YOU GUYS, IT’S CHRISTMAS! I mean, it’s the Christmas season. And while I used to be quite grinchy about the whole thing, I’ve given in and admitted that I love the tinsel, the food, the drink and Billie Piper’s cover of “Last Christmas“.
I mean, it probably helps that Christmas is a religious holiday for me, so in addition to the general secular cheer, the season has another layer of meaning. Hell, Christmas has lots of meanings, some of them contradictory.
And some of them are pretty localised. Christmas is a beacon of hope in the darkest time of year! It’s a time for families to huddle together against the cold! Why, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without snow!
Christmas, in Australia, takes place in early summer, just a few days after solstice. Most years, if a church has air conditioning, it’s running full blast through the Midnight Mass. The Christmas Eve vigil Mass is often held outside. (Well, it was in my home town, where “outside” meant a nice, empty field, not a busy inner city street!)
Mulled wine is just the starter for sangria. (No, seriously, you know that vile glögg sold at Ikea? A third of a bottle, a third of a bottle of cheap shiraz, some soda water and some orange. SO GREAT.) My mother only drinks at Christmas, so we drink a bottle of fizzy, cheap Lambrusco with lunch and then have a siesta as the afternoon gets hotter.
Oh, the food. Even if I became vegan tomorrow, I’d have to make an exception for Christmas. Sure, we have our turkeys and our chickens, but one year, Mum baked fish and served it with a vast array of salads. Most years, she roasts a lamb on Christmas Eve, and we eat it cold for lunch the next day. (If it lasts that long. “Elizabeth, stop picking at the lamb!” is the annual Christmas refrain.)
I haven’t been home for Christmas for a few years, and this year I’m feeling really low about that, so forgive me if I become nostalgic.
In fact, all this festive nostalgia drove me to Pastures of the Blue Crane by H F Brinsmead, one of my favourite books as a kid. It’s the story of a lonely, snobbish girl whose father dies, leaving her a grandfather she never knew, property in northern New South Wales, and a bunch of family secrets. For a book with an explicitly anti-racist message, it’s also amazingly racist, but that’s the ’60s for you. Here is the heroine’s new next door neighbour describing her Christmas plans:
‘Now, I’ll be very hurt if you and your grandad don’t come over and have Christmas dinner with us! I’m counting on you. I’ve got a turkey – we’ll have it cold – and avocado pears with french dressing and stuffed peppers. I feel really inspired over tomorrow’s dinner.’
And it’s taken me this many years to realise that “avocado pears” just means avocado, not some unholy combination of avocado and pear.
The event itself:
It was eaten on a trestle table under the great Moreton Bay fig-trees at the edge of Clem’s lawn … Clem’s new brick house was not large and would never have contained the eighteen diners whom they managed, without any trouble, to muster. These included two very old aunts, a married daughter with three small children, the married daughter’s husband and parents-in-law, Clem’s father – who was about Dusty’s age and universally known as Butch Bradley – and various other people claiming connexion. This assortment of people seemed to enjoy each other’s company with gusto, drawing the newcomers into their circle as though they, too, were part of the country and its life.
The meal was such a major affair that it trailed on well into the afternoon, finally merging into a cold tea.
That, to me, has always seemed like the ideal Christmas: outdoors, with lots of food and even more family and friends. Which is kind of weird, now I think about it, because mine is a rather small, isolated, indoorcentric sort of family. We have never gone to the beach on Christmas Day (too crowded) to play beach cricket (too crowded, also, cricket is a team sport, and therefore something we do not do). I have vague memories of my grandparents hosting a barbecue in summer once, but whether that was for Christmas, I have no idea.
Things we don’t do for Christmas in Australia:
Holly. Doesn’t grow here. You can buy plastic holly, but … why?
Mistletoe. It does grow here, but it’s a noxious exotic parasite. Except for native mistletoe, obviously, which belongs to the local ecosystem, but no one kisses under that. (Do northern hemisphere types really kiss under mistletoe? Seriously?)
Hang Christmas stockings over a fireplace. Okay, we might do that, in houses that have fireplaces (mine does, and we done), but we also don’t…
We’re just getting on with our lives. And mocking. So much mocking.
“Hey, Bazza, Panem’s 75th Hunger Games are on.”
“Seriously? Again? Why haven’t we invaded them and imposed democracy yet?”
“‘Cos I’m still waiting for my download of the 74th Hunger Games to finish. Fucking fibre to the node.”
And that would have been the end of it, except that, still chuckling at my own joke, I went and had a shower.
You know what happens in showers, right?
IDEAS. Unless you’re deliberately showering in the hopes of brain stimulation. Then your brain just laughs at you, and you sadly realise you’re doing nothing but wasting water.
I got thinking about what an Australian YA dystopia — well, really any Australian dystopia — would look like, and how it would work. Not that I’m treading new ground — remember my rant about The Sea and Summer? — but it’s not like America lets the existence of a couple of iconic dystopias stand in the way of publishing and filming more.
Apropos my last post, because this is something I think about a lot, especially since I saw Catching Fire last week, and am now re-reading The Hunger Games. And, dammit, I get sad that we don’t have a YA dystopia with an emotionally stunted iconic heroine played by Shari Sebbens and brooding and handsome hero played by Jordan Rodrigues of our own!
So the thing about Australia is, we’re roughly the same size as the United States, but much more sparsely populated. So in the event of some kind of technological cataclysm, such as a nuclear electromagnetic pulse coupled with radical climate change, we’re less likely to wind up with a totalitarian one-party state than a series of isolated communities that occasionally fight over resources. Some of those isolated communities might be totalitarian one-party states, though, if you’re into that sort of thing.
For example, Perth is separated from the rest of Australia by a GIANT DESERT, and Western Australia is a vast state in its own right, so that would be the first to separate. (Nightsiders by Sue Isle is a collection of novellas set in a dystopian Perth.) I’ve never actually been to WA, but it was the last state to join up when we were federating. (At one stage, “Australia” was going to be the eastern and central states, plus New Zealand. Ah, good times.) WA also has, to a considerable extent, its own isolated legal system, not to mention a lively secessionist movement. How well it would do on its own is debateable, but if we assume a system where the Federal Government and Constitution no longer function, I reckon WA would be the first state to go full independence/Mad Max style leather-clad anarchy.
Tasmania would go next, because it’s an island, and I shall refrain from making cannibal jokes out of consideration for … you know. We would also shed Darwin, which is closer to South East Asia than it is to other Australian cities.
Likewise, far north Queensland would probably be cementing its close geographic ties to the Torres Strait and New Guinea — in the coastal regions, at least. Further inland, you’d probably have your isolated homesteaders, the kind of people who already think they’re living in the End Times and prove it by voting for Bob Katter. Queensland, as people like to point out whenever the issue of daylight savings is raised, is basically several states smushed together anyway. I expect my mum will end up in Clive Palmer’s People’s Republic.
…Come to think of it, there’s a lot of mineral wealth in WA and QLD, not to mention uranium in the Northern Territory, but how much of that is of use to those states if large-scale international trade has collapsed remains to be seen. But it certainly brings them closer to self-sufficiency than, say, Canberra.
Then you have your larger state capitals, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. They’re all within driving distance, albeit a couple of days’ drive, so I can see that they wouldn’t be entirely isolated. But how much power the Federal Government has in those circumstances is debateable. (I mean, the Constitution gives a lot more power to the States than the Federal Government, but Federalism developed along with the technological resources for faster communication and travel.)
ANYWAY, what you end up with are several separate communities, not hugely trusting of one another. (Even now, you can see the old rivalries in the scrum that develops around GST revenue and Federal funding.) Stack on a few generations, let this develop as the status quo, let technology re-develop but keep in mind the effects of climate change, and what do you have? A totalitarian state? A laissez faire corporatocracy? Anarchy? All this and everything in between, depending on where you are?
Not to mention all the nations around us would dealing with their own problems, many of them small island states being swallowed up by the rising oceans. ”SCARY FORNERS INVADING HONEST, WHITE AUSTRALIA” is one of those right-wing tropes I prefer to avoid, but there comes a point where you’re wondering why they’re not knocking on the door.
Again, this comes back to those odd US dystopias where the rest of the world apparently doesn’t exist. Certainly in The Hunger Games, Panem includes Canada, but what’s meant to have happened to the rest of North America is a mystery. But that’s set so far in the future that no one — well, not Katniss, whose education has mostly involved coal and revolution — has any particular understanding or memory of the United States as a thing that existed.
Australia doesn’t get to be an isolated dystopia, because, much as some politicians would like to think otherwise, we’re not an isolated nation. The lines might wind up drawn differently, but we don’t get to stand alone.
Some local dystopia for you:
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina is the first in a YA trilogy (I think) about young people with special abilities in a future, dystopian Australia. It’s also one of the few works of science fiction by an Indigenous author — oh, look, she’s a guest of honour at Continuum next year, plug, plug, plug. I actually didn’t finish the first book, because it wasn’t what I was in the mood for at the time, but I couldn’t actually say whether it’s good or bad or in between.
Karen Healey’s When We Wake isn’t precisely a dystopia — its future Australia is pretty great, provided you don’t care about refugees, or incredibly powerful militaries, and what not. In short, it’s very much like the present day — quite fantastic, as long as you don’t look at things too closely.
(Karen responded to my Tumblr post and described When We Wake as a pre-dystopia, which I think is great.)
An anti-rec: The Rosie Black Chronicles by Lara Morgan. I can’t remember if this is actually dystopian, or just plain old sci-fi. I was too busy facepalming at the terrible writing and general racism to pay attention.
Zwarte Piet is making a brief appearance in Melbourne this Christmas, and in this article at the SMH the author both acknowledges it’s terrible (“You wouldn’t want to be black, I figured”) and totally fails at justifying then why he’s taking his kids again. I love culture and history and my own especially, so I get it – but when your history is racist, maybe time to actually let it go? Stomping through the tulips (I DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND THIS ARTICLE TITLE)
In the final episode of Serangoon Road, we suffer through flashbacks of Winston’s last night, solve Winston’s murder, and I am fooled so thoroughly by how the show ends that I clapped my hands in delight.
We open with Winston’s Last Night, weirdly energetic fight-kissing with Joan (who isn’t wearing a cheongsam!!) and Winston on the ground. In a series of flashbacks we establish that Don passed by Winston (they conversed briefly), and that after visiting Second Wife he ended up tracing a path towards the Unionists Headquarters. How they do some of this detectiving is a mystery to me as they leap from Dixon Road looking for his favourite kopitiam to some other road and the union headquarters located upon it. I wish Don wouldn’t mumble so.
The effort to solve the mystery of Winston’s murder steps up its pace, as the well-dressed murderer from the previous episode is let out on bail and disappears into the streets of Singapore. While combing the streets with Joan, Don meets Claire’s gaze across Dixon Street. I laugh because it’s so awkward and I don’t want them to get back together. Don visits Professor Union Leader (E07) in jail, who is ALIVE after being SHOT IN THE HEART and arrested for being a unionist which I thought was a treasonous act? Who admits that he had a meeting with Winston but Winston never turned up so he thought nothing of it. Then he heard he was killed, and he knew his brother had paid for someone to intercept Winston but never mentioned this before? And that they had a meeting because Union Professor had paid Winston to investigate his brother James Lim? And Don just accepts this. Apparently. I don’t even know.
Pamelyn lays it on thick with how if CIA dude doesn’t help them find out about James Lim (the businessman from E03, and Professor Unionist’s brother) then the detective agency will close and her family will make her marry a Peranakan boy and she’ll never get to go to America with the love of her life. I roll my eyes so hard they’d fall out of my head if they hadn’t already done so at CIA dude’s horrendous Mandarin. Fortunately, Don makes fun of him on my behalf.
CIA dude does some snooping and discovers the file for James Lin exists but is empty; Big CIA Dude comes in and admits he knows CIA dude is the leak to MI6. This leads CIA dude to sass MI6 dude, and tries to play him, asking MI6 dude for stuff in return for directly helping him to get a position in Washington. In more white boy news, Frank comes to find Don, and the cinematography is excellent; Don is in the Black Orchid, laughing as he shakes hands to seal a deal with some Chinese dudes. Frank is actually excellent here, as a character though not as an actor, telling Don that he and Claire are leaving Singapore, but he wants Don to make his case to Claire because he’s not gonna spend the rest of his life with Claire if a part of her never leaves “here.”
Back at the Agency, CIA dude tells Pamelyn there’s no file on James Lin, like a big lying liar, and Joan’s songbirds are dead! It’s a threat! (“I can get her some for cheap, maybe even throw in a duck,” says my loveheart Alaric). Don however decides this is enough, and storms over to James Lin’s office where they can hear fighting about a key and JAMES LIN AND THE MURDERER DUDE ARE FIGHTING and then the murderer dude CUTS OFF JAMES LIM’S HEAD. It goes rolling down the stairs!
There’s a safe in the office, and Alaric and Don decide to break into it by using explosives. Yes. Excellent. As they’re setting it up Don asks how Alaric knew his gf was the one; “There’s only one Ju-E and I like her. There’s nobody else.” NO DON DON’T GO TO CLAIRE NO. Don asks if they’re using too much explosives; “what else am I gonna use this for?” which as you may suspect goes super well, but works to break open the safe. Alaric, after his financial woes, delights in dancing around as money falls from the sky and he shoves the cash into his pockets; Don is more interested in the folder lying there, with negatives and documentation.
A flashback reveals James Lin having dinner with a white dude; as if there’s ever any doubt, the white dude turns out to be Big CIA Dude. Don confronts Big CIA Dude (his name is Wild Bill, by the way), who is playing card games with other white dudes in some bar populated solely by non-Asians. Don threatens to take it to Ario, the murder of a chinese citizen, if Wild Bill doesn’t fess up; he fesses that James Lim had a silent partner, and Wild Bill didn’t care if James Lin dealing with the CIA went public so he’s not the one who had Winston killed but James Lim had political aspirations so probably didn’t; and maybe the silent partner cared…? IS IT THE TONGS I BET IT’S THE TONGS.
Back in the Agency, Joan makes a discovery and hears a sound, assumes it’s Don but obviously it’s not; it’s murderer dude. Joan cowers, is afraid, gets thrown around a lot but then she brains him with the giant rotary phone before stabbing him in the hand with a letter opener and then Don comes storming through and beats him like fuck.
After tying him to the couch and…leaving him there…Joan and Don decide to tell the Tiger General that Kay Song has been in partnership with James Lim to sell land to the CIA, on the grounds that the Tiger General would kill him for it.
In the Dragon House, the Tiger General is watching his coffin being made, as is a tradition. They ask for an audience (in English?!) and explain what’s been going on (IN ENGLISH?!) and when Kay Song gets his men to beat up Sam, Joan starts calling out for help IN ENGLISH out IN FRONT OF THE TONG HOUSE like that would ever help. Joan. Geeze.
The Tiger General gets mad at Kay Song: they come and they go and finally we have Singapore for ourselves, and you help the Americans take it. This is obviously a completely open and explicit discussion of colonialism and the possibility of being complicit in that; and perhaps a discussion of older Singaporean values versus more modern Singaporean values. He says “do not let me see the body,” of Song Ge; and then Song Ge suffocates Grandfather Dragon as they all just watch. He speaks softly; My grandfather had a heart attack, he says. We have witnesses. I’m sorry you had to be here for this sad day, Mrs Cheng, Sam. You may now leave me to my grief. It’s such a quiet, compelling, amazing scene of a psychopath and a community in the middle of a whole bunch of stuff that makes no sense.
In the CIA compound, or wherever these guys hang out, we find out that Wild Bill is being sent away and CIA dude gets to stay. MI6 dude is going to Washington, and hands over Pamelyn’s file to CIA dude. CIA dude makes him promise it’s the only copy. I kept my word, MI6 dude says. I hope she’s worth it. CIA dude basically chews the scenery through this entire section, as he always does.
We wrap up in a series of scenes across the Agency. Joan is looking at a photo of Winston; Don is looking pensive. Uncle Owner is dancing hilariously. Alaric and Ju-E are cuddling, CIA dude turns up to talk to Pamelyn, and Don is having memories of Claire. I bet he goes back to her, and I’m so boooreeedddd.
I realise that it’s Moon Festival, which is nice! There’s lanterns like I had as a kid (like I still have now), and family and moon cake and Joan gazing into her wine and she’s all “go to her” and I’m all NO JOAN WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT.
So Don is running and Claire and Frank are getting into the car Frank steps away. Don says he loves her; she slaps him. Don talks about how great they are and what they’ll do tonight instead of her leaving Singapore, and she makes out and she’s like “and what about tomorrow?” and he says “We’ll work it out” and “I love you” and Claire says “I’ll always love you” and “it’s too late” and then she walks away and gets into the car which has already started to drive away (I guess Frank thought she was gonna stay) and she just looks at Frank and gets in the car and doesn’t look back and I shriek and clap my hands in delight. CLAIRE YOU’RE THE BEST.
We cut to MI6 dude pushing a copy of the Pamelyn file into an envelope addressed to Wild Bill. “Take that, you little piece of shit,” he says, as he seals it. I laugh and clap my hands in delight. You were a jerk but well played, that man.
In Serangoon Road, Don turns up as everyone gathers in the street and watches the awkward CGI fireworks. There’s dragon dance (I don’t dragon dance at moon festival, but sure, I guess) and firecrackers and people smiling warmly at one another, and that’s where it ends, content and not-revenged and Chinese (with two interloping white guys) on Serangoon Road.
Hey so that was a series! As a finale it went where it needed to go, tying up all the loose ends and giving us an ending. The major season arcs of who and why Winston was killed, and boring white romance thingies, were resolved. But we didn’t learn any more about Alaric’s gambling, which was such a major thread in earlier episodes, and Ario was completely wasted. He spent so much time letting Don dictate things, despite being a police officer, and I’d like to know why. There was some effort towards lines towards a second season, primarily the postage of the file to Wild Bill and Song Ge’s dismissal of Joan and Don, and of course in the celebration of Mid-Autumn Festival, but all in all it felt like an end.
This final episode was also about relationships and connections. A lot of the flashbacks were about Winston’s relationships with the people around him (dancing and making out with Joan and teasing her; Don offering him help as they passed by one another; being firm with Second Wife and the boy). There was Pamelyn establishing boundaries in her relationship with CIA dude, Don trying to work out his relationship with Claire (and Frank trying to establish where his own relationship lies), the reaffirmation of Alaric and Ju-E’s relationship. Even the storyline as it extended out beyond Winston’s murder was about relationships: the Lim brothers spying on one another; Song Ge’s relationship to his Grandfather, and Joan and Don’s relationship to the Red Dragons. It was excellent in just this way, because if you’re going to tell a story of Singapore you need to be telling a story of families and relationships.
Speaking of families, I’d love to know if there was non-Asian confusion about Joan suddenly being Auntie and Second Wife and the boy being considered family (explicitly, with “中秋节 being a time for family”), as it isn’t something that needs to be explained but given the explainy-ness of other parts of the series, perhaps it does?
Sometimes in my reviews I think I came across as hating this series. I didn’t hate it at all. I loved the feelings of familiarity and home-ness I got from watching this, and the way my heart warmed and the way I felt homesick whenever they got something right (or even close to right); and the way it jarred when it was so wrong. I appreciated when the terrible things were accurate, like pompous Westerners (men and women) in their cooled, tidy, clean, separated enclave, too precious to dirty themselves near locals, not bothering to learn any of our dialects or languages (my father was one of those people, in fact). But this was not a great series, even on its own; and it was an awkward one when you remember it’s not only from My ABC, but from HBO Asia as well, when HBO is so well known for amazing television. This was not worthy of that – at times it was awkward, clunky, and filled with average writing and dialogue that was pedestrian and added no real character quirks, merely served to push the plot along.
But I still enjoyed the ride.
I have a wrap up post to come, which will be going up at Peril Magazine, talking about some of the themes of Serangoon Road after I’ve had a chance to percolate on them. Some things I’m gonna be talking about include: Don’s total disrespect for everyone in his constant refusal to clothe himself properly, I mean seriously, that is more inappropriate than the Mr Darcy goes swimming scene in the 1995 BBC P+P; Colonialism and westerners in SEA in the mid-20th Century; interracial relationships in SEA in the mid-20th Century; race relations; the representation of SEA in western media; the sense of home on my tv here in Australia and what that means.
Uh but if you wanna chat about this on twitter, fb or in the comments here. PING ME. Do it now.
DON DRESS APPROPRIATELY HAVE SOME RESPECT. EVEN THE DUDE IN JAIL CAN DO IT.
Old people memory dancing, so awkward
Pamelyn, Secretary of my Heart, makes CIA dude apologise for lying about the file. I know you can’t tell me all about your work, she says. Just say no comment.
When Joan tells Pamelyn about Second Wife and the baby, she says “your Uncle Winston had another family,” which is the exact right way to say it. At the mistress’ house, the boy calls Joan Auntie and implies that she’s paying for his new school, which, nwaaah. Family.
Language watch: Joan says kopitiam but Don says coffee shop. Whhhhy? No Hokkien for like a million years. Lots of lols Mando, but technically should have been more also.
After all that give give give help from Ario to Don, nothing came of it! Ario why you helping this mat salleh what.
They tie murderer to the couch, bandage his hand, and then just leave him there?
Wild Bill: so amazing with the lines. “Make sure you find them before they find you,” he says to Don in the bar about the silent partner; “You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas”; “It’s not that you did it, it’s whatever he’s got on you that made you do it.” This entire scene had some cliched lines but was still somehow excellent. “I can’t use you. Everyone crosses the line; it’s important you look back and you can still see it.”
Grandfather Tiger also excellent lines, mostly to Joan and Don: “Speak.” to Don: “Not you.”
Were the negatives in that file they gave to Grandfather Tiger (which Kay Song then burnt)? Could use that for future!