know what that means, but up in smoke comes to mind (a reference to a joke or an act bombing?). Up in smoke. To come to nothing.

I wonder if Bette’s husband or Margaret’s uncle were rolling in their graves knowing their name is associated with Hollywood’s biggest night, especially this year’s. The Oscar was stretched thin and the program long. The shift to nominate 10 movies rather than the usual 5 smacked of an industry’s desperation for cash. And speaking of “smack”, nice gum chewing Sarah Jessica Parker and Cameron Diaz! A potentialy sticky situation occurred when a woman in blue hijacked the Short Form Documentary winner’s acceptance speech. The craziness ended when the microphone cut off and the orchestra leader played Thanks for the Memories. I’m sure the dead Oscars of legend were miffed to see that Lauren Bacall was not paid tribute to at the Awards, rather she was cast aside with stand-and-applaud honors. While the program paid tribute to those the industry lost, it didn’t seem so heartfelt because they didn't fully honor the lifetime achievement winners. To those of us still alive, Bacall is Hollywood. It would have been something to hear her entire speech.

This year's Academy Awards only had time for the winners and losers. After all, there were nearly a dozen Best Picture nominations to summarize. With the exception of Kate Winslet, all the presenters said, “and the winner is” rather than the standard, “the Oscar goes to.” I don’t think they have announced “winner” since Bette won her Oscar statuette and said it had a flat bottom like her husband's! So now Meryl Streep is not even a winner for being nominated, she’s just a loser. For fuck sake, what does the Academy want Meryl to do? Hang the moon?

On the other hand, the Awards did present a fabulos win, Katherine Bigelow! Midway through the Academy Awards, I half expected Bob Costas to break in with a statuette-count update between The Hurt Locker and Avatar. How many times were the presenters going to mention that James Cameron’s visionary masterpiece took over a decade to make and is the biggest grossing movie of all time? Looks as if with all the money in the world a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar was “unobtanium” to Cameron. Avaterd added up to zilch.

Not for nothing, the annual Academy Awards are a big deal. It brings people together, presents topics of conversation, and rewards Hollywood with a boost in last minute box office tallies from people going to the cinema to see all the nominees and/or nominated movies. More importantly, it is broadcast worldwide. Since the nominations were announced, my sister, Valerie, and I emailed our predictions and talked about the awards being a battle of the sexes, exes and military might. Two days before the Awards, she watched Inglorious Basterds and I went to see Up in the Air (it finally made it to my part of the world). Then, on Sunday night in Ohio and Monday morning in Singapore, while Valerie sipped champagne and I drank coffee, we Skyped and watched the first half of the broadcast together. Isn’t that something?

10 February 2010

Everything's Coming Up Orchids

Orchids, orchids everywhere! The national flower of Singapore is an orchid - the Vanda Miss Joaquim, to be exact. The National Orchid Garden, located at the highest point in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, displays over 600 species and nearly 500 hybrids. “Orchid” can be found in the name of hotels, corporations, restaurants, streets and residential communities. Orchids are the pride of the nation.

I’ve never been a big fan of orchids. It began when I discovered Raymond Chandler and Damon Runyon at the tender age of 14. (Bear in mind that my mother would not allow me to read any book by Judy Blume.) I was babysitting every Saturday night for the hippest mother in my neighborhood. When I couldn’t watch another episode of Love Boat and Fantasy Island I hit her bookshelf for a “good” read. Chandler’s first, The Big Sleep, was my first too. The dialogue between the dames and dolls, thugs and two-bit players captivated me. I felt a bit naughty reading the thoughts of men, but also wiser for learning the language of the denizens of the underbelly of the cities. It is my pulp fiction favorite partly because of Howard Hawk’s first-rate movie version staring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In both the book and the movie there is a brief mention of orchids.

The other night I was watching The Big Sleep on TCM again for the first time. My dislike for orchids stems from the following exchange between Philip Marlowe and General Sternwood:
Sternwood: I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider. The orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?
Marlowe: Not particularly.
Sternwood: Nasty things! Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

Knowing that William Faulkner wrote the screenplay (amazing, right?), I decided to read the same scene from the book. As written by Chandler:
Sternwood: I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider. The orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?
Marlowe: Not particularly.
Sternwood: They are nasty things! Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.

Corruption and prostitutes. Would it be too obvious to compare the city-state to pulp fiction? Is it base to relate the racket of sand smuggling into Singapore with the underground world of Eddie Mars? Is it rotten of me to point out that Miss Singapore wore an elaborate orchid costume during the 2009 Miss Universe pageant? That wouldn’t capture the essence of Singapore now would it?

15 January 2010

Black & White and Red All Over

The official language of Singapore is English. Other languages spoken are Malay, Tamil and a host of Chinese dialects. After that, there’s Singlish, a Pidgin of sorts formed from Singapore’s shanty past of immigrants and uneducated peasants. One word rising up through all tongues is ang mo, slang for Caucasians/Westerners.

Ang mo = red hair. It is Hokkein, an ancient and local Chinese language. Sometimes it is spelled "ang moh," but no matter the spelling the derogatory meaning is the same. The word refers to the fair-haired Western settlers of Singapore. Not that the settlers were all redheads, rather, they were all evil. At a recent party a few expats were debating whether "ang mo" is racist. No one could agree because it is commonly used by whites, locals - everyone. Ang mo is not censored in the media or from social conversation, unlike the Japanese term, gaijin.

Gaijin = ghost person or foreigner. It is broadly used in the country for anyone not Japanese. I lived in Tokyo for a few years and do not remember seeing the word in print, but I do remember hearing it spat out at me in the subway once when I exited before the locals. The origin of gaijin has a little color in it. The Portuguese were the 1st to visit Japan. They were referred to as nanbanjin, “southern barbarians.” Oddly enough, when the British and Dutch arrived they were referred to as komojin, “red-haired people.” All these red words for white people make me think of a common pejorative I grew up hearing in the 1970s, honky.

Honky = white person. It was used by blacks to disparage whites. I laugh now because it sounds as dated as the Richard Pryor - Gene Wilder bathroom scene from Silver Streak. However, it was never meant to be funny, especially when delivered by Shaft. John Shaft. I can find no resource which delineates the true origin of honky (also spelled with an “ey” or an “ie”), but from the Urban Dictionary to Wikipedia two theories are constant: "honky" is a term for a person who frequented honky-tonks, or a white man honking his car horns for prostitutes in the African America red-light districts. In one reference, I read that honky stems from a West African word, honk nopp, “red-eared person.”

Red = evil. That would be the Philosophy 101 conclusion, but it isn’t that simple. The devil is often depicted as wearing red, but so is Santa Claus. Red M+Ms are toxic, yet red tomatoes are healthy. The Red Army signifies blood shed, yet the Red Cross is a sign of aid. Red is actually black-and-white.