Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Singa-poor is just FINE

I dislike rules. I dislike rules of any kind really, including those rules which regulate grammar, which is why I have been known to praise sentences like the following which I read in a student essay back in 2004:

“If Anne Frank was so innocent, tell me why were they hiding in an attic again for?” It's hard for me to conceal my amusement with a sentence like that.

Like many Americans, my lack of knowledge about Singapore is what characterizes my understanding of Singapore. I know that they don't allow gum or spitting and that they caned a teenager once for spray painting a wall with graffiti. Other than that I don't know much.

The gum thing is true. A cab driver yesterday paused in his lament over the People's Action Party (he called them the “Pay And Pay” party) to warn me that I faced a 500 dollar fine for the gum chewing. It is a myth though, he explained, that farting in public is illegal, which I thought was particularly charitable.

A casual stroll along the river toward an upscale neighborhood called “The Quay” revealed what looked to be a scale model of the Titanic atop three 57 story towers. Clearly all of the rule making had not encouraged the triumph of common sense regarding what was to be considered architecturally and aesthetically pleasing, but the “eyesore” nature of this building nonetheless encouraged closer inspection. We took the MRT system across town (note to Durian lovers-- eating this fragrant fruit in the metro is punishable by a fine of 500 dollars) and walked along a concrete path by the bay. The “esplanade” (this means “to try to explain something while drunk”) was lined with modern art stainless steel irrigating tubes which sprayed a fine mist over the tropical shimmer of the nearby water, making walking in the sun very nearly tolerable. This led to a mall, which wound through a casino, which led to another mall, which led to a series of security check-points requiring that we have shoes (have you seen how hot it is outside?) and passports. We vowed to return later.

When we finally got up to floor 57, which was only accessible to us if we were guests of the hotel or willing to pay 14 dollars for a beer, we were rewarded with a view of the most spit and gum free city I have ever laid eyes on from an expensive penthouse bar. Somehow though in our enjoyment of money, we three educators were noticeably aware of things which we desired—watches, furniture, coats made from the finest endangered species, or perhaps a live lion cub as underwear such as the one worn by actress Julianne Moore in the storefront window. We were cognizant of being watched and being identified as foreign invaders like “projections” in an “inception” dream, or viruses among helper T cells. That and the fact that we couldn't spit from the top made us retreat from the penthouse bar and into the safety of the Hard Rock Cafe, which was pretty much classy enough for me. As we were walking over there, my colleague stepped into a wad of gum which stretched away with comic elasticity from the sole of her shoe. Singapore would have been significantly less amusing without that one wad of gum.

Similarly, in my role as newspaper editor for the daily publication of The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN), the best sentences were the result of comical grammatical errors. The only way to ruin them would have been to improve them, which was (unfortunately) my lot in life. “Some of the topics the assembly wilt focus on in the committee included the crisis terror of Nepal and the lack of government, the implementation of resolution to-for-to concerning is real, Cote D'Ivoire, and the peace keeping of Cypress” becomes “some of the topics the assembly will focus on include the formation of a constitution in Nepal, implementation of Resolution 242 concerning Israel, facilitating the implementation of the 2003 peace agreement in Cote D'Ivoire, and the fate of the UN peace-keeping mission in Cyprus.” Sure it's shiny, polished, non-offensive and nondenominational, free of gum and spit, but it clearly lacks personality and that indescribable flair that can only come of free will. In that sense, a sentence like this one is right at home in Singapore.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Eye of the beholder

It was the day of the fashion show and anyone with a sense of the absurd would have been forgiven for thinking that aliens had invaded. But these were not people with any sense of the absurd. They were fashion enthusiasts.

In the lobby of the hotel, scores of women waltzed around proudly crowned with what looked to me to be 8th grade science projects-- a DNA double helix, butterfly wings, Papier mâché flower petals and Adam's Family inspired coifs. I arrived on the scene a bit late owing to the fact that I had a desire to sleep in. I expressed over a text to a friend back in the real world who inquired as to my whereabouts that since I was unimportant to the proceedings, that I got to sleep in. He replied that I was not unimportant, but that I needed to regain control over what he called "the sense of narrative."

But there is no place more appropriate than a fashion show to understand that all sense of narrative is a fleeting illusion. This truth is easily understood when the smell of nail polish so strongly permeates the open air as to seem like a weather system, a heavy fog that obscures all sense of meaning.

The hotel was called the "Shangri-la" but as a name which would reveal the sense of theme intended by the proprietors, it was ineffective at best. The inside of the place looked like something off the set of "water world" with fountains and pools of carp which the non fashion inclined chose to fish out of. I had some inkling that the design of the hotel was intended to convey a sense of fairy tale fantasy though, with it's scarecrows near the facade, and a giant windmill that wound round a path next to plastic sculptures of mushrooms like the ones from "Super Mario Brothers."

Nearby a cafe along the banks of the river which stretched from the mountains of Yilan to the nearby ocean, there stood a group of young women posing for a photo indicating the rudimentary "peace sign" which seems to be the signature of so many poses in Taiwan. They all smiled at the same time and looked right at the camera, the implication of their attempt at narrative (we all became suddenly happy at the same time) seeming anachronistic against the backdrop of the rainy river and the cafe which later proved to be locked and empty, cobwebs in the corners.

I laid down on a few chairs which I had pushed together, and enshrouded in the fog of nail polish, I wafted into sleep. From some very strange dreams, I awoke abruptly. Momentarily, I was not cognizant of where I was. From "where I am I?" my mind wandered to "what am I doing here?" and this question, sadly, was not a query which wakefulness could answer. "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" [...]

If you were to ask Melissa though, she would spin a yarn of the youngest nail-work artist ever to win the "most original" prize, of youthful energy stymied by the established order, subversion of the dominant paradigm the sort of which Melissa, the tattoo artist, exhibitionist, perpetually scornful of established social norms would be in support of... err, well, apparently she's no good at doing nails.

The story, told in frustrated tones, went something like this:

Two years ago, Melissa was asked to be a model for the up-and-coming child prodigy nail artist in Tai-Chung, whose mother, like so many scary stage moms, had groomed her to be Taiwan's youngest nail art champion. Melissa was the only "foreigner" model at the competition, which included hundreds of competitors from far away China, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and other south Asian countries where they take their fingernails, very very seriously. To include a foreigner model, and to bill oneself as the youngest ever nail artist in the history of Taiwan was, by Melissa's perception, merely a publicity stunt, albeit one that worked smoothly enough to win the then 10 year old nail artist the prize of most original. But regrettably (again, according to Melissa) this was at the expense of the dignity of her (Melissa's) fingernails which suffered an onslaught of chemicals and ended up looking "awful, just awful" to connoisseurs of such things, who obviously overlooked certain elements of sloppiness and awarded most original to the young girl anyway, much to the outrage of those older and more wizened veterans of the craft.

Those same wizened veterans were busy creating the most elaborate and dare I say "gaudy and pretentious" nails which had ever been glued to human hands. Some of the danglies, bobblies and various accoutrements, were longer and larger than the fingers themselves, and in sum, larger and more clumsy than the hands themselves. Just for fun, I walked up and offered one nail model a beverage in a teacup, just to watch her try to pick it up which she couldn't. She probably would have died of thirst if the contest had lasted longer. One woman had little bowties glued to her fingers. "Cute" would be the word, provided that you would also apply that word to some sort of bird species whose overly elaborate plumage caused other birds to avoid mating with it, suspecting it to be crazy.

I am asked to pose for an array of photos, Melissa standing nearby. I think "of those so close beside me, which are you?" and I smile. Another photo, and another and another, until I have slipped into another time and place, somewhere else entirely. A handshake, another smile. "Wo ting bu dong." Smile. Exchange business cards. Smile. Nod.

Later, in the night-market, we saw a sweatshirt on which the phrase "what the fuck?" was indecorously printed. Now that's my kind of fashion.