Month: October 2013

What’s Left?

“Oh, this is weird,” I said to no one in particular as I sat down behind the wheel of our new car, a gold Proton. I sat on the right-hand side of the car, still feeling like a passenger, but holding the key in my hand. I took a deep breath, put the key in the ignition and cranked it forward. The car purred to life and I reached down with my left hand to the transmission. I found myself feeling grateful that this was an automatic. I’ve probably logged more hours in manual-transmission cars than in automatics, but the thought of trying to concentrate on shifting gears with my left hand while trying to navigate Malaysian traffic is frankly terrifying. More about traffic later, though.

There are a couple good theories about why people drive on the left. One is that the practice developed out of a security concern. A long, long time ago, travelers on horseback would ride with their sword hands (right hands, by a bias toward right-handedness as cultural default) would be toward the center of the road and available to defend against any threats coming the opposite direction. No one wants to swing a blade across their body or their own horse’s neck. A second and perhaps complimentary theory is that (again by cultural default), most people with horses would mount them from the left, swinging their right legs over the top. It would make little sense to try and do so in the middle of the road; men trampled to a paste have trouble riding horses. Some areas of the world kept this system, but with developments in technology and vehicle design others adopted right-side driving. Colonialism, both political and cultural, divided the world.

The historical background is interesting, but only relevant in as much as it tells us that Malaysia was once a colonial asset of Great Britain. Beyond that, driving on the left is easy. The only things you have to remember are to actually drive on the left side of the road and to remember to leave room on the left side of the car to avoid hitting objects like curbs and side-view mirrors. Once you get those down, you just have to remember that you’re in a foreign country with a wholly alien concept of road etiquette.

At first glance, Malaysian roads seem like a lawless free-for-all. As it turns out, the rules and customs that are solid and unbreakable in places like the US are more like suggestions over here, which may sound bad, but there’s a decent reason for it. In the US, people tend to treat their space on the road as their personal space. Much as if walking on the sidewalk in a place like Boston or San Francisco, Americans have a relatively rigid expectation of distance and order. We keep out of each other’s personal bubbles, traveling neither too fast nor too slow. And with all the space our young country has to offer, we have the luxury of sprawling cities.

Here, however, density is the word. One could speculate why this is–climate, historical contexts, environmental limitations, cultural norms–but the facts remain the same. Walking on sidewalks here is often like navigating a crowded nightclub. You follow the general flow through the room, but in the end it’s entirely up to you to find spaces and gaps to get where you’re going without causing undue hardship to the flow of traffic as a whole. That last part is something I have noticed enough to feel it is worth emphasizing. In the States, it is not uncommon to see people racing along the side of a snarled interchange, trying to wedge their cars into a space that doesn’t exist, just to gain three car lengths–on whom, no one really knows. In the end, traffic jams even more, and everyone loses. Here, I have been witness to the zipper method of merging. Traffic continues at a fast clip, but cars from merging lanes come together one after another, bumpers often drifting very close.

The first time I rode in a car during heavy traffic, I could feel my blood pressure spike. It seemed as if cars and obstacles were coming at us from all directions at high speed, and it was highly unsettling that our driver was calm to the point that I wondered at one point if he was awake at all. After a while, I began to find that our car was drifting on the currents of traffic like a feather in the breeze, giving and taking ground organically. It indicated a level of situational awareness that many Americans lack. Looking at it from the outside, it might have appeared that he was drawing on the Force.

Another such Force-sensitive cab driver was Mr. Zain. Kuala Kumpur’s secondary airport, LCCT, is realistically two hours away–longer when it’s raining. The instant we got in the cab, I knew this was going to be an interesting trip. Blind corners, rain, heavy traffic and posted speed limits disappeared into the rearview mirror as the road shot past us. Mr. Zain drove his cab as if he’d mistaken it for a fighter jet, and once or twice we did even leave the ground as we hydroplaned through a particularly rainy patch of road. Changing highways, we hit a crowded roundabout at speed, and as quickly as Zain threaded his us into the rotating circle of certain doom he threw us from it, flying down the new stretch of road. It took an hour and a half to reach the airport, roughly the same amount of time we spent in the real jet.

The first leg of our trip to Singapore.

The first leg of our trip to Singapore.

It has been said that I display an equally gleeful detachment from posted regulations and passenger stress levels. (The word “lunatic” gets bandied about so easily these days.) This complaint is probably valid, since I am new to driving on the left and to the traffic culture of Southeast Asia, but there is something about the fluidity of it all that feels right. As much as it pains me, however, I have agreed to drive more like an American–for a while, at least.

Forward! into the Past

A friend of mine, a poet and cultural curiosity, sent me the following poem.

Literal reflections; I shut the water off and saw myself distorted in the chrome spout.  Large drops of water fell from the showerhead and plinked onto the spout, turning my bent image from Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Venus of Willendorf and back. And then the mental reflection: to which of those poles am I going?  Not the former.  Not the former.

For the uninitiated, in Boston, formatting poems is a sign of weakness and doing so encourages street toughs to grind rock salt into one’s eyeballs . Not so, however, is writing a bizarre love letter to a friend overseas in which one directly compares one’s own slow decrepitude to the plump body of a pre-Christian mother goddess. It’s sexy as hell, and historically stimulating, to boot. Never one to take anything at face value, I inquired: what was the purpose of such a strange correspondence? All I got in return was insane rambling about Steven Tyler being an invincible warlock, which I imagine was pounded out in a staccato hurricane of keystrokes amid addled giggling. Was there still milk and cereal clinging to his facial carpeting as he rattled this off, or had he forsaken a balanced breakfast in the hopes that a juniper-based diet would get him closer to nature? They say that assuming makes an ass out of you and Ming, and although Ming is Merciless, I think we can assume the obvious here.

Despite my clear need for an unprovoked character assassination (but not preventing its continuation into the next paragraph), I believe he was trying to send me a message through all this talk of warlocks, muscle-bound hulks, ancient goddesses, and large-mouth bass. I had a notion that perhaps he had become pregnant. The references to the movie Junior had all the indications of mad science and reckless disregard for the laws of gods and men, but, perhaps sadly, it was not to be. No–this had the markings of something even more disturbing. I believe this is a code sent from beyond our plane of understanding. Consider the evidence.

There are multiple references to image distortion, which is a common ailment of the Hollywood crowd. Body dysmorphia is wide spread and sometimes troubling, particularly when Cronenbergian ideals are applied to the gastronomic. Structurally, there is a forward momentum–very narrative–yet the temporal nature of the content leads us back to the past: we start with the archetypal strong patriarchal warrior (Arnold) and travel back in time to the symbol of the spiritual matriarch. In combination with the filmic background, we can deduce that he is making coded reference to Conan the Barbarian (1982), in which one strong male warrior battles another in a struggle for dominance, and then The 13th Warrior (1999), a Conan-style knockoff in which the dreaded enemy holds the Venus of Willendorf as its religious idol. The gradual extermination of a matriarchal European culture would predate the glorified cockfights that followed; yet, somehow, the age of Conan is portrayed as a much earlier time, which only makes sense if you figure in some sort of time paradox or human error. Furthermore, the poem is a shower scene, typical of horror movies. The images of water that “plinked” and of “poles” are simply references to weaknesses in character, and only help to identify the writer. The conclusion we must draw from this, then, is that my friend is convinced he’s trapped in a slasher movie, not in the role of the virgin (who was secretly trained in Krav Maga and doesn’t take any guff from weirdos in doll masks), but of the sexually adventurous female, who happens to represent the only (living) link to motherhood in the whole childish murder circus.

Now that the bloodlust has been slaked for the moment, let us consider how we might determine if we are trapped in a horror movie. This is harder to do than it seems. External signs may only point to the possibility that you are about to be murdered/devoured/made into very fetching waistcoat for real, so you must ignore them. Favor instead the way they are presented. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do I whistle?
  • Do I stop whistling every time I hear a suspicious noise?
  • Have I ever told myself that it’s only the wind?
  • Is it only the wind? Really? Did I go check?
  • Do I keep my shower curtain open at night?
  • Have I accidentally killed anyone and tried to cover it up?
  • Have I shown a gross lack of cultural sensitivity when in the presence of old gypsy women or anyone that I felt has stared into my soul?
  • Do I have a strange kinship with feral animals?
  • Was I born under a bad sign?
  • Was I born under a good sign?
  • Was I born under a stop sign?
  • Did I ever get that bug/animal/human bite looked at?
  • Do I play God? (circle one: never, sometimes, often)
  • Am I a medical doctor?
  • Have I ever conducted experiments that might be considered immoral or “dodgy”?
  • Do I annoy friends by reading dead languages out loud?
  • Does music seem to follow me around?
  • What’s that buzzing sound?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions, you might be trapped in a horror movie. Of course, you might not. Do you know? Does anyone? And what would we do if we did? Horror movies are the ultimate Calvinist system. You’re either saved or you’re not, and no amount of badassery will save you. Neither, sadly, will humor, but at least being funny can guarantee you the third-to-last laugh. And beware: if you end up trapped in a horror movie without a funny character, look for the prettiest guy and put as much distance between you and him as possible, because you’ve stumbled into an action movie. If you’re not onscreen, you can’t die. Guild rules. And for Pete’s sake, stay away from virgins.

The Original

The first thing one is bound to notice upon stepping into the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel–before the swaying ceiling fans, swaying back and forth in perfect mechanical synchronicity–before the prevalence of Western speech echoing across the wood and wicker and tile–before the array of brightly colored cocktails adorning the tables–is the crunch of peanut shells. As the waiter led us to a table, the shells crunched underfoot like autumn leaves, the only reminder that it was late September. I had come to this place to track down the birthplace of the Singapore Sling. Supposedly, the cocktail was created in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon and quickly became a popular with the colonials, merchants, artists, and others who had the fortune to take their leave of the chaos in Europe. And in the roughly hundred years since its creation, its popularity certainly doesn’t seem to have waned. Lining the bar is a constant display of Anglo-Saxon backsides, whose masters jovially suck the rose-colored concoction from glass after frothy glass.

The Long Bar’s menu lists two slings: the “original” Singapore Sling and a gin sling of similar but heavily modified construction. As a quick side note, the Singapore Sling was originally classified as a gin sling, which, in turn, is classified by the OED as a gin cocktail that is sweetened, flavored, and served cold. We decided to get both as a matter of comparison. According to the Long Bar’s menu the “original” consists of

  • 30 ml Gin
  • 15 ml Heering Cherry (cherry brandy)
  • 7.5 ml Cointreau
  • 7.5 ml Benedictine
  • 10 ml Grenadine
  • 120 ml Pineapple juice
  • 15 ml Fresh lime juice
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters.

Supposedly, Sarawak pineapples (from Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo) are the preferred pineapples for the juice. Fresh juice is also best, since it is the freshness of the juice that gives the cocktail its frothy head. By far, the “original” was sweeter and easier to drink, but the gin sling ended up being almost incomparable, as it turned out to have a completely different taste to it.

The modified gin sling (left) and the "Original" Singapore Sling (right). Big basket of peanuts (rear).

The modified gin sling (left) and the “Original” Singapore Sling (right). Big basket of peanuts (rear).

A few hours later, at a riverside Japanese restaurant, a cocktail of a different sort passed my lips, offering my tastebuds a truly incomparable experience. Uni, seaweed, green onion, quail egg, ponzu sauce, roe, and cold sake: all the protein of your Japanese mother’s Thanksgiving dinner with fifteen percent alcohol. Honestly, it’s like drinking a tide pool that, for some reason, has started to ferment. If there’s any advice I can offer, it’s “don’t.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m always happy to try new foods, but I’m equally as happy to never eat them again if they create a David Cronenberg movie in my mouth.

To take the shiver out of my spine, I ordered a Singapore Sling, and was taken aback. This version of the cocktail was superior by a significant margin. Among its virtues was that it was not as crushingly sweet, and the tastes of the gin, Cointreau, and Benedictine were present, allowing for more complexity. But it seems silly, playing the comparison game about a fruity cocktail and trying to find the most authentic.

Or perhaps that’s the rub. I had an opportunity to seek out a point of origin, a sacred, fixed space where the spark of inspiration caught and spread, and when I arrived, I found only a place. I had not been so naive as to believe that I would find the real, original thing. The authentic item disappeared the instant the last drop rolled down the gullet of whichever lucky expatriate, colonial, or fop had the fortune of sitting in the Long Bar on a sweaty afternoon one hundred years ago and telling Ngiam Tong Boon to surprise him. Yet, tugging at the soul, there remains a desire to be in a place where something big happened. We could call it religious, perhaps, but I think in this instance it gives too much weight to the object. Magical is maybe a better term, and certainly goes along with the potion-like properties of the Sling. This magic is what brings people to old battlefields, possesses them to seek out-of-print books, and on a larger scale, drives them to find the origins of humanity, the Earth, and the universe.

It certainly brings hundreds of tourists per day to the Raffles Hotel. But when they get there, can that be a truly authentic experience? To get it out of the way, let’s start with a familiar question. Is seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre equally as authentic as looking at a reproduction, say, online?  If you go to Paris to see the genuine article, you’re likely to see this, but a simple Google search will get you this. So which one is better? Obviously, going to the Louvre, you’ll never get to see the painting close up and unobscured by glass. As far as the image goes, you’re unlikely to do better than a high-resolution photo reproduction, unless you’re the lucky person whose job it is to restore and maintain Leonardo’s original. Yet millions of people have made the trek to see the object on the wall. Why? It’s the magic of the place, a shared cultural experience of I was there in that place. Is it more authentic? No, because only the experience can be authentic. Objects are imbued with whatever significance we give them. The authenticity of an experience, then, is entirely relative to the person.

Singapore as a place is a prime example of this. The city is a world hub of business and capital, and if business is your game, then your experience in Singapore is going to be highly authentic. But it is also a culinary melting pot, housing everything from typical Southeast Asian street food to European haute cuisine. I swear, I even passed a coffee shop that could have been teleported from Cambridge, Massachusetts–all plaid, beards, and pasty, noodle-like hipster arms. There are also crumby flea-bag hotels (as flea-bag as the highly OCD Singapore regulations will allow–seriously, this city seems to be scrubbed down with lye at the end of every night) and hotels that cater to people who require you to undergo a credit check before they’ll even tell you their names. There is often a tendency to think of an authentic experience as raw and unmediated, but in a place that is so unabashedly mediated, the authentic must be relative.

At Raffles Hotel Long Bar, it is clear that the place still retains its magic, despite any changes to the recipe of its famous cocktail over the last century. When I planned the trip, I said that I wanted to have a Singapore Sling in the place where it was invented, and I highly recommend you do this. And then go out somewhere else and have another, and another, and another until you find the perfect one. Do it all in one night. They only get better.