Thursday, April 30, 2009

Awesome Asian Ads - Thailand

More awesome Thai ads here and here.

Awesome Malaysian ads here and here.

Awesome Indian ads here.

Awesome Korean ads here and here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Daichi, amazing Japanese beatbox kid

Back in the day in the projects of NYC when cats like Doug E Fresh, Biz Markie and Buffy (of the Fat Boys) were creating the art of beatboxing, I wonder if they imagined that this new style, fresh from the ghetto, would one day be performed by decidedly un-ghetto kids in Japan like this guy, Daichi?

I'm in awe of anyone who can beatbox well, but Daichi is quite phenomenal.

(Hat-tip: Angry Asian Man)

Movie archive: Infernal Affairs vs. The Departed

Martin Scorsese’s 2006 epic film The Departed was the big story of the 79th Academy Awards of that year, winning 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. The film that inspired it, the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, received only limited release in the West and did not even receive a nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Considering Hollywood audiences had never even heard of Infernal Affairs, it can’t have been all that great, can it? Yet Scorsese adapts it and turns it into something worthy of major awards. So hats off to Scorsese right?

Well, yes and no. Scorsese is indeed a great director, and deserves to have won a Best Director Oscar for one of his films. But The Departed? It’s not his best film, and its not even a better film than Infernal Affairs.

The announcement at the Oscars that The Departed was based on a Japanese film (rather than one from Hong Kong) is emblematic of the tunnel vision that afflicts the American film industry and viewing public. Because while The Departed is a good film, it is not a patch on its source material.

Despite lack of recognition in the West, Infernal Affairs was much lauded in Asia. It received 16 nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, winning 7 of them including Best Picture, Best Director (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak) and Best Actor (Tony Leung). It was touted as a return to form for Hong Kong cinema, which had up to that point been treading water in comparison to earlier times.

It centres around Yan (Tony Leung) and Ming (Andy Lau), two cops leading parallel lives on opposite sides of the law. Yan has been deep undercover for 10 years and has maanged to infiltrate the triad gang run by Hon Sam (Eric Tsang), but living that lifestyle so long has taken its toll on him. Ming, on the other hand, is Sam’s mole in the police department, and due to his underworld connection has risen through the ranks quickly. While his corrupt manipulations help keep Sam’s gang one step ahead of the law, he too is troubled by his double existence.

Actors of great gravitas, Leung and Lau can express as much with a look as with words, and Leung in particular captures the loneliness that haunts these two men. Only Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), Yan’s sole contact with the police force, knows that Yan is anything more than a street thug. Ming on the other hand has a successful career and an impending marriage, yet feels burdened by his criminal secret, known to only his boss Sam.

After a police attempt to nab Sam’s gang in the act of a drug deal is foiled by Ming’s tip-off, it becomes clear to both Wong and Sam that they have moles in their respective organisations. It falls to Yan and Ming to discover and weed out the other, and it is this cat-and-mouse game that gives the movie its central dramatic tension. And the ending, without giving anything away, is a killer.

The Departed follows many aspects of IA closely, even closely replicating some of its locations. But screenwriter William Monahan transports the setting to Boston’s gritty south side, and the triad is replaced by the Irish mob, run by Frank Costello (an entertainingly over-the-top turn by Jack Nicholson). Leonardo di Caprio puts in a solid shift as Billy Costigan, yet does not compare to Leung’s soulful performance in the role of undercover cop. Matt Damon is the dirty cop in the pay of Costello.

Scorsese gets great performances out of his top-notch cast (which also includes Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Ray Winstone), and the dialogue is sharp and clever. He spends time fleshing out Costigan’s background and infiltration of the gang; a good move in contrast to IA’s somewhat confusing opening scene-setting sequence. These aspects though do blow out the running time, from IA’s lean, taut 100 minutes to Departed’s somewhat bloated 151 minutes.
There is one major misstep in Scorsese’s film; Damon’s character Colin Sullivan. Andy Lau as Ming in IA was a increasingly conflicted character, with Lau hinted at the sadness behind the corruption. As a viewer, I found myself wanting him to get caught, yet part of me hoping he gets out of it unscathed. Despite Damon’s strong performance in Departed, Sullivan is less layered; he is merely unscrupulous, desperate and despicable, and I couldn’t wait for someone to bust a cap in his ass. It is difficult to feel any attachment to him, and it is because of this that The Departed sometimes just seems like a bunch of guys who you don’t particularly care about, trying to kill each other.

The other side of Somali piracy - and the Melbourne connection

Fascinating story last night on ABC1's Foreign Correspondent program about the phenomenon of piracy emanating out of Somalia. Alongside the global financial crisis and the Swine Flu, the Somali pirates are one of the main stories dominating world headlines at the moment.

Yet in case you are all too ready to see the piracy as merely another example of Africa's unending strife, reporter Andrew Fowler exposed the developed world's key role in giving birth to the piracy epidemic.

See, with Somalia a virtual failed state following years of bitter internal fighting, the country's long coastline was undefended. Opportunistic trawlers from Europe, East Asia and the Middle East soon descended on Somali waters, illegally draining the seas of fish and lobster. In addition, other ships used Somali waters as a convenient dumping ground for toxic waste.

The combined effect was the destruction of the marine ecosystem. Somali coastal settlements, which relied so much on the fishing industry, were economically devastated in a country already battered by grinding poverty. Pushed to the brink, Somali fishermen hit back. Initially, they attacked the foreign trawlers which were operating illegally and threatening their livelihoods. But as you might expect from a country riven by banditry and violence, an increased criminal element became involved, leading to the organised pirate gangs which are grabbing headlines today.

Yet for those Somalis still trying to eke out a legal living by fishing, the increased US naval presence in their waters is an extra burden, as they are constantly hassled by the navy under suspicion of being pirates.

You can read a detailed account of this whole sordid business by Somali/Kenyan analyst Mohamed Abshir Waldo in his piece “The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other?”

One hopes that the West's promised get-tough approach to piracy involves dealing with root causes, rather than just blowing dudes away.

Another interesting aspect of Andrew Fowler's report was the government of Puntland, an self-declared autonomous state north-east Somalia which he describes as "pirate central". Its main port Bosaso has experienced an economic upsurge recently, largely due to pirate activity.

Puntland's new president, Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, was until recently a history PhD student at Melbourne's Latrobe University and refugee settlement worker in Heidelberg. But was lured back by entreaties from many factions and was elected to the top office in January this year.

But the Melbourne connections don't end there. Issa Farah, another former Latrobe student, is now the region's petroleum director, while Farah Ali Jama flew back from Melbourne straight into the job of Finance Minister.

While there were concerns recently about US-raised Somali refugees returning to train as terrorists, here is the other side of the coin. With hundreds of thousands of Somalis having fled to safer lives in Western countries, many are returning to using their new wealth and education to try and rebuild this shattered country. It's a massive ask.

Abdirahman Farole is a great advertisement for Latrobe University - graduate and become a world leader!

Fake Japaneseness

What do all these following clips have in common? Ostensibly, they are all Japanese. Or so you might think; in fact they are all produced by Western media. It's an approach to comedy and marketing which is increasingly common these days.

Are they racist? Funny? Clever? Stupid?
You be the judge.

This first one is a Swedish ad for a snack food called Hot Tub. Plenty of Asians in this clip, although whether any of them are actually Japanese is another question entirely.

This next one is from comedian Louis Katz. If you don't know what bukakke means, look it up. Although you can probably get the basic idea from this video.

The next one is taken from Banzai, a British game show that spoofs Japanese entertainment. Interestingly, when FOX bought the rights to screen Banzai in the US, the idea was soon canned after protests from Asian-Americans. Guy Aoki of Media Action Network for Asian-Americans described it as an "Asian minstrel show".

The last two are fake video game ads. I find the first one to be pretty cool, the second to be kinda painful.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Global funk connections: Omar

The underappreciated genius of UK soul, Omar was making his unique brand of jazzy neo-soul way back before anyone in the US thought it was a good idea. Born Omar Lye-Fook, his parents are Chinese-Jamaican and Indian-Jamaican – an unusual background from a soul singer, which perhaps explains his distinctive vocal and musical style. Whereas 99% of soul artist are grounded in gospel music and the black church, Omar was inspired more by jazz and reggae.

Omar first exploded on the scene at age 21 with “There’s Nothing Like This”, and in 1990, it was an apt title – still regarded as a Brit soul classic today, it’s an organic groove with Brazilian and classical touches.

The rest of his debut album unfortunately contained nothing else like this, and was a messy attempt at late 80s hip-hop influenced soul. A year later however, Omar returned with “Music”, which built on everything made that first single special and is an amazing artistic achievement for one barely out of his teens. All written and arranged (and mostly played) by Omar himself, “Music” is a majestic soul record sprinkled liberally with orchestras, fat brass, latin percussion, doo wop harmonies and jazz scatting. "Tomorrow" below is a perfect example.

For some sad reason, absolutely no one bought it and it is now almost impossible to come by. I once stumbled across a second-hand copy which is perhaps my most treasured cd.

He re-emerged in 1994 with “For Pleasure”, a more stripped-back work, with a soulful synthesized approach reminiscent of Stevie Wonder. Among many highlights, the album spawned a couple of brilliant singles – the harmony-laden synth-funk of “Saturday”, and the exquisite piano ballad “Outside”.

Yet with his sophisticated stylings still largely unappreciated in his homeland, Omar started releasing albums through a French label. He is still funking out in his late 30s – 2001’s “Best by Far” in particular is another fantastic album well worth checking out, while 2006's "Sing (If You Want It)" featured a collaboration with his idol, Stevie Wonder. He has also appeared on albums by Common, Guru, Real People and Dimitri from Paris, while doing productions for Mica Paris and Laurnea.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shaheen Jafargholi

Wow, people really love Britain's Got Talent. 48-year-old Susan Boyle just notched up over 16 million youtube watches in a short amount of time. The latest sensation from the show is 12-year old Welsh-Iranian munchkin Shaheen Jafargholi. With his impressive kiddie-soul voice, the precocious dimpled schoolboy is reminding people of Michael Jackson (thankfully for his singing ability rather than alleged sexual offenses or lack of nose). And he seems nice and nowhere near as annoying as he could have been. Don't know what's gonna happen when his voice breaks though. Make sure you get paid quickly, son!

You can check out his performance here.

Obama's Indonesian clone

See, I told you my boy B.O. was Indonesian...

Meet Ilham Anas, the 34-year-old Indonesian photographer who bears a striking resemblance to Obama. Well, in some photos he does, anyway. He's now become the go-to guy for ad agencies throughout SE Asia who want to get some fake presidential approval on their product. Below, he appears on a Filipino antacid commercial.

Unfortunately, looking like the world's most powerful man brings its downside as well - Anas apparently worries that someone is gonna try and shoot him.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Name of the Year

My new favourite website is Name of the Year and I can't believe I haven't heard of it before. It's a vote-off competition to find the funniest or coolest new names of real people each year, from Glorious Johnson to Dick Surprise to Crystal Metheny to Phyllis Mangina. And its an absolute cack, particularly when you pore through the archived voting ballots, and the "Hall of Name" featuring past winners.

The site's compilers have almost reached a verdict on the name of 2009, but its not too late to cast your ballot - its come down to a evenly matched tie between college footballer Barkevious Mingo and Filipina/American student Iris Macadangdang.

If you're wondering which ethnicities are contributing the most awesome names, it's pretty much as you'd expect, although strangely there don't seem to be many Thais featured. The other usual suspects are there: a number from Sub-Saharan Africa, with their predilection for positive adjectives as given names (Courage Shabalala, Largest Agbejemison) while the African-Americans, who love a unique name to set them apart, are a big contingent (Sumatra La'Dontae Jones, Tanqueray Beavers). And of course there are the Chinese, probably Hongkies, who make some good contributions (Vanilla Dong, Steeve Ho Yu Fat [and yes, that is how you spell Steeve]).

As for my vote? Despite the great pleasure one gets when "Macadangdang" rolls off the tongue, I think it kinda loses points for being a relatively common Filipino surname. But "Barkevious Mingo" is so unique, and sounds so much like a comic-book supervillain, that I can't go past it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Random comic genius: Joe Wong on Letterman

I was fortunate enough to be watching Dave Letterman the other night when Joe Wong came on. Never heard of him before, but he totally killed it. I'm an instant fan, and I have the feeling that the Late Show appearance is gonna be the start of big things for this guy. Check it:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I never knew Indians made sausages

Lots of Sikh-related stuff this week. Maybe I should declare it Sikh Week, or rename my blog "The Joy of Sikhs". (You can send your complaints to the comments box below.)

British-Asian company "Mr Singh's Bangras" has won an advertising award for their nifty idea of using edible ink to decorate their sausages. The design replicates the mehndi (henna) tattoo patterns typically worn by Indian brides. And the name bangras is a play on the term bangers (sausages) and banghra (a Punjabi dance style), I guess.

They look a bit freaky for mine, but so are the contents of your average sausage, so what the hey. These ones, however, are made from a mutton and lamb combination, and contain Indian spices and one variety even contains dates and apricots.

What, no minced-up pig anuses? It's scarcely fit to be called a sausage then.

(Hat tip: Sepia Mutiny)

Asylum Seekers: Turnbull wants a return of the Temporary Protection Visa system

In response to the recent influx of asylum seekers heading for Australia by boat, opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull is pushing hard for a return to one of the ugliest policies of the Howard era - the Temporary Protection Visa.

The previous government was characterised by its willingness to indulge in xenophobia and race-baiting in order to seem tough on border security and get re-elected. And arguably it was exactly this approach that led to John Howard's re-election in 2001 with the controversy surrounding the Tampa incident. TPVs were another measure put in place to discourage arrivals by boat, but which only succeeded in making life even more arduous for successful refugees once they arrived here.

Under this previous system, any asylum seekers making unauthorised arrivals would only be granted a TPV, which lasted 3 years. During this time they were not allowed to leave the country, as they would not be readmitted. They were not allowed to work, or access social security benefits, meaning they were completely reliant for survival on aid agencies and relatives if they had them. Once the visa had expired, asylum seekers were never able to obtain permanent residency, and had to continually prove their need for continuing protection, since circumstances may have changed in their country of origin. Meaning that the Australian government was trying to send people back to the hellhole that is Iraq, simply because Saddam Hussein was no longer in government and therefore the refugees had no more need of refuge.

In creating a second-class type of "unworthy" refugee, forced to live in limbo for the duration of their visa, the Howard government hit one of its lowest ebbs. So new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was completely right to depose of this legislation. But now Turnbull wants to return to the dark days of refugee policy. Incarcerate refugees without trial, then release them but don't allow them to have any income whatsoever. It's a recipe for encouraging criminal activity, and for traumatising children forced to grow up behind bars and then without proper food and welfare.

There is even evidence to show that rather than discouraging boat arrivals, the TPV system led to an increase in arrivals. The logic behind this is that because refugees on TPVs had no rights to sponsor family members to seek residence, family members felt forced to risk unauthorised entry instead.

Unauthorised boat arrivals are certainly not a good thing - for a country's territorial integrity but also for the extreme dangers for those attempting such a journey. So we need to discourage this practice. But the TPV system - effectively oppressing people who have been found to be legitimate refugees - is not the way, and Malcolm Turnbull should be ashamed for even suggesting it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

La Plaza de Mercado Festival @ QVM

My couple of weeks in Malaysia were like a reverse version of "The Biggest Loser", so I've been looking to shed a couple of kilos. This was not helped however by someone deciding to have a Spanish & Latin American food festival in my town. Meaning that I had no choice but to go and do some serious eating. The churros (above) were the last thing I ate, and when you've eaten five of them your body will tell you that you've gone too far.

If you can't enjoy the music of a highly percussive Latin band on a warm sunny day, you need to check your pulse. I didn't have much time to check these guys out however; I had limited time to spend, lots of foods to try and long queues standing in my way.

Below: Pupusas. A friend from El Salvador had repeatedly waxed lyrical to me about this snack, which I finally got a chance to try. Frijoles refritos (refried beans) and white cheese (a blend of feta, ricotta and mozzarella by my reckoning) are stuffed into a ball of masa (corn dough), which is then flattened into a fat tortilla and cooked on a hot plate. It's served topped with tomato salsa and cabbage salad.

Below: although alfajor (pronounced alpha-whore) sounds like the leader of a group of prostitutes, it is actually the name of THE great biscuit of South America. Pictured are three variations, but at its most basic level it is a layer of dulce de leche sandwiched between two cookies, then covered with chocolate, coconut, powdered sugar or something else that is inevitably bad for you. In case you were wondering, dulce de leche (milk caramel) is pretty much the best sweet substance ever created, and if I were prime minister I would decree it mandatory to put in in everything.

Below: something called a putaco. No, I've never heard of it before either. Little more than a round slab of cornmeal really, but to be honest if you piled guacamole, salsa, sour cream and frijoles onto a piece of cardboard, I'd still think it was pretty good.
In addition I did manage to put away a Chilean cheese empanada, a quesadilla, tamale, and a rajas con crema taco.

La Plaza de Mercado is Melbourne's other Latino festival (the main one being the Johnston St Festival in January. I confess this was the first time I ever heard of it, but apparently its been going for 5 years, organised by the Spanish Latin American Welfare Centre. Of all the ethnic-based festivals Melbourne has, I have to say that the Latino ones seem to always have the best food and music. Respetar, hombres!

Canberra bar apologises for rejecting Sikh due to turban

In more Sikh-related news, this week the Minque bar in Canberra is to apologise publicly to Kanwal Preet Singh Pamwa for forcing him to leave the premises. The reason? His turban violated their no-headwear dress code. Mr Pamwa, a IT-specialist civil servant who does not drink alcohol, was socialising with friends in the bar and apparently not causing any disturbance, when security staff approached him requesting he remove his turban. When he explained that he could not remove it for religious reasons, they instructed him to leave.

The manager reiterated the bar's dress policy and Mr Pamwa left. He did make a complaint to the Discrimination Tribunal and subsequently won an apology, to be made in a national newspaper. Minque's management also agreed to change their dress policy to allow certain headware which had cultural or religious significance.

I could throw the word "racism" around here, but I'd hope that the bar's rejection of Mr Pamwa was probably not based on racism, just its close cousin, ignorance. You'd think that they'd know by now that there are plenty of people in the community who wear religious headgear, but maybe they'd just never thought about it. Or maybe they were just @ssholes. (What, venue security staff acting like @ssholes? Never!)

Whatever the reason, well done Kanwal Pamwa for scoring one back for the Sikhs.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Global funk connections: Orishas & Buena Vista Social Club

Taking their name from the elemental spirits of the Yoruba pantheon that was spread by slaves from Nigeria to the New World, Orishas are arguably the best known exponents of Cuban hip-hop worldwide, having won 2 Grammy awards. The African nature of the group's name also represents their dedication to the struggle of black Cubans, who still face dicrimination despite the socialist revolution that was meant to rid Cuba of racism.

An irony about Orishas is that while these raperos have exposed the world to Cuban hip-hop, they are no longer based in Cuba - they only hit it really big after relocating to France - and are seen by some in the Cuban music scene as selling out, by incorporating more commercial elements into their music. The Cuban Black Eyed Peas, perhaps?

I'm not any kind of authority on Cuban music, but if the below track, "537 Cuba" is any guide, selling out is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when said commercial elements include sampling salsa and rhumba. This track rides a slab of one of the best-known Cuban songs of recent years, the Buena Vista Social Club's "Chan Chan".

And here is the original track. I can't say the rap version is better, but did anyone who saw the 1999 movie ever suspect that the music would sound slammin when put to a hip-hop beat?

Friday, April 17, 2009

It ain't easy being Sikh

One of the biggest challenges of any society, particularly a multi-ethnic one, is how to adapt traditional religious values and practices to modern times. Things that once made plenty of sense in their original context now cause problems interfacing with the demands of modern life in a new society.

Lets take the Sikhs, for example, a people originating in India’s Punjab region whose physical appearance and accoutrements frequently make them a misunderstood “other” in the West.

As an example of what I mean by misunderstood, I give you the following conversation I had some years ago with a friend of mine who should really get out more. It was at an Indian take-away joint and the guy serving us was a Sikh.

My friend (whispering) : Hey, what’s wrong with that guy’s head? Is that a bandage?
Me: No, it’s a turban. It’s because he’s a Sikh.
My friend: Oh, he’s sick? What’s wrong with him?


Famous Sikhs: cricketing bad-boy Harbhajan Singh, and actress Parminder Nagra (of ER and Bend it Like Beckham fame. And yes, I really just wanted an excuse to look at that picture of Nagra.)

I wrote a post a while back about the sinister phenomenon of “curry-bashing”, and while a disproportionate number of bashing victims in Melbourne’s west tend to be Indian, a disproportionate number of those seem to be turban-wearing Sikhs. Many Sikh communities in Western countries noted an increase in violence directed at them after 9/11, since to some idiots the Sikhs’ brown skin, turban and beard scream “Islamic terrorism!”

So I figure it takes a certain amount of balls to rock your traditional gear in the face of all that ignorance.

If its one thing that Sikhs have in spades though, its balls. The universal surname for Sikh men, Singh, means “lion”, and they have long been known as fierce soldiers – the British brought many Sikhs to Hong Kong and Malaysia to work as police and guardsmen. (The British army has long employed Sikhs - the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi, where 21 Sikhs held off 10,000 Afghans for several hours, is a legendary feat in military history.) On top of that, one of the five articles of faith that baptised Sikhs are required to carry is a ceremonial dagger, called a kirpan (the other four being a steel bracelet, unshorn hair, special undergarments, and a comb.)

All of which would seem like reason enough to leave Sikhs alone, since they sound badass. Ok, maybe not the part about carrying a comb around everywhere, or the special undies, or wearing a bracelet, but the rest of it sounds pretty gangsta. Straight outta Punjab, y’all.

Of course, that’s not really the case. Did you know that Sikhs have the highest rate of home ownership (85%) of any religious community in the UK? Australia’s Sikh community is a particularly peaceful one that has contributed much: a Sikh is far more likely to be your local GP than somebody who would do you harm. A great many Sikhs are vegetarians, and anyone can go to the gurdwara (temple) and be given free food. (And speaking of food, without Punjabis there would be no butter chicken, everyone's favourite curry.) The kirpan, which symbolises the struggle of good over evil, is too blunted to do much damage, and is worn discreetly beneath the clothes next to the body. It is not something to be used offensively. I can personally testify that I dated a Punjabi girl for 3 years and didn't get stabbed, not even once. Her dad may have fantasised about it, but that's another story.

I should mention that the obligation to wear the kirpan and the other stuff is only really for khalsa (baptised) Sikhs. And of Australia's Sikh community (around 30,000 strong), only around 10% are baptised.

Yet as you can imagine, carrying a dagger around everywhere, even a blunt one, raises a few obvious issues.
6 British Sikhs were refused entry to a Staffordshire theme park last week because they were carrying kirpans. They do have a legal right in Britain to carry them however, even into courtrooms. The laws vary from country to country about the kirpan. In Denmark it is illegal to carry any weapon in public without a valid reason (religion not deemed a valid reason). In India it is even legal for khalsa Sikhs to carry the kirpan on planes.

There have been ongoing legal wrangles in Canada and the US about the rights of Sikh students to carry kirpans to school. In Australia, the Victorian Education and Training Committee recommended to parliament that the kirpan be accommodated in schools. Unsurprisingly, teachers and principals were outraged. Interestingly, the Sikh Council of Australia advised that students should not be allowed to take kirpans to school.

But Sikhs have faced problems with more than just the kirpan. Recently in Virginia a restaurant refused some Sikhs entry because they had a no-headwear policy, and the Sikhs refused to remove their turbans. In Brisbane over a year ago, a Sikh student was not allowed to enrol at the private school Ormiston College because his turban contravened uniform policy.

Now there are legitimate questions raised here, but some bullsh*t going on as well. I'm all for religious freedoms as long as it doesn't endanger anyone and common sense is the overriding factor. And I can't imagine any reason why a Sikh's turban would cause such a problem that it should be disallowed. It's against your dress policy? F*** your dress policy, go write a new one. While there has been similar debate about how Muslim hijab fits in with school uniforms, the Sikh turban is far less problematic, since it covers only the top of the head - it should not even be an issue.

The kirpan, however, is a different matter. Carrying it around beneath one's clothes when walking the streets is one thing (half our teenagers seem to carry knives around these days anyway). But taking it to school is another. Likewise, nightclubs and venues should have the right to refuse entry to anyone carrying a kirpan. Not to imply that Sikhs are gonna start knifing people, but the risk is too great. These are just some of the sacrifices necessary to make multiculturalism work. Which is easy for me to say, since my religion doesn't require me to carry a whole bunch of stuff around with me at all times. But I wonder, is spirituality really about the outward symbols of religion - church attendance, and wearing a yarmulke, kirpan or hijab - or is it about what's in the heart and mind? In a world that's constantly changing and evolving, that's a question that I think we all need to be pondering.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Addicted to kuih

One of primary reasons for my rapidly expanding belt size during my short stay in Malaysia is kuih (or kueh if you prefer). Kuih are Malaysian cakes, generally steamed, mostly coming out of the Nyonya culinary tradition, fusing Chinese and Malay cooking styles. They are almost always made of some starch such as sticky rice or rice flour, and the flavours that dominate are pandan (screwpine, which gives the green colour), coconut milk, grated coconut, and palm sugar.

In the interest of greater cultural understanding (and nothing to do with greediness) , I ate a massive amount of kuih. I had several favourites:

* The kuih cendol, which emulates the famous Malaysian drink with layers of coconut milk, palm sugar and green wormy things. Wonderful.
* Kuih keria, a miniature glazed donut with sweet potato filling. To be honest the flavour wasn't that amazing, I just find it interesting in concept.
* and two varieties based on an exquisite filling of palm sugar liquid and chewy grated coconut; ketayap (or kuih dadar), in which the filling is rolled in a delicate rice flour crepe; and onde-onde, which resembles the mochi of Japan, a dumpling coated with grated coconut, and with filling that explodes into your mouth when you bite into it. I could eat these by the dozen without a second thought.

Above (clockwise from top): ketayap, sago and coconut kuih, kochi, kuih keria, ondeh ondeh, kuih lapis
Above: kuih cendol

Above (clockwise from top): jin dui, kuih talam, getuk getuk, red bean talam

Above (clockwise from top): purple yam sri muka, unknown (palm sugar flavoured), ketayap, kuih lapis, palm sugar sri muka.

Above (clockwise from top): tapioca kuih, kuih talam, Portuguese egg custard tart, and unknown.

Above: puttu buluh; a small version of puttu, which is a steamed cake of rice flour and grated coconut. These are filled with palm sugar. A little dry for my liking.

Above: ang ku kuih (glutinous rice flour kuih with filling); this one was stuffed with a sweet mung bean paste

Above: apam balik; its a variation on the appam or hopper from Sri Lanka and South India. Made with flour, yeast, sugar and coconut milk, it resembles a folded crumpet, filled with sugar and crushed peanuts. This one had sweetcorn kernels as well which was strange but passable.

In Indonesia we have an almost identical dish called martabak manis or martabak terang bulan.

Random comic genius: Lawrence Leung finds love

I'm not sure if this makes me a gay rice queen or not, but I think I wanna have Lawrence Leung's baby. He's so geeky and adorable, I just wanna give him a hug or something. (Actually, take out the "or something", this is getting a little too gay now.)

His "Choose Your Own Adventure" show is funny as hell, particularly any scene featuring his parents. These clips are from the first episode, in which Lawrence searches for the girl he had a crush on in primary school.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Malaysian-Indian food experience

On of the things I love about food is its cultural significance and history. The story of food is also the story of its people. When legendary gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin said "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are", he was on to something.
While 3 meals can hardly represent the several million Malaysians of subcontinental ancestry, you can learn a lot about people from their food. In a single day, I took a journey through Indian food in Malaysia, exploring the diversity of this cuisine in the peninsula.

Which is really just a fancy way of saying I stuffed my big fat face and am now trying to justify it on anthropological grounds. Here goes:


When it comes to Western breakfasts - porridge, cereal, toast with jam, etc - they're okay once in a while, but none that I would like to eat every single day. Toasted cheese sandwiches, perhaps, but generally speaking, breakfast in the Western world is not an overly exciting idea.
But if I had to eat one breakfast combo every day, the only one I think I could choose would be Malaysian: roti chanai with dhal and curry sauce, accompanied by a hot frothy mug of teh tarik. Purchased at your local mamak joint for a measly RM3 or less (about US$1) and whipped up in a jiffy, it's a great way to start the day.

That said, regular consumption of said meal has not helped my waistline at all. But I'm on holiday, dammit.

This is a quintessentially Malaysian dish, but definitely not Malay. It's roots are clearly Indian, yet you won't find it in India, exactly.

Roti chanai and teh tarik are the best-known examples of mamak cuisine. The term mamak (from the Tamil word for "uncle") refers to Indian Muslims who migrated to Malaysia over the last couple of hundred years. As they were mostly male, there was considerable intermarriage with Malay women. Mamak food reflects these origins, with some Chinese influence creeping in as well. Murthaba (a roti chanai filled with mutton, egg and onions) is typical of this cuisine, while the nomenclature of Indian mee goreng says it all: an Indianized take on a Malay dish which has Chinese origins. Mamak stalls have developed a culture of their own, and congregating there until the wee hours is one of the most common pastimes for young Malaysians.

The roti chanai itself (or roti prata in Singapore) is a flaky and delicious flatbread, made from white flour and laden with more grease than you want to think about. (If its not oily enough, you can always order roti planta, which is roti with ghee or margarine poured over it.) The term chanai (or more properly canai) means to knead in Malay, but some believe that the name actually refers to the Indian city of Chennai (Madras), from where so many Malaysian Indians ultimately hail. One of the pleasures of ordering roti chanai is watching the chef prepare it, flipping and twirling the dough to achieve its characteristic texture. Youtube has plenty of videos if you care to watch it.

Teh tarek (literally, pulled tea) and its close cousin the ginger-laced teh halia also is clearly Indian in origin but with a telltale Southeast Asian twist: condensed milk. There has never been much of a dairy industry in the region, so milk-in-a-can flavours your tea and coffee from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia. Its sickly sweetness is balanced by the strength of the tea. Well, a bit. The term tarek (to pull) refers to the theatrical pouring from jug to jug in order to mix and aerate the tea. Unfortunately many places are trying to get away with packet-mix teh tarek these days. It's sad.

Roti with curry, and a mug of condensed milk with some tea in it. Utterly delicious, cheap, and the best way in the world to begin your day. Particularly if your day is going to involve a mid-morning nap.


The vast majority of Malaysian Indians are from South India - principally Tamils, with Malayalees a distant second. While the mamak phenomenon stems from Muslim Tamils, the Hindu majority Tamils have given Malaysia another culinary tradition - the banana leaf meal. Served traditionally on a banana leaf, or less traditionally on a green plate masquerading as a banana leaf, it starts with a big helping of rice, with a wide variety of curries, largely vegetarian, arranged around it. Papadams, pickles, fried chilies and yoghurt complete the picture. You can eat this with utensils if you must, but it marks you out as a tourist. The right hand is a far better option, with the added bonus that it makes the meal more memorable (since your hand will reek of it for the rest of the day).

In the myriad of things that appear on your plate, or should I say leaf, all are very tasty without really standing out from the pack. It's all about the dizzying array of ingredients, subtle flavour combinations, and not-so-subtle chili kick, that make it an impressive overall meal. Kinda like a team with no star player but great chemistry.

While being very authentically South Indian, there are still touches that remind you that you're still in Southeast Asia. Vegetables like Chinese cabbage and oyster mushrooms turn up frequently, as do Chinese-style mock meats; yet all cooked Indian-style.

There are restaurants serving this kind of food everywhere; my personal favourite is Restoran Sri Kortumalai Pillayar (215, Jln Tun Sambathan) in Brickfields, central KL's Indian heartland.


Punjabis and Sindhis are a smaller but significant part of Malaysia's Indian community. While the more obvious north Indian dishes - tandoori chicken, biryani, naan bread - can be found at every mamak, to experience real north Indian food in Malaysia requires a bit more sniffing around. This is in contrast to Australia, where 99% of Indian restaurants are north Indian.

This sniffing around led us to Sagar Restaurant (One Bangsar, Jln Ara, Bangsar Baru, 59100 KL), which my Punjabi friend Jeevna recommends as one of the very top north Indian joints in KL.

Sniffing around is about right, because upon alighting from our car across the road, the heady smell of kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) and tandoor smoke is everywhere. It is this smell which soon attached itself to my clothes and seeped from my armpits until the following day. It's also expensive, moreso than any Indian place in Australia. But it was well, well worth it. For Sagar is the best Indian food I have ever tasted. Admittedly I've never been to India, but I've still eaten enough of the stuff to know my kachoris from my pudina paranthas.

Their menu is massive and features things you don't often see in your average Indian restaurant. Forget mango lassi; try instead an apple lassi, or a Kashmiri lassi with dried fruit and crushed nuts. The tawa pindi (ladies fingers stuffed with masala and pan-fried) were delicious and different, while their exhaustive selection of paneer (cottage cheese) dishes is a highlight. Their black pepper paneer was hands-down the best dish I ate in my two weeks in Malaysia, and that's saying a lot; while my better half claims to have dreams about the chicken tikka roll.

North Indian food seems to be more swanky, special-occasion food in comparison to the cheap, ubiquitous south Indian and mamak joints; this reflects not just the smaller north Indian population, but also perhaps the comparatively wealthier status of northerners in Malaysia.

While there is clearly some overlap between these three culinary traditions, they are worlds apart in some aspects. Mamak stalls with their Arab and Malay influences, based largely around meat and carbs; south Indian cuisine, heavily rice-and-vegetable-focused, blisteringly spicy; and north Indian, with its rich gravies and smoky delights from the tandoor oven. When people blithely regard Indian food as little more than "curry", they are missing a whole lot.


For more on food in Malaysia, try:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Knobhead of the week: Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho

I know its Easter so it seems inappropriate to be talking trash to leading figures in the church, but when said figures are acting inexplicably knobheadishly, then they leave us little choice.

In the deeply Catholic nation of Brazil, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape or where the mother's life is at risk. So when a 9 year old girl, pregnant with twins due to rape by her stepfather, recently had an abortion, you'd think it wouldn't raise too many hackles. Apparently her tiny uterus was not big enough to hold one baby, let alone two. So that's understandable, right?

Until the Archishop of Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho got involved. He excommunicated all those involved, including the girl's mother and the doctors.

Know who he didn't excommunicate? The stepfather. The archbishop said that while the stepfather had committed a "heinous act", it was not necessarily grounds to expel him from the church.

President Luiz Ignacio da Silva said that as a Catholic he regretted the attitude of archbishop Sobrinho, while the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil denounced the decision. Still, 4000 people protested against abortion in Sao Paolo, after a Vatican archbishop said that the abortion was justified on the grounds that the 9 year-old's health was at risk.

People, few can deny that abortion is a deeply uncomfortable and problematic issue. Even those of us who are firmly pro-choice can accept that there are far, far too many abortions committed in this world.

But you've got to pick your battles. Picking on 9 year-old children who have been impregnated through the horror of sexual abuse is always gonna be the wrong one.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Putting a racist slant on things - the "Chinky-Eye" Hall of Shame

Apparently making the slanty-eye gesture is the new hip thing to do. The latest celeb photographed committing this racist act is Joe Jonas, of pop act the Jonas Brothers. Now, normally I have no cause to waste any brain cells thinking about the Jonas Brothers. But when someone admired by millions of young people thinks it's a cool and funny thing to do, that's a problem.

You may recall teen star Miley Cyrus copping some criticism earlier this year for the same gesture. "I was just making a goofy face," she said in her defence. Did she mean to say gooky? Many Asians have been outraged by this, but LA woman Lucie J Kim took it upon herself to launch a $4 billion lawsuit against Cyrus, claiming damages on behalf of a million Asian-Americans who she claims were so traumatised by seeing the photo and the racism it will inevitably engender, that they need $4000 each.
Yeah, I get how such a photo is offensive and all, but frivolous cases like this only embarrass the Asian community.

But it's a gesture not restricted to teenybopper stars - clearly these female Argentinian footballers thought it hilarious as well.

And then there was this picture that appeared last year on the Spanish Tennis Federation's website, accompanied by caption, "We are ready for Beijing". Three female Olympic tennis players are in the photo.

This was the same week that the Spanish men's basketball team were photographed making the gesture, also in the leadup to the Beijing Olympics...

... as were the Spanish women's basketball team.

Which is surprising, since Spanish sporting culture is usually so enlightened when it comes to matters of race (what with the monkey chants aimed by crowds at black football players, and the former national coach referring to French striker Thierry Henry as a black sh*t).

In defence of the people the above photos, I don't think any of them were consciously trying to degrade Asian people. To make the leap to "The Jonas Brothers hate Asians" is going too far I hope. Without knowing the context in which a photo is taken, perhaps one shouldn't leap to judgement - the Cyrus and Jonas photos were clearly not meant to be disseminated into the public domain. In the Cyrus photo, the token Asian guy looks like he may be in on the joke. I know myself that I have little in-jokes with my friends of different ethnicities which might seem racist to an observer unaware of the context.

But it is a gesture that carries a sting for many people of East Asian background growing up in Western countries, much as the monkey references do for black people. It's a gesture many Asians are familiar with as a form of bullying in the schoolyard and on the street. Let's hope we see less of it.

Cooking up a storm in Malaysia

One of the great pleasures of overseas travel is eating out, but so is buying exotic produce and cooking with it. After visiting the Sungai Way wet market in Petaling Jaya (where I also devoured some delicious kueh and tau foo fa), I also managed to pick up some vegetables that I struggle to get back home.

The winged bean, also known as the asparagus pea, is something I very occasionally see in Indochinese groceries in Melbourne, but the specimens are usually of poor quality and are quite expensive. In Malaysia, it is cheap and abundant; referred to locally as 4-angle bean in English, kacang botol (bottle bean) in Malay, and kecipir in Indonesia. It is a fantastic vegetable and I wonder why it hasn't been popularised more in the West. Like the common green bean, it is a pod encasing a number of small beans - but the beans in this case are exceptionally high in protein (up to 39%). The protein is also a complete protein, in the way that meat and soybeans are, but common beans and lentils are not. It grows easily, and its leaves and tubers are also edible, making it an ideal crop for the developing world.

Likewise, edible ferns (pakis or paku) are seemingly impossible to come by in Australia, unless perhaps you are an avid wild food gatherer. In Indonesia and Malaysia, they are a common part of traditional diets, although moreso in the rural areas - they are one of the most common vegetables eaten by the indigenous peoples of Borneo.

Of course, buying vegetables is the easy part; you need to actually cook them too. Wanting to impress family and friends, I realise they had shamefully never tried Indonesian cuisine, so I felt it my duty to introduce them.

Above: we call this oseng-oseng kecipir in Indonesia, the 4-angle beans sliced finely and stir-fried with shallots, garlic and chili. The mushrooms are there only because they needed to be used up, but worked well anyway.

One of the better known Indonesian dishes, gado-gado. There are numerous ways cooking and presenting this dish, which is basically a variety of vegetables with peanut sauce. I used the boiled ferns alongside snake beans, bean sprouts, carrots and hard-boiled eggs. The sauce combines peanuts with palm sugar, kecap manis (sweet soya sauce), lime juice, ground coriander, shallots, garlic and chili.

Below: Opor tahu (bean curd in white curry gravy). Usually made with chicken, but the key ingredient is the sauce, rich with coconut milk and flavoured with lemon grass, lime leaf, garlic, galangal and other spices.

Below: perkedel jagung (corn fritters) - we Indonesians love our fried snacky things, and this is a very common dish. I add bean sprouts and kaffir lime leaf to mine.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Obama bows to Saudi King - clearly he must be weak or a Muslim extremist

You know that time when you went to your friend's place and they cooked you a meal and it wasn't very nice at all, yet out of politeness you told them how lovely it was?

Well, it turns out that you are a spineless little bitch for doing that.

The context?

The US right wing commentariat is in a lather these days about Barack Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah ahead of the G20 Summit in Britain. Not being an American I didn't know this, but apparently the US protocol is that Americans should not bow to any foreign royalty. So Obama's bow to the King is being interpreted in a hundred different ways.

Just so you get some context, here is the footage.

The first question I asked myself upon seeing the video was You mean that's it? Yep, that's it. Just a quick bow to the waist. Yet with all the column inches this story is receiving, you'd think the Prez was on his knees with his tongue gently caressing King Abdullah's nether regions.

Alan Keyes thinks it may be a nod-and-wink to the Muslim world to show that Obama is really down with them, since all right-wing lunatics know that the man is a sleeper Islamic terrorist by virtue of having the middle name Hussein.
Over at Political Byline, they deem that Obama, by bowing to his "Arab masters" should be charged with treason. Nice to see some well-thought-out and not at all delusional thinking over there.
And it just goes on and on across the right-wing blogosphere. Obama is now Abdullah's bitch, he is showing that he is inferior to the King, it shows that he's really a Muslim, yada yada.

The American Right never fail to amuse me, but they would be more amusing if they didn't hold so much power to screw over the rest of the world. What they don't get is that the attitudes being expressed on this are a prime example of why so many people around the world dislike Americans. It's called arrogance. It's the mindset that says "as Americans, we have to constantly remind you that we are the greatest people in the world."

Bill Clinton copped steam back in 1994 for almost bowing to Japanese Emperor. Wow, imagine that, bowing to a Japanese person. It's not as if bowing is part of Japanese culture or anything...

I have been bowed to by Japanese people a number of times in my life. I don't recall that any of those instances was accompanied by me thinking "Ha! Now you are my bitch!"

I'm not gonna try and read Barack Obama's mind. But I'm guessing that he was just trying to show culturally appropriate respect to someone who is, after all, a king. It may not actually have been culturally appropriate in that sense, but hey, he was trying to be nice. Had he bowed to King Bhumibol of Thailand, would the same fuss be there?
Whether or not that was the proper US presidential protocol for the situation, when you meet someone of royal status, you show some deference. Some have made the point that since Saudi Arabia is such a intolerant hardline Islamic state, Obama should certainly not have bowed. In that case, what would be the appropriate greeting? A wedgie?

I'm sure King Abdullah is used to people bowing to him all the time, and thought absolutely nothing of it. And far from being anyone's bitch, Obama strikes me as someone who is well aware of his status as the world's most powerful man, yet is unafraid to show humility and respect to others. Just like when Obama says he is willing to talk with the Iranians rather than simply bombing them, the US Right also saw this as weakness.

As I said, so many Americans just don't get it. America, at least as represented by the Republican Right, is the schoolyard jock and racist bully with the superinflated ego, who thinks the only reason people don't like him is because they're jealous of how awesome he is.

Obama, who embodies the modern broadminded multicultural man and is comfortable enough in his masculinity that he doesn't need to wave it in anyone's face, is so radical in concept that the Right know no other way than to hate him. It's sad.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Lina's Popiah, SS3, Petaling Jaya

Popiah is a dish Chinese in origin but one that has been adapted for local tastes to become one of the favourite street foods of South East Asia, where it also goes under the other monikers lumpia (Indonesia), lumpiang (Philippines), as well as Vietnam's famous goi cuon or rice paper rolls.

It's a relatively simple dish, and can be assembled in barely a minute, yet there's a lot of work that goes into the preparation. I managed to catch a master in action at this food court on Jalan SS3/64 in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.

It starts with a thin pancake, usually of wheat flour. Two sauces are spread on top, a fiery chili sauce and a sweet/sour/salty dark-coloured brew which the vendor keeps simmering on the stove.

A variety of fillings are added, including tauge (bean sprouts), shredded cucumber, chopped fried tofu, and grated cooked turnip.

Then comes the assembly stage, done in a flash. Fans of Mexican food will notice similarities to burritos.

Voila. Delicious, fresh, and spicy as the devil.

The preserved plum juice I chose to wash it down with was definitely the wrong choice; its slightly salty tanginess just seemed to accentuate the chili kick of the popiah. An acquired taste, preserved plum, and one I think I may never acquire.

Will definitely go back for the popiah though. It was perhaps the healthiest thing I've eaten during my whole stay in Malaysia.