Opening the Gates of Hell

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It is that time of year again for the Gates of Hell to open so the souls of the dead can once again roam the earth. If you are in Singapore at this time of the year you will come across food and other offerings in the street for example mandarins, roasted pig, bowls of rice and especially made Chinese cake.  It is considered very bad luck (and disrespectful) if you happen to be on your way home from a nightclub, cannot find a McDonalds and decide to stop by thinking it is a good place for a free snack.

You will also come across Getai in the streets which are live stage performances aimed at entertaining the ghosts. Everyone is welcome to watch the show but do not sit in the front row seats which are reserved for guest ‘spirits’.

There are a few other taboos for the Hungry Ghost Festival including:

  • Avoid swimming as those who previously drowned during their life might cause you to drown so they can be reborn.

  • Children and young adults should be home early and not wander around alone at night as wandering ghosts can easily possess children.

  • Avoid moving into new homes, any home renovation or opening a new businesses as it is considered inauspicious and bad luck.

  • Do not pick up anything including the money offered in the joss bins if found on the street and never bring it home.

  • Do not be sad, weak or emotional as this invites ghosts to possess and harm you.

  • If you wish to address the ghosts, do not call them ‘ghost’ – call them ‘good brother’ or ‘uncle’.

  • Do not whistle after sunset as this will attract the attention of ghosts who will bring you bad luck … I guess that’s if they don’t particularly like the tune.

  • And do not make negative comments or jokes about the offerings, Getai or beliefs of the Hungry Ghost Festival which I only learned a little too late but no harm has come to me … yet.

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Sayang ah!

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Watching TV and movies in Singapore, in particular the kind of shows we like is an art form thanks to the rigours of Singaporean censorship laws. Swear words, even words the average person might no longer consider a swear word like bloody or Hell are edited as are scenes involving sex, drugs or violence. Quite often we’re left staring blankly and confused as a scene jumps inexplicably over the good parts to something more acceptable, thankfully or we would be senselessly corrupted and no good could come of that. We have however learnt to read lips, anticipate dialogue and fill in the blanks before the next edit, skills that obviously have many applications in real life but none I can think of at the moment other than as a party trick. There are times when we are left to make up our own dialogue as the audio is muted for lengthy periods, especially while watching shows like Ray Donovan, Californication etc.

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street set a Guinness world record for the most swearing in one film with the f-word used 506 times ie on average 2.81 times per minute. Despite our experience with muting, we still have no idea what this movie is about other than the official description. Another five minutes was deleted for “gratuitous, exploitative or offensive depictions of sex.”

Another target of censorship laws is the use of Singlish, the local adaptation of English. It is only permitted in interviews when the interviewee only speaks Singlish. However, Singlish is widely spoken and for a foreigner, this might sound like any language other than English. When my brother visited recently from Australia, he was convinced everyone around him was speaking Mandarin when they were actually speaking Singlish. A few tips for speaking Singlish:

  • Always answer a question starting with ‘Actually…’.
  • Always ask a question with ‘is it’ at the end, for example, “Going on a holiday, is it?” or “Like spicy food, is it?”
  • Exclamation points are pronounced by adding lah or lor at the end of every sentence, for example, “So expensive, lah(!)”
  • Yes is ‘can’ and no is ‘cannot’.
  • Address any person older than you as Uncle or Aunty.
  • Kopi is coffee; Kopi tiam is coffee shop. Note: local traditional coffee is served in a plastic bag.
  • Exasperation, frustration or contempt is “Aiyah!”
Despite the ban on Singlish, our favourite local program, The Noose (a fake news program) uses extensive Singlish and somehow gets away with what no other program does – making fun of the government (with the Minister at Large and Minister Without Portfolio), Singaporean laws, rules and idiosyncrasies. For anyone who lives here, The Noose is essential viewing and it’s mute-free.
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What are we working for here at our lessons…

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I’ve just returned from a trip to my hometown of Rockhampton (Queensland, Australia) to celebrate 35 years since we, my girls and I, finished our senior year at the Rockhampton Girls’ Grammar School. But it was a celebration of much more than that. What we know now but didn’t appreciate then – we were in a hurry to be done and out of there – is that we had just spent five years of our lives in a confined and restrictive environment that would foster lifelong friendships and allegiances that can never be broken. No matter what has happened to us along the way, nothing can diminish those five years. And time has only served to bathe them in a golden light much the same colour as our old school berets.

We have a strange and enduring connection. It is difficult to explain. Most people I know do not even have reunions let alone actually look forward to seeing their school friends again. Perhaps it is because we knew each other before we were someone’s spouse or mother, doctor or lawyer. We knew each other before our life’s choices were known. And we did spend the five most tumultuous years of any girl’s life together. There was plenty of drama and trauma along the way and ‘incidents’ which now give us plenty to laugh about. I expect we will never tire of bringing out the old school yarns; soon enough we won’t even remember them as repeats.

On the Sunday morning of our reunion weekend, we were invited back to the school in Agnes Street for a tour around the old stomping grounds. We met a few of our teachers – Mrs Black (maths), Mrs Mulder (history) and Ms Phillips (Japanese). Unfortunately they remember way too much. J I also had a Homer Simpson d’oh moment when I arrived for the morning tea a little late (was watching the World Cup with my nephew) and felt compelled to apologize to Mrs Black on my way past her – it’s not like I had missed anything other than coffee and scones!

The school seemed so huge back then (1975-1979). That walk down the hill to what was the music room and primary school seemed steep and long; it’s not. The library seemed huge and lined with millions of books. It’s now an arts room and considerably smaller in stature to what we remember – in fact it is difficult to imagine we could ever hide in there. The new library is probably even smaller, even relatively so, since the school now utilizes ebooks.

In five more years we will reunite to wax lyrical once more and to fill in the recent part of our stories. Time will pass even more quickly than the last five years such is the nature of growing older. So glad though that I get to spend time with these amazing women while we can still remember our names and our recollections are still sort of consistent.

Races_14 June 2014

Grease is the time, the place, the motion

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Back in 1978 when Grease was the word, I was on a school tour bussing our way around Tasmania. Grease the movie had just come out and like everyone else in the day we were obsessed with it, in particular, the music, featuring our very own Olivia Newton-John as Sandy. The soundtrack went into the bus cassette player and stayed there on repeat for 10 days. Imagine how traumatised that poor bus driver would have been by the end of our tour, probably his last.

Earlier this month, we saw Grease the stage production at Marina Bay Sands here in Singapore, and it was sensational. I did not realise it at the time but Gretel Scarlett who plays Sandy is from our hometown of Rockhampton!

Grease is of course now officially iconic – 36 years on and grease is still the word with sold-out audiences the world-over. In the USA, Grease (the movie) is still the #1 highest-grossing musical of all time. Interestingly, the sequel with a different cast was a flop which probably surprised everyone given the immense success of the original but it is a lesson we see often whether it is movies or books. The temptation to repeat phenomenal success with a sequel is understandable and it is often only with hindsight that it becomes clear that the original cannot be duplicated because its unique elements combined ie actors, story, production, music equalled the magic formula that everyone hopes to find but most simply stumble upon it.

The other difficulty for sequels is that they are inherently burdened with the expectation that did not weigh down the first in a series. More often than not, they do not measure up and rarely do they exceed the first. The Matrix sequels, especially the third instalment, in my opinion, had a difficult mountain to climb after the first movie which was an original concept with a plot that left you wondering about reality.

The sequel to Bridget Jones’ Diary suffered a similar fate and is a perfect example of producers wishing to ‘bottle’ the magical formula they stumbled upon to feed it back to the audience for a similar outcome. However, the fine balance of success elements in the first Bridget Jones movie were over-delivered in the second turning the cleverness into silliness and the relatable into contrived according to critics. I still enjoyed it but not nearly as much as the first.

The magic that is success is after all a formula – that means each element has to be added in precise parts; the slightest bit too much of one and/or not enough of another creates an altogether different proposition which won’t necessarily appeal to the audience that loved the first. Many claim to know the secret formula to success yet no matter what industry you view, even the most successful stumble along the way proving it’s still very much a guessing game, some are just better guessers.

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Life in the Tropics

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We’re celebrating, again, still. Today marks 10 years since we left our home in Sydney, Australia to live overseas for what was meant to be a two-year assignment. We never left, and in 2011 we were granted Permanent Residency – not an easy task I assure you; rejection being more common than acceptance.

It is hard to comprehend that a decade has passed. This is the longest we have now spent in any one place including our hometown of Rockhampton post-marriage. We could not have imagined then that we would be living permanently and happily in Asia although it was clear for some time, to us at least, that we were not going to have children and settle forever in our hometown as our siblings had done.  We had been ready to go for sometime, keen to discover what else was out there and what kind of lifestyles and memories were creatable. When at last the opportunity presented (a move to Melbourne) nothing stood in our way – not even a home we had designed and constructed and lived in for a mere 13 days but who cares about a house when the world is waiting.

As you know, I love Singapore. I love everything about Singapore. I love what lies just outside our front door like Gardens by the BayMarina Bay Sands, restaurants galore, shops, museums. I love that Steve spends seven minutes walking to work saving hours of his life out of traffic and coming home for lunch. I love Saturday mornings in Orchard Road and even though we have been going there for ten years at least once a week, we never tire of it.

Other things I love about Singapore:

  • the weather – summer all year round!

  • I love rain – it rains here 286 days a year but it is warm. Cold weather plus rain is not so good.

  • there is lush greenery and gardens everywhere.

  • it’s neat and tidy.

  • it takes us a mere 15 mins to get to all the best shows, bands and acts the world has to offer then home again in the same time.

  • there’s peace and harmony amongst multiple races, religions and nationalities. We all celebrate the religious holidays of all other major religions (Christian, Hindu, Buddhism etc).

  • people are civilized and respectful.

  • it’s safe – you can go out any time night and day without fear. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ll end up buying something.

  • it’s easy, inexpensive and super-fast to get anywhere you want on a clean, safe and graffiti-free ever-expanding MRT system.

  • there’s a brilliant system for queuing, including queues for queues, and queue officials. Queue jumpers are dealt with appropriately.

  • shops are open from 10am until 10pm – midnight some nights – and also open Christmas Day so no more panic shopping Christmas Eve.

  • it’s a city that never sleeps – life is always ‘happening’. People have supper at our local hawker centres (Satays by the Bay and Lau Pa Sat) at 2am so you’re never hungry.

  • it has the fastest, most efficient airport arrival/departure processing in the world. I can disembark a flight and be in a taxi within 7 minutes, which is a blessing after a long flight.

  • it’s a foodies paradise – so many choices though it is sometimes hard to decide.

  • it’s constantly changing – nothing stays the same. There is always something new to see or do.

  • it’s stunningly beautiful.

I don’t know when this particular journey will end or what is next but I do know that when we’re 90+ and reflecting on life, we’ll remember this decade with gratitude and happiness.

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Rainy days and Mondays

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In just a few weeks, we will celebrate 10 years living in Singapore. When we left Sydney in 2004 for a 2-year assignment we never expected to still be here a decade later. It is not the same place today as it was then but at every stage, I have loved it. Today, it is, if I might quote Ryan Tedder from One Republic, “the most badass futuristic city in the world.” I don’t think there is any other country anywhere that has the capability to redefine and expand itself at the rate Singapore does almost on a daily basis. A part of this is because Singapore is a city/country so there is only one level of government that has a clear mandate for progress and change.

Singapore is everything you can imagine and it is all at your fingertips in a click. We love to see bands and the best of them come through here. It takes us a mere 15 minutes from our condo to sitting in our seats at the stadium (drinks in hand) then home again in the same time. And it costs us less than SG$5 to get there and back. I believe this is quite miraculous in a country of 5.5 million people and it says a great deal about Singapore’s efficiencies, planning and transportation. Singapore is hassle-free.

Then there is the beauty that is within minutes of our condo including the divine Gardens by the Bay which is our evening walk. It’s an extraordinary place, and although it’s a regular for us, we never tire of spotting something new and beautiful that has sprung forth in abundance since the last rains. And walking through the gardens during or after rain is even better, and since it rains 265 days each year here, that’s my idea of paradise on earth.

I’ve often declared my love for rain and rainy days (I even called my first novel, Rain) which I’ve since learned makes me a pluviophile ie a ‘lover of rain; someone who finds joy and peace of mind during rainy days’. I am happy to own it but it started me wondering why I do love rain so much and why waking up to a rainy morning even on a Monday brings instant joy. I really don’t know why – I can find no explanation other than perhaps in a past life I lived somewhere desolate.

I also love rain because of what it does – it makes everything green and clean and these are two aspects I love about Singapore. In February, we experienced the driest month since 1859 and I found it quite distressing to see trees and plants wilting and expansive brown everywhere. Every day I implored the perpetually blue sky to turn black. The spring monsoon did finally arrive and almost instantly everything is green again.

There is however one caveat and that is I love rain so long as it is not cold; tropical rains only please. If I lived in a cold climate, rain might lose some of its beauty even in my eyes but then it wouldn’t be rain; it would be snow.

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Pavlov Says Jump

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Next week we’ll be into March. That means a whopping 17% of the year is now history and I didn’t even notice it passing. This is completely contrary to my grand plan to turn off auto-pilot and engage with life on a daily basis. I want to be conscious of the beauty of life that is everywhere, conscious of how I devote my thoughts and time, and to look at people I pass in the street like they hold a greater value than mere stranger.

I’m good at planning – it is one of my strengths and one of life’s joys. There’s not a lot that gets me more excited than a new plan which joy sadly is not shared in our household. Clearly though execution is still a problem or is there something else I can legitimately blame for having failed to put the grand plan into place with March on approach?

I think so, and his name is Pavlov and he had some dogs. Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate every time he rang a bell. The bell meant food. And while most psychologists would suggest this same type of conditioning in humans would be akin to hypnotism, I would argue that this means a lot of us do therefore spend every day in a hypnotic state.

During a ‘normal’ day, we are unaware of our conditioned responses to every stimulus. For example, the alarm clock in the morning sets off a series of rituals that then continue with different stimuli throughout the day. Most workers don’t have lunch when they are hungry but when the clock tells them it is the designated lunch hour and time to eat. They will however most likely be hungry at this time because of conditioning – at that time there will be food, just like Pavlov’s dogs. Employers may as well just ring a bell.

Not only are we unaware of what we’re doing during the day, most likely we’re thinking of something entirely unrelated while undertaking the actions – sounds like a hypnotic state. The series of rituals we develop for our day aim to generate the most reward and that reward is to make the day run as smoothly as possible eg the setting of an alarm clock for a particular time. It is however all subject to spanners in the works which cause turmoil because we are not conditioned to their presence nor conditioned for the response.

So, the reason I have not yet implemented my grand plan for 2014 is because I am conditioned to live unconsciously even when I desire to live consciously. It’s not my fault at all. It’s 1:30pm. Time for lunch.

Contact Leigh at:

Website: http://www.leighkcunningham.com

Email: leigh @ leighkcunningham.com

Twitter: @leighcunningham

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