The Inlet by Claire Tham

The Inlet Cover

On the recommendation of two friends, I picked up* The Inlet by Claire Tham. Tham has had an illustrious career in Singapore, but she and her work are new to me. She is best-known for “her social critiques and biting observations of human nature“; The Inlet was my introduction to Tham.

In 2010, Li Hong Yan, a young woman from China, was found dead in a swimming pool in Sentosa Cove, a secluded development on the edge of a small island off Singapore’s coast and a playground for the rich and famous. The house was owned to Adrian Chua Boon Chye, a wealthy real estate developer. Li’s death was eventually ruled an accident and Chua faced no charges. The Inlet is loosely based on these real-life events.

In short: The Inlet was a very satisfying read. The writing was exquisite, and Tham really does have a gift for character development.

Longer: But Tham makes some curious craft choices, some successful, others less so.

With regards to setting, Tham creates fictional names for real places (“The Inlet”); uses terms that possibly refer to more than one real place (“Ivy League university,” “HDB estate”); and names real places (Hwa Chong Institution, Tham’s alma mater, is mentioned as such, but the school which one of the protagonists attends is cheekily referred to as the “school for male tai-tais”). This push and pull—and inconsistency—make the reader wonder whether the author intentionally made these choices (and why), or whether the book suffered from shoddy editing. Nitpicking? I think not, especially given the novel’s title and the importance of place and nation in this work.

The novel is written in the third person omniscient and each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. The Inlet promises to “[explore] the social and cultural changes that have washed over Singapore society in recent years,” but many of its points of view are of the ultra-rich and the somewhat-rich. Tham chooses to erase, for example, the real-life story of Aye Aye Tun, the Burmese domestic worker who discovered Li Hong Yan’s body, and includes very few insights from characters less powerful.

Still, the novel so perfectly captures a moment in time, of cash flooding a market in the wake of a global financial crisis, at the cusp of a momentous general election. (Has this moment passed? Reuters recently reported that “times have changed.”) I look forward to reading her earlier works.

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* I borrowed Tham’s book from the re-opened Library@Orchard, which was crowded and noisy and, unsurprisingly, mall-like, given its location. It’s well-designed, no doubt; it features sleek, curvilinear white shelves, bamboo floors, and black walnut chairs with leather seats that retail for more than SG$1,600 each (what a waste). But it has a very sparse collection, for the sake of design, I suspect, and nowhere to settle down and read or work. I will not be back.

Changi Point Coastal Walk

Sungei_Changi_panorama,_Jul_06On a tip from a Twitter friend, we visited Changi Point today. She had read a post several weeks ago, in which I told readers that a short walk near water calms my anxious mind, and immediately recommended this healing stroll. We walked a segment of the 2.2-kilometer rickety boardwalk, from Changi Sailing Club to Changi Creek.

From Changi Creek, on the southern bank of Sungei Changi, one can see bumboats ferrying visitors to and from Singapore’s offshore islands. One can also spot the Civil Service Club, which was built by Manassah Meyer, better-known for erecting Chesed-El Synagogue on Oxley Rise. During the Japanese Occupation, the bungalow complex was used to house prisoners of war.

The walk offers breathtaking views of Pulau Ubin. Every few steps, we stopped, either to inhale the aromas of the salty sea and jasmine flowers that lined several stretches of the boardwalk or listen to the calls of black-naped terns that flew overhead.

I Am Who I Am: Singapore Flamenco Festival

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Flamenco Sin Fronteras’ inaugural Flamenco festival, “I Am Who I Am,” kicked off on Friday, October 18. This year’s festival is a collaboration with Singapore Association for Mental Health, and features both works inspired by and performed by clients of the association. The festival program showcases traditional and contemporary Flamenco, and avant-garde multidisciplinary works.

A few thoughts on the performances I’ve seen thus far:

“FlamencAsian” celebrated the diversity of Asia-based Flamenco companies and schools.  FlamencAsian 1 featured Spanish classical dances by Rose Borromeo Spanish Dance Company (the school at which I study), Flamenco Flamingos, and Flamenco Sin Fronteras. FlamencAsian 2 presented new choreography by Suellen De Villiers of Artitude Dance Studios and Chang Hsiao Min of Le Grand School of Dance, including a contemporary Bata de Cola piece and a dazzling percussive duel between Flamenco and tap dancers.

“Flamenco Puro” showcased the best of traditional Flamenco dance and music with guest artists Angela Espanadero (dancer), Antonio Fernandez (singer) and Jorge Padilla (guitarist) from Spain, and artists from Singapore-based Flamenco Sin Fronteras. Toshi Konno and Mamiko Nakane of Flamenco Sin Fronteras had such stage presence in the opening dance sequence, “Cinco Caminos.” Guest artist Espanadero’s “Alegrias” was an utter joy to behold—a potent cocktail of explosive footwork, haunting singing, virtuoso guitar playing and percussive hand clapping! And, throughout, the small, but knowledgable audience, participated in jaleo, or vocal encouragement to the performers, and called out such phrases as, “Ezo!, Arsa!, Olé!, Toma!, Vamo!” It made for an intimate and memorable event.

“I Am Who I Am” continues through to Sunday, October 26 with “Elements,” a Flamenco repertoire to represent and the moods and emotions associated with each of the five elements of Chinese philosophy, and “Ten Layers of Frills/Breaking Silence,” an experimental Flamenco theatre piece and a multidisciplinary theatre production made in collaboration with the Singapore Association of Mental Health. The material used “Breaking Silence” is shaped from interviews conducted with SAMH’s clients regarding the social stigmas of mental illness and involves a combination of various dance genres (Flamenco, contemporary, and butoh) and contact improvisation, along with drama, physical theatre and visual arts set to Flamenco music and rhythms. It also includes a special performance by the clients of Singapore Association of Mental Health developed from a eight week workshop conducted by Flamenco Sin Fronteras. See you there?

PLAY@NMS

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In 2011, I lamented that Singapore did not (yet?) have a dedicated children’s museum. For a country that whose rhetoric is so pro-“family” and pro-“education”, I was surprised that a space to engage children in joyful discovery experiences that instill an appreciation of the world, develop foundational skills, and spark a lifelong love of learning did not exist!

Earlier this year, the National Museum of Singapore opened PLAY@NMS, a children’s gallery, and today, on this public holiday, we swung by.

Each PLAY@NMS exhibit is inspired by items in the Museum’s permanent collection (i.e. “The Garden,” by the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings; “The Bedroom,” by The Fashion Gallery; etc.). PLAY@NMS’ exhibits emphasized hands-on engagement and learning through experience, employing play as a tool to spark children’s inherent creativity, curiosity, and imagination. Our toddler especially enjoyed “The Kitchen,” where she could play masak-masak and “The Living Room,” where she could stage her own puppet show.

But PLAY@NMS is just one gallery and in an hour or so, we had run out of activities! Granted, it was raining, so we were not able to explore the Outdoor Garden. Its exhibits also reinforce forcefully the Museum’s version of facile, photogenic “multiculturalism”: food, festivals, fashion. Still, it is a much needed space. PLAY@NMS is open daily from 10am to 6pm and is free.

I hope—hope—PLAY@NMS will elevate the discourse about the importance of play and help to position children’s museums as vital early learning partners in their communities. I can’t wait to see PLAY@NMS grow. Heck, maybe Singapore will get that dedicated museum one day!

Happy Diwali!

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Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, although the deities, rituals, and stories that are associated with the holiday are different in different parts of India. My family considers the third day of the five-day festival most auspicious*; we believe on this day that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, visits our home. On this night of a new moon—the last night of the Hindu year—total darkness sets in the night sky.

This year, our toddler painted diyas, tiny clay lamps, to place in our doorway for Lakshmi can find her way.

* Lakshmi Puja is on Thursday, October 23.

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A Diwali greeting from me to you: May this year bring light to your spirit, warmth to your home, and joy to your heart!

da:ns 2014

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I spent several evenings these past two weeks at da:ns festival 2014, an annual celebration of dance held at Esplanade: Theatres on the Bay. This year, as I did last year, I opted to attend one of the festival’s “Shift” performances, rather than its “Centrestage” productions. I also attended two free “Rasa” performances, free lecture-demonstrations showcasing Asia’s traditional dances, and one Footwork workshop, an introductory dance classes conducted by professional instructors, with my toddler.

A few thoughts:

Ballet Baby by Shanti Gomes: My toddler and I participated in “Ballet Baby,” an introductory dance class for little ones (ages 3 to 6 years old) and their caregivers. The class took place in Esplanade Rehearsal Studio, a stunning fifth-floor space designed for dance rehearsals and pre-performance warm-up sessions with breathtaking views of Marina Bay. Shanti Gomes of Dance Arts was our lead instructor and she was awesome; weeks later, my child still says, “Mama, I want to go to ballet class again!”

Dances from Mindanao by Integrated Performing Arts Guild: In 2012, Liceo Folkloric Dance Troupe of the Philippines performed dances from Mindanao, the archipelago’s southernmost major island. I didn’t catch that performance. This year, Integrated Performing Arts Guild of the Philippines showcased a sampling of the performing arts from Mindanao, which carry influences from Spain, South Asia, and the Middle East. The dance forms presented were stunningly varied, ranging from rousing celebratory dances to tribal rites, which were often accompanied by an ensemble of gongs and chimes known as Kulintang.

Bharatnatyam: Rhythm and Gesture by Bharathaa Arts: I saw Bharathaa Arts dance school founders, sisters Suganthi and Jeyanthi Kesavan, perform in 2012 in “En Anubhavam: My Inspirational Journey,” a 90-minute recital featuring distinguished Singaporean classical dancers and musicians. In Bharatnatyam: Rhythm and Gesture, the school’s senior students performed the various components of an arangetram, which included an alarippu, an invocation to deities to bless the performance, and a thillana, a virtuosic display of complex rhythms.

Intermezzo by Singapore Dance Theatre: da:ns’ “Shift” segment is, by far, those most impressive of the festival. The platform intends to “shift” audience’s notions of contemporary dance and presents works in intimate spaces, rather than on the “big stage.” Past performances have turned the movement vocabulary of classical dance on its head, questioned the established conventions of modern dance, and presented unique—and at times radical—movement styles.

Singapore Dance Theatre’s Intermezzo was a triple bill of new creations by Toru Shimazaki, professor of dance at Kobe College, Ma Cong, resident choreographer of Tulsa Ballet, and Christina Chan, dancer-choreographer with Frontier Danceland. Ma Cong’s “Shadow’s Edge” was just remarkable. The music from “Aheym,” a collaboration between National guitarist Bryce Dessner and new music string quartet the Kronos Quartet served as the piece’s inspiration, according to the choreographer. Ma Cong trained in traditional classical Chinese Dance at Beijing Dance Academy before he began his training at the National Ballet of China; the influence of both of these styles of dance are evident in his brilliant, energetic creation.

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An observation, with no conclusion:

In years past, many of the Centrestage productions have been European, aside from performances by Japan’s Sankai Juku in 2012 and Brazil’s Grupo Corpo in 2013. This year Centrestage featured two performances from the UK and one from Spain. (The 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 editions of da:ns festival have all featured a Flamenco performance. Now, I love Flamenco as much as the next person, but….)

Centrestage says it brings to stage “stunning productions from around the world,” but has yet to feature an African production or South Asian production, at least in the four years that I have attended the festival. I have no doubt that a blockbuster dance performance from India or China, for example, would draw audiences. But the former seem relegated to Kalaa Utsavam: Indian Festival of Arts and the latter, to Huayi: Chinese Festival of Arts.

The above is largely a “note to self.” Recently, I’ve been paying much more attention to the ways in which the performing arts are programmed, marketing, and covered in the media in preparation for my participation in the inaugural international Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore, “The Emergence, Development and Future Directions of Bharatanatyam in Singapore and Malaysia,” on December 6 and 7 at Stephen Riady Centre, University Town, National University of Singapore. As I said, I have no “conclusions,” per se; I need to collect more data!

Previously blogged: da:ns 2011, da:ns 2013.

Bukit Batok Town Park

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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that a short walk near water—the ocean, a lake, a reservoir—calms my anxious mind. The claiming, healing effects of water are well-documented. Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist, says of the the “blue mind”: “[it is] a mildly meditative, relaxed state that we find ourselves in when we are in, on, or under water.” Here in Singapore, a tiny island nation, I am never more than a short ride from the sea.

Yesterday, in search of water, I explored Bukit Batok Town Park. The park was developed on an abandoned granite quarry site, which now forms forms a scenic—and deep—pond. The park has meandering footpaths leading to look-out points with breathtaking views.

The park is also known as Xiao Guilin, or Little Guilin, as it apparently looks similar to picturesque Guilin in China.

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Where do you go in search of peace in the big city?

 

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