The Bus Driver who wanted to be God by Etgar Keret


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If you’ve read my review of his other book, Suddenly, A Knock On The Door (https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/suddenly-a-knock-on-the-door-by-etgar-keret/) you would know this Israeli writer has been described as Kafkaesque, for his bizarre stories which he makes them so realistic you don’t find them weird until you reach the end and pause. This 196-page book comprises 21 short stories and one novella.

Let me focus on the novella which has a novel idea, pardon the pun, of setting in a world where everyone who had committed suicide gather. When Mordy, the protagonist meets someone, his first reaction is to guess how that person ‘offed’. A Juliet is one who had taken poison and thus shows no external injuries. His friend Uzi has a scar on his right temple where the bullet went in. Then there was Kneller, who ‘with every step he took, his body went in all directions like he was trying to go lots of different places at the same time and couldn’t make up his kind.’ So they all gather at this world where it’s pretty regular like the mortal world, with supermarkets, bars and working people. When Mordy learns that his love Desiree had also offed, he sets out on an adventurous journey to find her.

Apart from this novella, the other short stories have protagonists you probably wouldn’t meet in real life so it is fascinating to go into their world. In Good Intention, we meet a sniper sent to assassinate a very nice guy, who had treated him kindly as a child in an orphanage and found he couldn’t complete the task, only to learn a twist at the end.

Seeing that this is the Year of the Pig, there’s this lovely story I want to read to my nephew, about a child who was given a piggy bank to save for a Bart Simpson doll, but he got so attached to the pig he decided to save it from his father who was adamant about breaking it.

There are many other stories which I am sure you’d enjoy. Go read. 

 

 

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Offending Tai Sui


Today is the third day of the lunar new year. This year is the year of the pig. According to this signage in front of Thian Hock Keng Temple at Telok Ayer Road, my zodiac sign, the snake, together with the pig, the tiger and the monkey, have opposing forces with Tai Sui, and will suffer some form of upheaval and challenges for that year.

Tai Sui (太岁)is also known as the Great Duke Jupiter, which is an intangible star which moves directly opposite of the planet Jupiter. Toaism personified the star. In Chinese mythology, the Great Duke Jupiter holds a position in the celestial heaven and is in charge of the mortal world’s affairs. Tai Sui is an important aspect in Chinese Astrology, Fengshui and Toaism.

To appease Tai Sui, these four zodiac signs have to pray to Tai Sui(安太岁)to neutralise conflicts and seek blessings, protection and good fortune at the beginning of the Lunar New Year. Then one must return thanks before Winter Solstice to thank Tai Sui for the blessings and protection for that year.

I would usually think such stuff as superstitions and ignore it, although I had prayed before in my younger days. However, as I walked past the temple today, I decided to discover what this Chinese tradition is all about.

I pulled my yoga buddy WT to accompany me as he visits temple often. I needn’t have worried as there wasn’t really much I needed to do. There were two helpful assistants at a table set up just for this purpose. All i had to do was to purchase a packet containing Tai Sui joss paper($2), tea leaves and candy (didn’t see this) , red packet with money for blessings (压岁钱)- ten cents for every year of my life, which can be more but not less. Thus I enclosed $5.50 in the red packet. Included in the whole packet is a form with basic information such as name, gender and lunar birth date.

Next, I walk to the front of Tai Sui altar, kneeled on the stool while the caretaker recited something in Hokkien. Then I prayed three times with the packet and handed the packet over to be burnt later, excluding the red packet with the money, of course.

Could I take a photo of Tai Sui? I asked.

Of course not, you can’t take photos or videos of Gods.

Could you please translate what you recited?

Every thing good and positive. Wish you a happy life, good health, prosperity, good career, etc.

I walked out of the temple feeling comforted, even if there’s a niggling doubt in my skeptical atheist mind about the whole affair. At least I am wiser about this Chinese tradition which we should not lose touch with, atheist, skeptic or otherwise.

Now I need a reminder to thank Tai Sui at the end of the year. Somehow, praying and paying to the Gods seems all like a commercial transaction.

(reference : The Legend of Tai Sui, published by Thian Hock Keng)

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1819 by Isa Kamari


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This year, Singapore celebrates the Bicentennial of the founding of Modern Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles. The Singapore Literature Book picked this book for our February meet to coincide with the celebration.

This book, a historical fiction, is translated from Malay. I had enjoyed his first book, Rawa (https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/rawa-by-isa-kamari/) and had looked forward to learning a little more history, which was my worst subject during my secondary school years.

Although titled 1819, the year Raffles landed in Singapore, the book spans a few years, and not very much is focussed on Raffles or the British establishment in Singapore then. Instead, the book tells the story of some important Malay/Muslims who had worked with the British, chiefly Sultan Hussein Muhammad Shah, installed as a puppet Sultan in Singapore by the British and where the Istana at Kampong Glam was built for. Another historical figure is Munsyi Abdulla bin Abdul Kadir, who worked as a writer for Raffles and helped translate the Bible into Malay, much to the chagrin of the Muslim’s community. Wak Cantuk, a silat (a Malay martial art) master is portrayed as the villain who, against the advice of Habib Nuh bin Habib Muhammad, killed his foster daughter and her husband and ended his life tragically. Were this a fact or fiction, I would need to seek the clarification of the author during the meet.

In my opinion, historical fiction based on real people should be clear in its timeline. This is, unfortunately, flippantly handled in the book. One example is the arrival of Raffles and William Farquhar to Singapore on the same boat. Yet, we are not clear when the divide and rule policy for the three main ethnic groups was established, which to me seemed to be have been done before their arrival.

Also unclear are the ages of the three boys who play a big part in the book. We are introduced to Ajis, Ramli and Sudin in the beginning whom I thought were kids, as Sudin wets his sarong from fear at a cemetery. Yet to hear them discuss politics and the subsequent love affair between Ramli and Marmah, I realise these kids are in fact, teenagers.

 

Most of the main characters, including Raffles, Crawfurd, Wat Cantuk and the Sultan, are portrayed as in a negative light. Raffles is jealous and ambitious while the Sultan is lazy and greedy. Only Farquhar and Habib Nuh, regarded as the Saint of Allah, are written favorably. Again, I wonder if these historical figures are actually portrayed, and should fiction make them into something they are not.

While the book gives some insight into life before colonial Singapore, I didn’t learn much history or about the three British men who played an important role in the Founding of Modern Singapore. For that, The Sunday Times printed a good excerpt of Raffles, Farquhar and Crawfurd in the article The Clerk, the officer and the surgeon  (https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-clerk-the-officer-and-the-surgeon), taken from the book 200 Years of Singapore and The United Kingdom.

Perhaps the author could shed more details during our meet. That’s the joy and advantage of belonging to the Singapore Lit Book Club – we get to meet the author.

 

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The Joy of eating Asian Food


The US TV dating show, The Bachelor came to Singapore, supposedly to eat our local food (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/voraciously/wp/2019/01/29/the-bachelor-goes-to-singapore-and-perpetuates-nasty-stereotypes-about-asian-food/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.bf148e1627e3 ). Unfortunately, most of the contestants found our food not only not appetizing, one actually vomited.

 

I don’t blame them. Many local kids I know may just turn out to be like these blond Americans if what I observe continues.

Just in my own extended family, the younger generation grimace when presented with unfamiliar food. My half-German niece and nephew will ewe and urgh at what I eat or what I feed my own sons whenever they visit. I don’t blame them. They live in a culture where the food is presented in dull, boneless, equal dimensional shape, processed and unrecognizable from the source of origin. The adults perpetuate and encourage by insisting on serving or ordering the same familiar food, instead of trying new cuisines, especially when traveling.

Adventurous eating is a skill which must be trained from young and can be richly rewarding when traveling, especially around Asian countries. How else can you learn about the culture and heritage of a country if you insist on eating spaghetti or burgers in Hanoi or Chiangmai? Local street food is rich with flavours and texture (ensure they are well cooked and served hot, and you should be fine.) I train my sons to eat chicken feet, their juvenile tongues learning to separate the many bones from the flesh even before they started primary schools. Intestines, gizzards, pig ears are some of our favourite must-have when eating kway chap or Teochew porridge, so much so that one kway chap stall owner commented to us that my young sons ate like old men two decades ago. Although these items are cooked the same way – braised in dark soya sauce – the textures as we gnaw and chew are simply heavenly. Vinegar pork trotters – fatty and sinful – just think of it as a rich source of collagen. Twelve-year-old Andreas, my eldest, gamely tried fried scorpion in Beijing fourteen years ago and declared it like unflavoured chips. I declined because I generally don’t like deep fried food.

Recently, two of my sons visited Hanoi on separately and raved about the food there. One disappointment Ivan, my second son had, was the curdled pig’s blood, which he had often heard his parents reminiscing because it can no longer be found in Singapore. ‘It was bland and tasteless,’ he complained. Perhaps it was, but I’d still like to see the red cubes floating in our bowls of piping noodle soup in Bangkok or KL.

The same reason I love traveling in Asia could be the reason why others avoid – the food. Believe it or not, I know of people who visited Penang and avoided the street food as they deem them unhygienic. My eyes went wide upon hearing it – what else is there to eat there if not street food? I love visiting markets and eating alongside locals, slurping and sweating in the heat.

So how do you cultivate a more adventurous tastebud in kids? Don’t give them a choice. Eat whatever is served. Like how I had been brought up. For tonight, the menu is chicken feet and peanut soup, vinegar pig’s trotter, petai with sambal and oyster omelet. Ooh lala – yummy.

Posted in Food and drink, Singapore | 2 Comments

Joie – fusion vegetarian restaurant


This restaurant came highly recommended by my husband, who otherwise avoids vegetarian restaurant if he could. I share similar sentiment as vegetarian restaurants are often too highly priced in my opinion and contain too much mock food with glutens.

Recently though, there are a few vegetarian restaurants which serve fusion set meals and Joie is one. The six course set lunch is served like western courses, and presented similar to French cuisines – bite size on fancy plates.

Two days ago, I brought my best friend, Uma, who was visiting from Melbourne there. We had been friends since junior college. She’s a vegetarian but doesn’t mind the diary and eggs in confectionery.

Located at the highest level in Orchard Central, the posh entrance hides the actual dining room. The 6- course set lunch, priced at $38.80, includes a common appetiser, the bread stick we mistook for table decor, and a sherbet refresher.

Uma and i decided to choose different items to share.

For soup, i went for pumpkin and she truffle mushrooms.

I admit i was disappointed with the small portion when it arrived.

For starters, we were recommended mozerella mushrooms and tampura vegetables.

The tempura was coated with charcoal for detox and served with a sesame sauce, while the mushrooms, served in escargot pot, was delicious.

My husband recommended the monkey head mushroom which he described has the texture of a steak. It doesn’t, but i like it anyhow. I wouldn’t want my mushroom to be like steak anyway. We had to check with our waiter which are the things which are edible. (only what’s on the leave. And no, we can’t eat the leaf.)

The eggplant with wild rice was good too, the portion just enough for one bite each for us.

We love the desserts. Chocolate lava and popped rice with yoghurt. The chocolate lava was so much better than the one i had at an Italian restaurant two days before.

To end our wonderful lunch, we chose the same drink, a refreshing ice fruity tea each, although there are other hot and cold teas.

Throughout our meal, our server was attentive and polite, which made us feel so welcomed.

As we were leaving the restaurant, we noticed a selfie booth and couldn’t resist taking one which was emailed to me.

I like the place so much I am going back again with my primary school classmates next Monday.

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Suddenly, A Knock On the Door by Etgar Keret


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The annual Singapore Writers Festival which I have been attending faithfully for the past five years has introduced me to many writers who I would otherwise never read if not for their interesting talks.

I attended a public reading by Etgar Keret in SWF 2017 and found his writing to be humourous and unlike any of the authors I have read, chiefly because I have never read books from Israel before.

The blurb in front describes his short stories as Kafkaesque (-characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world. – Dictionary) Frankly, the only Kafka I have read is Metamorphosis which I found weird, and had only read it for a MOOC course.

 

The title of the book is also the title for the opening chapter which is hilarious and introduces you to what we can expect in the rest of the books. The 190-page book comprises 35 short stories of various length. The shortest one is just two pages long.

The stories are written from the point of views (POV) of a myriad of characters. Some stories are realistic and give me a view of how living in Isreal is like, with national service (like in Singapore), the threat of terrorism, violence and being at war. Like Singapore too, there are colourful immigrants from China and Arabic countries which are depicted in the stories.

I find I enjoy his stories more for the plots and twists, like Suddenly, A Knock On the Door and What, of this Goldfish, Would you Wish? Stories which focussed more on characters to forward the stories lack colours in comparison.

Having said that, there is never a dull moment reading this book and I can’t wait to read his second book. Give it a go.

 

 

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Living Fully


Prof Lawrence Chia was my Chemistry project supervisor during my honours year. He’s active in alumni affairs and that’s the reason why, I guess, our paths have crossed a few times in the last three decades since i graduated in 1988. I am not really that active, having only returned for Prof Tan’s memorial, and last year’s 30th graduation homecoming. Both time, Prof Chia was there. I met him outside campus a few times too and had always reminded him I was his student. Luckily, his memory has always been brilliant.

While clearing my desk, I chanced upon his recent card and remember he promised me his autobiography. I emailed him and shamelessly asked for the copy. He was happy to meet me for lunch.

Today, I learned more about his fascinating life stories – the many committees he sits in, the ‘feelings for the (police ) force for fifty-five years’, his love for alliteration, and the full life he led. I like his humour too, how he defined committee – a group of unfit bodies meeting on behalf of unwilling people to do unnecessary work.

Everytime he mentioned something interesting, I would ask, is it in the book? and he would reply he needs to write the sequel and supplement, to which I would protest it sounds more like a chemistry text book than anything. In fact, his autobiography reminds me of my Morrison and Boyd, my A levels Chem text book, from the size, to the format inside.

He knows I am writing my book and asked me where I get my inspiration. I told him, Prof, don’t be surprised if you were to read one of my stories and think, hmmm, this seems familiar.

I admire how at his age, Prof is still running around, attending conferences, volunteering, and connecting. What a full life he has contributing to society. In his autobiography, there are photos with local dignitaries like Presidents Shear and Nathan, Barbara Bush, and even singer Cliff Richard.

I love listening to his stories. I love listening to stories. Tell me yours.

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