Sunday, November 28

after an outing with the 摄影学会

The Adventure Of A Photographer
by Italo Calvino, from Difficult Loves

When spring comes, the city’s inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders. And they photograph one another. They come back as happy as hunters with bulging game bags; they spend days waiting, with sweet anxiety, to see the developed pictures (anxiety to which some add the subtle pleasure of alchemistic manipulations in the darkroom, forbidding any intrusion by members of the family, relishing the acid smell that is harsh to the nostrils). It is only when they have the photos before their eyes that they seem to take tangible possession of the day they spent, only then that the mountain stream, the movement of the child with his pail, the glint of the sun on the wife’s legs take on the irrevocability of what has been and can no longer be doubted. Everything else can drown in the unreliable shadow of memory.

Seeing a good deal of his friends and colleagues, Antonino Paraggi, a nonphotographer, sensed a growing isolation. Every week he discovered that the conversations of those who praise the sensitivity of a filter or discourse on the number of DINs were swelled by the voice of yet another to whom he had confided until yesterday, convinced that they were shared, his sarcastic remarks about an activity that to him seemed so unexciting, so lacking in surprises.

Professionally, Antonino Paraggi occupied an executive position in the distribution department of a production firm, but his real passion was commenting to his friends on current events large and small, unraveling the thread of general causes from the tangle of details; in short, by mental attitude he was a philosopher, and he devoted all his thoroughness to grasping the significance of even the events most remote from his own experience. Now he felt that something in the essence of photographic man was eluding him, the secret appeal that made new adepts continue to join the ranks of the amateurs of the lens, some boasting of the progress of their technical and artistic skill, others, on the contrary, giving all the credit to the efficiency of the camera they had purchased, which was capable (according to them) of producing masterpieces even when operated by inept hands (as they declared their own to be, because wherever pride aimed at magnifying the virtues of mechanical devices, subjective talent accepted a proportionate humiliation). Antonino Paraggi understood that neither the one nor the other motive of satisfaction was decisive: the secret lay elsewhere.

It must be said that his examination of photography to discover the causes of a private dissatisfaction—as of someone who feels excluded from something—was to a certain extent a trick Antonino played on himself, to avoid having to consider another, more evident, process that was separating him from his friends. What was happening was this: his acquaintances, of his age, were all getting married, one after another, and starting families, while Antonino remained a bachelor.

Yet between the two phenomena there was undoubtedly a connection, inasmuch as the passion for the lens often develops in a natural, virtually physiological way as a secondary effect of fatherhood. One of the first instincts of parents, after they have brought a child into the world, is to photograph it. Given the speed of growth, it becomes necessary to photograph the child often, because nothing is more fleeting and unmemorable than a six-month-old infant, soon deleted and replaced by one of eight months, and then one of a year; and all the perfection that, to the eyes of parents, a child of three may have reached cannot prevent its being destroyed by that of the four-year-old. The photograph album remains the only place where all these fleeting perfections are saved and juxtaposed, each aspiring to an incomparable absoluteness of its own. In the passion of new parents for framing their offspring in the sights to reduce them to the immobility of black-and-white or a full color slide, the nonphotographer and non-procreator Antonino saw chiefly a phase in the race toward madness lurking in that black instrument. But his reflections on the iconography-family-madness nexus were summary and reticent: otherwise he would have realized that the person actually running the greatest risk was himself, the bachelor.

In the circle of Antonino’s friends, it was customary to spend the weekend out of town, in a group, following a tradition that for many of them dated back to their student days and that had been extended to include their girl friends, then their wives and their children, as well as wet nurses and governesses, and in some cases in-laws and new acquaintances of both sexes. But since the continuity of their habits, their getting together, had never lapsed, Antonino could pretend that nothing had changed with the passage of the years and that they were still the band of young men and women of the old days, rather than a conglomerate of families in which he remained the only surviving bachelor.

More and more often, on these excursions to the sea or the mountains, when it came time for the family group or the multi-family picture, an outsider was asked to lend a hand, a passer-by perhaps, willing to press the button of the camera already focused and aimed in the desired direction. In these cases, Antonino couldn’t refuse his services: he would take the camera from the hands of a father or a mother, who would then rush to assume his or her place in the second row, sticking his head forward between two other heads, or crouching among the little ones; and Antonino, concentrating all his strength in the finger destined for this use, would press. The first times, an awkward stiffening of his arm would make the lens veer to capture the masts of ships or the spires of steeples, or to decapitate grandparents, uncles, and aunts. He was accused of doing this on purpose, reproached for making a joke in poor taste. It wasn’t true: his intention was to lend the use of his finger as docile instrument of the collective wish, but also to exploit his temporary position of privilege to admonish both photographers and their subjects as to the significance of their actions. As soon as the pad of his finger reached the desired condition of detachment from the rest of his person and personality, he was free to communicate his theories in well-reasoned discourse, framing at the same time well-composed little groups. (A few accidental successes had sufficed to give him nonchalance and assurance with viewfinders and light meters.)

"…Because once you’ve begun," he would preach, "there is no reason why you should stop. The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow. If you take a picture of Pierluca because he’s building a sand castle, there is no reason not to take his picture while he’s crying because the castle has collapsed, and then while the nurse consoles him by helping him find a sea shell in the sand. The minute you start saying something, ‘Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!’ you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness."

"You’re the one who’s mad and stupid," his friends would say to him, "and a pain in the ass, into the bargain."

"For the person who wants to capture everything that passes before his eyes," Antonino would explain, even if nobody was listening to him any more, "the only coherent way to act is to snap at least one picture a minute, from the instant he opens his eyes in the morning to when he goes to sleep. This is the only way that the rolls of exposed film will represent a faithful diary of our days, with nothing left out. If I were to start taking pictures, I’d see this thing through, even if it meant losing my mind. But the rest of you still insist on making a choice. What sort of choice? A choice in the idyllic sense, apologetic, consolatory, at peace with nature, the fatherland, the family. Your choice isn’t only photographic; it is a choice of life, which leads you to exclude dramatic conflicts, the knots of contradiction, the great tensions of will, passion, aversion. So you think you are saving yourselves from madness, but you are falling into mediocrity, into hebetude."

A girl named Bice, someone’s ex-sister-in-law, and another named Lydia, someone else’s ex-secretary, asked him please to take a snapshot of them while they were playing ball among the waves. He consented, but since in the meanwhile he had worked out a theory in opposition to snapshots, he dutifully expressed it to the two friends:

"What drives you two girls to cut from the mobile continuum of your day these temporal slices, the thickness of a second? Tossing the ball back and forth, you are living in the present, but the moment the scansion of the frames is insinuated between your acts it is no longer the pleasure of the game that motivated you but, rather, that of seeing yourselves again in the future, of rediscovering yourselves in twenty years’ time, on a piece of yellowed cardboard (yellowed emotionally, even if modern printing procedures will preserve it unchanged). The taste for the spontaneous, natural, lifelike snapshot kills spontaneity, drives away the present. Photographed reality immediately takes on a nostalgic character, of joy fled on the wings of time, a commemorative quality, even if the picture was taken the day before yesterday. And the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself. To believe that the snapshot is more true than the posed portrait is a prejudice…"

So saying, Antonino darted around the two girls in the water, to focus on the movements of their game and cut out of the picture the dazzling glints of the sun on the water. In a scuffle for the ball, Bice, flinging herself on the other girl, who was submerged, was snapped with her behind in close-up, flying over the waves. Antonino, so as not to lose this angle, had flung himself back in the water while holding up the camera, nearly drowning.

"They all came out well, and this one’s stupendous," they commented a few days later, snatching the proofs from each other. They had arranged to meet at the photography shop. "You’re good; you must take some more of us."

Antonino had reached the conclusion that it was necessary to return to posed subjects, in attitudes denoting their social position and their character, as in the nineteenth century. His antiphotographic polemic could be fought only from within the black box, setting one kind of photography against another.

"I’d like to have one of those old box cameras," he said to his girl friends, "the kind you put on a tripod. Do you think it’s still possible to find one?"

"Hmm, maybe at some junk shop…"

"Let’s go see."

The girls found it amusing to hunt for this curious object; together they ransacked flea markets, interrogated old street photographers, followed them to their lairs. In those cemeteries of objects no longer serviceable lay wooden columns, screens, backdrops with faded landscapes; everything that suggested an old photographer’s studio, Antonino bought. In the end he managed to get hold of a box camera, with a bulb to squeeze. It seemed in perfect working order. Antonino also bought an assortment of plates. With the girls helping him, he set up the studio in a room of his apartment, all fitted out with old-fashioned equipment, except for two modern spotlights.

Now he was content. "This is where to start," he explained to the girls. "In the way our grandparents assumed a pose, in the convention that decided how groups were to be arranged, there was a social meaning, a custom, a taste, a culture. An official photograph, or one of a marriage or a family or a school group, conveyed how serious and important each role or institution was, but also how far they were all false or forced, authoritarian, hierarchical. This is the point: to make explicit the relationship with the world that each of us bears within himself, and which today we tend to hide, to make unconscious, believing that in this way it disappears, whereas…"

"Who do you want to have pose for you?"

"You two come tomorrow, and I’ll begin by taking some pictures of you in the way I mean."

"Say, what’s in the back of your mind?" Lydia asked, suddenly suspicious. Only now, as the studio was all set up, did she see that everything about it had a sinister, threatening air. "If you think we’re going to come and be your models, you’re dreaming!"

Bice giggled with her, but the next day she came back to Antonino’s apartment, alone.

She was wearing a white linen dress with colored embroidery on the edges of the sleeves and pockets. Her hair was parted and gathered over her temples. She laughed, a bit slyly, bending her head to one side. As he let her in, Antonino studied her manner—a bit coy, a bit ironic—to discover what were the traits that defined her true character.

He made her sit in a big armchair, and stuck his head under the black cloth that came with his camera. It was one of those boxes whose rear wall was of glass, where the image is reflected as if already on the plate, ghostly, a bit milky, deprived of every link with space and time. To Antonino it was as if he had never seen Bice before. She had a docility in her somewhat heavy way of lowering her eyelids, of stretching her neck forward, that promised something hidden, as her smile seemed to hide behind the very act of smiling.

"There. Like that. No, head a bit farther; raise your eyes. No, lower them." Antonino was pursuing, within that box, something of Bice that all at once seemed most precious to him, absolute.

"Now you’re casting a shadow; move into the light. No, it was better before."

There were many possible photographs of Bice and many Bices impossible to photograph, but what he was seeking was the unique photograph that would contain both the former and the latter.

"I can’t get you," his voice emerged, stifled and complaining from beneath the black hood, "I can’t get you any more; I can’t manage to get you."

He freed himself from the cloth and straightened up again. He was going about it all wrong. That expression, that accent, that secret he seemed on the very point of capturing in her face, was something that drew him into the quicksands of moods, humors, psychology: he, too, was one of those who pursue life as it flees, a hunter of the unattainable, like the takers of snapshots.

He had to follow the opposite path: aim at a portrait completely on the surface, evident, unequivocal, that did not elude conventional appearance, the stereotype, the mask. The mask, being first of all a social, historical product, contains more truth than any image claiming to be "true"; it bears a quantity of meanings that will gradually be revealed. Wasn’t this precisely Antonino’s intention in setting up this fair booth of a studio?

He observed Bice. He should start with the exterior elements of her appearance. In Bice’s way of dressing and fixing herself up—he thought—you could recognize the somewhat nostalgic, somewhat ironic intention, widespread in the mode of those years, to hark back to the fashions of thirty years earlier. The photograph should underline this intention: why hadn’t he thought of that?

Antonino went to find a tennis racket; Bice should stand up in a three-quarter turn, the racket under her arm, her face in the pose of a sentimental postcard. To Antonino, from under the black drape, Bice’s image—in its slimness and suitability to the pose, and in the unsuitable and almost incongruous aspects that the pose accentuated—seemed very interesting. He made her change position several times, studying the geometry of legs and arms in relation to the racket and to some element in the background. (In the ideal postcard in his mind there would have been the net of the tennis court, but you couldn’t demand too much, and Antonino made do with a Ping-Pong table.)

But he still didn’t feel on safe ground: wasn’t he perhaps trying to photograph memories—or, rather, vague echoes of recollection surfacing in the memory? Wasn’t his refusal to live the present as a future memory, as the Sunday photographers did, leading him to attempt an equally unreal operation, namely to give a body to recollection, to substitute it for the present before his very eyes?

"Move! Don’t stand there like a stick! Raise the racket, damn it! Pretend you’re playing tennis!" All of a sudden he was furious. He had realized that only by exaggerating the poses could he achieve an objective alienness; only by feigning a movement arrested halfway could he give the impression of the unmoving, the nonliving.

Bice obediently followed his orders even when they became vague and contradictory, with a passivity that was also a way of declaring herself out of the game, and yet somehow insinuating, in this game that was not hers, the unpredictable moves of a mysterious match of her own. What Antonino now was expecting of Bice, telling her to put her legs and arms this way and that way, was not so much the simple performance of a plan as her response to the violence he was doing her with his demands, an unforeseeable aggressive reply to this violence that he was being driven more and more to wreak on her.

It was like a dream, Antonino thought, contemplating, from the darkness in which he was buried, that improbable tennis player filtered into the glass rectangle: like a dream when a presence coming from the depth of memory advances, is recognized, and then suddenly is transformed into something unexpected, something that even before the transformation is already frightening because there’s no telling what it might be transformed into.

Did he want to photograph dreams? This suspicion struck him dumb, hidden in that ostrich refuge of his with the bulb in his hand, like an idiot; and meanwhile Bice, left to herself, continued a kind of grotesque dance, freezing in exaggerated tennis poses, backhand, drive, raising the racket high or lowering it to the ground as if the gaze coming from that glass eye were the ball she continued to slam back.

"Stop, what’s this nonsense? This isn’t what I had in mind." Antonino covered the camera with the cloth and began pacing up and down the room.

It was all the fault of that dress, with its tennis, prewar connotations… It had to be admitted that if she wore a street dress the kind of photograph he described couldn’t be taken. A certain solemnity was needed, a certain pomp, like the official photos of queens. Only in evening dress would Bice become a photographic subject, with the décolleté that marks a distinct line between the white of the skin and the darkness of the fabric, accentuated by the glitter of jewels, a boundary between an essence of woman, almost atemporal and almost impersonal in her nakedness, and the other abstraction, social this time, the dress, symbol of an equally impersonal role, like the drapery of an allegorical statue.

He approached Bice, began to unbutton the dress at the neck and over the bosom, and slip it down over her shoulders. He had thought of certain nineteenth-century photographs of women in which from the white of the cardboard emerge the face, the neck, the line of the bared shoulders, while all the rest disappears into the whiteness.

This was the portrait outside of time and space that he now wanted; he wasn’t quite sure how it was achieved, but he was determined to succeed. He set the spotlight on Bice, moved the camera closer, fiddled around under the cloth adjusting the aperture of the lens. He looked into it. Bice was naked.

She had made the dress slip down to her feet; she wasn’t wearing anything underneath it; she had taken a step forward—no, a step backward, which was as if her whole body were advancing in the picture; she stood erect, tall before the camera, calm, looking straight ahead, as if she were alone.

Antonino felt the sight of her enter his eyes and occupy the whole visual field, removing it from the flux of casual and fragmentary images, concentrating time and space in a finite form. And as if this visual surprise and the impression of the plate were two reflexes connected among themselves, he immediately pressed the bulb, loaded the camera again, snapped, put in another plate, snapped, and went on changing plates and snapping, mumbling, stifled by the cloth, "There, that’s right now, yes, again, I’m getting you fine now, another."

He had run out of plates. He emerged from the cloth. He was pleased. Bice was before him, naked, as if waiting.

"Now you can dress," he said, euphoric, but already in a hurry. "Let’s go out."

She looked at him, bewildered.

"I’ve got you now," he said.

Bice burst into tears.

Antonino realized that he had fallen in love with her that same day. They started living together, and he bought the most modern cameras, telescopic lens, the most advanced equipment; he installed a darkroom. He even had a set-up for photographing her when she was asleep at night. Bice would wake at the flash, annoyed; Antonino went on taking snapshots of her disentangling herself from sleep, of her becoming furious with him, of her trying in vain to find sleep again by plunging her face into the pillow, of her making up with him, of her recognizing as acts of love these photographic rapes.

In Antonino’s darkroom, strung with films and proofs, Bice peered from every frame, as thousands of bees peer out from the honeycomb of a hive, but always the same bee: Bice in every attitude, at every angle, in every guise, Bice posed or caught unaware, an identity fragmented into a powder of images.

"But what’s this obsession with Bice? Can’t you photograph anything else?" was the question he heard constantly from his friends, and also from her.

"It isn’t just a matter of Bice," he answered. "It’s a question of method. Whatever person you decide to photograph, or whatever thing, you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night. Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images."

But he didn’t say what meant most to him: to catch Bice in the street when she didn’t know he was watching her, to keep her in the range of hidden lenses, to photograph her not only without letting himself be seen but without seeing her, to surprise her as she was in the absence of his gaze, of any gaze. Not that he wanted to discover any particular thing; he wasn’t a jealous man in the usual sense of the word. It was an invisible Bice that he wanted to possess, a Bice absolutely alone, a Bice whose presence presupposed the absence of him and everyone else.

Whether or not it could be defined as jealousy, it was, in any case, a passion difficult to put up with. And soon Bice left him.

Antonino sank into deep depression. He began to keep a diary—a photographic diary, of course. With the camera slung around his neck, shut up in the house, slumped in an armchair, he compulsively snapped pictures as he stared into the void. He was photographing the absence of Bice.

He collected the photographs in an album: you could see ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts, an unmade bed, a damp stain on the wall. He got the idea of composing a catalogue of everything in the world that resists photography, that is systematically omitted from the visual field not only by camera but also by human beings. On every subject he spent days, using up whole rolls at intervals of hours, so as to follow the changes of light and shadow. One day he became obsessed with a completely empty corner of the room, containing a radiator pipe and nothing else: he was tempted to go on photographing that spot and only that till the end of his days.

The apartment was completely neglected; old newspapers, letters lay crumpled on the floor, and he photographed them. The photographs in the papers were photographed as well, and an indirect bond was established between his lens and that of distant news photographers. To produce those black spots the lenses of other cameras had been aimed at police assaults, charred automobiles, running athletes, ministers, defendants.

Antonino now felt a special pleasure in portraying domestic objects framed by a mosaic of telephotos, violent patches of ink on white sheets. From his immobility he was surprised to find he envied the life of the news photographer, who moves following the movements of crowds, bloodshed, tears, feasts, crime, the conventions of fashion, the falsity of official ceremonies; the news photographer, who documents the extremes of society, the richest and the poorest, the exceptional moments that are nevertheless produced at every moment and in every place.

Does this mean that only the exceptional condition has a meaning? Antonino asked himself. Is the news photographer the true antagonist of the Sunday photographer? Are their worlds mutually exclusive? Or does the one give meaning to the other?

Reflecting like this, he began to tear up the photographs with Bice or without Bice that had accumulated during the months of his passion, ripping to pieces the strips of proofs hung on the walls, snipping up the celluloid of the negatives, jabbing the slides, and piling the remains of this methodical destruction on newspapers spread out on the floor.

Perhaps true, total photography, he thought, is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.

He folded the corners of the newspapers into a huge bundle to be thrown into the trash, but first he wanted to photograph it. He arranged the edges so that you could clearly see two halves of photographs from different newspapers that in the bundle happened, by chance, to fit together. In fact he reopened the package a little so that a bit of shiny pasteboard would stick out, the fragment of a torn enlargement. He turned on a spotlight; he wanted it to be possible to recognize in his photograph the half-crumpled and torn images, and at the same time to feel their unreality as casual, inky shadows, and also at the same time their concreteness as objects charged with meaning, the strength with which they clung to the attention that tried to drive them away.

To get all this into one photograph he had to acquire an extraordinary technical skill, but only then would Antonino quit taking pictures. Having exhausted every possibility, at the moment when he was coming full circle Antonino realized that photographing photographs was the only course that he had left—or, rather, the true course he had obscurely been seeking all this time.

Friday, November 19

b.o. a.k.a. laughing gas

Posting this conversation between my twin and I (at around 5pm last Friday) will probably lower my already dismal karma points, but here it is anyway.

Twin: I can't believe I've eaten both my lunch and dinner already. I got nothing to eat next!
Me: Dinner?!?
Twin: The curry rice was dinner. I ate lunch before kickboxing, remember!
Me: Curry rice is tea!
Twin: I want you to be my fitness instructor! That day, before our self-defence class, I was early, and I heard some ditzy girls asking the instructor how to diet.
Me: Oh, apparently he is a personal fitness instructor too.
Twin: And he went on and on about not eating rice after 7pm etc etc. I hate to hear things like that.
Twin: So this guy does anything related to fitness!
Me: Apparently, super duper hardcore people employ him.
Twin: Wah. Well, he is super duper hard core! His warm-up is not even a warm-up, it's the actual exercise already!
Me: I think he is also a freelance photographer!
Twin: Wot!
Me: Once, he sent me an e-mail, but he forgot to change the signature.
Twin: Wahahahahahahahah wah lau! Skarly he also freelance writer.
Twin: Freelance eyebrow plucker.
Twin: Freelance model agent.
Me: Freelance skipping rope salesman.
Twin: Or basically, you got any job and you ask him, he'll do it.

Me: Can we ask him to shower?
Me: And use Rexona?
Twin: Once, I saw him spraying Lynx on himself when he thought no one was looking.
Me: Wah! You are his stalker!
Twin: Ahahahahahahahahahahaha you were there too! But you probably didn't see!
Me: For some reason, I find the surreptitious Lynx-spraying very hilarious.
Twin: We were outside the studio and he was inside and he thought he was alone, but I saw his reflection through the mirror.
Me: I'm convulsed with laughter now.
Twin: Yes! He even checked around to see if anyone was looking! But he forgot about the mirror!
Me: Tears are coming out now.
Twin: Wahahahahahahahahahahahahahah
Me: You even saw it was Lynx!
Me: I'm laughing all over again.
Twin: Wahahahahaahahaha yes! He must have obviously given up on the Lynx subsequently.
Me: Stoppit. I'm dying here.
Twin: Hahahahahahahahahahaha
Twin: He really should have layered it on a bit more especially for the rape lesson.
Twin: Wahahahahaahahahahahha
Me: Who knew B.O. could be this funny?
Twin: Wahahahahahahahahahahhahhah
Me: You just have to say the word "lynx" and I will burst into tears.
Twin: I went to the zoo and saw a LYNX cat.
Me: Was it nice smelling?
Twin: Wahahahahahahahahahahah

Please, tell me I'm not the only one reduced to tears by Lynx (I'm weeping now as I type this).

Monday, November 15

imaginary outfit

Braindead after a Monday at work -- still at work, actually -- so all I can say is: I want those sequinned leggings. In fact, the entire outfit is perfect, whether I'm walking the tightrope or not.

Tuesday, November 9

Just like how a certain publication, which shall not be named, published an entire article based on a (possibly fictitious) fan e-mail, this blog is also not above pandering to its readership of three, especially that anonymous one who commented on the last post, asking for more fashion on this blog.

So, I hereby present: More frivolous fashiony drivel!

Ms X told me once that she was very proud that in her entire time at a renowned (ahem!) fashion mag, she never carried an It bag. In fact, she used only various cute canvas totes, sometimes festooned with geeky chic brooches.

Good for her, I say, for staying true to her anti-establishment nature. And while I have coveted the Stam bag briefly in the past (haven't seen anyone using it for a while now, so much for being an investment piece) and still think a Bottega tote would be my go-to bag if I had $7,000 lying around (actually, no, these days, I'd rather spend it on toilet bowls and windows and tiles and chandeliers and, oh, you get it), I don't see why an item meant to ferry my barang from Point A to B should cost more than my rent.

I also don't get why a skirt should cost $1,000, even if it is made of silk (even at an exorbitant $100 per metre, the cost of materials is at most $200, because you wouldn't need more than 2m to make a skirt unless it is a tent). Or how a designer tee ($200 min) is any better or lasts any longer than an identical one from Giordano ($20 max).

Hence, if you look in my closet, all the so-called designer items -- but really, even the el cheapo gold flats I favour from Cotton On can also be called designer, as in a designer had to come up with it, right? -- made their way there via a sale or flea market:

(a) a DKNY leather and tulle skirt, from my very first Club 21 sale in my first year as a writer (90% off)
(b) a couple of Calvin Klein watches (birthday gifts)
(c) three genuine leather bags (they cost less than two months' worth of dog food and do not feature interlocking logos or monograms)
(d) a canvas "Birkin" (one of a series from Slow and Steady Wins the Race, which mocks It bags; I still covet the quilted canvas "Chanel 2.55", which appears to be sold out, boohoo)
(d) a handful of alldressedup items (reckless impulse buys on deep discount, including the aforementioned $1,000 skirt at 90% off and a $275-reduced-to-$5 bag)
(e) a Kate Spade pouch and lucite ring (both gifts)
(f) my latest flea market loot of a battered Anya Hindmarch suede tote, a DKNY skirt and a Day Birger et Mikkelsen dress (grand total: $80. Score!)

But back to Ms X and her canvas totes. I am proud to report that in my years of writing, I have:
(a) interviewed shoemaker to the stars Stuart Weitzman in $5 flip flops;
(b) doorstopped Miuccia Prada in a Prada-esque poufy skirt, courtesy of H&M; and
(c) attended glitzy Louis Vuitton galas armed with my trusty battered gold vintage clutch.

While I relished those little acts of fashion rebellion, I must be honest: they were out of necessity. Unlike fashionistas who regularly attend these events by luxury houses and trot out the corresponding logo bag -- it's supposedly rude to carry a Chanel bag to an LV soiree wor, but sometimes, I wonder how poorly paid fashion writers afford the stuff -- my meagre pay barely feeds me and my dog. And now I have a mortage to service as well.

I might have to start a Go 365 Days Without Shopping Project, except I'm pretty sure I won't make it (cf. the dismal failure of the Buy 20 Items In 2010 Project). But one can try. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 25


Ever so frequently, I feel the intense urge to throw away everything in my wardrobe and start afresh. Which is right about now. But being extremely impoverished, I've decided instead to take stock of what I have.

According Brit Vogue five years ago, these are the basics I need. (Those with a * indicate what's going on top of my shopping wish list. This is a completely self-indulgent post for me to justify shopping, but may I suggest you join me, too, in "taking stock".)

1. The nearest I have to a cashmere cardi is a threadbare pashimina which I no longer use.
2. See above. Pashminas are passe, no?
3. Slips I have, but they're all polyester.
4. I have one leather belt, circa 1995, which is still going strong.
5. Way too many totes, yet I keep buying more.
*6. This is clearly a sign that I need to buy a wrap cardi. One can never have too many cardis, especially in this freezer office.
7. I own only one pair of trousers and that is more than enough.
8. I'm so over jeans. Jeggings are the way to go.
9. Yes! I have striped scarves (non-striped ones too).
10. I bought my fave tee in three colours (I've become that sort of person who shops in multiples.)
11. I covet the gray slim ladies' Converse, even though I already have two pairs.

12. Not sure why I have a trench in Singapore, but I do.
13. Not a fan of polo tees, so I'll pass.
14. Long-sleeved stuff gets stuffed to the back of the wardrobe, but I know it's there.
15. Don't get me started on the nubuck leather bag -- the most expensive bag I've ever bought -- which is irreparably stained by a cheap pair of jeggings.
16. Cashmere socks? Really?
17. I'd rather wear a nice pair of tailored shorts than a casual skirt.
*18. Still on the quest for that perfect pair of flat boots. Oh, Frye, why are you so expensive?
19. I don't wear PJs; I wear boxers and tanks.
20. I knew that keeping that stone-washed denim jacket from 2005 was a good call.
21. Nobody wants to see me in a bikini, least of all myself.
22. Bought my first pair of loafers this year, not from Tod's though. I must say they are amazingly versatile.
*23. Yay, I don't have a shirtdress, which means another excuse to go shopping.

24. I'm afraid of ruining silk, so no silk tops for me. I'm too cheap to pay for silk anyway. What's wrong with polyester?
25. Jersey dresses are fine, except when I'm retaining water like a bathtub, which is 25 days in a month.
26. Silk clutches, lucite clutches, leather clutches, metal clutches. I have way too many.
27. See 24.
28. I look terribly dowdy in lace, so this is a no.
*29. I've toyed with the idea of sewing sequins onto a top, because all those I see in the shops are unsatisfactory. I would also like a sequinned mini skirt while I'm at it.
30. Who still calls them court shoes? Oh, right, the Brits. I own one pair of sensible black pumps (and several insensible pairs in other colours).
31. The missed opportunities for layering here. I would love to have an evening coat, except I'd probably be mistaken for a flasher at night.
32. Who doesn't own a bra or 10?
33. Diamante means fake diamonds, right? Real ones, I no have, but fake ones, I have in all sizes.
34. I have black capris, not pants, do they count?
35. I have one extremely unflattering vintage jersey skirt languishing at the back of my wardrobe, which I can't bear to throw away because it reminds of my first trip to Barcelona.
36. I have that exact same pair of Muji flip flops. Havaianas have nothing on them.

37. My precious black pair of ballet flats are dying and I'm inconsolable.
38. What do people without wallets do, throw their money into the bag? Wear clothes with pockets all the time?
39. Silk camisole: why must everything be in silk?
40. The last time I needed a "work" jacket to interview some CEO, I borrowed one. He turned up in jeans.
41. LBD? Check.
42. As a matter of fact, I do have a necklace from Tiffany -- I made my friends buy it for me for my birthday -- lurking somewhere.
43. Brown boots take priority over black ones (but a black bag takes priority over a brown one. There is no logic to my madness).
44. I have a whole bunch of opaque tights in all sorts of colours, but they cut off blood circulation to my lower body and cause my toes to curl upwards, so I stopped wearing them.
*45. Gold ballet flats are the Holy Grail.
46. My phone is my watch.
47. A vest is a singlet? Tank top? Wifebeater?
48. Denim skirt a.k.a. jean skirt. That's so early 1990s. I have a pair of denim cut-offs, which is also from the same era.
49. I love a crisp white shirt, but ironing is a bitch, so I hardly wear it.
50. I have a mamasan cardigan just like that. I go, "shi li li, sha la la" whenever I wear it.

Not bad, I only "need" five items to complete this checklist. Let's go shopping!

Saturday, October 2

holy crap! shit happens!

For unfathomable reasons, I seem to always be flying off with severe lack of sleep. Oh, right, it's because I take four hours to pack every time.

In preparation for the detox [detox being a euphemism for colonic irrigation], I had been avoiding carbs and proteins as much as possible for two days. But I succumbed to the shrimp omelette on the plane. What can I say, I cannot resist food in compartmentalised trays. Also, the thought of not being able to eat for the next seven days was a strong motivation.

On arrival in Chiang Mai, I was whisked off to the resort, from which I would not step foot out for the next week or so. This was the view from the balcony of my "deluxe pool side room", also known as "the cheapest room in the house".

I'm not sure why housekeeping decided to welcome me with these honeymoon suite swans. To crack me up, probably.

The rest of the day was like an orientation: meeting with the health director [an absent-minded old man of some sort of Nordic origin who did not once ask me about my health], watching a welcome video by the founder in a Hawaiian shirt, which I'm sure was cheesy even when the film was shot in the early 1990s, and being instructed, while fully clothed, on, how do I put this delicately, sticking it up your ass. One last supper of raw zucchini "pasta" with marinara sauce -- Tasty! And I'm not being sarcastic! -- as I braced myself for deprivation, starvation and hallucinations of prawn cracker sticks.

Every day begins at 7am with a detox drink, made with some sort of gray liquid clay and psyllium husk mixed with watermelon and/or pineapple juices. You take this five times a day, every three hours. There are also herbal supplements in pill form, six of them, also five times a day, every three hours. I did not expect that to be the worst part of the detox, I thought it would be the lack of food, but the pills were truly vile, like regurgitated grass which is then fermented and dehydrated. But the detox drink was refreshing, despite the fact that there was clay in it.

I only made it for two of the meditation sessions. I figured I would just meditate in bed, because I was dozing off anyway while the guru was asking us to close our eyes and "watch the river of your thoughts, and then push it away". He also said: "Meditation is not doing. It is being." In my head, I was going: "It is boring."

I'm proud to say I made it for yoga every morning except one. Give me a break, I was on vacation, surely I was allowed to sleep in one morning. The yoga pavillion was on a hill with breathtaking views. Well, I was out of breath every morning after trekking up there anyway. But I must say I was already one of the fittest students and I felt a (probably unjustified) sense of superiority over the angmohs who couldn't even sit cross-legged and gazed upon my half lotus with awe and jealousy.

On top of the five detox drinks, we were also allowed one coconut [I accidentally on purpose ate the flesh once before reading the fine print of the fasting manual: "No chewing allowed"], one carrot juice [good thing I like carrots, otherwise it'd have been gross] and one vegetable broth [a.k.a. warm dishwater flavoured with three grains of salt]. The coconut was the highlight of my food-deprived day, but actually, I never felt hunger. I missed eating and food, but I didn't feel like how I usually felt at 12pm when I was at work and going, "Chi fan! Chi fan!'

There are two colemas a day -- I'll get to that at the end, so that the squeamish will have time to escape from this post -- but other than that, I was free to do anything and nothing. I chose nothing.

If the weather was nice, I'd go to the pool, do a few lazy laps, frantically apply liberal amounts of SPF 130 sunblock and then read. [Yes, The Art Of Travel is a bit of a cliche, but it's a good book. I also read two of David Sedaris' books, borrowed from my twin, which made me snort out loud most unbecomingly.]

I tried to fulfil my painterly ambitions. Don't laugh at my lopsided cake, this is my first attempt at painting anything other than cupboards and walls.

My package included daily tummy massages, you know, brute force to push the crap out. While my intestines were being squashed and twisted and pummelled, I gazed on a peaceful grove of bamboos and imagined scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After that, I would go for a sauna or steam bath to purge even more toxins.

Not being much of a nature lover, I didn't go hiking. My commune with nature was limited to this one inexplicable crab that scuttled across my path and the creepy crawlies in my room, including a big black butterfly which flew in and refused to leave.

One of the cats climbed onto my balcony, I know not how, and demanded to take a nap on my bed. There were scruffy dogs running around too, which made me miss my smelly one back home, but they didn't want to play with me.

This is not a pina colada. As if. From Day 4, we were advised to take this Liver Flush drink to rid our liver of toxins. Made of extra virgin olive oil, lemon and orange juices, garlic, ginger and cayenne pepper, it sounded vile but was really yummy, like ginger tea with fruit juice and a peppery aftertaste. This was my last Liver Flush drink, sadly, although I guess I could always make it at home myself.

On Day 8, I broke fast. It took me 45 minutes to finish eating my first meal of a fruit platter, because apparently I had forgotten how to chew. I was expecting the flavours to explode in my mouth, but instead the pineapple was so sour, it made my tongue sting for hours.

We were told to eat only vegetables and fruit for the first two days, but I succumbed to a piece of garlic toast and some wanton soup when I went to town to do some shopping. In the mall I went to, supposedly the biggest in Chiang Mai, there was an entire floor devoted to buffet restaurants. The only thing holding me back was the urban legend circulating in the resort of some dude who ate some fried chicken at the airport after his fast -- and couldn't poop for two weeks after that.

And speaking of poop, that was what I did twice a day for seven days, 20 minutes each time. The first time was the most daunting, but they give you lubricant to make things go smoother. There was no pain, just like a mild tummy ache, and then whoosh, out it comes. Someone who had done it before said it was so shiok, she could have done it four times a day, no problem. I would have to agree. [The above photo from my morning trek to yoga is just there to break up all this shitty text.]

There was a plastic mesh basket colander thingy provided if you were inclined to take a closer look, but I was too put off by the thought of having to wash the actual thing to use it. But from what I could see from the toilet bowl, holy crap! It was amazing how much output there was every single time, despite there being not any input. [Cute kitty pix, in case your imagination starts running wild.]

The final dump was the most satisfying, as I produced what looked exactly like those pictures I'd seen on the internet. I almost felt proud. But not proud enough to take photos, because I didn't want to risk dropping my phone into the bowl. If you are feeling exceptionally brave, click here for pix. You have been warned, so don't blame me if you lose your lunch because you were kaypoh. [Ominous pix of approaching rainstorm, just because.]

When I weighed myself on the last day, I had lost 3kg. Sadly, it was easy go, easy come back, even though I did not eat any fried chicken. I do feel disgustingly healthy and rested and squeaky clean on the inside. I was also warned that during the fast, I might feel nauseated, vomit bile and get headaches -- which the other people I met there also experienced -- but I guess I wasn't as toxic as I thought I was, despite the vast quantities of prawn cracker sticks I had consumed.

Heading home sweet home to my favourite dish in the whole wide world -- mum's chicken soup. But I didn't eat the chicken, just in case.

Sunday, August 15

cooking is my therapy

Hello? Hello? *Tap tap tap on the mike*

Testing 1, 2, 3. Anyone there?

I'm still alive! More than alive, I've about doubled in size since posting anything substantial here, what with the way I've been cooking and eating. Here's what I've been gorging on.

I've developed quite an obsession with quinoa (above). My journalistic training compels me to add here that it is a seed crop that originated from South America and it is pronounced "keen wah". A friend asks: "How does quinoa taste? Would I be keen on it and go wah after trying?"

I can't quite describe the taste. It is sort of nutty and creamy, and there is a pleasant, addictive bite to it. Depending on what you add, it can take on the flavours of, say, the miso paste that is mixed into it -- mmm, umami -- or the wafu salad dressing I like.

On top of being super yummy, it is also super healthy -- high in fibre, proteins, minerals, etc etc etc -- and super easy to cook -- just pop into the rice cooker with double the amount of water.

Quinoa is also super versatile. I have made a chocolate cake (above) with it. Yes, chocolate cake! It tastes just like a regular cake too, meaning it does not taste like cardboard masquerading as health food.

The original recipe is from The 10 cent Diet, but I have tweaked it a little:

1. Cook 2/3 cup of quinoa with double that amount of water in the rice cooker and then fluff and allow to cool.

2. Preheat oven to 180 deg C. Grease two 8" round cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper.

3. Melt 180g butter and let it cool.

4. Combine 1/3 cup milk, 4 eggs and 1 tsp vanilla extract in a blender, add the cooked quinoa and butter. Blend until smooth.

5. Whisk together 1 1/2 cup sugar, 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 baking soda in a large bowl. Add the contents of the blender and mix well.

6. Divide the batter between the two pans and bake on center rack of oven for 40-45 minutes (until a knife inserted comes out clean).

7. Remove cakes from oven and cool completely in the pans before serving or icing.

The icing recipe is from my lurve, the baker extraordinaire of Crummb who is my Martha On Speed Dial, and it is idiot-proof. She advises that I use Millac whipping cream from Phoon Huat (or any whipping cream that has a "stabilising agent" in its list of ingredients, otherwise it will not set in our climate).

Add icing sugar (to taste) to 500g of whipping cream and whip until stiff. Yum! According to my Martha, you can also add mascarpone or white chocolate, but don't ask me what quantities, because I haven't tried making it yet.

I have also made quinoa into baked patties (above, with charsiew sauce pork chop), but, to be honest, they look better than they taste (very dry, need a lot of sauce to help them go down), so I won't bother listing the recipe.

I've also rekindled my love affair with cold noodles, specifically, somen (above). (It's the lesser known noodle from Japan, very thin and delicate, and cooks in mere minutes.) On a hot afternoon, it is the perfect quick lunch with carrot sticks, topped with seaweed and spring onions, and eaten with ice-cold dipping sauce.

After a particularly mind-blowing, stomach-bursting dinner at Osvaldo some time back, I've been hankering for good sun-dried tomatoes. Those from Cold Storage's deli section -- daylight robbery prices some more! -- just don't cut it. Then I stumble upon this recipe for slow-roasted tomatoes (above, pre-roasting) from ever-reliable Smitten Kitchen:

1. Preheat oven to 100 deg C.

2. Slice about 500g of cherry/honey tomatoes (two punnets in my case) into halves.

3. Place on parchment paper in a baking tray with whole cloves of unpeeled garlic.

4. Drizzle with olive oil -- just enough to make the tomatoes glisten -- and sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper.

5. Bake for about three hours (do check after two hours, mine take less than three hours). They will look shrivelled and ugly but still taste juicy and explode when you bite into them.

6. Leftovers can be refrigerated, covered with olive oil.

I've used them in wholemeal wraps, with leftover bolognese sauce (see below), lettuce and grated pecorino romano. So so so good. Also good in baked eggs (see further below).

Another cooking experiment that went swimmingly well: Bolognese sauce. And so easy too. (I adapted the recipe from the River Cottage guy, but being lazy to measure, based the quantities on agar-ration.)

1. Chop streaky bacon and fry in a hot pan until the fat runs clear. Remove from heat.

2. Brown minced beef in small batches until cooked. Remove from heat.

3. Fry finely chopped garlic and onions until soft.

4. Add 1 can of tinned tomatoes (400g). (The recipe also called for 250g of sieved roasted tomatoes, which I omitted because I had none and anyway, how do you sieve roasted tomatoes?), but I'm thinking the next time I attempt this, I will add the slow-roasted tomatoes, chopped roughly, from above.)

5. Bring to a merry bubble and allow to thicken slightly. Add 250ml water, the bacon and minced beef, a liberal sprinkling of McCormick's Italian seasoning (there is no shame in not having fresh thyme, rosemary, basil, etc), salt and pepper.

6. Simmer uncovered for an hour, stirring until thick.

7. Serve over spaghetti. Grate a mound of pecorino romano (my new fave cheese!) over the whole plate and devour.

The moment I saw my foodie colleague's Facebook photos of baked eggs, I knew I had to make them. Mine (above) were a little over-cooked, being my first time and all, but still very eggy and delish. Comfort food at its best.

1. Preheat oven toaster at 200 deg C.

2. Chop streaky bacon and place in ramekin. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes, until it sizzles.

3. Add slow-roasted tomatoes, then crack two eggs into the ramekin. (I find it easier to crack the eggs into a bowl first.)

4. Bake for another six to eight minutes, until the whites are set but the yolks still runny. Remove from heat and top with pepper or, in my case, Japanese seven spices or togarashi, which I've been sprinkling on practically everything, from chicken soup to salad.

Demmit, now I've made myself hungry!

Saturday, August 7

doodles at 30,000 ft

The "I Lego NY" guy is back with a visual diary documenting a flight from New York to Berlin (with a layover in London).

On a related note, I've been toying with the idea of taking up a course and I think I've decided. I'm going to learn to draw, and I don't mean like a five-year-old. Does anyone know where I can take lessons? I don't want to join a CC class with other five-year-olds.

Saturday, July 31

chocolate factory

The Mast Brothers from The Scout on Vimeo.

Is it wrong that I want this chocolate because the bearded brothers (especially the non-bespectacled one) are so adorable?

Monday, July 19

ai, actually

I stopped repeating this following anecdote, courtesy of my aunt who overheard it on the bus, months ago. Now that 爱, the Taiwanese melodrama that advances 0.1mm per episode, has been moved to a daily (daily!!!) slot, it has become "newsworthy" again.

Woman on the phone on the bus: 老公,今晚有没有做爱?
Her follow-up question after his affirmative reply: 今晚做爱几个小时?

Demmit, now I have the Hokkien theme song echoing in my head:我问天!我问天!

Friday, June 25

an education

All the illustrations on Stuff No One Told Me should be compiled into a book and given to kids (and adults too).

Tuesday, June 22

mosaic love

It's currently Day 83 on my second Project 365, which I'm doing with M and K. (We also have an intermittently updated blog of all our pix so far.) Being the masochist that I am, not only am I using an iPhone and not a proper camera, I'm also shooting only square photos and restricting myself to one-line captions.

I must say, looking at it again, the very first day's photo bugs me as it is not really square; I may change it. No rules against that, only a penalty for quitting prematurely; a penalty so goddemawful it does not bear contemplating.

Here are the pix from the first 72 days. Fingers crossed I make it to the finish line.

1. Day 1, 2. Day 2, 3. Day 3, 4. Day 4, 5. Day 5, 6. Day 6, 7. Day 7, 8. Day 8, 9. Day 9, 10. Day 10, 11. Day 11, 12. Day 12, 13. Day 13, 14. Day 14, 15. Day 15, 16. Day 16, 17. Day 17, 18. Day 18, 19. Day 19, 20. Day 20, 21. Day 21, 22. Day 22, 23. Day 23, 24. Day 24, 25. Day 25, 26. Day 26, 27. Day 27, 28. Day 28, 29. Day 29, 30. Day 30, 31. Day 31, 32. Day 32, 33. Day 33, 34. Day 34, 35. Day 35, 36. Day 36

1. Day 37, 2. Day 38, 3. Day 39, 4. Day 40, 5. Day 41, 6. Day 42, 7. Day 43, 8. Day 44, 9. Day 45, 10. Day 46, 11. Day 47, 12. Day 48, 13. Day 49, 14. Day 50, 15. Day 51, 16. Day 52, 17. Day 53, 18. Day 54, 19. Day 55, 20. Day 56, 21. Day 57, 22. Day 58, 23. Day 59, 24. Day 60, 25. Day 61, 26. Day 62, 27. Day 63, 28. Day 64, 29. Day 65, 30. Day 66, 31. Day 67, 32. Day 68, 33. Day 69, 34. Day 70, 35. Day 71, 36. Day 72

Monday, June 14

going off the deep end

Gif Created on Make A Gif
I just realised I have not posted the entire series of our monthly jumps, which have been going on for almost a year. Soon, soon. In the meantime, be hypnotised by this.

Monday, May 24


I want to make a surprise ball. Heck, I want to receive a surprise ball. From Kiosk. Check out the unravelling video.

Monday, May 10

happy (belated) mother's day

My mum, my sissy and me in Genting, circa 1985.

Due to some stupid glitch, I could not post this photo yesterday, when the three of us celebrated a low-key Mother's Day with Vietnamese food for lunch.

I just like this snapshot; it cracks me up. And by the way, I still have that red quilted jacket and I can still fit into it. *Smug face*

Sunday, April 25

bad picture, good meatballs

The recipe for these baked chicken meatballs is the first I've tried from Smitten Kitchen and it won't be the last.

Not only were they easy to make, they were also healthily baked and succulent and juicy, thanks to the dollop of tomato paste on top of each. And they tasted cheesy without the addition of cheese, which is pretty amazing in my books.

My inner Martha is well pleased.

Wednesday, April 21

i heart pancakes

I needed an excuse to use my new exceedingly impractical but pretty measuring cups.

So I modified the IHOP recipe and insisted on feeding my family a pancake breakfast.

Topped with my fave fruit -- raspberries.

And my non-fave fruit -- bananas -- and golden syrup. Of course, IHOP's were fluffier but mine were pretty yums too.


The heavy marble-topped table was cold and sticky as I rested my forearms on it, already aching from lugging a camera forged from steel, or so it felt, for an hour.

I tuned out my friends' excited chatter -- about prime lenses and bokeh and bak kut teh and the watered down teh si -- and cast my eyes around for something to shoot to make this shoulder ache worthwhile.

Mosaic tiles caked with decades of grime, fluttering day-by-day calendar with ultra large numerals, kopi tiam auntie pouring hot beverages ungracefully into beer mugs. Click, click, click.

Motioning to my bag, I tasked my friends to look after it while I wandered out into the drizzle to see if I could capture scenes of what Singapore must have looked like in the early 1980s, somewhat unenthusiastic because, clearly, the 1970s was my preferred era.

Just across the two-lane road, I spied another kopi tiam. On the second-storey of the shophouse, the windows were gaping holes that framed the sky. The skeleton of the rafters was still there, but the roof was nearly all gone. The sky was not as vivid a blue as I would have liked, and the pathetic wisp of a cloud was not particularly picturesque, but what to do. I decided to make the best of it.

I crossed the two lanes without even looking right, left, right. There were no cars. As I got closer, I saw that the metal grills on the front of the kopi tiam were pushed apart. Inside was a food stall, with gleaming stainless steel counters, spotless glass shelves displaying wantons, char siew and bundles of thin floury noodles.

Behind the wall of steam rising from the pot was a wan-looking woman of indeterminate age with a pinched but kindly face, dressed in an overly-large pair of bermudas and a T-shirt which spelled out, rather incongruously, "Jurong Bird Park" in faded rainbow colours.

Pasting on my best asking-favours-from-strangers face -- eyes widened, mouth slightly upturned, shoulders shrugged haplessly -- I opened my mouth, but before I could greet her "auntie", she was bustling towards me with her own version of my face. Turned out that she wanted me to help her translate the English instructions on the back of a pack of plant fertilisers. I seemed to remember that they mentioned Lily of the Valley, although there were no plants to be seen in the entire place.

In fact, despite the large interior, there was just her wanton mee stall and one unoccupied large table under the lazily revolving fan. No Jaz beer posters with Gillian Chung, no golden cat with upraised paw, no calendar with ultra large numerals. As I fumbled through the instructions in my faltering Mandarin -- how do you say sprinkle fertiliser around the circumference? -- a guy who looked to be in his 20s walked in. Pleasingly plump and bespectacled, with a messenger bag slung across his body, he struck me as one of those graphic designer types. He seemed taken aback at my presence and examined at me curiously, making me wonder if my denim shorts were too scandalously short.

I quickly took the chance to gesture towards the flight of stairs at the back of the room and asked if I could take a look upstairs, hoisting my camera to my face to indicate click, click, click.

There was a flimsy accordion-type door stretched across the stairway and a single naked lightbulb was switched on, as it was dark that deep inside the hall, even at 9am. The auntie made short work of the four or five hook-and-eye catches securing the door, swooshed the door open
efficiently and stepped aside to let me up. As I brushed past her, she grasped my arm with a surprisingly strong claw-like hand and said, in Mandarin: "Be careful."

The floorboards must be rotting and may not withstand my weight, I thought, reminded of my grandmother's pre-war shophouse which we were never allowed off the ground floor. So imagine to my surprise when I creaked my way to the top, that I saw another stall in the far corner.

A ruddy-faced man was chopping vigorously behind the counter while another, equally ruddy and also clad in a similar uniform of thin white tee, loose black shorts and Tat Sing slippers, flip-flopped around hurriedly with plates of chicken rice. A couple of girls in uniforms and plaits, who looked like sisters, were picking up their haversacks, getting ready for school.

I took in all of this in five seconds flat. My first thought was: How would customers know that there was chicken rice upstairs if the door was latched? It was followed quickly by: But there are no customers here at all, who are they serving?

I looked up, fully expecting to see the sky. The roof was completely intact. I could not see the sky.

My feet moved of their own volition and bounded down the stairs so fast, I didn't even have time to worry about tripping and falling. My pale face must have said everything I could not even put into words, because the auntie, with sorrow in her eyes, patted me once on my shoulder and said: "You saw them."

My entire body was ice cold and stiff. I could only nod.

"You better leave."

As I forced my legs to function and walked out onto the sidewalk, something made me turn back. Through the grills that were now drawn shut, I glimpsed the entire family gathered around the table, getting ready to eat. At that moment, the fear in my heart evaporated, leaving behind an almost unbearable sadness.

Footnote: I later learnt that the kopi tiam had burned down 20 years ago and the only survivor was a toddler, the youngest boy in the family.

Wednesday, April 7

verminator: they'll be back

For the past couple of months, I have been plagued by vermin -- and other foreign objects -- in my food.

First was a long-legged insect in my broccoli. That will teach me to try to eat more veggies.

On a quest for buffalo wings, I made M have dinner with me at Dan Ryan's, only to be rewarded with a long strand of plastic in my clam chowder. The wings weren't that hot either.

Two weeks later, my chicken horfun had a little extra something something in it -- protein from a worm.

On a day trip to Pengerang to partake of seafood, I was merrily digging in when a flying creature insect thingy decided to dive headlong onto my plate. Five minutes later, its counterpart decided to land on my gravy-covered fingers and commit kamikaze. The 11 other people at the table were not affected by vermin at all.