serangoon road: s01 e02 reach out

In this week’s Serangoon Road, Macca the Journalist convinces Don and Joan to take on the case of a woman’s missing husband, I fall in love with Xiang Yun, Alaric Tay is devastatingly absent and I have some feelings about the attitudes of Australians in SEA in 1964 and even now. So many spoilers, for history and for this episode.

We open to some Singaporean cops searching two small boats, shining lights in faces, and asking to see identity papers (this is the English translation, which distracted me so I can’t remember what the Mandarin was but it wasn’t identity papers). A lady looks stern and silent (it is Xiang Yun and you should love her); she jumps over board without moving a facial muscle and I flip my shit.

Look at that stone cold acting from Xiang Yun
Look at that stone cold acting from Xiang Yun

We move to the boring white lady hanging out with Don Hany, where he warns her that Bugis Street is “not Sydney or Paris Claire, it’s dangerous” and please, I don’t even need to bet you $10 that she goes to Bugis Street in the next ten minutes.

bikes in singapore: quaint thing of the pastThis cap comes to you courtesy of the credits, which I actually quite like. Reminds me of being at home, with the Chinese calendars all my family always has hanging on some random hook in the house or apartment.

The next scene in Bugis Street had me crying with laughter which I am almost certainly sure was not its intention. Don Hany glimpses his white lady chatting and smiling to a local Malay vendor (NOT EVEN TWO MINUTES) and as Don gets distracted by his white lady, Alaric Tay gets distracted by porridge and this is basically the last we see of him all episode, bye Alaric I love your delivery of “I’m going to get porridge.”

Claire who adds nothing of interest and fun to this show follows the Malay trader down an alley where he gets aggressive and tries to sell her some sex and then his buddies come to steal her purse and Don comes to rescue her, which a) racist and b) oh what a surprise, thanks everybody.

Today’s A-Plot mystery of the week is about Xiang Yun, who moved from China to Singapore when she was 18, and whose husband sent her away during the war and then OH NO NO MORE HUSBAND and Xiang Yun has just smuggled herself back in to Singapore to see if she can find him. I actually quite enjoyed many elements of this week’s A-Plot (most especially Xiang Yun) but I have some questions: 1) if she was living in Singapore for several years, now that she’s back, why is she considered an illegal immigrant? Would like to know her status at that time. 2) it is hinted that it took her a long time to get the money together to smuggle herself back into Singapore and out of China and I can attest to that on a personal level but twenty years? with no risk of indenture at the Singapore end? hmm. not sure.

Don and Joan take on the case, and start by trying to locate where Xiang Yun used to live. Now, this show has some bad acting at times, but usually the Singaporeans can be relied upon to be excellent actors. Except apparently not in this scene, featuring some terrible acting by Singaporeans and I retract the ‘adequate angmoh’ I granted Don Hany’s Mandarin last episode.

Singaporean terrace houses! Love them
Singaporean terrace houses! Love them

This episode’s random incursion to the lives of white expats introduces us to Nicholas Bell playing Maxwell Black, who tells us “it’s all very civilised once you get used to the heat” and that it’s key to marry “keepers” because they’ll stay with you and not fly away; I expect next episode we’ll be meeting another expat who is going to tell us to marry a local woman and I’m going to raze everything to the ground. The thing is this scene is not wrong. It’s averagely acted and poorly scripted but the thing this show is doing right is the condescension to the environment and the situation and the locals, as if nobody matters but themselves and their opinions. It’s perfect, I am a product of this time and it is so perfectly written I want to kill everyone.

The one thing that jars in this characterisation of every Australian in SEA in this period is when Claire tells Don that their taxi driver pointed out the ‘Tiger Dragon,’ leader of the Red Dragons and grandfather to my boyf Song 哥, eating in a noodle house. Unless their taxi driver is their regular driver and it’s just a dialogue issue, local driver isn’t going to tell two whities that info.

Upon arrival at the makanan, Don gets beaten up and Song blows him off before Song’s grandfather delivers a deadpan “等一下” and Song covers, inviting Don in. I cry with laughter. Grandfather passes on apologies to Joan, and I wonder what is going on. We cut to Joan buying vegetables in the wet market, who is definitely a much better actor in this episode than in the previous one.

BLOOD
really broke the costuming budget on that one

Don and Xiang Yun visit a house she is sure she used to live in; she yells “this is my teapot” and “this is my hair piece” while pulling out a hair piece from a woman’s hair and it’s great. I never catch this woman’s name and you know I’m just going to spoil it for you so I’m telling you now that she’s Second Wife, and she’s pretty great. She later confesses to Xiang Yun that she met Xiang Yun’s husband because she was dressed like a man to avoid being taken as a comfort woman, they were all taken in a truck to be executed (this is the Sook Ching massacre, if you want to learn more) and Xiang Yun’s husband shielded her and she was saved and he died. I start making notes about how unlikely this is since the bodies were always checked so there’s no way she got away with it, and I’m glad to know this was a hole in Second Wife’s story and not the plot. Joan, Second Wife and Xiang Yun act the fuck out of this scene, which makes me happy, and Second Wife puts the hair pin into Xiang Yun’s hair and it BLEEDS and NOBODY SAYS ANYTHING and I’m like WHAT EVEN. I remain confused for the next twenty minutes. Meanwhile, Joan and Xiang Yun share a quiet moment about sadness and loss and I really love them, it’s an understated scene between two seasoned, wonderful Chinese actresses and it’s the best scene of the whole series so far. Joan’s quiet little “sorry” underscores this really sad, lovely scene, and I wish more of the series was like this, but I’m not optimistic. I love you, Joan.

love you, Joan

Working out why Xiang Yun collapsed and how she was poisoned was super obvious. When Second Wife put the clip in Xiang Yun’s hair there was the trickle of blood and nobody mentioned it on the show so I thought I’d imagined it, which is not a feeling I appreciate when watching a show. However when she collapsed I may have started flapping my hands at the television in disgust over how plodding and predictable it was, of course it was the clip and of course it was Second wife. There are procedurals and then there are procedurals, 我的朋友, and this one is not that clever.

I was frustrated by Second Wife and by Violin Girl. Second Wife as an actor was great, I loved her, but was frustrated by the script she was offered, because she’s all “I did it for you” and also is an unfortunate Indonesian stereotype and I hope, along with the Malay thieves and lack of Malays and Indians in the script, that we’re not going to have to be all stereotypes and racism (though I would like us to deal with racism in the text, it being a very critical component of Singaporean politics of the decade). I was glad when Daughter turned out to be Violin Girl, it explained her non acting, and her ridiculous slapping of the Secretary of my Heart, in the scene where the Secretary of my Heart was code switching like a champion and non-sequitering like the best of SEAzns.

Xiang Yun wakes up to find her husband staring at her, and it’s all very sappy. I like the cinematography in this scene, which I think borders on ‘too sappy’ but actually ends up okay. I hope desperately that Don doesn’t let this send him back to his white girl because he deserves better. This is all so sappy lah that maybe I should just accept that but I expected better than this from my ABC.

creepy grandfather (alive and dead, seriously, guan gong)
creepy grandfather (alive and dead, seriously, guan gong)

Don and Joan go to see my boyf Song 哥 and his grandfather and they have found the criminals bothering Joan (and beating Don up in the last episode). It was an accident, he says, but “if you like you can watch” because “my grandfather can have them killed.” Joan is horrified; I can’t work out why this conversation is in English when it should be conducted in Mandarin. Joan is given a statue of Guan Gong in compensation; Don thinks it’s a warning; the Secretary of my Heart thinks it’s bad feng shui; I think it’s probably got drugs inside it CHECK THE BOTTOM. Joan’s face as she says “the bad forces gave it to us” is priceless.

Joan tells us that she needs justice, and I ask aloud what kind of Singaporean she is.

The episode closes out with ‘Love Hurts’, the original version by the Everly Brothers, over Macca the journalist typing and looking at a picture of Xiang Yun and her husband (a photo in which two Chinese people are smiling? I think not!), Don and his white lady staring soulfully out of (separate) windows across the streets of Singapore, and Joan Chen doing some paperwork before smelling her pen (??!!) and tearing up. As she strokes a photo of her husband there is lightening and thunder. Because we are supposed to feel sad, everyone. NOBODY MOVE, EVERYBODY ACKNOWLEDGE THAT LOVE IS HARD. Maybe I just need to accept that this is a sappy kind of show?

I’m super happy that Don and Claire broke up. Yay!

Anachronisms of the week: Don’s hair continues to be long. I overlooked it last week but this week he went into a super exxy formal event with long scruffy hair and a blowing white shirt over a singlet; Singapore used to deny men entry to the country if they weren’t tidy enough, there’s no way he got into that building looking like that, even if he was waving his Aussie passport around. And also “partners” instead of “wives.” I know I prefer the term partner to the term wife but it’s awfully out of place in 1964 Singapore.

This script is much better than the previous episode’s script, but still not amazing. I continue to be disappointed by my ABC in this regard, especially as everyone on twitter kept talking about Wildside because Tony Martin and Rachael Blake and I’d just like to remind everyone that Wildside is the greatest Australian drama ever. Thank you for your attention in this regard.

wtf dialect

Some odd Mandarin/language issues this week – the Secretary of my Heart comments that she can’t read the book about poisons because she doesn’t “even know what dialect this is” but it is Chinese, how hard was it to read in 1964 it was all traditional so it should all be good okay?

I love all the shade that the Singaporeans constantly throw onto the Americans. This week the Secretary of my Heart shut down the CIA dude (who was talking during the violin recital!) and she’s all “or are you just not one of the brighter ones” and basically the best. I also enjoyed learning her backstory this week, that she breaks up with boys when her parents approve of them and she’s Peranakan and can trace her family back 500 years; usually in these things it’s the whiteys with the background and the Asians who are considered second, and I’m glad to see this subversion here.

I’d really like to know how they got so many great actors into a show that’s this bad; I’d also like to know why so many of them are acting so badly. I know how well they can do! Tony Martin here as Macca the journalist; Rachael Blake makes an appearance (I hope to be repeated) as Lady Penelope, looking all suave and lovely; JOAN CHEN who is usually so amazing and yet not that great in this (though much better this week than last).

A Miscellany

  • Ugh so much awkward white person sex. Must we?
  • Rachael Blake as Lady Penelope looks like she has vampire teeth. I keep hoping she’s secretly a vampire.
  • Xiang Yun’s accent was very Singaporean for someone who was only supposed to have lived there for sixish years.
  • The scene where Don and the Secretary of my Heart talk to the poisons experts was so terrible, it was weirdly scripted and very poorly acted and I’m disappointed in everyone in that scene. Nice to see got some uncle speak Hokkien though.
  • Clothes somewhat anachronistic in this episode, how hard is it to get clothes from the sixties I have clothes from 60s SEA and I wasn’t even born for another two decades. (谢谢妈妈)
  • Don Hany’s pufferfish face was so ridiculous but I loved it.
  • Minus two Singaporean ladies – where were Malina and adorable headband girl?
  • Why did the Secretary of my Heart sit down at the front of the recital when she was only going to have to get up and leave at some point? Along with this and talking to herself and non-sequitering, I’m not sure she’s a great detective.
  • Rachael Blake and Tony Martin have been married since 2003. a) how did I never know this? b) I LOVE THEM SO MUCH ARGH OMG. For non-Australians this is what happens when two actors you loved and whose characters you shipped on a show they filmed when you were a kid, get together. You die of glee.

Next week: Disrespect of Chinese and Singaporean customs; lots of explosions.

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For your bookshelf: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

All too often, someone examines the Young Adult shelves and comes up with damning statistics: few authors of colour, few characters of colour, and if a book happens to be about a non-white person, chances are that character won’t be on the cover.

So I was pretty excited when I wandered through a bookstore a few weeks ago and found The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, a novel about a young Chinese-Malaysian woman who is asked to become marry the recently deceased son of a wealthy family.  It broke all the restrictions I listed above, and further research (you know, I googled) revealed that it was also the subject of a fair amount of publisher and industry hype.  As the author’s website lists:

  • Oprah.com’s Book of the Week
  • An August 2013 Indie Next List pick
  • Barnes & Noble Fall ‘13 Discover Great New Writers selection,
  • Glamour Magazine 2013 Beach Read
  • Good Housekeeping Magazine Book Pick
  • The Bookseller Editor’s Pick
  • Library Journal Barbara’s Pick

All this is really cool, and I hope it’s the beginning of a trend of inclusivity in the publishing industry.  Even if the cover is one of those dreadful headless girl covers so beloved of publishers, and is also kind of badly composed.

But, of course, we ask, does the novel live up to the hype?

The cover of The Ghost Bride: an Asian woman with high cheekbones and an enigmatic smile is lying ... on her side?  And there's, like, blurry flowers around her? This is not actually a good cover.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

In my opinion, yes.  It has too many subplots, with the result that some go undeveloped, but it was entertaining, difficult to put down, and left me seeking out more information about Malaysia, Chinese-Malaysian culture in the 19th century, Chinese beliefs and practices about the afterlife, and more.  If I finish a book and find myself surrounded by Wikipedia tabs, that’s a good sign.

Of course, as a Nice White Lady, I’m not in a position to judge Choo’s depiction of Malaysia’s Chinese population, or Malaysia in general.  (Let’s all take a moment to cast some casual side-eye at the GoodReads reviewer who suggested Choo’s portrayal of Asia was inferior to that of Alison Goodman, white Australian author.)  But I never had the feeling that Choo was writing for a default white audience.  She stops and gives context to various plot-relevant things, but I still had to look up foods and clothing styles to fully appreciate the setting.  I contrast this with Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, where chopsticks became “eating sticks”.

Additionally, the Malacca of the book quickly felt like home.  It didn’t seem exoticised or cliched.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of the setting, but it certainly felt like a real, vivid place, familiar to its heroine and very much loved.

Ah, the heroine.  Certain GoodReads reviewers will tell you that she was passive and boring, and those reviewers are WRONG.

I mean, yes, Li Lan is a quiet character who respects and loves her opium-addicted father and the servant who raised her.  For much of the book, she observes rather than acts, and I guess that can be frustrating.  Truthfully, I found the first quarter of the book pleasant, but slow going.  “Just hurry up and marry the dead guy so we can get this show on the road,” I was thinking.

Hah!  Li Lan mocks your puny assumptions about how things should go!  I mean, she won’t actually say anything, but she’ll be judging you.  Silently.

Around the point where my Kobo told me I was at 25%, something happens.  I’m not going to spoil it, because I absolutely didn’t see it coming, but it completely defied my expectations.  And from that point, Li Lan has to take a much more proactive role in the story.  She makes mistakes, stubbornly refuses to do what I keep silently telling her to do, and she is possibly the worst judge of character since Dance Academy gave me Tara Webster.  But she’s wonderful, because here she is, stuck in a situation she does’t understand and cannot control, and by God, she is going to make this work or die trying.

Okay, so things I did not love: the subplots.  There were too many.  First we have the Lim family, their eligible post-mortem bachelor and their many, many other dysfunctions.  Like the bit where the eligible bachelor was murdered.

Then we have the corrupt bureaucracy controlling the afterlife.  Then we have Li Lan’s dead mother.  Then we have — actually, his whole name is a spoiler, it turns out.  Not for me, because I had to Google him, but if I name him, Stephanie will probably have a good idea of what he’s all about.  Anyway, there’s a guy, and he has a an agenda, and Li Lan spends a lot of time yelling at him.  SORRY, GOODREADS, SHE’S NO ACTUALLY PASSIVE AT ALL.  GO STAND IN THE CORNER.

Now, all these subplots were really interesting, but there were SO MANY that they felt a bit muddled, and certain resolutions happen off-stage.  I don’t actually know which one I’d exclude, though, so maybe the book just needed to be slightly longer.  (It looks like it wasn’t marketed as YA in the US?  Which also explains some of the lukewarm reactions from reviewers.  It could go as either YA or Whatever The Hell New Adult Even Is, but I think it’s a better fit in YA.)

One thing The Ghost Bride didn’t have was, you know, white people.  Much.  There is one white person in the entire book, and he’s … well, spoilers, he’s dead long before the action takes place.  I guess Stephanie will be a better judge of this when she reads it, but I went in expecting a book with more overt discussion of colonialism, and found hardly any at all.  At one point Li Lan is offered the opportunity to visit England, but her actual dreams of travel involve Japan and China.

I’ve been trying to decide whether this avoidance of the issue was … well, you know, avoidance, or a subtle middle finger being raised in the general direction of imperialism: “You may occupy our land, impose your values on ours, but you’re not part of our stories.”  Mostly I think it’s just not relevant to Li Lan’s experiences.

(One bit where colonialism intruded, although I only learned this later, on my Wikipedia binge, is the use of the term “hell money” for the fake money burned for the dead.  As Wikipedia tells it, and feel free to correct me if it’s wrong, it picked up that name after Christian missionaries told Chinese people they were going to hell for their pagan beliefs (well done, people, really nice attitude there), and the Chinese were like, “Okay, so ‘hell’ is clearly the English word for heaven.  Cool!”)

(So I don’t know if “hell money” is the appropriate word for the setting and character, but it’s evocative and fits the mythology of the setting.  But I’m not wholly comfortable with its use, and will just sit tight until Stephanie tells me how to feel.)

The Ghost Bride is AU$7.39 on Kobobooks, and is probably some similar sort of amount on Kindle, or in paperback, and stuff.  It’s $19.99 at Readings in Melbourne, which is why I bought the ebook.  Also, arthritis and stuff, and my hands are delicate flowers.  I think more people should read it so we can make flappy hands at each other about [SPOILERY THING THAT HAPPENS AT THE END].  In the meantime, I’m going to go stalk Yangsze Choo’s website and wait impatiently for her next book.

serangoon road: s01e01 shotgun

Sunday saw the premiere of Serangoon Road, a new collaboration between my ABC and HBO Asia. I’ve been pretty excited about Serangoon Road, because Joan Chen! And also because Don Hany, and a detective series! And Australians in Singapore (I am frequently an Australian in Singapore, occasional land of my misspent youth).

I was excited, especially after seeing the trailer! But this first episode failed to deliver, and it’s really only my loyalty to my ABC and my love of each of the Singaporean actors and the gambling B plot in this episode that is keeping me tuned in.

Please be warned this review contains extensive spoilers. Also contains a slur to refer to trans people (as used on the show). Also also hover over the caps for further commentary.

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Serangoon Road is a detective series set in 1964 in Singapore. It stars Don Hany as Sam Callaghan, a man who was imprisoned in Changi as a child and though Australian has chosen to remain in Singapore, avoiding the expat community and running an import-export company with a local partner. It features Joan Chen as Patricia Cheng, left with a detective agency after the death of her husband, and an old friend of Sam’s. It seeks to explore the racial tensions running through Singapore as it moves through Independence, along with the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Colonialism and the whole thing going down with Malaysia.

It opens with a confusing flashback of two children, one ultimately being shot blank in the face. This leads to close ups of Don Hany’s face, in bed (a bed surrounded by a mosquito net! Oh stars my youth) with a lady. She stiltedly attempts to talk to him about his dream, he turns on the radio and they start dancing.

We cut to some American sailors in Bugis Street, eating hawker food, partying and having a good time. One of these sailors is a black man; it is clear this will be A Thing. There is a commotion, he is yelling, his friend is stabbed, he is holding the knife when the other Americans turn up, it is not looking good for him! Then the street explodes.

Don Hany runs out of the house to a brand new VW kombi, and drives off to save some friends in the explosion. How did he know his friends would be there? Later we learn his friends work in a club on Bugis Street, but it is this random, unexplained, slightly anachronistic tone that sets the stage for the episode.

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In adequate angmo Mandarin (I could understand him) Don is informed that Joan Chen has come to visit him. An aside: I love that sometimes the use of Mandarin and Malay is subtitled; but sometimes it’s not! That’s cute! Less cute for you if you don’t speak English and Mandarin and Malay, but you lot can’t have it all, I suppose.

I love Joan Chen, but she is almost pointless in this episode. Her husband has died, leaving her with a detective agency that she can’t run but if Don Hany will do just this one tiny favour for her… it’s the Americans… It’s just a tiny favour… Don Hany guesses it’s the CIA. We meet Su Ling, Joan Chen’s secretary, and soon to be secretary of my heart. She starts throwing shade around and wanting to meet the Americans. She is a Chinese Singaporean with a curl in her hair and I love her.

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I’m not sure what accent Joan Chen is going for here. It’s certainly not Singaporean, but it doesn’t feel like it’s American or Australian, either. I love all the other Singaporeans, Su Ling and Alaric Tay (who, when Don Hany abandons him on an Indonesian island later in the episode, declares “fuck you man I got no shoes” in classic pissed off Singapore accent) and Chin Han as bad guy Kay Song, looking so hot I would do him immediately. I love the Singaporean fortune teller Auntie who looks at Don Hany and tells him he’s not sleeping enough, swaps between Mandarin and English as it suits her (in particular around the CIA agent), and giggles delightedly as she sits in the air of Bugis Street.

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I loved the character of Singapore in this, a Singapore well over before I was ever born but one with which I’m familiar, like a great grandparent one has never met but hear stories about. Singapore in 1964 was just coming into its independence, recovering from wars and keeping its distance from the Vietnam War and tiptoeing around the imminent racial issues about to explode out of Malaysia (and the way one of the police officers says Malaysia in that perfectly excellent SEA accent ugh I love you all). A special Bugis Street backdrop was created for this, because Singapore has changed so much over these almost 50 years that it’s so dissimilar now, and it was excellent to see. Singapore was also a major character in the b plot of evil mobster Kay Song and gambling addict Alaric Tay (who tries to wager his half of the boat he and Don own).

But the acting was average at times, and the script was poor. It was very tell not show, and I know in a Australian-Singaporean production for Asia and Australia and presumably the USA (given the HBO collaboration) there’s a lot of assumed lack of knowledge, but when the penguin (hilariously what one Singaporean refers to the American Seals as) shoots Don Hany and runs off, and it’s clear it’s a blank because Alaric Tay runs in and slaps Don in the face, he also says “just a blank, doesn’t hurt as much,” as if we’re completely ridiculous and wouldn’t be able to work that out ourselves. This scene also contains the most painful good cop bad cop I’ve ever seen, which feels intentional given the imminent fake shooting but at the same time it’s hard to tell in a script this patchy. Other eye-scratchingly awful scenes involved Don Hany’s ‘is he about to get high? is he not?’ lying down on the floor; Don asking the CIA ‘is this a racial thing?’ about the black sailor, and Don telling the black sailor “it’s 1964, it’s a brand new world out there sailor” when Don’s just smuggled him to Indonesia and told him to buy an illegal passport and work out if he’s going home. “There’s nothing there for me”, Crosby says. Nice work, everyone.

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The script gives the audience no credit, and makes no attempt, and it shows. The Seals attempt to drown Crosby, our black American sailor, who they have handcuffed but not shackled – surely a sailor can at least eggbeater kick?

There’s a lot of shade thrown on Australians and a little bit of shade thrown by Australians to Americans, and a completely random black tie event that must have been hell in 1964 Singapore with no air conditioners that served to demonstrate how half-hearted it all was, but was also classic white Australian in SEA colonialist attitude (cf everyone my father was friends with in the 70s). I did enjoy the “untie me now and I’ll pretend this is an Australian idea of a joke” from a US Seal, and “they all look the same” about the Americans.

But this is all average complaints, right? Nothing major? AND YET: Malina is introduced as just another lady character and she’s flirting with the CIA dude and she’s cagey but it’s all good. It’s later revealed that she is trans, and she was paid off by some Navy friends to go flirt with the Seal until he could grope her and find out, as someone says, “She is in fact a he.” Don Hany is all yeah she is, matter of fact and calm, and then it turns out the Seal killed his friend and let the black sailor take the fall because how dare they let him hang out with a trans person. On the one hand, I like that there’s a trans character and it’s no big deal to her friends and coworkers (one coworker says ‘she’s a bitch’ because she stole her customers but makes no mention of anything else, and I think that’s acceptance), and she wears pretty clothes in poorly lit scenes and I can’t cap her for you, and it only becomes a big deal because others make it a big deal. Trans women were definitely an obvious part of the community in the area during this time period, and to have trans women entertainers on Bugis Street is correct. On the other hand, “he discovered she was a he” and ‘you wanted them to pay for making you “feel up a tr***ie”‘ WOAH WOAH WOAH nope. My cis friends, that word is a slur and I would ask you to never use it in any circumstance, not even to demonstrate who is naughty and who is not. Everybody is naughty here and I am super disappointed in my ABC.

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Also: despite all the Malays meandering around in the background no actual Malay characters? (Polisi don’t count) Also no people obviously of Indian descent, I expected them at least as background. Disappoint.

The episode closes with three scenes: Joan Chen suggests keeping the agency open whilst the secretary of my heart cracks nuts and throws them in her mouth like she doesn’t care; Don Hany is having an affair with some bland white Australian chick and it’s super boring; Don gets beaten up in the most unconvincing beating up scene I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t understand how this script got approved by anyone.

In summary: loved the Singaporeans and the Singaporean Gambling B Plot featuring my new boyfriend Song 哥; disappointed in chronic underuse of Joan Chen and also her unexpected unenthusiastic acting; disappointed by overall script quality; very, very very disappointed in the transphobic slur and plot thread; very conflicted about tuning in for episode two. My ABC, I am so disappointed. Also we never learn why Bugis Street exploded.

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Anachronism of the week: Malina describes an American sailor as stepping outside for a smoke. Really? In Singapore in 1964?

fearing the familiar; and bitter suites, by otto fong

I am a superstitious being.

I hold my breath as I pass by cemeteries; I won’t go near a number which contains 4; there is an upside-down 福 by my door and I’d hang a 八卦 mirror by my door if I thought I required it. I don’t wear black to weddings; I bow before the buddhas and the red altars I pass, just in case. At 春节 I stuff the mouth of the Kitchen God so he can’t tattle on me to the Jade Emperor.

But

I walk under ladders, I don’t throw salt and I don’t care about mirrors breaking. I don’t understand the thing about magpies, or umbrellas inside, and I forget about thirteen until it’s come and gone.

Because

I am afraid of Chinese ghosts.

This is, in many ways but entirely anecdotally, a peculiarity of overseas Chinese. It’s something I didn’t encounter quite so much when I was living in Beijing, wandering through its old hutongs and talking to old Beijingren who have lived in those alleys their whole lives. But it’s something I’ve lived and breathed all through Singapore and Malaysia, through growing up part of the Chinese diaspora in Sydney and Perth. Even now, as an adult in Melbourne, it’s something I often glimpse out of the corner of my eye.

In part this could be due to the nature of the media – horror movies and etc are restricted in China, and this could feed into a lack of ghost discussion? But surely not that much.

In Singapore this fear of ghosts is best captured in my memories by Haw Par Villa, a theme park dedicated to Chinese mythology, religion and Confucianism. It was designed as a place to teach about traditional Chinese values, but mostly all I remember is fear, twisted faces, decrepit models and the ten courts of hell.

The ten courts of hell can be found in a ‘cave’, ten separate dioramas of molten faces, rendered corpses, and disjointed limbs. I wanted to tell you more, but reading about it online to get my facts straight caused my stomach to turn and my breath to quicken, so I shall simply link you to this walk through and say that if I were ever religious, and pious, and motivated by my religion, it would be fear of the courts of hell and their kings that would prompt me to be a beautiful person.

I picked up Bitter Suites, by Otto Fong, on a recent jaunt to Singapore. It’s a very Singaporean book in so many ways, not only in its every day Singaporean setting and the Singaporean ridiculousness of its main characters, but in the way it wove Haw Par Villa into the plot and speared my heart through with a childhood fear I hadn’t realised would come back.

I found Bitter Suites terrifying and compelling, mostly through my growing horror as I realised just how important a role the early visit to the Haw Par Villa and the ten Chinese hells would play in the story, as those who had committed a cruel practical joke were slowly and eventually, eternally, punished for their crimes. I found the writing adequate but it was the illustrations that sold me, and the little softer asides.

I fear, however, that this is a very specific book. I suspect that one might need to be overseas Chinese, and specifically SEAzn Chinese, familiar with the ridiculousness of Haw Par Villa’s decay and yet indoctrinated from childhood of the ever-presence of spirits, their constant needs for placation and the reality of the hells until reincarnation.

It’s not that it’s a book opaque to outsiders. It’s that it’s a book that plays very specifically to one thing, and it’s a thing that I will probably always hold in the depths of my psyche, and probably looks ridiculous to everyone else.

Horror is, after all, subjective.

If you want to read it, let me know; I have a copy hiding under several piles of paper where I cannot see it.

book pusher (not a white cis dude edition)

There are books that I recommend to everyone, books that I want everyone in the world to read and love, and I am always interested when people tell me their always-recommends. So I was excited at the recent open thread up at Captain Awkward looking at exactly that; and super disappointed that it was super dudely and super white. I know that’s inevitable, in its way and in the nature of our internet and our (western) society, but still, disappointment. So I made my own open thread.

What are the books that you always recommend to people, that you always want people to love, that you shove at people and wave your hands about and reread constantly? Only rule: the author cannot be a cis white dude. Trans white dude, fine. Cis asian dude, fine. Ladies, all fine. Author doesn’t conform to your gender binary? All good.

Here, I’ll start.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon: the only book I took with me in hardcopy when I moved to Beijing; a book I’ve filled with annotations and which was one of the most formative books on my writing style; a book that filled me with joy the first time I ever read it. I give it as presents and I talk about it a lot, but I never lend out my copy because it says a lot about me. TOO MUCH.

Growing Up Asian in Australia (ed Alice Pung): I wish this book had come to me when I was younger, but even as an adult it resonates and is an amazing reflection on the Asian-Australian experience that should be vital reading for all Australians.

Heartsick for Country (ed Sally Morgan, Tjalaminu Mia & Blaze Kwaymullina): another must read for all Australians. I cry every time I read this book, this reflection on being Indigenous Australian and the connection between Indigenous Australians and their countries, and that feeling of heartsickness at damage to the land, at history, at racism and at everything else. ALL THE CRIES. ALL THE RECOMMENDS. This book always reinflames my desire to be the best Australian I can be, prioritising Indigenous Australians and the land and just adflkadf.

Okay, go. Your turn.

Follow ups, election day, WorldCon, links

I’m pretty sure I promised Stephanie that I would review The Deep ASAP, so that she can borrow the graphic novels off me.  But I’m tired, I’m arthritic, I have a cold.  So here’s a whole bunch of things.

Further to previous posts

1.  In my second Dance Academy post, I said some nice things about Ben Tickle, to wit, that I was unfair to dismiss him as a creepy and annoying Nice Guy.

As of last week’s episode, I hereby take that back, and every other nice thing I said about him as well.  SO THERE.

2.  After I posted about the general whiteness of Adam Bandt’s campaign posters, I started to think that maybe I hadn’t given the Greens enough credit for what diversity they did have.  For example, Stephanie posted this to Instagram.

(I also learnt that Stephanie herself could have featured in the advertising, but people thought she was too busy and didn’t need the extra stress.  When will we learn: Stephanie always needs the extra stress.)

(Not really.)

Anyway, I still maintain that there’s an uncomfortable white saviour narrative at work in the Greens’ visual presentation, but the Greens were doing better than I had realised. And I am really happy that Bandt kept his seat (and sorry that my local Greens candidate, Tim Read, didn’t beat the Libs into second place behind Labor.)

(Living in the second safest Labor seat in the country, you take what you can get.)

Yes, there was an election

And the capitalistic, socially conservative Liberal Party won.  They claim they have a mandate, even though the swing away from the ALP generally went to new parties such as Palmer United, and even though it looks like three Senate seats will go to extreme fringe parties: the libertarian Australian Liberals, the Sports Party and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

There has been a lot of classism about the Twitters with regards to the Motoring Party’s new senator.  I’m kind of hoping he turns out to be a brilliant leader, just to shut that up.  But as his Facebook revealed that he’s a 9/11 truther and a misogynist, I’m not holding my breath.

As usual after a conservative win, there has been a lot of gnashing of teeth and threats to move to Canada (where Quebec is banning “prominent” religious symbols that coincidentally are mostly used by minorities) and New Zealand (which already has a conservative government and shite economy).  I like Stephanie’s response best:

This country will have to be pried from my dead, cold, queer asian hands. It’s mine and I’m staying right here and kicking everything over until I’ve got my fingerprints all over the furniture and everything is just the way I like it. 

Now that it’s almost over, we’re down to dissecting the campaign.

I, for one, was quite troubled by the Liberals’ strategy of silencing their candidates of colour so as to avoid gaffes and difficult questions.  This was the case in my own electorate, where candidate Shilpa Hegde did not participate in any public forums or interviews with citizen journalists.  Nor was she seen out campaigning.

As a Commie leftie pinko, I should be glad to see the Liberals mis-step, even if they still win the election, but I think this is a pretty shitty approach.  It’s not enough to have people of colour as your candidates, you have to let them be candidates. Allegedly, or so I read in the mainstream press (probably a Fairfax paper, but I couldn’t tell you when or which one because I’ve been site-hopping to avoid their paywall), the strategy was conceived after Jaymes Diaz famously stuffed up an interview.  If they’re so worried about candidates looking stupid, though, they would have put a lid on Fiona Scott before she could tell the world that refugees cause traffic jams.  Funny how it’s only the non-white candidates who were told to shut up.

And as a person who quite likes democracy, thanks, I’m pretty horrified that the Liberal Democrats got into the Senate by setting up front parties to funnel preferences their way.  (They also got votes because people apparently mistook them for the actual Liberal Party.  Sadly, we cannot legislate for reading comprehension.)  I’ve also been less than impressed with the backroom deals done for preferences, although that had the advantage of destroying the Wikileaks Party, and wow, what a tragedy that was.  Really.

The ABC’s Antony Green has an interesting article here, looking at the history of such developments, and ways we can better regulate Senate nominations without undermining democracy and shutting out smaller parties all together.

Then there was WorldCon

And the annual recriminations that follow.

Things for which there should be no recriminations whatsoever: the excellent Tansy Rayner Roberts won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, making her the first Australian woman to win a Hugo.  And I can’t think of anyone more deserving.

Chicks Unravel Time, to which I contributed, did not win the Hugo for Best Related Work, but I’m told that Writing Excuses, the podcast which won, is excellent.  I’m mostly glad that CUT didn’t, say, lose by one vote, because I couldn’t spare the money for a supporting membership with voting rights.

(Every month, it was like, “Hmm, well, it’s only $50 … but my mobile bill is coming up, and that’s going to be $70.  Next month!”  Self, mobile bills are a monthly curse.)

This brings up the first round of recriminations and “what’s wrong with WorldCon” debates, “It’s too expensive.”  Which, sorry, Lolmericans, I know $250 for a five-day con seems like a lot to you guys, but here in Australia, we pay that much for a three-day con.  Aussiecon 4, back in 2010, was close to $400.  (Luckily — or not — my mother was getting married that weekend, so I could only attend for a couple of days.  Oh yeah, her divorce is being finalised next Monday, so congratulations Mum!)

I realise that going from “The supporting membership was too much” to “LOL, only $250 for attending!” isn’t exactly logical, but priorities.  (And also, international travel has really done a number on my credit card.)

There was talk a couple of months ago of introducing a cheaper voting membership, but apparently that’s not practical with the (amazing and brilliant) electronic pack of nominated works.  May I humbly and cheaply suggest that I would buy a voting membership without the voting pack?  I mean, I’d rather have the pack, especially since I don’t usually get access to the short stories and novellas otherwise, but it’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make in those times when I have to choose between voting in the Hugo Awards and paying my bills.

And if your con is significantly more expensive than others, and you’re widely perceived as being less friendly and less fun, these are things you should maybe be looking at.  I enjoyed AussieCon 4, but I wouldn’t say it was a fun experience (except for the times L M Myles and I spent in the bar, or making fun of terrible Doctor Who panels), and it wasn’t as friendly and open as other Australian cons I’ve seen attended.  Which is, okay, Continuum.

HAVING SAID ALL THIS, I am really hoping I can get to LonCon next year, and Nine Worlds the weekend before.  Lots of people I know and love are going, and it’s London, and … stuff.

Some links to WorldCon discussions:

Three Gray Fandoms – Ursula Vernon on her three fandoms, and how only one is unwelcoming to young people.

WorldCon has some Happy Things Plus Some Problems – an overview of LoneStarCon’s successes and failures.  Includes an account of a wheelchair-using panellist who was unable to access the daises on which the others sat.  A quote: “That’s not cool. It was an oversight in a huge, fan-run convention, so it’s not worth a rage-fueled rage.”

I have to say, I did have a rage-fueled rage about it, because this should be basic Conrunning 101.  Which brings me to…

Disability, Diversity, Dignity – a further discussion of the issue.  The panellist herself pops up in the comments, along with a committee member who, I have to say, does not cover herself in glory.

There are more posts over at RadishReviews — I’m cheating because I haven’t had time to read them all yet, and I’m trying to rest my mouse hand so I can play Mass Effect 2 later.  Hashtag arthritislyfe.

Finally, opera

Hey, I was surprised too.

See, I don’t know much about opera, but Barbara Hambly’s Die Upon A Kiss (part of her Benjamin January series, about a free man of colour in 1830s New Orleans who teaches music and FIGHTS CRIME) is set in the opera season, and is very much concerned with the cultural differences between French and American opera fans, and also a controversial performance of Otello.  (Controversial ‘cos … well, it’s the South.  And Othello is quite famously black.  Except when — anyway, even a white actor in blackface was too much for some historical racists.)

Every time I read that book, I think, “Opera is really interesting.  I should learn more about it and maybe, like, see some and find out if I like it.”

And then the opera community goes and does something stupid, like the Melbourne run of Nixon in China where all the Chinese characters are white people in yellowface.  Or, as I discovered yesterday, Queensland Opera’s Otello, with an all-white cast.

Apparently, or so QOpera said on Twitter when people began asking very pointed questions, modern thinking is that the power of Otello comes from the psychology, and race is a secondary concern.  And also, they did it in South Africa with a white Othello and black cast, so what’s the problem with an all-white version?

Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyeah.  You want to make the traditional SF fandom and community look good?  Go look at opera.

indigenous literacy day and getting caught reading

Today is Indigenous Literacy Day! This is great because it means we are talking about Indigenous Literacy! This is bad because Australia, it means we still need to talk about Indigenous Literacy.

There is a huge gap in English literacy rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia. A disgustingly enormous, we should feel ashamed of ourselves gap. By year 3, the gap in reading, writing and numeracy is already significant, and by the age of 15, “more than one-third of Australia’s Indigenous students ‘do not have the adequate skills and knowledge in reading literacy to meet real-life challenges and may well be disadvantaged in their lives beyond school’.” MORE THAN ONE THIRD. That is so uncool I cannot even. But Indigenous Australians should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and Australia is totally not racist, amirite?

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation works to alleviate this disadvantage for Indigenous Australians, and Indigenous Literacy Day (every September 4) is one of the ways it gathers public support. So far in 2013, $360 000 has been donated, with 100 000 books supplied in 230 remote communities. But through Indigenous Literacy Day, we can help increase those numbers! And through the rest of the year too.

You can directly make a donation to ILF, and you can also get caught reading!  Today Liz and I are making a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Fund and we have been caught reading Speaking from the Heart (by Sally Morgan, Tjalaminu Mia and Blaze Kwaymullina), and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.

liz getting caught reading steph getting caught reading

A number of bookstores around the country are donating a percentage of all sales today to the ILF, so if you’re looking for a new book buy it from one of them today! (My book today will be purchased from Readings Carlton, who are donating 5% of all book sales today)

There is also a great blog post up at the Reconciliation Australia blog if you’d like some more info and stats and things.

solidarity for white women and the (white) face of aUStralian feminism

Las week Mamamia chose to blog about Miley Cyrus twerking, but I know you’ll be surprised to know that they didn’t touch on the racial aspect at all. Or will you be surprised? Maybe you didn’t notice the racial aspect yourself. We’re Australian, right? How can we be expected to know the nuances of USAmerican Feminism’s racism if it’s silent about its racism?

This is a valid question! How CAN we, Australians of an intersectional nature, be expected to know about the nuances of racism in feminism? Uh, by learning it, my friends. By recognising our own and how it’s reflected in our media. By recognising that USAmerican feminism and social justice is an imperfect fit for Australia in so many ways, not least of all because of its racism and its USCentrism.

Betty Mamzelle has written an excellent article on the racial implications of Miley’s twerking, covering all sorts of aspects including expected knowledge, commodification of black bodies, representation and sexuality. Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of her VMA Performance. It is very USA, obviously, and it is an illuminating read in many ways if you are unaware of how racial sexualism and its politics works. And the theories within it are applicable to Australian racial politics!

As Australians I don’t think we need to be experts in the racial politics of other countries; but as Australians heavily influenced by USA media and more importantly heavily influenced by USA social justice blogging and articles, I think it behooves us to understand exactly what it is that we’re consuming. It also behooves us to more critically examine why it is that we are consuming it. (there are three links in that sentence for your further reading)

Remember when the Jackson Jive thing happened on Hey Hey It’s Saturday? A totally racist thing of blackface, for sure, and then dismissed as a USA thing that we couldn’t have known. Aside from the massive prevalence of US narratives in Australia from the period in which blackface was a huge thing, blackface is an Australian thing, too, something Australian history chooses to forget as it picks and chooses and copies from White American Feminism. I recommend reading White Australia has a blackface history by Maxine Clarke at Overland for some backgrounding; it was an important piece to me in 2009 and is still an important piece to me now on this issue.

Look, there is a limit to the USAmerican-ness of our Australian Feminism. Did you know that Australian intersectional commentators (myself included) were also expected to know that Jackson Jive = a shuck and jive reference = intentional reference to shucking and jiving? We were. And how could we? There is only so much USCentrism we can suck down. And this is not new. The Amazing Chally has long been at the forefront (for me) of Australia is not the USA and we don’t need their White Lady Feminism

By the way if you missed #solidarityisforwhitewomen on twitter, well, I’m sorry, I meant to post about it but it just didn’t happen. At some point I’d like to talk about how this applies to Australia and the ways in which it doesn’t, but for now you can read (USA narratives) Why “solidarity” is bullshit at Bitch and Solidarity is for white women (but it doesn’t have to be) by Betty Mamzelle.

Some links: