The caged soul

I am a walking defect. Without warranties nor guarantees nor replacements. I have a deformed left clavicle from a fracture 7 years ago. A deformed 5th metatarsal from a triple fracture that I’m still recovering from (it probably worsened because I mistook the fracture for a sprain and continued haphazardly trekking, motorcycling, swimming, partying and getting wasted for 5 days in Southeast Asia before treating it at a clinic). I have a myopia so bad I would have long since died if I was living in the Stone Age. CMPB tells me that my thoracic cavity, restricted by a deformed ribcage, cannot sustain me with enough oxygen to engage in strenuous activity. I also probably have quite a lethal dose of cholesterol in my blood stream from sometimes eating five KFC 2-piece meals a month vis-a-vis an indolent lack of exercise.

Some things heal, and the many scars and scabs attest to that. Most things don’t. Like my well-worn two decade old skeletal system.

Fragility. Frailty. Futility. They epitomise the human body and and its uncompromising lack of longevity. Accumulative damage to the physical body is the driving force of ageing and old age will be the death of us all. We are all born with eventuality of death stamped in the nucleus of every cell, as much as I shy from that reality. I will never heal from these damages I’ve incurred in just two decades of existence. And I will incur far more for the years to come.

For all my prideful intellect, it is but a mere effect of this 1.3kg organ sitting underneath my skull. A hundred currently known viruses, bacteria or other illnesses would spell the death of this miserable mass of flesh and blood – the site of all this ego and existential consciousness. God, just one minute without oxygen is irreparable damage to my brain cells.

It is pathetic that humans will cease to exist, for all the generations of trying to make heroes of ourselves, for the all the long years of constructing meaning and fulfilment. It is precisely because the body will die that constructing meaning takes on such a huge preoccupation in human society. And it is this very obsession with physical fragility that creates massive buy-in to the social construct of the soul.

But there is neither soul nor a priori meaning.

We are all destined to cease to exist some time in the future and our bodies are just empty cages.

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On a side note, it is both depressing and humbling to have spent the last month on crutches. Nothing creates more empathy for the disabled than being one yourself. Our handicapped-friendly architecture isn’t friendly. The Singaporean public isn’t the nicest. And I would never again blame the elderly or disabled from risking life and limb, trying to take the shortest paths, when the overhead bridge or the traffic junction is just a step away.

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He Who Rebelled Against the Sun

I was born under the shadow of its light,
Doomed to the chill of its restless heat.
To forever prostrate myself in acquiescence
To the soundless music of the life infinite
It bestowed and it possessed.

I could not listen. I would not hear.
I turn away from the light that immolates
Regardless of my blaspheming eyelids.

Blood rays, fiery orange.

The light is all that is pain.
And I would surrender myself
To the deaf and blind.

Deafness, self-imposed,
That disables the soul.
Blindness, self-inflicted,
That breaks the better angels of our nature.

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An Ode to Laos

The highway from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is a dusty dirt road. All the people I’ve talked to say it requires more courage than a human heart can have to brave those roads. I found only beauty in it. Clouds are like a river that spreads its tributaries through the green peaks of Laos. The sun is a gold hue that teases the soul.

Vang Vieng too is said to be an ugly town. But when you hurtle away to the countryside, you find instead an unparalleled beauty in undeveloped poverty.

People tell me not to die in Laos. No, I haven’t felt more alive here.

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I’ve met with backpackers from over 20 countries (more than I have in my life), with promises to meet again either in Singapore when they come over or in wherever place there is in this world. Its a culture founded upon our common ennui and love for the world (as well as a hatred for Chinese tourists).

But for all the romanticised wistfulness of being away, my watch and phone is still on Singapore time. I had never actually left home.

Lament for Laos

We call them ang mohs not just because they are merely the white men but because they are a whole package of unbridled arrogance and willful ignorance towards local dignity. Apart from the colour of my hair, the slant of my eyes and a slightly lower level of blood alcohol concentration, I have very much been an ang moh myself two days here in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng was a village set on the idyllic Song River. Vang Vieng now is everything that is wrong with tourism. These white people jump naked into sacred pools. Crushed cans of dirt cheap Beer Lao, moonshine whisky and cigarette stubs churn in a cesspool that is the river. You could ride on an abused elephant for far cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Lao children grew up under the shadow of debauchery: they spend their days chasing after tuktuks laden with half-naked tourists; and, they spend their nights playing at the billiards table among the fog of a Malboro cloud. The Laotian cafe owners play re-runs of Friends, neither knowing what is so amusing about 6 decadent people living in an apartment, nor knowing if they’ll ever even have a taste of the standards of developed world luxury espoused therein.

A festering ankle injury from two days ago meant I had to spent my second day in the town floating down the river in an inner tyre tube with a bottle of moonshine whisky in my hand, together with R (an Aussie friend I made the night before) and alongside a dozen other ang mohs from all over the globe. Admittedly, it was guilty fun floating from bar to bar downriver.

We had a Laotian guide, he sat on the kayak, splashing us with the cold Laotian water or blasting us with techno from a huge speaker mounted before him. He’s like the goddamn guitarist from Mad Max, with all the post-apocalyptic madness. Apocalypse: it must have felt like one to the elder villagers that have seen the decline of the town over a decade. They would stand idly by the banks at makeshift bamboo bars, hawking more alcohol and chips. I see entertainment in the eyes of their children but a deflated frown in the eyes of the elderly: they have no other choice.

If one peers past the haze of drunkenness and techno, one would see an engulfing sight of sheer green-clad cliffs, blue running waters, and the lazy afternoon sunlight that wafts about. But there is no space for beauty in our intoxication. Not in my heart or in R’s despite our attempts to savour it. (Thank goodness I had yesterday to myself on the motorbike exploring the beautiful countryside.)

On the way back to town, we are bikini-clad, half-naked sardines packed into a tuktuk, and the same techno music is blasted through the tiny evening streets. The inebriated Laotian guide is pounding the roof of the tuktuk to the beat. R and I and a German couple with us all concur he’s probably in his late twenties, but he has the wrinkles of a man aged by two packs of beer and cigarettes a day. The villagers we zoom past would again look on with a certain drowning dejection, however used they are to this.

R and I together with A, a North Carolinian teacher are having a drink and a joint at a bar later that evening. A French guy stumbles pass our carpet: I can see the whites of his eyes and his epileptic hands. He collapses on his face two seconds later. A few ang mohs jump in to check on the French man. He OD-ed on opium, this Brazilian dude who joined us for a cup of an opiate-laced tea explains. The stoned waitress doesn’t do shit, she can’t count notes properly, nor even open her eyes fully. A, having already had a bad trip on that joint, bails back to her hostel, having just seen a man OD just an inch in front of her.

Sometime in the evening, two Dutch girls I’ve returned to the hostel with from another bar don’t want to pay their share of the tuktuk fee. He’s cheating us, they exclaim with giggles and with gin of their breathes. Every inch of my soul is on the verge of exploding, “What the fuck is 10,000 kip to your wallet? What is 10,000 kip to his livelihood?”

But long before I muster the indignation to do so, the tuktuk driver accepts a French kiss from Girl A as payment. God fucking dammit. Girl B walks away drunkenly from the negotiation for her payment, leaving Girl A to continue teasing the half-smiling, half-quivering driver.

“No, no! We having fun chat chat”, says he, when I step in and try to gently convince her to just fucking pay what is essentially one bloody US dollar.

This town is fucked.

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La Vie En Rose

I surrendered her away at Tekong: Tekong was the first time in my life that I had ever seen such stars in the night sky. Mandai gave her back to me: Mandai was the first time I had ever heard eagles cry.

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How could such a piece of plastic, pink and flimsy, be the enduring object of such yearning and envy?

“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose”

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5AM at Pasir Ris beach

Dawn is breaking upon the revelry of drunkards.
They yell all they can
Against the dying tenebrous night
That has yielded them not a denouement.

This beach is cold and nebulous
Dismal and obfuscous.
A bird is screaming out her lungs
in squawks of tuberculosed anguish.

Have you seen the morning tide?
It is a relentless murky blue
Melancholic and ceaseless
They lap these rubbish strewn shores.

The cleaner peddles a soiled dustbin
Dressed not for tropical heat
But the cold drafts of this alien land.
Strewn like cacti in a vast desert
Of sanitised street fluorescent:
The crushed plastic cups and emptied gin bottles
Of decrepit sorrows and buried pains.

There will be no sunrise for this morning.
It does not deserve one.

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Ode to the Quarry

Two huge eagles are shrieking as they circle across my sky, bathed in the dying orange light of Sunday evening. Their echoing cries are the muezzin’s call to prayer, they are the blowing whistles of the evening flag lowering in the battalion square. In reply, the thousands of trees and vegetation of every kind, decked like a panorama across the massive quarry sway in the gentle breeze that blows southwards. Cerulean blue is the waters of the centre reservoir, black is the mouth of an abandoned cave at the north side.

I sit on the edge of granite outcrop, inhaling the sheer beauty that surrounds me. No matter how many times I’ve sneaked up here, the beauty is always breathtaking. One easily forgets that this is still Singapore.

Corporal G and Private J stand closely by my side; they too are trying to register the beauty that engulfs them. They’re probably glad they’d agreed to accompany me for my last joyride (illegal as usual and punishable with a term in the detention barracks). No other person in camp, sane or not, would bring them where I’ve brought them, and in the same method.

Today is my last day wearing this uniform. And this is the last time I’ll be seeing this.

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I’ve spent 2 years in the most beautiful army base in Singapore. It’s a pity that few of the hundreds that pass through these gates catch no more than just a passing glimpse of the raw beauty hidden behind chain-linked fences and thick vegetation. Life has gone on here for the longest time with little interaction with the quiet, unassuming allure of the great outdoors in the backyard. Some personnel have never even seen it, nor even thought it to exist. Most don’t care.

I was one of the lucky few (and hopefully not the last) with enough balls (and of a rank high enough to warrant some measure of autonomy) to explore this place more than rules or sensible thoughts would allow.

“Explore” however is quite an understatement. Read: rock-climbing, skipping-pebbles, spelunking through gated caves, trekking, hiking, trespassing, trespassing with a vehicle without a license, bashing a new road through lalang, racing, crashing up vehicles, off-roading, dirt-roading, green-laning, cross-countrying, tracing longkangs, and climbing trees, all while mostly high on whisky.

People don’t miss NS, I don’t think I will as well. But this beauty, I will miss.

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Nausea

In a month’s time, he would say goodbye to the world of green, to its uniforms, to its cloth ranks, and the stunted life in nauseous limbo that it presented. If life was a movie, those two years of NS were the two great vertical bars hovering over a paused movie playback.

He, like many, had counted down with a fervent zealousness to the last day of army life. But for some reason, he was there this morning, a fractured boy, hugging himself pathetically on his bunk bed in the grips of an acrid nausea that creeped up on his soul since morning, until then unnoticed.

Nausea is a crippling affliction. Nausea incapacitates, nausea torments. It is a discomfiture, an anguish and a despair that seemed to emanate from the core of his soul.  And because it seemed so, he can only feel a surging loath for his own existence.

The nausea of his soul now was as clear and as pronounced as the caustic blue of the skies outside his bunk windows. With a striking suddenness, he had realised a simple truth: he did not want to ORD.

He had grown to love so very much the limbo that army gave him that he could not survive without it. He could not survive without this limbo, without this excuse from life and all its contingent terrors. He thought deeply and saw the unassailable fact that NS has been his perfect excuse from facing his faith and its proselytising he had run from, from facing family and home, from the failed relationships that was the unmistakable manifestation of his own moral and emotional failings. Those two years in an isolated world of green was the best holiday he had ever had even if it had been nauseating, and only now did he realise that he could not breathe in a world without NS.

And that was when the panic came with its full barrage: he couldn’t breathe, he shivered, he vomited, he tore at his own skin, he screamed his head off.

There was but one simple solution: he had to continue running from the terrors of living, one way or another.

He had to sign on. This nausea of the army was more bearable than the nausea without.

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2016 Film List

I love films more than I love books and I’ve watched some supremely beautiful films this year. Of the many dozens I’ve watched, this is a list of my favourite ones.

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The Lives of Others (2006)
There’s tragedy, humanity and a tersely written screenplay in a film set five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall about East German secret policing of its dissident populace and a member of the secret police who expresses more humanity than he is allowed to. The silent brooding power of the film lies in the whispers of love, resistance and loss heard behind closed doors and spied walls. Few films I have watched have as satisfying a conclusion as this one for all its historical tragedy.

Apprentice (2016)
In Boo Junfeng’s acclaimed feature film, a prison warden with a dark family history of a hanged criminal father, learns the ropes of the prison hangman in a fast-track promotion to heir executioner. As much as the ending is faulted for its directorial laziness, I have never seen a more breathless local film as this. It has not fallen into the traps of didacticism, emotional gaudiness or inaccessibility that quite frequently plagues local films and remains as potent as it is humanising. I say without a doubt that this is my favourite local film.

A Single Man (2009)
Colin Firth, dressed impeccably in the retro over-designed fashion of the 60’s Cold War with a bespoke shirt and suit, polished Oxfords and hipster glasses, plays a depressed homosexual English professor who spends a day preparing for his evening suicide. With intermittent hot flushes of colour that dies back into monochrome, accompanied with bits of a soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi, I at times feel like this is American cinema’s equivalent to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Every scene threatens to rip you apart for its sheer beauty. Dammit, more films should be made by fashion designers.

Sicario (2015)
Sicario has this heightened level of tension that never diminishes throughout nor leave you at the conclusion of the film that you feel like you’re suffering from priapism. You can see what’s going on, but you don’t know what’s going on. The stirring dynamics and talent of Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin breathes intensity into every corner of this film. Never imagined drug wars could be so thoroughly gripping from start to finish.

Spirited Away (2001)
Adorable with every bit of Hayao Miyazaki’s magic.

Rogue One (2016)
By the final crescendo of the film as the credits broke, I was embarrassingly hyperventilating. Being a film lover, I have watched many remarkable films in my life and I dare blaspheme intellectual and cultural sensitivities by saying that this could easily be one of the best visual experiences I’ve ever had. By some magic of screenwriting, pacing, storyboarding, composition and music, the potential for jaw-dropping oomph of space opera has been expertly captured, unlike the other Star Wars films. It is by no means without faults, but it has quite boldly gone where no Star Wars films have gone with its moral depth and invigorating complexity. At its worst, it is a film that has ticked every box on a list of action-blockbuster cliches, but it has carried it out so well, you wouldn’t think it as cliche. Oh and also Darth Vader, holy shit.

Her (2013)
The mise en scene is adorable: the colour palettes and the Satie-inspired music especially. And the soulfulness leaves you feeling quite very fulfilled.

New World (2013)
I think Koreans do better contemporary gangster films than any other film industry. This one ranks of the blood spilled by Hong Kong’s seminal Infernal Affairs and Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, but yet with the refined suits and cigarettes of George Clooney. It has arresting visuals that even the most violent scenes make you appreciate the thoughtful cinema behind it.

Seven (1995)
Kevin Spacey.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
John Hurt, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch all in one film dealing with John le Carre’s MI6 and 70’s British fashion. Need I say more? It damn well did the book some damn justice. (I do however very much want to watch the 1979 one with Sir Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson).

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy (2015)
In a concise 57 minutes, Jason Soo uncovers in voluminous loudness an unpalatable segment of our history so saturated with the stank state narrative. This is a documentary of paramount importance: most detainees would die off in a matter of years without any official revisiting of this episode and this would be the only counter-narrative around to get anywhere near scratching what is the truth of our 1987 experience. This is one film, of the few, that has made me angry, and for that, it is one of the most favourite films I’ve watched this year. Thank goodness it isn’t banned and it’s still available with some restricted screenings around the island in forefront cinemas of cultural development and political dissidence.

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2016 Book List

This year, I set out to read far more local literature and more non-fiction than I did last year, and did the exact opposite. Once again, like last year, I’ve had the opportunity to devour a broad wealth of writers and works from different backgrounds and translated languages. This year, I’ve also read considerably more female writers *snickers*.

See also: 2015 Book List

Works that I have enjoyed enormously or were affected by greatly are marked with an asterisk (*). In chronological order.

  1. Simulacra & Simulation – Jean Baudrillard*
  2. The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima
  3. Ministry of Moral Panic – Amanda Lee Koe**
  4. Casino Royale – Ian Fleming
  5. The Invisible Manuscript – Alfian Sa’at
  6. Our Thoughts Are Free – Teo Soh Lung & others
  7. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – Sonny Liew**
  8. Immortality – Milan Kundera
  9. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera
  10. The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum
  11. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins*
  12. Selected Poems – T.S. Eliot*
  13. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot**
  14. The True Story of Ah Q – Lu Xun
  15. Poems – Philip Larkin**
  16. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  17. Brave New World Revisited – Aldous Huxley
  18. The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels*
  19. The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel Garcia Marquez*
  20. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez*
  21. The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
  22. Breakfast for Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
  23. Children of Hürin – J.R.R. Tolkien*
  24. The Dictator’s Eyebrow – Cyril Wong
  25. The Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy*
  26. Lust, Caution – Eileen Chang
  27. Red Rose, White Rose – Eileen Chang
  28. Radish – Mo Yan
  29. The Tempest – Shakespeare*
  30. Macbeth – Shakespeare*
  31. A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami
  32. Pnin – Vladamir Nabokov
  33. A Luxury We Cannot Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry*
  34. Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century – Paul Collier*
  35. One Thousand and One Nights – Gwee Li Sui
  36. The Housekeeper and The Professor – Yoko Ogawa*
  37. The Diving Pool – Yoko Ogawa*
  38. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro*
  39. An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
  40. Over to You – Roald Dahl*
  41. Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien**
  42. The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien*
  43. The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien**
  44. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner*
  45. Eating Air – Ng Yi-Sheng*
  46. Intersection – Liu Yichang
  47. The Mousetrap – Agatha Christie
  48. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carré*
  49. Contact – Carl Sagan*
  50. Political Order and Political Decay – Francis Fukuyama**
  51. Separation: A History – Christine Chia
  52. Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T.E. Lawrence*
  53. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness – Kenzaburō Ōe*
  54. The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears – Kenzaburō Ōe
  55. They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue – Theophilus Kwek*

Some observations:

  • I’ve read over a hundred books in my 1 year 11 months of national service so far. That’s potentially more books than I’ve ever read in my life.
  • I’ve read a lot of Japanese literature both this year and in the last few years and there’s one consistent and inevitable conclusion: Japanese writers are the most fucked up.
  • Amusingly, I was slogging my way through Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation while I was a cadet trainee at command school. Looking back, it is some sort of meta-satire that my SCS notebook contains my scribbled notes of regimentation and warfighting juxtaposed against my notes on Baudrillardian post-structuralism.
  • I took one entire year of intermittent reading and annotating to complete Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of what could possibly be his magnum opus. It’s an absolute tour-de-force and I stand beyond impressed by its ambition and the sheer volume of knowledge I’ve gleamed from its pages.
  • I enjoyed Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being enormously and thus relentlessly read his other works this year in a desperate search of something similar. They all fell depressingly short of the kind of affective effect that Unbearable Lightness marshalled. In much the same respect, I can’t find another collection of local poetry that is as fierce and breathless as Alfian Sa’at’s first publication.
  • I decided to re-read Lord of the Rings after a very very long time. I love Tolkien so much. The sheer beauty and gravity of his written word – it’s like falling in love again. It unfortunate that I couldn’t appreciate it when I was younger. It shall be a tradition for me to read LOTR once a year at the very least. And in retrospect, Peter Jackson did a damn magnificent job of translating Tolkien’s words into cinema.

“My heart has more rooms in it than a whore house”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

“My mother is a fish”
– William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
– T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!”
– Shakespeare, The Tempest

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

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