Saturday, April 23, 2005

Of Food, Buildings and Blood…..

I have these confused feelings about Singapore. On one hand I hate the soulless efficiency of the place; the cold over-governmental excesses; the way every park bench and every picnic table has a state assigned number (“you have a license to use picnic table E403B on Saturday from 2.30-4.30”…I’m not joking BTW); the way the Department of Youth Affairs (of whatever it may be called) has allocated a certain space for young people to do their wild things (like “hip-hoping” or “skate boarding”) and these things are not permitted elsewhere; the bland uniformity of the malls and the way people dress; that there is not one decent record shop on the island; twelve bucks for a beer in a bar (most of which look good but aren’t...Singapore’s club and bar life is very average) and most of all I hate the zealous need to succeed which permeates the place, crushing some of its heart. You see few birds in Singapore…I guess they couldn’t get a permit to leave their assigned zones. There is a big patch of grass in the CBD with signs saying it’s government grass and cannot be walked on…I always go across it…..its a silly sign of faux rebellion against the omnipresent big brother….

What I love about this bit of reconstituted swamp with four million inhabitants, clashes with the distaste I have for the above. I love the food…everywhere, on street corners, in markets, in food halls, in Little India, in Chinatown, every cuisine you can imagine at any price level you want (I crave the claypot Chicken Curries you find out in the suburban food markets, and the crunchy baby squid and water chestnut from the big Hawker’s Market just south of the Fullerton); I love the technology, which puts most of the rest of the world to shame, and the personal access to technology (although can I find a decent Bluetooth mobile printer anywhere? ..big big gap in the market as the guys in Funan kept telling me…) Singapore as the rest of the world goes gaga still over the iPod, they’ve moved onto the Creative Zen and the new Walkman (I'm not sure if that is consumer facism or progress) moves so bloody fast; the way you can txt a cab to a rank and it arrives with your name flashing…and it only costs a few dollars to go anywhere; the wireless hotspots with free broadband at the airport and in malls and cafes; the incredible architecture and the way the new sits so well with the old…Auckland, hang your head in shame (although the architecture outside the central city gives you some idea of what inner city AK is gonna look like after Tony Tay is finished with his jailcell ghettos)….; but as much as anything I love the way that despite the officious bureaucracy of the place, it still resounds with the human spirit that they can’t dampen...and, like Russia which, after 70 years of a brutal failed revolution, still had the drive to rise against it in 1989-90, I doubt they ever will.

But I doubt I could ever live there again

I’ve been to Singapore five times in the past year, after a gap of some twenty years and on the second visit I rented a car and hunted out the house I used to live in as a young boy. Back then it was an average tropical bungalow in an average housing district called Frankel Estate, that the RNZAF rented for our family. We were the only Europeans on the street …I grew up playing with the local Chinese kids and by age 5 spoke fluent Mandarin (all gone now of course). The street (Frankel Drive) was still there on the A-Z map, which in itself is a wonder…in the intervening decades much of Singapore has demolished and redeveloped, so we did a search...Brigid on the map, which in itself was brave, and we found it. The same little house which looks pretty much as I remember it, and considering I last saw it when I was five, I was taken aback by that. I had resigned myself to the fact that it would bear no resemblance to my memories. It looked the same, down to the furniture on the patio and the Banana tree out front. The street, and the estate, on the other hand had metamorphosed into an obviously very upmarket suburb complete with those massive pillared mansions that look like Southfork on Steroids that the Chinese rich are so fond of. But somehow, in the middle of this, my childhood house had survived. It was the only house in the street that had. We, being, me and daughter as Brigid got grumpy at this sentimentality and went back to the car, peered over the fence and the neighbours looked suspiciously at us. I videoed the whole thing and the surrounding streets, to make into a DVD for my parents and we left. It made me feel pretty good to see it again.

So I’m sitting on a lounger beside a pool at a private villa in Sanur, Bali writing this. Its really is, and I have to keep on telling myself this. I’m having music withdrawals. I need new music to survive and I might check out the new “DJ” shop here but my hopes are not high..although I know I’ve got the new Glimmers !K7 comp waiting in Auckland and I wish I’d bought the Digweed Choice album in Singapore…I’m not within a million miles of being a John Digweed fan but this looks pretty good. After giving away the Bloc Party album, I think I want it one golden rule of never parting with anything has to be more religiously adhered to, I think.

But the music outlets here are sad. On the other hand, I love MTV Asia, in small doses. Its not that much of the local pop is that good..much of it is hard going..its more that its so well slick and sharp and the presentation puts much of the stuff that we produce to shame. Its so well crafted and edgy…the industry side of me appreciates that. There is always one song though..every time I come to this part of the world, and this time there is this poppy guitar based punk funk thing out of Malaysia that I keep on hearing but can’t catch the name of…last time I was here I was singing songs to shop staff to find one track..they just looked bemused at the crazy guy from Selandia Baru.

What I do want is another shot at that West Sumatran Padangnese food they serve at the warung up the jalan. The first time we went, they bought out about 25 plates of food and we, so as not to appear rude, despite the fact that there were several plates that were decidedly suspect, and that I’d eaten far too much of the amazing rendang and various curries already, felt obliged to try them all, or at least make them look like we had by moving them around a bit. To our surprise it was quite pricey, by Indonesian standards. The taxi driver then told us you only pay for what you eat and you push the rest away untouched… …

I want to go back and do it properly….

And I’ve had the best pizza I’ve had anywhere on the planet in a restaurant called The Village, which used to be across the road from where it is now but has recently moved into more upmarket premises…unbelievable…..nothing, anywhere on planet earth touches this place for the quality, variety, presentation and depth of flavour in the food. I guess if paradise had to be defined then Bali is about as close as you get on planet earth.

On the surface at least.

The dark side is well explored in John Hughes superb “The End of Sukarno” written in the late sixties. It’s excellent until the last chapter, which betrays its US cold war origins and must, if Mr Hughes is still around, be profoundly embarrassing to him. The US role in the 1965 massacre of some 300,000 Indonesian communists and ethnic Chinese is also ignored. The CIA gave lists of people it wanted terminated to the military, who happily dispatched them. Bali, for all its peace and serenity, was one of the most blood covered parts of the nation as it ripped itself apart after a failed leftist coup, with some 40,000 massacred. The odd side of this, from a western perspective, was that many, if not most of these, murdered in Bali went to their deaths without objection it seems. The island saw the period as some of natural cleansing. Whole villages were simply taken out and killed, and headmen selected those in his village for death. As a European on a different spiritual plane, I can’t get my head around that, and I wondered, if there is no objection from those being cleansed, whether murder is the right word, or simply a preconception we have.

As I travel around this island all that haunts me a little…….

Monday, April 18, 2005

Selamat Pagi I'm in Indonesia where things happen slowly..another post is coming (but there are other distractions) The OD (in Sanur)