Archive for May, 2009

Singapore Twenty Dollar bill S$20

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Wow, when I bought beers on Friday night at the Prince of Wales, the waitress gave me my change that included a Singapore twenty dollar bill. I’ve never seen one before in my six years living in Singapore and I think they’re quite rare. There’s a yellow-breasted sunbird on one side, and a concorde with Singapore Airlines livery on it taking off, with a view of Changi Airport below. Apparently, Singapore Airlines never owned a concorde but had rights to paint the livery on the port side (the left side when looking from back to front) of a British Airways concorde due to some agreement to bring the bird out to Asia. If this was true for every craft (I don’t know how many had this livery), then the depiction on the bill is incorrect, as it shows the livery on the starboard side.

The view of the Singapore skyline on the front is quite old, with the buildings quite widely spaced apart.

Here are some pics of the bill:
Singapore S$20 bill with yellow-breasted sunbird
Singapore S$20 bill with Singapore Airlines concorde

By the way, check out the Zombeatles. Talk about obsession, or what?

Home Alone, Part 10

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Wow, Naoko and Zen have gone to Japan. I’m all by myself. It’s nice and quiet and I can play my loud music (so that it’s still nice, it’s just not quiet…) and do my work and sleep until noon so that the aches and pains in my body from long hours sitting at a desk tensing up in front of a computer screen start to lessen. I have been meeting friends, reading, watching rock ‘n’ roll documentaries, catching up on my emails and my blogs, and reading the Wikipedia. Today I was checking out Baader-Meinhof, which I previously knew little (or nothing) about.

Last night Mark and Dorai and I went to the Prince of Wales. The music was so-so, the crowd was fat and ugly, but we had fun playing pool. We went to Clarke Quay and hung out. I got home late and sleeeeeeeept. Frustrating day – the type where I missed three busses by seconds. I spent many many minutes standing by the stinky roadside waiting for the next one. Took my Stratocaster to the shop to have it fine-tuned and new strings put on. Groovy. Hope it plays better after this.

Movie Reviews:

Frost/Nixon – A film based on a play about the real debates between David Frost and Richard Nixon.  Like any play or fictionalised screenplay based on a historical event (Amadeus, the Killing Fields), careful thought needs to be given about what is fact and what is fiction.  The problem is that, without a roadmap, it is impossible to know what really happened as it is depicted in the film without either a roadmap or researching the events of the documentary and watching the debates themselves.  They exist on YouTube, of course, and it would be good to watch them all.

I enjoyed the movie, mostly because all of the characters were so vivid. David Frost reminded me a lot of someone I know, and watching Frank Langella play Richard Nixon because you’d find yourself wondering how similar he was and how dissimilar from Nixon he was (likewise for Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon in the Oliver Stone movie). Very interesting touches, such as the look on Frost’s face when he first starts interviewing Nixon and realizes that he’s WAY out of his league with the fish he’s roped. Nixon’s hunger to be back in the spotlight is palpable, although his greed in ringing in the big bucks is a questionable distraction that is only seen in the first parts of the film. Kevin Bacon is fantastic as Nixon’s devoted Marine chief of staff, whose devotion is not entirely understandable until you watch the bonus materials (which are excellent) that include interviews with the devoted people who run the Richard Nixon Presidential library, which started life differently than other presidential libraries, mainly due to the cloud over Nixon’s resignation – it was only officially set up in 2007, three years after fellow two-termer Bill Clinton’s. The complexity of his character is remarkable – he eggs Frost on to become a worthy adversary, despite the fact that he was chosen for the interview mainly on the basis that he was a lightweight. The contradiction of the coexistence of his egotism with his low self-esteem is also fascinating to behold.

Some quibbles with the film – I find it odd that David Frost is described as a playboy, but we only get hints of this. I also dislike the key “drunk Nixon phone call” scene/dream sequence, which strikes me as stagy. How many people who watch this film will assume that it was based on a real event? Was it?

This is what it looked like in real life:

This is what it looked like in the movie:

The Reader – I sometimes feel I should have enjoyed this movie, which aspires to be “challenging”, a lot more than I did.  The story of crime and morality in the Nazi era is never one to be callow about, but this film seems like it’s not sure what it wants to be about: the horrors of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, legal issues and moral ambiguities, the nobility of a fallen woman, or kinky sex.  Kate Winslett seems like the real star of this movie, for which she finally won an Academy Award (uh-oh, does this mean that she’ll never be in a good movie again?), and Ralph Fiennes plays her conflicted young lover as a conflicted adult.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin – A very funny movie, which made me laugh out loud many many times.  Catherine Keener is great.  Every character in this film is memorable in one way or another, with the possible exception of the sexually adventurous book store girl, who is too much of a caricature to really fit into this otherwise exceptional comedy.  Bravo!

Monsters vs. Aliens – A strange film about a human woman and her four androgynous side-kicks, with barely a single true male character. The concept promises fun, but in the end seems like a bit of a PG combination of Hellboy and Independence Day. Only one really truly funny scene where the President of the United States attempts to communicate with the aliens using a Casio keyboard that references both “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Beverly Hills Cop.”  Some monster movie references are okay – “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman”, “The Creature From The Black Lagoon”, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” (minus the Mothra fairies), “The Fly” (in this case, a cockroach man, not a fly man), and of course “The Blob.”  The movie shows its lack of balls by making Dr Cockroach a goofy mad scientist in the first 30 minutes, but then lets him be some sort of puppy in the second half.  Also, none of the monsters besides Susan, the 50-foot woman, are interesting or have interesting powers in any way.  Too bad.  Even Zen didn’t like this movie too much.  Harmless, but could have been a lot better.

Book Review

Wild Swans”, by Jung Chang – Probably the best book I’ve read in a very long time, it tells the story of four generations of Jung Chang (more correctly, her name should be Zhang Rong, with Zhang/”Chung” being the family name… by the way) that straddles several era of modern Chinese history and is told in a highly personal account of near-constant upheaval with only brief moments of stability.  Starting in Manchuria in the dying days of the of the Qing dynasty and its harshly unjust feudal society, the story begins with the tale of Zhang’s nearly-anonymous great-grandmother and her grandmother, who after great planning and care by her father is turned into a warlord’s concubine; it moves into the birth of Zhang’s mother and the takeover of Manchuria by the Japanese and the harsh lifestyle under them; then there is life under the Kuomintang, who moved in when China was liberated from the Japanese, and Zhang’s mother’s teen life and flirtation with the fledgeling communist movement; then there is the introduction of the father, the birth of a Communist China and nation-building, followed by Zhang’s birth, her young life in a relatively stable new China, before the unsettlement of Mao Zedong’s power struggles in Beijing led to The Great Leap Forward, and the shattering Cultural revolution, before finally closing with the death of Mao, the end of The Cultural Revolution, and the start of China’s modern era.

While the years from 1949-1955 are relatively benign, trouble picks up with ideological purges, as well as the famines and social problems unleashed by the Great Leap Forward which saw the rise of the despotism of Mao Zedong and the seeds of mass brainwashing.  Nearly half of the book describes the years from 1964 to 1974, following Zhang from 12 years old to 22 years old, and how she and her family fared in the various purges and movements of the Cultural Revolution of that disastrous era when millions died in probably one of the world’s greatest national suicide movements. Her father a revolutionary from the early days of the Communist movement, who was with Mao and other party leaders in the influential Yan’an settlement at the end of The Long March.  Working tirelessly within the party organisation, Zhang’s mother and father moved from Manchuria to his native Sichuan to establish themselves in government, and from 1949 to 1964 they became prominent in government.  When the various purges started, however, they became singled out for criticism according to the political flavour of the day – which was often dictated by anarchic groups of Red Guards.  Zhang herself joined the Red Guards, and near the end of the book she starts to talk about her political awareness, first as an unquestioning follower of Mao, then eventually she goes through the formation of doubts in her mind about who he was, what he was doing, and whether it was good for China or not.  Zhang’s description of the destruction, torture and mutilations that occurred, and the fear and hardship endured by not only people close to her but huge groups of people, are often difficult to read, and on some pages you will read about one horror after another. The sense of narrowly avoiding death on so many occasions – such as when two Red Guard factions are warring and one of them dynamites a building that she had been staying in – is quite heart-breaking, that someone could have lived in such a chaotic time that brushes with disaster were so common; the tales of suicides and other senseless deaths is also hard to bear; the situation of so many families being torn apart, or of the general lack of privacy and a sane family or personal life, is also one of the book’s great tragedy.  The thought that this type of social upheaval has been continuing uninterrupted in North Korea under the Kims is equally depressing.
Near the end of the book, it becomes clear that the madness is subsiding, and sensible individuals like Deng Xiaoping start to take the stage. She learned English, meets her first foreigners, and wins a scholarship to study in the UK.  This is where the story ends; of course, we now know that she married a man from the UK and is a prominent UK academic and intellectual, having now written a book about Mao Zedong.

While the book is quite an amazing story, I often wonder how much she is holding back. It seems a bit hard to believe that nobody in her large family ever compromised their values or became party to the violence and destruction that was commonplace.  She also hints at multiple affairs that don’t really get more than just hinted at. For a book that reveals so much, there is a sense that she held back when it came to things that could be viewed negatively, having so successfully separated herself from the hypocrisy and madness of the day. I also have a quibble about the marketing of the book – it is subtitled “Three Daughters of China”, but I would argue that Jung Chang’s father is arguably a stronger person than her mother and gets a lot of mention in the book (I wouldn’t say the same for the grandfather or the great-grandfather – they are almost completely absent, and if they make an appearance it is largely negative. Her mother’s step father, on the other hand, is painted as near-saintlike.

More than anything, the book leaves open room for much more research and analysis.  For instance, it would be fascinating to understand the social problems created by the Cultural Revolution and how they were dealt with.  People who formed loose/anarchic enemy factions during the Cultural Revolution found themselves working side-by-side when it ended and life returned to “normal” after ten years of living an upside-down life.

Singing Zen

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Hey, Zen lost his two front teeth! He looks funny, like a little vampire, but still very cute. I don’t have great pictures of him with his teeth missing, but you can see it well in these videos:

Here’s Zen singing Polly Wolly Doodle:

Zen sings the Ponyo theme song:

RIP 忌野清志郎

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

Just found out that Imawano Kiyoshiro has just died of cancer at age 56. For anyone who knows him, nothing more needs to be said – Japan just lost a lot of rock ‘n’ roll.

For those who didn’t know him, he was basically Mick Jagger and Keith Richards rolled into one, a guitar playing front man with a wild streak, although he was apparently also painfully shy offstage. He cycled to his shows on tour (yes, that means he would cycle from Tokyo to Osaka) and wrote a celebrated children’s storybook about the environment. Here’s a live version of one of his most famous songs:

Prince of Wales POW WOW, 2009

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Wow, Pow, had a great time tonight at the Prince of Wales Pow Wow, 2009, with nine bands POW WOW, apparently, stands for “Prince Of Wales, Why Oh Why?”). They were Ouinarii, Black Discoball, Luna and the Superstarts, Victor Tang, The Pinholes, and The London Fog. I got to the place around 6:40, Ouinarii was just finishing. Two pretty girls and a few guys were on the stage, they played a few recognizable song, like one by the Gallagher brothers. Then on came Black Discoball, with a sort of Linkin Park sound.

They took themselves pretty seriously, and one of the guitarists complained about his small amp. They were good fun, especially the song that sounded just like Iron Maiden. I went out for some dinner after that, and called Naoko and Zen. When I came back, Lupa and the Superstars were playing, and they were good fun – they played reggae songs with ska and punk and jazz and funk all mixed in. At one point, I heard a part from a Back Sabbath song (“Hand of Doom”, maybe?), which was nice. We danced a lot to these guys, forgiving them for losing momentum when the starts of the songs weren’t really that smoothe. Great saxophone playing, nice guitars.

MC of the evening Victor Tang then came out and played his songs. Great guitar picking, great beat and rhythm, fantastic stage presence (for a solo acoustic set), but the songs weren’t really memorable for themselves. The surprise of the evening came from The Pinholes, four guys in matching outfits (think of the early Beatles) who did a sort of weird mix of the Ramones, the Pixies and the Ultra Fuckers, with a little bit of Detroit Metal City thrown in for good measure. They all played Italia guitars, which seem to be made in Japan. The lead singer was demented (or at least acted the part) and talked in a loving Rasta voice about the part of Singapore that he is from (west coast), referred to me as “the man who sold the world”, and did all sorts of crazy antics. Don’t take my word for it – check out the video clip!!

Last up were The London Fog, which The Pinholes referred to as “Singapore’s Next Big Thing.” While the band had blown me away last time, this time it was all a bit anti-climactic. They played two new songs, both of which sound great, and finished the night off with the much-loved “Retro Dancing Girl.” The lead singer has a great soul voice and wonderful guitar chops, but his stage presence doesn’t quite match the inspired lunacy of the Pinholes. I wonder if they will be able to keep it up the next time I see them.

Here it is – “Retro Dancing Girl”!


Black Discoball

Luna and the Superstars

The Pinholes