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Here are the things we brought back from the UK. I think the list is somewhat revealing about Singapore life:

Laura Mercier primer and mascara (boring but necessary, there is only one stockist in Singapore and the lady there is mean)
x4 sex toys (I’ll spare details and blushes, suffice to say there are few good sex shops in Singapore)
x13 books (Naked Lunch, Diary of a Madman, Count Belisarius, The Tipping Point, LA Confidential, The Warden, The Business, Transition, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Tin Drum, The Singapore Grip, Spring Snow, 2666)
x15 peperami (a present)
x2 gold-embroidered, Buckingham Palace-monogrammed tea towels (also presents)
A signed silk-screen print from a guy in a coffee shop (anyone know a good framers?)
x3 bras
x3 cheeses
x2 chutneys (1 beetroot, 1 crab apple)
2.5 kg joint of smoked gammon

I didn’t trouble myself to check but I suspect bringing meat and cheese through the green aisle is illegal, but fortunately we’ll soon eat the evidence.

Bookends

Posted on: June 29, 2010

It was sixteen months ago. The first day of my shiny Singapore job. I chatted to the receptionist while I waited for HR, and smiled when she said her name was Rose. The receptionist at my London office was called Rose – maybe this was a good omen, perhaps I was meant to work here.

She asked the usual questions – where was I from, how long had I lived here? “Only a month,” I said, almost apologising. “Don’t worry,” she replied, laughing, joyful, “the hot weather will soon melt all that fat of you.”

Now it’s a year on. Tomorrow I leave this job. The coincidence of a shared name didn’t turn out to be that good an omen, but neither was it the worst. Everything teaches us something.

I go to say goodbye to Rose. She hugs me and says it’s always the nice ones who leave. Then she steps back and cocks her head, eyeing me critically. “You’ve lost weight. Whatever you’re doing it’s working.” I smile. Skinnier to start my new job. That must be a good omen. Right?

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The following is quite old. I wrote it when I was frustrated but I’m a happy monkey again now.

I am British.

*hefts leather-bound, gold-edged, old-skool passport onto the table with a resounding clang*

I write like a British person. I would suggest, immodestly, I write rather well. Certainly my blogs provide semi-regular entertainment for literally tens of people.

Conversely, I’m not Singaporean, and don’t write like a native islander.

This is understandable on many levels. For example, someone who speaks both English and Chinese is more conscious of word order than someone who speaks English alone.**

In other ways, this thoroughly confounds me. I will never understand why “persons within the vicinity of” is deemed simpler than “people nearby”.

**One of the reasons English is a successful lingua franca is that its structure is so utterly forgiving. You can treat English like a bitch and she’ll come right back for more.

This explains why English speakers developed beat poetry, for better or worse.

For a grown-up discussion of why English (and Chinese) rocks, I recommend Otto Jespersen’s Growth and Structure of the English Language (1912). Because I love you, here’s a free copy.

Mind you, counter to my argument Jespersen feels it is the degree of rigidity rather than permissiveness that makes English successful.

He sez:

Apart from Chinese, which has been described as pure applied logic, there is perhaps no language in the civilized world that stands so high as English.

Existing as it does at the intersection of these languages, perhaps it’s really Singlish that’s at the pinnacle? 😉

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A short rant about my commute.

Why, why, why, do Singaporean travellers act as if everyone else on the MRT is conspiring to imprison them on the train forever?

Other people are getting off too! Quit pushing, quit tutting, wait your turn. You’ll get off eventually.

And here’s something to blow your mind – even if you did miss your stop, it wouldn’t be a disaster. You get off at the next stop, take a train back, your whole journey is maybe 10 minutes longer than it should be.

The world doesn’t stop turning. Orphans don’t spontaneously combust. You just turn up a tiny bit late for work. So chill the fuck out, mmmkay?

The Singaporean one dollar coin looks like this:

Apparently the flower is Lochnera rosea, which could be a periwinkle but might be a frangipani, who knows.

Within the familiar circle there’s a more fortuitous octagon – the word for eight in Mandarin, ba, sounds similar to the word for wealth or prosperity, fa (the same is true of Cantonese).

Hence the coin is a lucky ba gua, or locally, pak kwa – an ‘eight symbol’ that’s important in feng shui – and exerts a little bit of fortune over everyone who has one.

One of my colleagues claims the coin has an interesting back story. When the MRT (underground train) tunnels where being dug in the 80s, a venerable monk advised the government that the construction would be very bad for the island’s feng shui or balance.

He said the only way to counter it would be for everyone to carry pak kwa, but he couldn’t see how it could be achieved. Wise Mr Lee realised that everyone carries small change, and the octagonal dollar was born.

I’ve been trying to verify this story online and have only found a few references, none of which seems very reliable, but I really hope it’s true. I love the idea that it’s only capitalism that stops Singapore from sinking into its own dragon vein.

I went to my company’s Chinese New Year dinner on Monday. This involved lots of fish as the Chinese word for this, ‘yu’, sounds the same as the words for wish and abundance. Hence including fish ensures an abundant new year.

The second course is usually shark fin soup. Shark = fish = an abundance of wealth, so it’s an important part of the dinner. It’s also expensive, which I think has a two-fold effect. Firstly, there is the idea that you need to spend money to make money, so pricey ingredients mean more fortune to come. But I don’t think it’s too mean to suggest there’s also a sense of keeping up with the Joneses. No one wants his or her dinner to look cheap.

So, sharks are firmly on the menu. Sadly they’re on some other lists as well, including one made by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). They are also apex predators, which means removing them from the food chain is more disruptive than removing something lower down. And the way they are caught and butchered is more cruel than other hunting and processing methods.

Now, I have a pretty liberal policy about what I’ll put in my mouth, but I draw the line at anything endangered (which is a shame, clouded leopards look hella tasty). When the soup was served on Monday I politely declined, explaining that eating it would go against my principles.

I didn’t lecture anyone else, not even the girl who said, “I hope it isn’t shark, I’m just going to eat it and not ask,” but I still faced an awful lot of arguments. This long preamble is leading to the point where I address those arguments, in ascending order of relevance.

Q. Just try it, you might like it.
A. I’m sure it’s very tasty, that’s not my concern.

Q. It’s probably mock shark, so it’s fine.
A. Given that my stand is a small one that won’t directly save any sharks, I’d rather stick to the principle than debate the minutiae of what’s actually in the bowl.

Q. I wouldn’t kill one myself, but this one’s already dead so it’s fine.
A. Someone actually said this. Hands up who’s eaten anything they caught and killed themselves. No… thought not. And to take the argument to its absurd conclusion, how about “I wouldn’t take babies and put them on spikes myself, but if someone did it for me it would be fine.”

Q. [More sensible version of the previous argument] This one is already dead, so it’s a waste/it died in vain if you don’t eat it.
A. Saying “But this one’s already dead,” is an attempt to move guilt or blame higher up the pathway: it’s the fisherman’s fault; the fishmonger’s fault; the restaurant’s fault. It’s not my fault, oh no. I am a passive actor in my own life, not responsible for the things that I move from a bowl into my mouth.

It might seem like rejecting one bowl of soup in a restaurant is a pointless, hopeless gesture that will go unnoticed, and I acknowledge that my stand is partly to assuage my conscious. But small actions do add up.

Product supply and demand changes constantly and consumers undeniably drive market trends. Maybe not quickly, and in the case of shark fin fishermen will fight while it’s still economically viable to do so, but so will restaurants. They usually have brutal profit margins, if they’re chucking away soup they’ll damned well order less ingredients next time.

So those are a few sensible answers to pro-shark fin arguments, but this is my real answer:

Dead finned scalloped hammerhead. Courtesy of Jeff Rotman/jeffrotman.com

I mentioned cruel hunting methods above. By far the most commercially valuable part of a shark is its fin, so often rather than take the whole bulky animal ashore the shark is ‘finned’. Fishermen cut off and keep the small, viable part and throw the live animal back into the sea to die a slow, suffocating death. And that makes me too sad to eat the things.

Plus how much would it suck to know I played a part in wiping out one of the oldest continuously extant species on the planet?

Gong xi fa cai!

Image from here, can’t find the source I’m afraid. And here is a Guardian photo article about shark’s fin soup [click the images to navigate forwards].

Edited to add:
I’ve just realised, by bothering to look at the file name, that the photograph above was taken by someone called Jeff Rotman. There are some beautiful images up on his site.

Singapore is very safe. Which is a relief, as safety is very important to Singaporeans (not sure which is the chicken and which the egg). When I ask people what they like about living here, safety is often first on the tick-list.

I think the low crime rates are making me complacent. I’ve recently discovered through trial and error that I really can go out and leave my front door open. I’ve learned this because for some reason our door, which used to click locked if you left it to close under its own weight, no longer always catches.

If this started to happen in London I would learn pretty quickly to go back and double check the lock. Probably after I arrived home the first time and found my property empty. But here it’s happened a few times and I’ve always returned to find everything as I’ve left it.

I feel slightly guilty whenever I realise my house has been open all day, but also oddly liberated by the ridiculous fact that it’s always fine. That said, I was worried this morning at 6am when I woke to the sound of the front door gently closing.

I assumed it had once again been resting open, and that maybe a breeze had caused it to click shut. But it crossed my mind that perhaps it had closed after someone had come through it, intent on murdering me in my sleep.

I debated getting up to investigate, but decided that if I was going to die, I would rather do it from the warmth and decency of my bed than shivering and naked in the hallway.

Needless to say, I’m still here and still safe.