Sunday, October 31, 2010

From around the interwebs...

Links and all that.

Merkel jumps on xenophobe bandwagon
by Leo Kretzenbacher in The Age
"If a statement is completely wrong and illogical, Germans call it "so wrong that not even its opposite is correct". Seldom has this characterisation been more fitting than for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent announcement that multiculturalism in Germany had failed. For it to have succeeded or failed it would have had to have been tried in some serious way first. German governments have never been guilty of any serious effort to create a multicultural society."

Culture is more than just a national costume
by Pino Migliorino in the Sydney Morning Herald
"I think that the balance is not achieved by adjusting migration numbers. The balance is one of attitude. It is the balance that the existing nations all over the world, including Australia, have to find in creating equal dialogues between all its cultures and communities. It does not mean that any side has to passively accept what is proposed to them. At the very least, we have to be able to accept that we all have the capacity to learn new things and to change."

Striking a balance in Australia's immigration future
by Pallavi Jain in The Age
"Australia is one of the most developed countries in the world but to maintain that in an increasingly globalised world, it is imperative that it manages its immigration policy well. Very low immigration will deny Australia the benefits of the best minds in the world. Too much immigration may give rise to unforseen social unrest, apart from being a huge burden on the infrastructure and the environment. Striking this balance will be a key to Australia's future."

Western politicians prefer to ignore Israel's inherent racism
by Antony Lowenstein in The Age.
"Imagine a mainstream Australian politician saying that Aborigines should be banned from leading tourists around Uluru because they might "present anti-Australian positions" to visitors. The outcry would be furious.

But a bill is currently before the Israeli Knesset, led by a parliamentarian from the "moderate" Kadima party, that would bar Arab residents of East Jerusalem from working as tour guides in the city. Knesset member Gideon Ezra said it was essential tourist groups are "accompanied by a tour guide who is an Israeli citizen and has institutional loyalty to the [Jewish] state of Israel".
It is just the latest sign in an ever-tightening noose around Arabs from the Zionist mainstream in the self-described Jewish nation."

Feminism curbing Third World women
By Durkhanai Ayubi in The Age

"To me it boils down to this - cultural relativism or the PC brigade should not tie the tongue of Western feminists in speaking out for women who come from less fortunate regions of the world. However, if the argument is ignorant to the complexity of factors in play, then perhaps it would not be so unfortunate if the tongue-getting cat made an appearance."

Shoe throwing only served to harm the left
by Michael Koziol in the Sydney Morning Herald
"Indeed, John Howard's appearance in its totality has been met with widespread praise: he was eloquent, assertive, and handled Shoegate with grace – at least in the eyes of much of the Twitterverse. But many Twitterers – and I suspect many others watching on - afforded shoe thrower Peter Gray hero status for his action, and that is foolish even for those who sympathise with the left.

The concern now is that the shoe thrower will come to represent the left more broadly. It wouldn't be a sensible act of stereotyping but it will happen: those already sceptical of left-wing politics will watch the footage of this silliness and it will reinforce preconceptions about people on the left, what they look like and how they behave. It is the sort of irresponsible behaviour that provides a justification for dismissing intelligent progressive ideas as the musings of delusional hippies."

Japanese TV weirdness of the week: Flower-arranging chimp

Pan-kun takes the traditional Japanese art of ikebana in new directions.

ikebana 2
Uploaded by percyjpnprb. - Discover more webcam videos and video blogs.
(Hat tip: Japan Probe)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Constable Savage

From Not the Nine O'Clock News. For more of their work, check out this one.

For an example of how this sketch still carries just as much truth today as it did back in 1980, check this.

Being vegetarian in Indonesia

Indonesians, like pretty much every other nationality, are people who like eating meat. While some other Asian countries have some tradition of vegetarianism due to their Hindu or Buddhist faith, Indonesia is a Muslim country with no such tradition. In my recent post about being vegetarian in Malaysia, I pointed out that while meatless Malay food is hard to come by, vegetarianism has significant roles in the cultures of both the Chinese and Indian minorities, making meat-free food quite easy to come by in Malaysia. But such large minority groups do not exist in Indonesia (the Chinese are only about 2% of the population, and tend to be great meat-eaters anyway). So what do you do if you are in Indonesia and you don't eat meat?

Well actually, vegetarians can eat really well in Indonesia. With just a little knowledge, they can probably do better than in most Western countries.

One reason is that Indonesia is a poor country. Meat, as it is in most places, is expensive, and this makes it something of a luxury. For this reason many Indonesians will not eat meat every day, even if they would like to. Instead, they turn to cheaper sources of protein - eggs and soy products.

Meat is seldom the focus of the meal; as with most Asian countries, everything revolves around rice. Indonesians consume it in large quantities; meat and vegetables are really just side dishes to add accent to the rice. This means that vegetable dishes are usually more highly flavoured than in most Western cuisines (where meat is the star and vegetables are often a bland accompaniment). Indeed, Indonesians abroad tend to find Western food to be somewhat tasteless and have a need to add chili to everything.

It's important to state before I go any further that Indonesia has around 300 separate ethnicities, so talking of "Indonesian food" is almost as problematic as talking about "European food". Eating habits change from place to place due to factors such as religion, cultural influence and the local economy. Some regions feature a diet based primarily around fish. In some regions pork is the meat of choice, but most Indonesians (being Muslim) would recoil from the thought of eating pork.

I'm aware that there are some vegetarians (from certain Hindu and Buddhist traditions) who do not eat alliums (aka the onion family). If you are such a person, you will struggle immensely in Indonesia, because shallots and garlic are the basis of virtually every Indonesian dish.

If you are one of those vegetarians who eats seafood (a strange concept to me, but anyway...) then you will rarely if ever have a problem getting decent food in Indonesia. The affordability and relative abundance of seafood means that Indonesians eat it frequently, and you will find warungs selling things like ikan bakar (grilled fish) and pecel lele (deep fried catfish with sambal) everywhere.

If you don't eat seafood, you'll have to decide whether you can turn a blind eye to it from time to time. Because like all other Southeast Asian nations, Indonesian cooks are fond of using seafood products to flavour dishes that would otherwise be vegetarian. If you are a strict vegetarian who wants nothing to do with any of this fishy business, you need to make sure you know thine enemy. These can take several forms:

ebi or udang kering (dried shrimp)
terasi (shrimp paste)
petis (fermented shrimp paste, black in colour)
ikan teri (dried anchovies - what the Malaysians call ikan bilis)

All get mixed into stir-fries, stews and curries to add a savoury flavour element. So keep an eye out, and you may want to ask if a dish contains them. Terasi is used in the same way as its Malaysian equivalent belachan, usually as part of a chili sambal, but it is not as ubiquitous as in Malay cuisine. It is sometimes very hard to detect in some recipes, as the amount is rarely overpowering.
It should be stated that none of these seafood products are used anywhere near as frequently as fish sauce is used in Thai or Vietnamese cooking.

Now if you are a vegan, I won't kid you; you are gonna struggle. But you probably struggle most places you go, so I guess you are used to it. But there is plenty of bean curd and tempe available almost everywhere. Avoiding dairy is no great problem; traditional Indonesian cuisine does not really use any dairy products at all, although condensed milk and evaporated milk do turn up in various desserts and drinks. Indonesians are very fond of eggs though, and use them in a variety of ways. If you tell people you don't eat meat, the first option they will think of as a substitute protein is usually some kind of egg preparation; so if you don't eat eggs, make sure your hosts understand this.
Words and phrases to learn:
Sayur/ sayuran - vegetable(s)
Daging - meat
Tanpa daging - without meat.
"Saya tidak makan daging" - I don't eat meat.
"Saya tidak makan telur" - I don't eat eggs.
"Ada yang tidak pakai daging?" - Is there anything that doesn't have meat?
"Saya mau makan sayuran saja" - I only want to eat vegetables.
"Saya vegetarian" - I'm vegetarian (obviously). Don't take it for granted that all Indonesians are familiar with this term though.

Tahu (Bean curd)
The sheer affordability of bean curd makes it one of the most common sources of protein in Indonesia. It helps that it is usually served in very delicious ways.
Tahu goreng - fried tahu. Doesn't sound that exciting, but it is frequently boiled with salt before frying, or served with some kind of sambal.
Tahu bacem - marinated for a long time with garlic, palm sugar, salt and spices, before being deep-fried.
Tahu isi or tahu berontak - tahu that is stuffed with vegetables and sometimes shrimp, then deep-fried.
Bakwan tahu - fritters of mashed tahu seasoned with spices.
Kupat tahu - fried tahu, with cubes of compressed rice cake, served with peanut sauce.

An Indonesian invention that has become popular with vegetarians around the world, this is soybeans fermented with a kind of mold, and packed together in a firm cake. On its own the nutty flavour is not all that great, but a good chef can do wonders with it. It is also very affordable. To be honest, I find that most non-Indonesian cooks who try to use tempe end up making a hash of it; so if you are going to eat it, best try it in the country that invented it.
Tempe mendoan - tempe fried with green onions in batter,
Tempe bacem - marinated for a long time with garlic, palm sugar, salt and spices, before being deep-fried.
Tempe penyet (pictured) - flattened, fried and served with a fiery sambal.
Oncom - not tempeh but a related product, typically made from soybean or peanut residue fermented with a mold. Sounds dubious, but the Sundanese can turn it into something very special.
Combro - a common street food in Jakarta and West Java, this is a deep-fried rissole of grated cassava filled with a tasty oncom filling.

Gado-gado and its variants:
You'd hate to have a nut allergy in Indonesia, because peanuts are obiquitous, particularly in vegetable dishes. Gado-gado is the best known of these dishes; essentially it is a mixture of cooked vegetables served with a spicy peanut sauce, usually accompanied by lontong (pressed rice steamed in banana leaves). Boiled egg and tofu are often included, as are crunchy crackers of some kind (usually either shrimp-flavoured krupuk or emping made from the melinjo nut).

There are a number of variants on the vegetables-with-peanut-sauce theme to be found throughout Indonesia, depending on which region you are in. In a city like Jakarta, with inhabitants hailing from all over the archipelago, you can probably find them all. Be aware that the peanut sauce may contain a small quantity of terasi, but certainly not always.

Lotek is the Sundanese version of gado-gado and is more or less the same.

Ketoprak hails from Jakarta and is very similar to gado-gado except that it usually contains mihun (vermicelli) and the dressing is based on sweet soya sauce with bits of peanut in it.

Nasi pecel is found in East and Central Java and consists of rice, a variety of vegetables, and peanut sauce.

Karedok is a raw salad (cucumber, snake beans, bean sprouts, cabbage, lemon basil and other vegetables) from the Sundanese cuisine of West Java, with a sweetish sauce, usually containing peanuts and loaded with chili and often terasi.

Rujak - a salad of fruit and sometimes vegetables, in a dark, sweet and spicy sauce that frequently contains peanuts and more often than not will contain terasi. There are numerous variations on this theme.

Nasi campur (or nasi rames)
Meaning "mixed rice", this style of eating is very common; get a plate of steamed rice and choose from a selection of home-style side dishes. Most will be meaty, but you are almost certain to find something vegetarian. However, don't be too surprised if you find yourself picking small bits of meat or prawn out of a dish that otherwise seems vegetarian.

Padang (Minang) cuisine
Padang restaurants serve their own regional take on the mixed-rice idea. Hailing from the Minangkabau ethnic group of West Sumatra, Padang cuisine has spread all over Indonesia and is extremely popular. The success of this cuisine is down to the Minang people's entrepreneurial spirit as well as its deliciousness. A Padang meal always revolves around a mound of hot rice, a cup of hot tea, and a wide variety of cooked side dishes served at room temperature. You either help yourself from their display, or they will bring a host of small dishes to your table. You only pay for whichever dishes you take from.
Padang food is dominated by meat, but there will always be vegetable dishes to choose from. These usually include:
Fried tahu and tempe
Boiled daun singkong (cassava leaves)
Boiled egg in a spicy coconut gravy
A stir-fried vegetable or combination (bean sprouts, eggplant, leafy greens)

Virtually every town in Indonesia has at least one Padang eatery, and it is a welcome standby for vegetarians struggling to find good food elsewhere.

Nasi goreng and mi goreng
Fried rice and fried noodles are common and ubiquitous. Usually they contain meat, but cooks are always happy to make them tanpa daging (without meat). If you do, you will usually get asked if you want telur (egg) as well, as it is a standard addition.

Sundanese food
If you can overlook or avoid the frequent use of terasi, the food of the Sunda region in West Java is vegetarian heaven. Sundanese women are said to have beautiful skin because they eat so many vegetables. Karedok (discussed above) is a good example.
One of the must-tries of Sundanese food is pepes, which is food mixed with a variety of fragrant spices, wrapped in small banana leaf packages and steamed. While fish and meat are the most common fillings, it is easy to get pepes tahu, pepes tempe, pepes oncom, or pepes jamur (mushroom).

Eating in someone's home
If you have the fortune to be invited for a meal in someone's home, make sure you let them know well in advance that you are vegetarian unless, you want to take your chances. An Indonesian family would normally be more likely to serve up meat, since things like tahu and tempe are not always seen as worthy of serving to guests. While most Indonesians would find the idea of someone not eating meat as a little strange, they should be able to accomodate vegetarian needs easily enough if you ask nicely.
As long as you eat eggs, you will probably be OK when eating in people's homes; I've lost count of the amount of times I've gotten by on rice with a little omelette, some chili sambal and a bit of green vegetable.

But don't wait until the meal is served and then announce that you don't eat meat. This will just lead to an uncomfortable situation for everybody.

Other typical Indonesian vegetarian dishes:
Perkedel jagung - corn fritter.

Tumis sayur (or oseng-oseng sayur) - some kind of stir-fried vegetable, typically snake beans, cabbage, kangkung (water spinach), or taugeh (bean sprouts).

Sayur lodeh - vegetables cooked in a coconut gravy.
Sayur asem - vegetables cooked in a sourish, light tamarind-based gravy.

Terong balado - fried eggplant in a fiery chili sambal.
Telur balado - hard-boiled egg in fiery chili sambal.
Urap - a mix of vegetables steamed with grated coconut and spices.
Sambal goreng kentang - spicy fried potatoes.
Nasi uduk - coconut rice, usually served with shredded omelet and a few other condiments.
Nasi gudeg - a specialty of Central Java based around cooked young jackfruit, rice and several accompaniments which usually include tahu, chicken, boiled egg and buffalo skin. You can get it without the meat easily enough.

See also my review of Payon in Jakarta, which has a plethora of vegetarian dishes.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fear-mongering, US-style

With the US congressional elections fast approaching, the campaign is heating up, and hence ads like these are popping up to stoke the fear of the foreigner.

One explores the theme of shifty Orientals taking over the world - made possible by Obama introducing universal healthcare, of course. The other is all about the marauding Mexicans, and prompted Joy Behar on The View to describe Senate candidate Sharron Angle as "a bitch" who "is going to hell."

Of course, no one should be surprised that the Repubs and their friends would resort to stirring up xenophobic sentiment in order to get elected; it's actually their stock-in-trade, as anyone who has followed the way they have been depicting Barack Obama for the last few years would be well aware.

Some interesting coverage of these ads around the net... Spin Season analyses Sharron Angle's ad and looks at what makes the Chinese professor ad so effective in playing on the audience's fears, and Angry Asian Man has a post describing how the Asian-American extras in the Chinese professor ad were not aware of the nature of the ad they were filming.

UPDATE: Also check out Jeff Yang's article at NPR entitled Politicians Play the China Card.

How to pull tea like a champion

Given that I struggle to do properly tarek the tea from 6 inches away without spilling it everywhere, this guy is totally my new hero.

He needs to do a collabo with these roti guys.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

So "Asian-Australian" means what, exactly?

Sorry, I've been busy with some other stuff for a couple of weeks, but I'm back. So the other week, I gave a short talk at a mini-forum on Asian-Australian issues; it was sort of about my experience of being an "Asian-Australian blogger" and whatever that is supposed to mean. One particular issue I focused on was how we define Asian-ness, and Asian-Australian-ness.
I've taken bits of that and added bits here and there for this post.

When we talk about "the Asian community" in a Western context, what is it that we mean?

Take a quick look around a few Asian blogs from the US or Australia, and you will notice common themes in their definition of Asian-ness and the associated stereotypes. Noodles, chopsticks, anime, karaoke... it's very much about the East Asian experience, or even the North East Asian experience. This is not a criticism of any such blogs, just an observation. That one of the top Asian-Australian blogs is called Slanted is another example of this.

I was watching a clip on Youtube recently which was a news item from the UK about the members of Asian gang who had been convicted. Reading some of the viewer comments attached to the clip, a considerable number of them were along the lines of "WTF!? They're not Asians. They're Muslims." The "Asians" in the video were Pakistani.

And that is the UK context - "Asian" primarily means South Asian.

Talk about Asian-Americans and the definition is different again. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, primarily, as well as perhaps Vietnamese, Cambodians and Filipinos. Although many would argue with you about the Filipinos - they are occasionally considered to be Pacific Islanders, or in their own category. And speaking of Pacific Islanders, they are often grouped together with Asians, a categorisation that in the Australian context would be seen as a fairly strange one. (I don't think that Asians and Pacific Islanders in Australia see themselves as having much connection to one another.)

In Australia, when we talk of "Asians" we are also thinking of East Asia. Our numbers of Japanese and Koreans are not so high, although the Japanese have played a significant role in our national consciousness. Our assumptions about what "Asian" means in Australia seems to be most strongly influenced by the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, whose presence has made the most obvious impacts on our perceptions of the Asian community.

Now, I'm someone of Indonesian background. Few would dispute that we are Asian, but we embody many characteristics that don't fit the stereotype of Asian-ness. Likewise for Filipinos. Both are seen as Asian, but somehow not quite as Asian as some others. I guess it’s based on the idea that the “real Asians” are people who look Chinese or Japanese. (Just as Nordics are sometimes seen as the default variety of Caucasian or European.)

And where do we fit South Asians (Indians, Sri Lankans, etc) into this equation? Those are substantial communities here, and they are from Asia, yet they are somehow not Asian, in our common perception.

I’m not sure that the average Chinese Australian or Korean Australian would see any major connection to a Pakistani Australian, or vice versa. Whereas for me, it’s easy for me to see how connected we all are; the country of my heritage, Indonesia, is in a country where everyone is brown, most people are Muslim, and yet we still put soya sauce and tofu in everything. Places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal or Northeastern India make the simplistic division between East and South Asia a problematic one.

Yet when media and police describe individuals they are on the lookout for, they speak of "a man of Indian appearance", for South Asians, and "Asian appearance" for East Asian. I wrote a bit about that here a while back. Strangely the term "South Asian" does not seem to be in common currency in Australian public discourse - the default is "Indian", which no doubt pisses off those who are, say, Sri Lankan or Pakistani - South Asian, yes, but certainly not "Indian". I'd love for the term desi to gain wider acceptance in these parts, but it's unlikely. Still, calling a non-Indian South Asian "Indian" might be better than calling them a "curry".

If we speak of the geographical definition of Asian, we must also take into account the people of South-West Asia; including Iran, Armenia, and the Arab States. But is a Lebanese person really Asian? Perhaps in a technical sense, but I don't know if anyone actually sees them as such. It's interesting to watch soccer's Asian Cup and see teams like Korea playing off against a team like Uzbekistan (with many clearly European people of Russian origin), or Iraq, or the UAE (with many players of black African origin), or indeed Australia. It's clear that how the average person defines an Asian is more about culture and genetics than geographical locations.

On a personal note, there is also the question of where I fit into the Asian equation, being someone who is half European in parentage. While I occasionally see Asians as "The Other", most of the time I feel very Asian. But am I accepted as such? By those that know me, I'd say yes. By those that don't really know me, they may not recognise me as being Asian. I was recently in a group of friends and friends of friends, all Asian, and I made one of those "insider's jokes" that Asians might make about Asians. One of my mates felt it worthwhile to explain to a couple of the guys that didn't know me that "It's ok... he's half Asian."

Because the reality is that I don't look like an Asian, or at least the stereotypical idea of what one is meant to look like. Not that I strictly look like a white guy either. Again, it comes back to that idea of which Asians are "real Asians". Some of my features - particularly my fat lips and broad nostrils - are very typical of South East Asians. But since "looking Asian" in the minds of many people means "looking Chinese", then I don't look Asian.

If you want an example of this, check my previous post about an email a Eurasian woman from the US sent me, abusing me for allegedly pretending to be Eurasian. One of her reasonings was that I "clearly" look part-African, rather than part-Asian. So even among Eurasians, the pervasive idea has taken hold that Asians, and those derived from them, can only look a certain way.

As humans we have a pathological need to categorise things. However we are seldom too good at working out what to do with those that don't fit neatly into little boxes.

Pictured below: Would you think of all these people as Asian-Australians? Would they think of themselves as Asian Australians?

Left: Kate Ceberano, singer. Father: Hawaiian-born of Filipino descent. Mother: White Australian.
Right: Jessica Mauboy, singer. Father: Indonesian (West Timorese). Mother: Indigenous Australian.
Left: Guy Sebastian, singer. Was born in Malaysia. Father: Malaysian Ceylonese Tamil. Mother: Malaysian Indian/English/Portuguese.
Right: Sabrina Houssami, former Miss World Australia. Father: Lebanese. Mother: Indian.

Left: Jamie Durie, TV presenter. Father: White Australian. Mother: Sri Lankan.
Right: Geoff Huegill, swimmer. Father: White Australian. Mother: Thai.

Left: Penny Wong, politician. Malaysian-born. Father: Hakka Chinese. Mother: white Australian.
Right: Kamahl aka Kandiah Kamalesvaran, singer. Malaysian-born, Ceylonese Tamil heritage.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Even more Awesome Asian Ads: Thailand

Plenty more where this came from of course... here and here, for a start.

James Brown teaches you to dance

This should be compulsory in schools everywhere.

Hope I'm still that spry when I'm in my mid-40s, as Brother James would have been back then.

For more JB coolness, see how much The Godfather of Soul loves Nissin Ramen.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tofu containers: an essential storage item for every Asian?

If you are of East or South East Asian heritage and live in my part of the world, there is a very strong chance you have one of these in your home. Or possibly twenty or so.
Not necessarily this same brand. But these kind of bean curd containers are ubiquitous in Asian households in Melbourne. Generally they are used to store left over food, but I've seen them used for storing other items as well.
I used to think this was just something my family did; after all, my mother is one of those people who is obsessed with not throwing things away. ("Don't be so wasteful, you can wash this and re-use it" was a frequently-heard phrase in my house growing up)
But then one day, while at a dinner party at a Malaysian-born friend's house, it came time to pack away some of the left overs, and she opened a drrawer to reveal a treasure trove of tofu containers. "Oh, you use these too?" I asked.
"Of course!" she replied. "Doesn't everyone?"

Well, perhaps not; I wonder if this is one thing that separates the Asians from the non-Asians. See, white folks buy tofu as well, albeit in smaller quantities than Asians. But they are likely to buy it in a regular supermarket, in which case it will probably come in vaccuum packaging or something like that, and be quite expensive.

If you are Asian, however, you are more likely to shop in an Asian grocery, which is where you will find fresh bean curd in these sorts of plastic containers. They are also about half the price of the supermarket variety, which is probably a large part of the reason that Asians shop there. Many white folks find Asian groceries a bit intimidating in their foreignness and don't go there.

So aside from the value of the tofu that comes inside these containers, they make for a cheap and easily stored substitute for tupperware, and it seems Asian mothers just can't get enough of them. My own mother must have at least 50 of them (alongside another 50 Chinese take-away containers, the other tupperware substitute).

But I've never lived outside Melbourne, so I want to know; is this a strictly Melbourne thing to do? Does tofu in other cities, and indeed countries, come packaged in this way? And if so, do the Asians there collect them obsessively? Or alternatively, are you a non-Asian who has a big stash of these somewhere?

"The Empathic Civilization"

This is some cool ish right here. The speaker is Jeremy Rivkin, an author and ethicist.

(Hat tip: Pickled Politics)

RIP Solomon Burke (1940 - 2010)

We are entering an era where some of the greatest pioneering soul artists are getting well into their 60s and 70s and departing this life, and yesterday we just lost another one. "The King of Rock 'n' Soul" Solomon Burke passed away of natural causes, aged 70, aboard a flight to the Netherlands where he was scheduled to perform with Dutch blues/rock band De Dijk.

Burke was a legendary figure who didn't do things by halves. He famously fathered fathered 21 children, had 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Born in Philadelphia, he began as a preacher and hosted a gospel radio show before moving into secular music. Early in life he was trained as a mortician and ran a chain of funeral parlours alongside his musical career. And what a career it was; at least 36 albums over a career that spanned 50 years, and moved from gospel to soul, blues, rock and country. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

While he remains one of the most influential artists to emerge from the early days of rock 'n' roll, he never had much in the way of major hits. Probably his signature tune is Cry to Me, which was later covered by the Rolling Stones and was a hit for Betty Harris, as well as much later appearing on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

If there's one song penned by Burke that most people know however, it's Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, which he co-wrote in 1964 with Jerry Wexler and Bert Berns. Even if Wilson Pickett was to later record what many consider the definitive version, it endures as a magnificent example of the church's influence on the development of soul music.

Burke was no respecter of the artificial lines that divide "black music" from "white music", and some of his best work came in the last decade in collaboration with white blues/rock and country artists. His 2002 album Don't Give Up On Me, which won a Grammy for Best Blues Album, featured songs written by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. His 2006 album Nashville was a collaboration with a number of country artists; the below track Valley of Tears remains one of my all-time favourite tracks, and a fitting way to end this tribute to him.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The complicated history of the song "Sukiyaki"

This is about the power of a beautiful melody to transcend the language barrier, and how a Japanese pop song somehow conquered the world numerous times in different guises.

Bizarrely, I think the first time I heard the distinctive melody of Sukiyaki was in Snoop Dogg's cover of Slick Rick's La Di Da Di, which interpolates the opening verse. But it was not until a little later that I would hear that verse in its proper context, when US R&B vocal quartet released a cover of Sukiyaki in 1994 which was a hit around the world. But as nice as the song sounded, I had to wonder why such a tender ballad of lovelorn longing was named after a Japanese beef hotpot dish. Is the song's protagonist, I wondered, really pining for a pot of sukiyaki that upped and left him?

Our story starts in 1961. The song was written by composer Hachidai Nakamura and lyricist Rokusuke Ei (allegedly after actress Meiko Nakamura had left him), and named Ue o muite aruko (sometimes rendered as Ue wo muite arukou), meaning "I shall walk looking up". It is about a man reminiscing on his lost love, and keeping his head to the sky to keep the tears from falling. It was sung by rising young star Kyu Sakamoto, at a time when kayokyoku (Western-influenced pop and rock) was rapidly becoming more popular in Japan. I've included the lyrics and their translation below; I think you'll agree that it's a beautifully written song.

Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Namida ga kobore naiyouni (So the tears won't fall)
Omoidasu harunohi (Remembering those happy spring days)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Nijinda hosi o kazoete (Counting the stars with tearful eyes)
Omoidasu natsunohi (Remembering those happy summer days)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
Shiawase wa kumo no ueni (Happiness lies beyond the clouds)
Shiawase wa sora no ueni (Happiness lies above the sky)
Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Namida ga kobore naiyouni (So the tears won't fall)
Nakinagara aruku (Though my heart is filled with sorrow)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
Omoidasu akinohi (Remembering those happy autumn days)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)
Kanashimi wa hosino kageni (Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars)
Kanashimi wa tsukino kageni (Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon)
Ue o muite arukou (I look up when I walk)
Namida ga kobore naiyouni (So the tears won't fall)
Nakinagara aruku (Though my heart is filled with sorrow)
Hitoribotchi no yoru (But tonight I'm all alone)

Understandably it was a massive hit in Japan, sitting atop the pop charts for 3 months. More surprisingly, it also became a big hit in the English speaking world, and reached number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart (it is still the only Japanese-language song ever to do so). It remains the biggest international hit by a Japanese singer.
It was when the song appeared in the US that it was renamed Sukiyaki, apparentlyly out of sheer cultural ignorance. Radio DJs decided that no one could pronounce "Ue o muite arukou", so they picked a Japanese word, seemingly at random, that they thought American consumers might be familiar with. Normally you would think that titling a love song "beef stew" would not be a great commercial move, but fortunately record buyers didn't care.
Now with such a great melody, obviously people wanted to sing it and record covers of it. But obviously, not everyone speaks Japanese, so several attempts were made to translate the lyrics into English and other languages.
One of the weirdest such versions was by The Blue Diamonds. These guys were a Dutch duo consisting of the two Indonesian-born brothers Ruud and Riem de Wolff (best known for their 1960 song Ramona, a big hit in Europe). I'm not quite sure why, but this is sung in German (not Dutch). My German has lapsed since high school, so I have no idea what this song is meant to be about, but I think it's safe to say that the lyrics are completely unrelated to the original.

The first decent attempt to translate the Japanese lyrics into English was on My First Lonely Night, by 60s soul man Jewel Akens. While it's not a direct translation, it captures the spirit of soldiering on through sadness in Rokusuke Ei's lyrics, even though the brassy soul style is very different to the Kyu Sakamoto original version.

Nonetheless, what is often now considered the "definitive" English language version, is the following song by A Taste of Honey. Otherwise known as a disco-funk act (their other big hit was Boogie Oogie Oogie), this was a real change of pace, but garnered them a big hit throughout the world in 1981. The new lyrics written by ATOH's lead singer/bassist Janice Marie Johnson are kinda cheesy and fall short of the artistry of the original; however, the words still have a certain musicality that is absent from Jewel Akens' version, making it easier to listen to and nicer to sing. This rendition from the variety show Solid Gold is also pretty high on the fromage; but seeing Janice Marie Johnson in a kimono with her hair done Japanese-style just does something for me. Sort of wrong but sexy.

The lyrics from ATOH's version popped up in an unlikely place in 1985; in La Di Da Di by Slick Rick and Doug E Fresh. If you haven't heard this song, it is very much "of its era", yet remains one of the all-time classic hip-hop joints, and bits of it have been sampled in countless other songs.

Not all versions of La Di Da Di have the Sukiyaki interpolation, actually. It featured on the original, but CD releases edited it out due to copyright issues.
While La Di Da Di is one of the most seminal hip-hop tracks in history, it was never actually a hit, commercially. Yet it was finally heard by the audience it deserved when Snoop Dogg covered it on his enormously popular debut album Doggystyle (renaming it Lodi Dodi), including the Sukiyaki section sang by a female vocalist.
The version best known to most people of my generation and younger seems to be the acapella rendition by 4PM, which again uses the lyrics written by Janice Marie Johnson. I must say I really like the harmonies on this, but the ultra-cheesy spoken bit almost ruins the experience for me - why must all these vocal groups feel the need to do that? Just because Barry White made it sound cool doesn't mean you can too... but I digress.
The below clip is 4PM performing the song on Japanese TV. Funny how it's come full circle.

If for some reason you still want to hear more versions, there are plenty out there. Try these:
A Spanish version by Mexican-American singer Selena
 Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen doing one of the very first covers, in instrumental big-band style 
A French version by Lucille Star
A live instrumental version on the accordion by prog-rock band Styx
60s pop group the Fabulous Echoes from Hong Kong covering the original Sakamoto version
Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Lodi Dodi"
 A Portuguese-language version by Trio Esperanca
A Brazilian version by Daniela Mercury, sung in Japanese

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Interesting signs in Japan and Korea

This is one of my close friends Carissa, who has a good eye for funny signs, an insatiable hunger for travelling, and an itchy finger on the button of her camera. These photos came out of her recent travels in Korea and Japan, and I thought they deserved a wider audience.

Below: Sometimes you don't want just any old ho, and only a luxury ho bar will do.

Below: Probably safest just to stick to the coffee.

Below: Hope you like yams. And getting wet while eating them.

Below: If you hungrily devour pot ramen on the subway, you are in danger of being approached by zombies.
These are instructions for using a toilet (above) and shower (below).

Thursday, October 7, 2010


You know it's true.

From seminal British comedy Not the Nine O'Clock News, which ran between 1979 and 1982 and launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff-Rhys Jones.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Forever a foreigner in New Zealand

TVNZ shock jock Paul Henry has apologised for saying that Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand was not Kiwi enough for the job.
Henry caused a storm after he said this morning that Sir Anand did not look or sound like a New Zealander when he asked Prime Minister John Key whether the next Governor-General would be more Kiwi.
"Is he even a New Zealander?" Henry asked. ''Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time?''
Sir Anand, who has Fijian-Indian parents, was born and raised in Auckland, and worked as a lawyer, judge and Parliamentary Ombudsman in New Zealand before becoming Governor-General in 2006.
Full story here.

Ok, so a shock jock makes offensive comments. Nothing revelatory, just sad and fairly typical. I thought this was interesting because it is a perfect example of certain racist thinking and behaviour.
This is Henry's pseudo-apology:
Henry told Stuff earlier today he did not regret the comments, but has since issued a statement apologising.

"I sincerely apologise to the Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand for any offence I may have caused. I am aware that Sir Anand has made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand.
"Anyone who knows anything about me will know I am a royalist, a constant defender of the monarchy and the role the Governor General plays in our society.
"If my comments have personally offended Sir Anand, I regret it deeply."

Catch that? "IF my comments have personally offended Sir Anand, I regret it deeply." IF.
Maybe this is just something people say. But it's a classic way of avoiding a proper apology.

Translated, it means "I don't think I said anything wrong at all. But if someone was so sensitive that they had to go and get all offended about it, then that's sad, I guess. I really don't care."

The other interesting thing is the idea of what a New Zealander is meant to look and sound like. Let's pretend for a moment that there actually IS a proper way that a New Zealander is meant to look and sound. What is it?

Below is a very short bit of footage of Satyanand speaking. What does he sound like to you?

If you answered, "A New Zealander", full marks for you. He speaks with a NZ accent, which is unsurprising since he was born and raised there.

Ok so does he look like a New Zealander? Well it's funny, because I seem to recall that the original New Zealanders are a brownish sort of people called the Maori. And for what it's worth, Satyanand actually looks considerably more like a Maori than does Paul Henry (pictured).

What it shows is that for people like Henry, some people will forever be foreigners. Immigrants are often criticised for not integrating or not proving themselves as citizens of their new country. Yet Satyanand has worked his way up to the top of his field to hold one of the country's highest offices, and yet he's still not worthy of shaking off the "foreigner" tag. And - he's not even an immigrant! He was born in Auckland!
(Hat tip: Ruth DeSouza)

Check these related posts:

You're damned if you do...

"Send them all back"... even if they are Australian?

When is an American not an American?

More "Obama's not an American" nonsense

Iron Chef montages

This made my day. I love my foodie shows, but Iron Chef was always more about the campness than the cooking.

Not that I ever really liked the US version that much - I miss hearing "Fukui-san!" and seeing Chairman Kaga's lascivious manner of eating things, as demonstrated below:

Btw, many of you may not know that in the original series of Iron Chef USA, the Chairman role was actually played by William Shatner! Which, to be honest, is who you want for the ridiculous "I take cuisine so seriously" campness that you want in a Chairman.

Unfortunately that series was killed off after only 2 episodes in 2001, until it was resuscitated in 2004 as Iron Chef America, with Mark Dacascos as Chairman.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

From around the interwebs...

I link therefore I am...

Entrepreneurs rise in the ashes of India's caste system (NY Times)
"While in the south lower caste members concentrated on economic development and education as a route to prosperity, in the north the chief aim of caste-based groups has been political power and its spoils. As a result India’s northern lower castes tend to be less educated and less prosperous than their southern counterparts. Charismatic leaders in the north from lower castes have used caste identity as a way to mobilize voters, winning control over several large north Indian states. Caste so thoroughly permeates politics in the northern half of the world’s largest democracy that it is often said that people don’t cast their vote; they vote their caste."

Racism Is Still Alive And Well In Online Comment Sections (NewsOne)
"Although you rarely hear racial insults on Main Street these days, there’s a place where unashamed bigotry is all too easy to find: tossed off in the comments sections of some of the Internet’s most popular websites, today’s virtual Main Street. Internet anonymity has removed one of the strongest barriers to the type of language that can ruin reputations and end careers.
Do these comments reflect a reversal of racial progress? Is that progress an illusion while racism thrives underground? What kind of harm are these statements doing? Could there be any value in such venting? And what, if anything, should a free society do about it?"

Silenced in court (The Age)
"Of course, Bolt tackles the issue with trademark belligerence. The merits of his argument will now be tested in court. But put aside the conservative commentator. This isn't about the collected works and opinions of Andrew Bolt. And put aside the complexities of racial identity, Aboriginality and reconciliation.
This case is troubling because of what it says about our right to freedom of speech. If successful - or just really expensive to defend - this lawsuit could have a stifling effect on political debate."

Morrisey's parochialism echoes the whole indie tribe (The Guardian)
'Last Saturday, there were small-scale tremors in response to an interview in the Guardian's Weekend magazine, where, musing on the far eastern meat trade, he claimed that Chinese people are a "subspecies". There followed the usual trawls through his cuttings file, where plenty of material awaited. From 1986: "To get on Top Of The Pops these days one has to be, by law, black." Circa 1992: "I don't really think … black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other." And what about this peach, uttered three years ago? "The higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears."'

Response: Indie music is not the only genre that has erected racial barriers (The Guardian)
"However, the unpleasant fact is that this is part of a larger picture in rock'n'roll, even though the genre owes its very existence to musicians such as Chuck Berry and his peers.
In America, unfortunately, white rock has always been considered as art, and black music as commerce."

The Aussie card (The Australian)
'What is it about us that draws such adoration? Is it our laconic humour, our relaxed manner, the sense of freedom we exude? Is it Steve Irwin? Is it that we are without the prejudices of those from older countries, who are often burdened with historical baggage and ideologies? Is it just that we’re perceived as kind? Even though we’re notoriously bad tippers, I’ve heard many times how nice we are. “Aussies treat us like equals,” I was told by a hotel bellboy.'

Saturday, October 2, 2010

RIP Greg Giraldo (1965 - 2010)

Comedian Greg Giraldo passed away this week after an overdose of prescription drugs. He was 44.

I first came across Giraldo with his many appearances on Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, in which he was almost always the funniest of the many comedians who appeared there. Like a surprisingly high number of comedians, he started out pursuing a career in law. Giraldo was born in the Bronx to a Colombian-born father and a Spanish-born mother. His Hispanic background, or lack of it, is explored hilariously in the below clip.
Greg Giraldo - Not That Hispanic
Greg Giraldo Stand-UpGreg Giraldo JokesHasselhoff Roast Videos

One of Giraldo's areas of expertise was roasting other comics on Comedy Central's roast specials. Below is his appearance at the roast of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. (You need to wait about 2 minutes in before Giraldo comes on, although the first 2 minutes ain't bad.)

AVATAR stands for "Anglos valiantly aiding tragic awe-inspiring races"

Thought this was pretty interesting; it draws together Avatar and a whole host of other movies that portray the great white saviour of the exotic Other. You can also read my racial analysis of Avatar here.