Sunday Scares #1: Graphic Novels

We blinked and it’s October!

You may already know that I like spooky things. So, I thought that for today and the next three Sundays, instead of my weekly #SundaySofaSojourns I will list a few of my favourite creepy things to celebrate the season – nay, the Mood – that is Halloween.

If you’re thinking “Well this year is already horrific enough as it is without adding zombies into the mix” then it might interest you to know that watching films / reading fiction / engaging with the horror genre has been found to be useful in this Covid-19 era. A recent study concluded that “exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations.” (You’re welcome!)

This week, I’m listing down three of my favourite horror graphic novels.

In my view, the graphic novel as a medium adds another layer of immersion to any story. It works especially well for the horror genre – to see a shock of bright red or dark moody hatchwork complement the black-and-white text next to it amps up the scare factor for me by several notches.

Creepy Post-it artwork by John Kenn

Here are three of my picks…

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1) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.”

Through the Woods has five original stories, not counting ‘An Introduction’ and ‘In Conclusion.’ I like that Carroll’s stories are mostly about women — a lady trying to uncover the terrible mystery of her sprawling, dark manor and her husband with red-stained lips in A Lady’s Hands Are Cold; three sisters dealing with a bruising winter in the unsettling mystery of Our Neighbour’s House; a lonely girl whose mother’s cautionary tales saved her life as she uncovered her pretty sister-in-law’s hidden secret in The Nesting Place; and the sinister story of two brothers in His Face All Red (also published in full on Carroll’s website – check it out. Don’t miss Out of Skin and The Prince & The Sea too).

Opening panel in His Face All Red. (Source)

‘In Conclusion’ had a Red Riding Hood-like character narrowly missing the wolf in the forest, and expressing immense relief as she tucked in for the night. Suddenly, she hears something speak:

“Oh, but you must travel through those woods again & again…” said a shadow at the window. “…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…

But the wolf …the wolf only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.”

Add the jet-blacks and blood-reds colouring her eerie yet haunting art, her spindly elegant handwriting, the oppressiveness of her snowy landscapes, lonesome houses in the woods, and the nostalgic Victorian and 1920s fashion — and Through the Woods ticks all my horror-loving boxes.

2) Trese series by Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo

“When the sun sets in the city of Manila, don’t you dare make a wrong turn and end up in that dimly-lit side of the metro, where aswang run the most-wanted kidnapping rings, where kapre are the kingpins of crime, and engkantos slip through the cracks and steal your most precious possessions. When crime takes a turn for the weird, the police call Alexandra Trese.”

I would not be exaggerating when I say the Trese series is a rare and very welcome find for me in the graphic novel medium, let alone the horror genre. There’s hardly any Filipino representation out there, as far as I’m aware. (If you know of others, please let me know in the comments.) Bonus points for having a strong and independent woman as the lead character.

In the Trese series, we follow Malate club owner and police consultant Alexandra Trese and her trusty hitmen the Kambal. Trese gets called in to cases that involve the supernatural.

The characters in Trese are as old and familiar as childhood, but with a modern twist – helpful nuno sa punso (who now live in underground sewers instead of soil mounds), well-off tikbalang who’ve upgraded their usual balete tree home to a Makati penthouse, a typhoon deity who watches over an exclusive urban village (as long as the residents made the right sacrifices).

The settings are also recognisable: Manila South Cemetery in Case 6: The Outpost on Kalayaan Street, also considered home by many poor squatter families in makeshift houses (“… and some find themselves joining the dead all too soon”); a crowded MRT train in Case 13: An Act of War, and gritty Manila in Case 1: At the Intersection of Balete and 13th Street from the first Trese book, Murder on Balete Drive.

Trese, redrawn for the US market. Source: Comics Beat

There’s even a nod to local urban legends, for example the snake-like creature that supposedly stalked people in Robinson’s Galleria in the ‘90s (remember that?) in Case 7: Embrace of the Unwanted, which is set in the fictional Robertson Mall.

If you’re looking for a highly engaging and modern introduction to Philippine myth and folklore, I recommend reading Trese. I heard that Netflix will adapt it as an animated series this year. I can’t wait.

3) Uzumaki: Spiral into Horror by Junji Ito

“Spirals… this town is contaminated with spirals…”

Ito is the first artist that comes to my mind when I think about how artwork complements the story in graphic novels.

In Uzumaki, the phenomenon is never explained fully. Kurozu-cho, a small fictional town in Japan, is haunted by a pattern: the spiral (or uzumaki in Japanese – Naruto fans would know this 😉). Spirals start to manifest itself in everything – townspeople start to become obsessed with it, hair independently shapes itself into spiral curls, pregnant women gorge on spiral-covered mushrooms with alarming consequences.

As a pitch, the plot sounds utterly ridiculous: “Town is cursed, driven mad, and ultimately fucked over by spirals.” Err, say what?

But Ito’s artwork makes all the difference. It manages to mesmerise and be deeply uncomfortable at the same time, and is peak form in Uzumaki. It’s my favourite of his many works because the story builds, with all the seemingly unconnected short chapters starting to make sense as the main characters hurtle towards the end. (Watch out for Chapter 8: The Snail. I could not get the imagery of the snail people out of my head for days.)

You’ll never look at a spiral the same way again.

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I’ll stop at three so I still have some to talk about for next October haha. Hope you enjoyed this list. Till next week! 👻

Think critically dear readers,

Hello Moon

I had things to say about the Mid-Autumn festival, Raffles Hotel’s famous snow-skin mooncakes, this year’s Light-Up in Gardens by the Bay.

But life — specifically, work — got in the way. It’s been a tiring week.

So instead, here is a gorgeous view of the full harvest moon from the office, taken on one of these late nights.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #15: Bormes les Mimosas, France

We were on the train en route to Toulon, headed to M’s wedding. To my right the sea whizzed past. I saw a few divers bobbing on the surface and wondered if there were reefs in the dazzling blue below.

Before we left the Hub warned me about the number of train rides we needed take on this just-us trip. I told him not to worry, long train journeys didn’t bother me as long as I had something to read. I came armed with plenty of books. One of the books I brought was a dud — after page 49 it was suddenly page 248 — and I made a mental note to exchange it at Kinokuniya even though I had lost the receipt. “If they won’t take it, I’ll make them go viral!” I declared. He laughed, “No one would care.”

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We flew to Nice where we spent a day to experience a bit of the famed French Rivieraalso known as Côte d’Azur — because who knows when we’d be back travelling in this neck of the woods? (In this post-B.C. era, that turned out to be a good call.) The water was as blue as I imagined it to be. The blue was in three shades and the sky did its best to match.

We passed cliffs dotted with what looked like villas and I remembered an old Garfield comic I read when I was really young where Garfield rattles off his wish list to Jon, ending with “…and a villa in the South of France!” I’m not sure why the phrase stuck with me after all these years. Perhaps I did not know what “villa” meant, or why a tubby cartoon cat would want one. But now I think I do — anyone would. The place is a dream.

We found a vintage merry-go-round
Ride-on vehicles for sale — I was so tempted to buy one

We dropped off our bags at the hotel and had an unimpressive seafood lunch near the flower market. Afterwards we had a mojito, praline, and pistachio gelato from Fenocchio which was absolutely delicious. Then we strolled along the promenade.

We passed by a lot of runners. I wondered how they could jog without so much as a glance at that sparkling Mediterranean sea. How was it possible to live next to it every day and not at least look, stare, linger?

We also noticed people were sunbathing on the rocky beach. It couldn’t have been comfortable — it looked like it was just gravel everywhere, with small rocks piled high in mounds in some spots. But the sun was out and the weather was lovely, so I don’t think people minded. We paused to watch two men play beach tennis with a pink ball that flew with the breeze.

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From Toulon we took a bus to Bormes les Mimosas, a small village with tiled roofs and houses all painted the same soothing peach hue. The church where M would be wed was here, Église Sainte Trophyme, and the wedding was that afternoon. We only had time for a quick quiche and a shower. Exploring Bormes would have to wait.

We got lost at first on our way to the church, but a kind French lady left her shop to walk us there. The interior of Église Sainte Trophyme was quaint and the same hue as the houses. Both of M’s sisters and her nanay were dressed in elegant Philippine terno dresses (“Para may representation!” said M’s ate) and of course most guests were from the groom’s side since it was his hometown.

The sermon was delivered in English with most of the service — and M’s vows — in French. A lovely, simple service, with legal formalities at the end, and torotot distributed to the guests for when the couple exited the church. M’s ate did her bridal makeup and arranged tiny rosebuds in her hair. “Sabi ko nga pwede rin pala magpakasal ng simple lang,” M’s nanay later said, when we were enjoying cocktails outdoors before the reception dinner. “Sa atin kasi…” and she trailed off, assuming I knew what she meant. (I did.)

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The reception was at La Magnanerie de Saint-Isidore, a long drive from the church. We booked a cab to take us there. Two hours were allotted for guests to mingle outdoors with pre-dinner Provençal apéro: wine, fruit juices, and various finger foods which I thought were better than the main course that followed.

I especially liked the anchoïade, a Provençal dip made from olive oil, anchovies, basil leaves, and garlic. At M’s reception the fresh vegetables were artfully arranged so it looked like they were growing in the anchoïade “soil” dip. I liked the baby radishes best.

Another favourite of mine was the freshly grilled meat station. I had my fill of bite-sized tender chunks of beef, marinated chicken, and blood sausage. A waiter went around urging guests milling in the gardens to help themselves from a tin bucket of foie gras (yes please two for me).

During dinner, there were messages from families and friends (his in French and hers in English — but M’s ate also delivered hers in French — “C’est magnifique!” exclaimed M’s in-laws, understandably impressed). The Hub and I were seated next to a banker and his girlfriend who asked us questions about Singapore. (Is it true they don’t allow people with long hair in? Can you chew gum there? What’s it like living there? “It’s good for families,” I answered. “We don’t have kids,” he said.)

Unlimited dancing followed dessert but the tiredness was taking over. Honestly, there were times too that I felt like a fish out of water. Most introverts might be familiar with the feeling — by then I had used up my day’s supply of small talk and just wanted to recharge back at the hotel. Finally, the Hub and I hitched with a friend and left after taking Polaroids for the wedding guest book. I took one extra snap of us, for me.

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The next morning we were up early and had our chance to walk around Bormes. The mimosas the town was known for were not yet in full bloom but I could imagine what the streets and the house gates would look like whenever the season was right. The souvenir shops, with their postcards, sweet scented perfumes, ceramic jewelry, and bags of lavender and other dried herbs, were just starting to open. There was no one around.

Some houses were nearly covered in bougainvillea flowers

We had tea and a croissant at the hotel cafe with a truly Provençal view (mountains, the peach-coloured houses with tiled roofs, blooms, and the startling blue sky with a single streak of white).

I thought to myself how difficult it must be to think of the rest of the world and its many troubles if I lived in a place like this.

But in some small way, I was also glad to leave.

Think critically dear readers,

The Saddest Song

Because I’ve been in A Mood lately, I’ve resurrected an old Spotify playlist I made of all the sad songs I could think of.

I chucked everything but the kitchen sink in there, so my playlist ranges from ’80s power ballads (I distinctly remember when I was in preschool crying on the school bus every time I heard Roxette’s ‘It Must Have Been Love’ on Manong’s radio — opo, every time), OPM songs that vividly remind me of my real-life break-ups (Sugarfree’s ‘Kwarto’ — each line was on point, even the dusty jacket in the corner), to indie (‘Your Ex-Lover is Dead’ from Stars is a favourite… “And all of the time you thought I was sad / I was trying to remember your name” …*mic drop*).

Anyway. I’ve been listening to this playlist a lot recently. It got me thinking about what the saddest song ever written could be.

My gloomy playlist certainly had a lot of promising candidates. Who would win the Saddest Song award? Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ (“I wish I had a river I could skate away on” always gets to me)? Would it be Abba’s heart-rending entry, ‘The Winner Takes It All’? Adele’s painful, plaintive request in ‘All I Ask’? How about Alanis Morissette’s ‘So Unsexy’ (to anxious people like me, this song always struck far too close to heart)? (As you can see, I got stuck on letter A.)

Then my random playlist shuffle landed on ‘A Letter To Elise’ from The Cure.

Don’t get put off by Robert Smith’s goth look and crazy hair. Have a listen with your eyes closed.

From me and you, there are worlds to part
With aching looks and breaking hearts
And all the prayers your hands can make
Oh, I just take as much as you can throw
And then throw it all away
Oh I’ll throw it all away
Like throwing faces at the sky
Like throwing arms round yesterday
I stood and stared
Wide-eyed in front of you
And the face I saw looked back the way I wanted to
But I just can’t hold my tears away the way you do
Elise, believe I never wanted this
I thought this time I’d keep all of my promises
I thought you were the girl I always dreamed about
But I let the dream go
And the promises broke, the make-believe ran out

The quiet, aching resignation in those lines. Hay.

Here’s a soothing, gentle cover version from Goh Nakamura.

How about you? What’s your go-to sad song?

Think critically dear readers,

Featured image by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #14: Rome, Italy

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Rome is a delicious assault on the senses. There is the sight of an almost 230-year old fountain grafted on to the back of a palazzo when you turn a street corner, the taste of thick, creamy gelato as it melts on the tongue, the pain of sore feet when you walk too long on its cobbled streets.

The sore feet are worth it, in my opinion. Walking around Rome is the best way to discover hidden gems. Like finding the Fontana delle Tartarughe, a small fountain with tiny turtles crafted in the 1580s by Bernini himself…

… discovering Bartolucci, a toy shop selling whimsical wooden toys and a real-life Pinocchio…

… or spotting an angel making off with a stop sign.

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Pounding the pavements also allowed us to chance on the unexpected. We went up to Pincian Hill one afternoon and found a giant, yellow can with a radioactive sign painted on it. It had been set up by members of Greenpeace. I forgot what they were protesting about.

Looking up Pincian Hill

The distracting can aside, the sunset view from the hill was romantic and it was peaceful to people-watch from the top overlooking the Piazza del Popolo. We made our way down to the piazza as the big, open space filled with the sound of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ We sat on a bench to the side and watched an MJ-lookalike dance to a medley of songs in the middle of the square. The crowd slowly grew and I could see people singing along.

We stopped at Castel Sant’Angelo where we could see St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance, as well as enjoy a good broad view of the Tiber river and Sant’Angelo bridge.

Castel Sant’Angelo
The view of St. Peter’s Basilica from the top

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On a side note, we visited a lot of churches when we were in Rome. I’m not overly religious, but I find European churches fascinating. The grand cavernous interiors, the abundance of blank-eyed marble saints, the way people automatically whisper when they step inside. The churches in Europe felt more aloof and imposing in my mind, in contrast to the generally relaxed and homely atmosphere in Philippine churches. Parang Gregorian chants lang yung bagay kantahin sa loob.

My personal favourite of the Roman churches we visited was the Pantheon, a formerly pagan temple saved from destruction only because it was converted into a Christian church by Pope Boniface IV. A well-preserved, 1000+ year old wonder.

The Pantheon

There was also a small 6th century church named Santa Maria in Aracoeli next to the Piazza del Campidoglio. It’s at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Legend has it that if you climb the 122 steps on your knees you can win the lottery. (I guess the fine print reads that you can win, not that you will win.)

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All the walking around the city is bound to make anyone thirsty. It’s a good thing the flowing water found in most of Rome’s fountains – and we found plenty of these – is safe to drink. All we needed was an empty reusable water bottle. (Never mind the water in the basin, the flowing water from the tap tasted fresh and clean.)

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We ate our way through Rome too. The Hub and I indulged our sweet tooth at Tre Scalini via a creamy triple-chocolate tartufo ice cream ball with a fudgy cherry centre, topped with cream and a chocolate wafer stick; at Giolitti for hazelnut gelato; and a double gelato dose at Il Gelato di San Crispino.

A tartufo ball

We had a shot of excellent espresso at La Tazza d’Oro, had our fill of excellent pastas and crisp salads with barely a misstep. Maybe we were just lucky, or Rome really doesn’t have bad restaurants.

Fresh salads from popular chain Insalata Ricca

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I think the sight of the Vatican City is impressive to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Even devoid of all religious associations, one can still appreciate that it’s a beautiful testament to humanity’s creativity. So much to see feel do think, in such a small space.

At the Vatican City

It was a Sunday so there was a blessing by the Pope at noon. We waited in the crowd until he arrived. Actually, we couldn’t tell what was going on since the announcements over the speakers were in Italian. We didn’t even know where to look; we thought the Pope would appear on the front balcony overlooking the crowd. I then spotted an open window with red cloth hanging out and remembered thinking to myself someone was drying out the Pope’s towels. Apparently, this was the window where he eventually showed up.

We made our way up the St. Peter’s Basilica dome for a bird’s eye view of the city. I remember the Hub (then the Boyfriend) and I lingering a little too long at the top of the dome. I thought he was taking his time with his photos – little did I know he was working up the courage to propose.

Our proposal story – saying “Yes” behind the saints

We eventually started to make our way down the dome, and made a brief pit-stop behind these marble statues of the saints. I had the camera and was snapping away when suddenly I felt a back hug (insert K-drama reference here) from the Hub and saw a small brown box open in front of me. I couldn’t see his face but it dawned on me what was about to happen.

Yes, behind these saints

I had imagined this moment perfectly a dozen times in my end. In each imagined scene I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. Why ruin such a happy occasion with tears and what would most likely be a runny nose?

But when the reality of what was happening started to sink in fast, I felt my tears start and by then it was difficult to stop. The actual proposal went something like this:

Hub: (Box open in front of me, revealing the ring.) “Will you…”

Me: (Mumbling to self, realising I was crying.) “No, no, no…”

Hub: Ha?! No?”

Me: Ay, hindi! Yes, yes, yes!”

So that was my Expectation vs. Reality moment. Still, I think it turned out better in real life.

Think critically dear readers,

Up

We’ve been riding cable cars nearly every weekend lately.

I know it sounds extravagant when I say it like that. But we’re simply making full use of a Faber Licence annual pass we bought recently at a promo price. If we rode the cable cars every week for a year, it comes to around S$3 (around Php 100) each trip, with unlimited rides for four people. It’s non-transferable (they check our photos), but still, that’s just Php 25 per person. Sulit naman (It’s a good deal). It’s a fun weekend activity and my kid is a happy camper.

The Singapore Cable Car Sky Network (there’s only one) is made up of two lines: the Mount Faber Line, which you can take from Harbourfront Tower all the way to Faber Peak and back to Sentosa island (a 30-minute round trip ride); and the Sentosa Line, which makes three stops within the island at Siloso Point, Imbiah Lookout, and near the Sentosa Merlion (a 20-minute ride).

There are ongoing construction works now near Sentosa Line’s Merlion Station, so we usually hop off at Siloso Point Station and take the free beach trams around the island, another activity my kid loves.

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Personally, I prefer the cable car rides itself. The views of Sentosa island from the sky are also hard to beat.

There is Brani Terminal and the Sentosa Boardwalk in the distance, with Hard Rock Hotel Singapore in the foreground and Festive Hotel to the right. The terminal will eventually close and move to the Tuas mega-port in western Singapore at some point, as the government intends to redevelop this area into the Greater Southern Waterfront. The port will be replaced with waterfront promenades and residential / commercial spaces. With the Covid-19 situation now, I’m not sure when this would be.

I like seeing the rows of solar panels atop the Bank of America Merrill Lynch building, visible when you approach Harbourfront Tower on the Mount Faber Line.

This is an aerial view of Adventure Cove Waterpark. It’s strange to see the water slides and Adventure River stripped of water. We can already spot small black stagnant pools in some places, littered with leaves. We see the sharks and dolphins are still there, possibly living their “best” life (as can be had within the confines of their tanks) with no humans to bother them.

The giant wave pool at Adventure Cove looks rather lonely now.

This is Siloso Beach last month, when Singapore celebrated its 55th National Day. The heart-shaped installation was made up of 10,000 red and white flags, each with a heartfelt message.

The AJ Hackett bungy jump tower is always a source of interest to my kid. If someone happens to be on a jump or zipping down the 450m zipline from Mega Adventure Park, we can hear the screaming from the comfort of our cable car.

Finally, there’s what is touted to be the “reigning king of public toilets” across Singapore, found in Faber Peak Singapore (you can hop off at the Mount Faber Station on the cable car line). In this glass-enclosed toilet at The Jewel Box, you can soak in superb views of Mount Faber’s greenery and the cable cars while making yourself comfortable on the couch provided. There’s even a fish tank with real fish inside. Best of all, it’s clean!

For your pooping pleasure

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #13: Jakarta, Indonesia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Unlike my other Sunday posts, this Jakarta weekend trip probably wouldn’t be of much interest to the usual tourist. We didn’t drop by the Monas (National Monument), buy batik, or visit any of the city’s museums and parks. It was more of a random stroll down memory lane, possibly an attempt to reconcile rose-coloured childhood memories of a city I loved with its current reality.

Because of my dad’s job, my family moved to Jakarta in the 1990s. My mom, siblings, and I had spent a few summers there prior to the move. To this day, I feel a strong connection to this busy behemoth of a city. It reminded me often of the bustle of Makati / Manila.

View of the Selamat Datang Monument from our hotel room. It was a Car-Free Sunday.

We eventually left Jakarta in the chaos that was 1998 along with a number of other families we knew, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis (Indonesia was badly hit) and the race riots.

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We lived in the Kelapa Gading neighbourhood in north Jakarta. The Kelapa Gading Plaza was close to our house but often the wares came to us. I remember the tukang sayur who used to go around our residential village with a cart of fresh vegetables every morning. Our family helper, whom we affectionally called Mbak, would call him over and buy a bunch of fresh kangkong for Rp500 (ah, the pre-1997/98 era before the Indonesian rupiah had too many zeroes). Then there was the jamu seller in her kebaya bearing her mysterious herbal concoctions, which Mbak drank near-daily (she never let us try some).

A tukang sayur. Source: Detik Food

My favourite mobile vendor was the chicken-shaped truck that sometimes toured our streets selling ayam goreng kalasan (deep-fried kampung chicken served in oil-soaked boxes, sprinkled with crispy bits of batter called kremes). Give me kremes over KFC chicken any day.

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Anyway, back to our trip. We weren’t in Jakarta long enough to eat at all the places where I wanted to eat, so we just settled for a trip to our old food haunts in Kelapa Gading and near our hotel, as well as a clandestine visit to our previous primary school in Ancol (it involved some wheedling on our friends’ part to get the security guard to let us have a walk around the school grounds late on a weekday evening).

Jakarta now has Chowking! I remember when Jollibee first opened here

The cinema facade of Kelapa Gading Mall (it wasn’t a plaza anymore) hadn’t changed much. I hazily recall looking up from our car at the movie poster for ‘Speed’, which was hand-painted then. Keanu barely looked like himself.

Me, still zipping by

Inside the mall, we made a beeline for Bakmi Gajah Mada, an old favourite. We had ice cold Sosro teh botol (which now came in cartons instead of glass bottles), bowls of bakmi bakso (Indonesian noodles with beef balls) and crispy pangsit goreng (fried wonton).

I introduced the Hub to A Fung’s vermicelli noodles (graced with more beef balls and a huge block of tofu with meaty goodness nestled inside).

For novelty, the Hub and I tried the infamous kopi luwak. The menu helpfully explained it thus: “The luwak (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) denizen of the coffee (kopi) plantations of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, eats only the ripest coffee cherries. Unable to digest the coffee beans, the luwak graciously deposits them on the jungle floor where they are eagerly collected by the locals. The stomach acids and enzymatic action involved in this unique fermentation process produces the beans for the world’s rarest coffee beverage.” What exactly was going on through the minds of those kopi luwak pioneers? (In case you’re interested, it tasted like normal Arabica coffee. No 💩 taste whatsoever.)

Here is a food court spread from Sate Khas Senayan, with bowls of sop buntut (oxtail soup) topped with emping crackers, satay mix (meat skewers), ayam goreng kremes (fried chicken with the crunchy bits), and a rice meal doused with spicy peanut sauce. God I missed Jakarta.

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Now that I think about it, maybe most of my rose-coloured memories were all about Indonesian food. Consider our pasalubong haul.

Indomie is life

Think critically dear readers,

Hawker Culture

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of hawker centres to daily life here in Singapore.

One of my ex-colleagues once told me that throughout her childhood she had never seen her parents cook. They bought dǎbāo (打包, takeaway) all the time. “I turned out all right!” she declared.

Eating out every day sounds expensive, but honestly when it comes to hawker centres it makes sense. You can have good eats for very reasonable prices. The variety is great. There’s even a sense of community in the air. Back when we used to live in one of Singapore’s heartland neighbourhoods, we often saw groups of old uncles hanging out at the hawker centre tables chatting over their morning kopi and kaya toast – especially for hawkers located near HDBs. (HDBs refer to public housing managed by the Singaporean Housing and Development Board or HDB. It’s where almost 80% of Singaporeans live. I’ll blog about these gems in the future.)

Laundry drying racks jut out from HDB blocks

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What’s a “hawker centre” anyway? These are open-air food courts made up of many stalls selling affordable cooked food. Most are conveniently located near HDB estates and near wet markets.

The construction of hawker centres in the 1970s-80s was part of a government programme to legalise street hawkers and ensure food preparation was up to standard. Nowadays the National Environment Agency, as a government regulator, ensures hawker food is prepared in hygienic and safe conditions.

Doing the Lord’s work, even on weekends

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If you’ve seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians (2018), there’s a good montage at the start featuring Newton Food Centre where Henry Golding orders plate after plate of hawker food in English, Mandarin, and Malay: satay (meat skewers), roti prata (Indian-influenced flatbread), fried carrot cake (a misleading name — it’s made of radish cubes), hot bowls of spicy laksa (noodle soup in curry coconut milk) and fishball noodle soup, shaved ice desserts, and of course, cold mugs of beer (Tiger, I hope).

“Each of these hawker stalls sells pretty much one dish. They’ve been perfecting it for generations” (Source)

Pro-tip #1: while it’s cool how the movie introduced Singapore’s hawker culture to a global audience, trust the locals – there are better satays to be found elsewhere besides Newton.

Pro-tip #2: keep your eyes peeled for the nod to the chope-ing tissue at 0:22. When at a hawker centre (or any food court in Singapore for that matter), do not sit at tables where there are tissue packets. This means that spot has been chope-d, i.e. reserved. Doesn’t sound fair? It is what it is. #RespectTheTissue

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The Hub and I love hawker food. Before coming to Singapore, we were already familiar with a few local dishes: the glutinous goodness of chicken rice and the sinfully rich char kway teow, for instance. When we lived in the UK, we paid frequent visits to London’s Chinatown to sample New Fook Lam Moon’s bak kut teh (the soup more herbal than peppery) or Rasa Sayang’s chicken rice. We later learned that Rasa Sayang’s version of char kway teow is more Penang than Singaporean, with the Singaporean version somewhat sweeter.

Queues at Tian Tian Chicken Rice, which the late Anthony Bourdain once praised as delicious even on its own

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With so many choices, how do you know which stall serves the best food? The length of the queues of course!

Alternatively, you can check out food reviews online. When the Hub and I first arrived here, we relied heavily on a food blog called “ieat•ishoot•ipost” written by a family doctor named Dr. Leslie Tay, who’s also an avid foodie and photographer. His blog’s tagline is “never waste your calories on yucky food.” (He also uses his platform to teach his patients on what kinds of food to avoid if they have certain medical conditions, which I think is a smart way to merge your work and your passion project).

A Tian Tian chicken rice feast, with freshly squeezed sugar cane juice

I like that his blog is organized into dishes: from Assam Fish all the way to Zi Char. It makes it easy to search for places when cravings take over. While there are one or two recommendations which didn’t please, I think this is simply a matter of taste, and overall Dr. Tay’s recommendations were an excellent starter guide for non-locals like us to navigate Singapore’s rich hawker culture.

You may already know how fond I am of bak chor mee (the thought of the chili and vinegar in al dente noodles already makes my mouth water). But our best discovery from Dr. Tay’s blog was the gloriously messy Hainanese Curry Rice.

“Umami bomb” is the best way to describe it — the best Hainanese Curry Rice is a flavourful explosion of curry sauce, fried porkchop, stewed cabbage, and braised pork, and it has found a permanent spot on our personal comfort-food list.

Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice. Source: Pinterest

Hainanese Curry Rice is not Instagram-friendly, that’s for sure. It may never snap up a Michelin Bib Gourmand. If I recommend it to one of my ang moh friends he / she might demur.

But you seriously won’t know what you’re missing. Super shiok.

Think critically dear readers,

Featured image by Ethan Hu on Unsplash

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #12: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

When I first saw the moss-covered temple stones at Siem Reap in Cambodia, I was reminded of the mobile video game Temple Run released back in the early 2010s. Temple Run was a running game with no end, at least until you made an ill-timed swipe or the crazy monkeys caught up with you. The monkeys at Siem Reap are duelling kings however, pink and still in the ancient stone.

We arrived at our hotel in the afternoon. We wasted no time in hiring a tuktuk to take us to Angkor Wat, the “temple city,” the largest religious monument in the world. We read that the outer walls and moat surrounding this medieval temple complex symbolised the edge of the world and the cosmic ocean, respectively. Unusually for Khmer temples, the Angkor Wat faced the setting sun, a symbol of death.

Outside Angkor Wat

The causeway leading to the temple was lined with vendors selling pirated English guidebooks for as cheap as a dollar. There were too many tourists with impractical shoes. Some of them spat on the ancient stone.

Angkor Wat looked time-worn and understandably so, having been built in the 12th century. Wooden steps were constructed over the original steps — not only to preserve it but because the older ones were too steep. The sensual apsaras lined the walls in an assortment of poses, jewellery, and headgear. I had a strong urge to see for certain what it looked like in its original glory.

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The rest of the architecture at Angkor had its own pull: take Banteay Srei To Baphuon for instance, with its salmon-coloured stones and incredibly detailed reliefs.

Banteay Srei To Baphuon

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Then there was the surreal Ta Prohm, which was deliberately restored in a way that cut as little of the surrounding jungle as possible.

The majestic tree roots at Ta Prohm

Parts of Angelina Jolie’s film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were filmed here.

The giant banyan trees continue to simultaneously hug and crush the temple buildings, as they have for hundreds of years. In time, nature will finish its work and the temple too will fade.

A stegosaurus carved in the stone at Ta Prohm, or something else? It’s still a mystery

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Personally, I found The Bayon, also in Angkor Thom, the most enigmatic. The temple had a curious pull on me.

Our approach to The Bayon
The Bayon

The pyramid shaped temple mountain rises on three levels and features more than 200 stone faces, all with smiles as mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s.

The reliefs at the Bayon featured not only apsaras but also daily life — cockfights, festival celebrations, market scenes, meals being cooked. To me, this imbued the dreamlike temples with a sense of normalcy. In another time, ordinary people just like me lived here.

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The Baphuon was once one of the grandest of Angkor’s temples, built in the 11th century, but parts of it have long since collapsed. There is a giant reclining Buddha inside. Since the temple was dedicated to Hinduism the Buddha was probably added centuries later.

The Baphuon

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We had time to visit Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of what I call the Dead Marshes (it looked so much like how I imagined Tolkien’s Dead Marshes would look!). The temple’s pools were meant to cure diseases.

Neak Pean

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The “City of God Kings” remained on my mind well after our trip. I tried to search online for images of how Angkor’s ancient temples might have looked like in their heyday. Google did not disappoint. Scholars produced colourful overlays that show you the old and the new side by side, some even recreated the kingdom on video. The Smithsonian digitally reconstructed Angkor Wat, brightly coloured and gilded with shiny gold, a far cry from its present state.

More recently, laser scans revealed an intricate network of cities hidden beneath Angkor, suggesting a rich everyday life led by those who peopled it.

Source: The Conversation

The last lines of a poem came to mind as I reflected on Angkor (though it may be more appropriate for one of my previous posts):

And how one can imagine oneself among them

I do not know;

It was all so unimaginably different

And all so long ago.

The Gloomy Academic, Louis MacNiece

Think critically dear readers,