The Third Plate Diet: A Food Journal

This food journal was inspired by the Grub Street Diet series and more specifically Bon Appétit Food Editor Claire Saffitz’s piece, who I adore and whose love for bread might even surpass mine. It’s also extremely timely for me to write because of the very recent switch to a 90% plant-based diet, which I decided on after reading Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. Besides existing for sheer documentation, this journal also allowed me to write about where majority of life-changing conversations take place – around good food and coffee.

 

Thursday, 6 June

I start my day off by meeting my friend Tassha at Micro Bakery & Kitchen along Upper Bukit Timah Road. I recently left my full-time brand consultancy job at a creative agency, so having breakfast at 930am on a Thursday morning and taking my time at it is one of the perks of freelancing. This bakery-cafe in particular is a favourite of mine. Sandwiched between an auto repair shop and an ice cream parlour, it’s relatively easy to miss out among the foliage and piles of rubber tires.

Since it is raining torrentially, I immediately order my first coffee of the day – a cappuccino. The coffee beans are from Common Man Coffee Roasters, a local roastery and one of the originals. The barista brews the beans so well that the cuppa is strong without being astringent.

To share, we get a hazelnut praline sea salt brownie, a macadamia and pink peppercorn blondie, and a grilled, triple-cheese sandwich for savoury. My favourite of the lot is the blondie – the chunky macadamias give a meaty bite to the overall texture that no other nut can and the scattered, cracked pink peppercorns give a slight and pleasant heat. The grilled cheese is outstanding too, made with brie, cheddar, and mozzarella between two slices of country loaf, buttered and toasted till crisp. Together with a side of arugula and tart homemade tomato jam, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect breakfast.

I love bread. It’s an exciting time for bread-making in Singapore. Though the cafe scene exploded here in the late 2000s, it’s only now that artisanal bakers are coming out on their own, people who are seriously passionate about grain quality and the science of baking. One of the Micro bakers is Jaslyn, who once let my friend Alex and I try some “test kitchen” eggplant pizza with peppers and seemed genuinely interested in our thoughts about it. I love it when chefs or bakers are game for a chat about the food they make and the flavours that good ingredients impart – the dialogue is important to creating better tasting food and for forging a larger community.

Tassha leaves for school at about 11am and I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead for another hour. I then takeaway two more of the blondies, one for me and one for my friend Jon who I’m about to meet for lunch. Jon – or Cho, as people call him – is a fan of Micro bakes and is super excited when I hand him the white paper bag. I like having friends that get as excited about food and coffee as I do.

We decide to go to MUJI café because it has great hot and cold vegetarian dishes. I get the egg and tofu omelette with pumpkin butternut sauce, the stone fruit salad and an onsen egg. Cho has a shrimp and quinoa salad with the vegetarian omelette as well. I’m trying to cut down on caffeine so I get some iced tea while Cho has black coffee.

Everything is very well made but I love the 16-grain rice the best. The barley, red rice, brown rice, glutinous millet and other grains means you get different textures with every mouthful. The pinkish mound of grain is a thing of beauty, speckled with dark husks and so delicious and impossibly sweet.

We dine slowly over one and half hours and talk about God, music and work. We have been writing songs together with our other friend Calvin for a while now and recorded some rough demos recently. It’s fun and I’m excited to see what’s down the road for all of us.

I have four hours to kill before dinner time, so I head over to Millenia Walk and settle in at Patisserie G to do some work, a café recommended by Cho. I get a beautiful, shiny chocolate eclair and an oolong green tea. I love how the eclair is sprinkled with raw cacao nibs at the top – the bitter crunch is a nice contrast to the rich chocolate cream, crisp choux pastry and dark chocolate icing.

Needless to say, I have a sweet tooth. Dessert is a must, even if it’s just a piece of chocolate or fruit. There’s just something about ending your meal with a sweet note, or a sweet-salty, or my favourite, sweet-sour. A good dessert can cover up for a bad main course any day.

At 5pm I’m struck again by a hunger pang. I pick out a cookie – candied lemon and chocolate buttons – displayed on the counter and nibble at it guiltily. In Saffitz’s Grub Street Diet piece, she sums up what I feel about eating with this statement: I experience hunger and appetite as two totally distinct feelings. Basically, I’m always in the mood to eat. I totally get what she’s talking about.

Dinner is a mushroom and avocado salad at Tokyo Chopped Salad, a place that my friend Ainsley and I settled on simply because she doesn’t quite believe that I would have a salad for a meal. The word “chopped” means that all ingredients are cut up into small pieces with a large curved blade which I later find out is called a mezzaluna. As far as salad goes, this one is a little sad. It has corn and romaine lettuce and tastes so strange with the mushroom and avocado. When chopped into little pieces, the entire texture of the salad just becomes a mushy mess. Strike one for salad.

To make up for the bad dinner, Ainsley says she’ll treat me to ice cream. I tell her that I’ve had too many sweets the entire day but she insists. Before long, we’re sitting at The Dark Gallery – where they make the best chocolate ice cream in town – with a luscious milk chocolate and a sea salt butterscotch between us. It’s a sweet end to a day of eating.

 

Friday, 7 June

Today gets off to a slower start. I’ve had the sniffles since the night before so I let myself sleep in till eleven.

Lunch is homemade glutinous rice dumplings from my aunt, a traditional treat made to be eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. I don’t know much about the Chinese festival’s origin but I love the sticky dumplings synonymous with it. The ones my aunt makes are so good; bursting with dried shrimp, crumbly chestnuts, orange-red salted egg yolks and hunks of soy-simmered pork belly.

The pork is the first shred of meat I’ve eaten in 48 hours. I savour it. I am trying to shift my diet to a more plant-based one because of well… a book. Earlier this week, I started reading a book my friend Leng gave to me – Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food – and it struck me unlike any other treatise on sustainable farming and eating I’ve read before.

Before that, everything I knew about Barber came from watching his feature on the Netflix hit, Chef’s Table. The episode profiled both his restaurants, Blue Hill NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Back then, the ecological farming philosophy held little appeal to me as did every other “green-eating” movement. I had even read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (which I knew converted many sworn omnivores to vegans…yikes!) and felt next to nothing. Even though I never said it out loud, I guess I just didn’t believe one person’s dietary choices could have any observable impact on the earth. And if I was being completely honest, I just enjoyed meat too much to give it up.

As I read the book, however, I was completely overwhelmed by the state of agricultural practices in America and the world, as well as the effect protein-rich meals had on the environment. To frame the narrative correctly, Barber’s book is centred around a triptych tracing on the evolution of American dining, a three-plate-illustration if you will. Here’s an excerpt about the first two plates:

“The first plate was a seven-ounce corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables – in other words, the American expectation for much of the past half-century. It was never an enlightened or particularly appetising construction, and at this point it’s thankfully passé.

The second plate represented where we are now, infused with all the ideals of the farm-to-table movement. The steak was grass-fed, the carrots were now a local heirloom variety grown in organic soil. Inasmuch as it reflected all of the progress American food has experienced in the past decade, the striking thing about the second plate was that it looked nearly identical to the first.”

He then went on to give many examples about how the second plate diet, while seeing improvements in terms of animal quality of life and organic produce, did little to ensure sustainable eating. After reading essay after essay, it became clear to me that not only was our farming and dining culture completely unsustainable, but would culminate in a complete exhaustion of our planet’s soil and human sustenance in the (very) near future.

I’m not sure why, but in that moment, something clicked. The word stewardship came to mind and more specifically, how poorly we’ve taken care of our land for so many years. The problems of climate change, world hunger, mechanised meat production and animal cruelty were all interlinked and tied together by these two things – farming and dining. It’s a supply and demand thing. In the seminal work, The Unsettling of America, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry encapsulated this farm-food relationship in a single sentence: Eating is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

But more on that later. I’m late for an appointment at Apartment Coffee, a beautiful corner space in the Lavender area. Its high ceilings, full-length windows and white walls remind me of Scandinavian art galleries. While waiting for my friend Sam, I order an iced pour over made from beans of Ethiopian origin. I don’t know much about coffee but I do know that Apartment is one of the few places I drink black coffee and actually like it.

Sam arrives and we discuss a freelance writing piece that we’re doing together – a website for a local restaurant. Sam is a graphic designer and we get along very well because he likes creating beautiful things and yet understands how words elevate those objects of art. He also knows a lot about coffee and half of his commentary on his cuppa flies past me. Before we know it, the afternoon is over. It’s been a super productive day despite me being sick and I’m pretty happy with the work I did.

On the way home, I get takeaway mala hot pot, or 麻辣香锅, for dinner from a foodcourt near my home. Mala is a Sichuan dish that has origins in Central China cuisine. Basically, you choose a bunch of ingredients that the chef slices up, parboils and then fries in chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns and a mix of other spices. The dish is usually topped off with roasted peanuts and sprigs of freshly cut cilantro to cut through all that fat. Today, I pick lotus root, potato, mung bean sprouts, broccoli, a brick of Maggi noodles and a bit of pork belly. It’s extremely fragrant and burn-off-your-face spicy, just how I like it. I eat the entire dish in twenty minutes but feel the tingly sensation of the peppercorns burn my tongue for hours after.

For dessert, I try but fail to avoid the frozen Milk Bar corn cookie that’s been sitting in my fridge. My friends recently made a trip to USA and were kind enough to accede to my ridiculous request of bringing six cookies back. Their signature corn cookie, warmed up in the oven, is delicious if a bit over-sweet. It’s the last of the lot and I’m already thinking of when’s the next time I can have one again.

 

Saturday, 8 June

At 930am, I make my way to Knots Cafe & Living for a church-related meeting and end up staying most of the day, long after my companions Nick and Aunty Yu Ming are gone. The two-storey space actually functions as a florist and homeware store as well as a cafe, and is a great place to work because of all the natural light and green plants. You feel like you’re in an actual greenhouse.

Lunch is a sweet-savoury salad – strawberries, blueberries, walnuts, and spinach leaves, which would have been amazing with very good olive oil or a balsamic vinaigrette. Instead, it’s served with a creamy, sticky dressing of miso paste-like consistency. It tastes like something went bad and it also makes the greens stick to each other in a very unappealing way. I’m extremely disappointed – strike two. It is so hard to find a decent salad in Singapore. It probably has to do with the lack of fresh produce – yesterday, I found out that 93% of our leafy vegetables are imported from elsewhere.

I nip at Aunty Yu Ming’s truffle fries to console myself. It’s the fifth time in three days that I have to explain my new diet and the rationale behind it. It helps that I’ve prepared myself for a lot of skepticism and bewildered laughter because that’s been what I’m getting most of the time, along with comments like I give you three months, tops and climate change isn’t real and God created animals for us to eat. I remind myself that I once used to take similar jabs at my vegetarian or vegan friends and silently chastise myself. So, I explain the third plate diet, completing the triptych of images.

“Finally, the third plate kept with the steak-dinner analogy – only this time, the proportions were reversed. In place of a hulking piece of protein, I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef. The point wasn’t to suggest that we’ll be reduced to eating meat only in sauces, or that vegetable steaks are the future of food. It was to predict that the future of cuisine will represent a paradigm shift… I was looking forward to a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and – like all great cuisines – begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.”

Together with his team of chefs, horticulturists, and breeders, Barber has dedicated the better part of the last two decades to create a balanced farming and dining ecosystem on 80 acres of owned land, 30 miles from New York City. This is represented through an interesting trinity: Blue Hill Farm (plant and animal farm), Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture (scientific laboratory and educational centre), and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (restaurant).

Sample third plate meal. Image credit: afoodieking.com.

Famous freshly harvested vegetable course at Barber’s restaurants.

The binding principle that held all three entities together was this: that Barber and his team would create their restaurant menu based on what the land could offer in its own time and season, with as little human manipulation to the ecosystem as possible. One did not farm more chickens because the demand for eggs were high, or raise corn-fed cattle to feed America’s protein-rich diet. With no breeding of animals for the sake of conventional meat demand, the sustainable 90% plant-based menu was formulated, its balance dictated not by man but by nature. The Third Plate.

I went on to share about how my turning point while reading the book was not hard data, but a recorded conversation between a Mennonite bishop and a farmer. The bishop asks the farmer: When do you start raising a child? Not at conception or birth, as one would suppose. According to the bishop, child rearing begins one hundred years before a child is born. Because that’s when you start building the environment they’re going to live in.

There was no writing on the wall nor did the heavens open up when I read this, but I remember that the statement hit me particularly hard because it spoke of a failure within a generation and between generations, a failure to steward this beautiful earth for the next generation. This short-sightedness is essentially a lack of stewardship, something I carry close to my heart. And I think stewardship is something to be viewed in totality – not just with regard to finances or time, but spanning our children and the generations that proceed us.

In the earlier mentioned book Eating Animals, Foer says that he only started to think seriously about the food he was eating and where it came from when him and his wife were expecting their first child. I think he’s on to something: legacy. One’s lasting imprint on the earth.

It’s about 2pm. Nick and Aunty Yu Ming head off and I stay behind to finish up some slides for a music camp we’re running together. For a midday snack, I drink a ginger beer and eat half a bag of sour gummy worms that I’ve kept in my bag. Did I mention I have a sweet tooth?

Before I know it, the afternoon has passed and it’s time for dinner. At this point I’m so exhausted from looking at my screen for hours that I can’t think of nutritious food to eat for dinner. So I grab a 20-piece box of spicy mcnuggets from Mcdonalds – the worst kind of meat – that I shame eat with a large coke and fries while getting lost in the YouTube blackhole. Dessert is more gummy worms, a small milk chocolate bar, and Häagen-Dazs cookies & cream ice cream eaten straight out of the pint carton.

Before I fall asleep, I imagine a frowning Dan Barber in front of me and feel extremely guilty. I make a promise to eat more salad and less sugar tomorrow. No meat.

 

Sunday, 9 June

Sunday means church, but it also means coffee shop breakfast. Without the traditional Singaporean breakfast of coffee or tea, half-boiled eggs and thick slabs of white toast slathered in kaya (coconut jam made from coconut milk, eggs and sugar), Sunday mornings would feel incomplete. I get the whole lot from the coffee shop near my block. The entire meal costs less than four dollars and is delicious.

That day we have a guest speaker from Cambodia but I can hardly concentrate on what he’s saying. I keep thinking of the verses from the book of Genesis I read last night in John Mark Comer’s Garden City.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Genesis 1: 26 – 27

I read the book a few months ago but somehow with all this talk about ethical agriculture and a self-sustaining ecosystem and what not, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reality of the Garden of Eden. What’s even more interesting to me is Comer’s thoughts about the second coming of Christ – he writes about God one day restoring the world to the edenic state it was always meant to be. What would it be like to live in a Garden City?

After service, my friend Jordan and I grab lunch at Mother Dough, an incredibly popular halal bakery located along North Bridge Road, just across the magnificent Sultan Mosque. Standing outside the bakery, you can see the golden dome and gilded facades of the mosque. Muslim men and women stream in and out all day for prayers. We enter and are incredibly happy to find seats, a rare feat on a Sunday afternoon. Ramadan is over, but many Muslims are still doing their visiting on the weekend after, which explains the empty bakery.

We order too many things: their signature sourdough baguette, a ginger poached pear danish, banana and walnut bread, a summer berries brioche and three iced lattes because it’s hot outside and we are parched. For a while, I’m not in total agony about having a meat-free day. I love every single thing on our table but my favourite has got to be – not surprisingly – the baguette. It has a well-balanced tang and goes well with the salted French butter and citrusy olive oil (yes, both).

We chat a bit longer, luxuriating in a weekend afternoon without agenda until the sleepiness hits. Sunday naps are another ritual. We say goodbye and grab a couple of cabs home. By mid afternoon I’m snoozing in my bed, only to be woken up by my mom at a couple hours later. Our extended family on my dad’s side is coming over for dinner and she needs help in the kitchen.

At 7pm, everyone has arrived and dinner is served: sausage casserole with roasted pumpkin and garlic, mac and cheese, green salad with eggs and pistachios. It’s not perfect – the mac and cheese is pretty dry – but I reckon a home-cooked meal tastes better than nearly anything you can get outside. I eat mostly salad although the pork sausages are tempting.

Dessert is macadamia nut ice cream and sliced peaches, perfume and sweet, that my aunt brought back from Japan. We watch an action movie which everyone enjoys. It’s close to 11pm by the time everyone has left and every dish is washed and stashed away.

I read a little of Carol Ann Duffy’s Sincerity poetry collection before going to bed. The poems are very political, which I like. For post-post-dinner dessert, I have two store-bought chocolate and peanut butter cookies. Delicious.

 

Monday, 10 June

This is rare thing now, but I’m up early at 730am and at Park Bench Deli by 9am with a breakfast sandwich and a flat white. I’m meeting someone to quote for a freelance writing job and thankfully, the meeting is over by 930am. I enjoy the sandwich (scrambled eggs, cheddar, caramelised onions, sriracha mayo), catch up on texts, and people watch. The Telok Ayer area is always busy all the day long because it’s right smack in the middle of the CBD (Central Business District). I get a tomato soup because the sandwich hasn’t quite filled me up, and start working on other projects.

Close to noon time, the deli starts filling up, so I head over to Dumpling Darlings to queue. I found out about this little spot through my ex-colleague Gloria, who told me that it was branded by Foreign Policy Design Group, a creative agency we both admired. I went to check out the design and stayed for the amazing food.  They serve the best gyoza-style dumplings in Singapore. It’s a super popular lunch spot and even though I’ve arrived before 12pm, I have to wait 20 minutes before I’m seated at the bar. It’s an extremely narrow restaurant space, and noisy too.

My friends Claire and Oscar arrive shortly. They both work nearby so we’ve been meeting here quite often for a quick lunch. We order the egg noodles – miso mushroom for me, braised pork for them – and a whole bunch of dumplings to share. My favourite is the fried pierogi, which has smoked bacon, truffle potato, caramelised onion, cheddar, all sitting on a schmear of sriracha crema. Unfortunately, their veggie dumpling is the only disappointing thing on the menu, probably because the tofu-spinach-mushroom combination makes for a very watery dumpling. Otherwise, they do great pork and smoked duck dumplings too that I choose not to eat today.

Claire has to go but Oscar still has 20 minutes of his lunch hour left, so we take a short walk to Plain Vanilla, a bakery that’s famous for their cupcakes. My favourites are the earl grey lavender and the cinnamon brown sugar. Though I’ve been eating non-stop since morning, I can’t resist getting a matcha latte and a mixed berry galette. Oscar, who has a sweet tooth like me, gets two cupcakes and an iced black. We sit outside the cafe, perspiring and feeling the onset of an afternoon food coma.

Once again, the conversation finds its way to my newly-acquired diet. Oscar is surprised and also very devastated – we used to go for Korean BBQ buffets together all the time and he would watch me with amazement as I inhaled slab after slab of marinated pork belly without pausing – but because he seems genuinely curious, I don’t mind talking about it. Since we’ve both read Comer’s Garden City, I talk about the verses that I’ve found so compelling and about how I’ve been struggling to relate them to this spiritual conviction about stewardship.

Oscar, who studied theology for over year and is especially interested in genesis and eschatology tells me that the word dominion has its roots in a Latin word dominus, which translates more accurately to “lordship”.  We talk about how it’s interesting that God, Lord of both Adam the first man and humanity at large, would entrust the earth and all the fish and birds and livestock that dwell in it into our hands, installing it under our “lordship”. Lordship over our house; our greenhouse.

It’s past one. I would have loved to talk to Oscar all day but he has to leave. Instead of going home, I sit at the cafe a little while longer and think deeply about the last few days and all the conversations I’ve had. I think about the verses in Genesis and also the parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew, a sobering passage about the kingdom of heaven and how good stewardship pleases the Lord.

Let them have dominion.

If we have the same frame of reference, that is, to please God, how is it okay that we are continuing to eat like this, to lay waste to the earth that is under our dominion? As God has exercised a just lordship over those under His care, are we not to do the same? We are, after all, made in His image.

Earlier on during lunch, my friend Claire – who isn’t a Christian – made a passing comment about how only God could convict me over something like this. She does so with an eye roll but she’s completely right. I love the taste of bacon or a well-made steak far too much to ever be swayed by anything else.

There are so many things that are screaming for attention in an information-saturated world. In our lifetime, I think that we only get to be advocates about a certain number of things before we run out of energy. Hopefully, our generation will be passionate about the right thing in ours.

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To Tashkent

Lady in seat 19E, you didn’t know
I was watching but I was, secretly.
Was it your first time flying?

It certainly seemed like it
the way you smiled the whole time
and fumbled with your seatbelt

and asked for both coffee and wine
as the sour-faced stewardess
rolled by. When they announced

our descent your eyes were glued
to the oblong of dark sky, transfixed
by pixelations from the ground.

I watched, if only with my side eye.
Even as grown ups I don’t think
we’ll ever get tired of it; the feeling

of being in the thick of things.
In a world up above where we
tessellate till our bodies meet

all we dream of is the landing.
And when we finally touched down
you clapped! You were only one

and you didn’t seem to care at all.
My ghosting hands felt the
phantom slap as we left for transit

me in my world-weary way
you onwards to maybe, definitely,
your second flight ever to Tashkent.

See, pure passenger, you can almost
taste the ash on your lip as you go on
to be sullied by an earth without wonder.

Heavenly bodies are like two ships sailing,
two trees kissing, two strangers passing,
an Agnus Dei prayer up in the air.

New Year’s Eve (& other poems)

It’s 2019. Suddenly, everything is new. Or least, our perceptions of things are.

It’s been a while, but I’m still here. These four poems are for you. Happy new year.


 

IMG_2360

Sisyphus’ Struggle

Through the fingerlings of gargantuan rain trees,
I finally found what I sought for in the pockets of light.
I peek through my own fingers and all is sharp

every colour, every line
the verticals stretching out into the sky like me.
I could almost touch the cloud linings.

Heavenly Father, you know me better than I know myself.
Sometimes it feels like I don’t even know me.
I only remember it was there

on that Swansea shore where I finally felt something, anything,
all in a ripple, all in a ribcage.
In the moment everything is so beautiful, so converse

to what you’ve known your whole life…
Man, this beauty, it could make a grown man cry.
You wouldn’t know unless you were standing at the precipice.

 

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Anna was a Dancer

and he couldn’t help but love her
a silver stream to a fierce gushing torrent
she reigns back on anger that does not have a name
“You don’t know a thing,
you don’t know a thing.”

Still, her body is a melody that
seeps and weeps and traces cities for twenty leagues
Anna, Anna-
Oft he dreams of the murmured syllables that
carry into trees and turn into night hisses…
Oh save your brothers, selfish lover
this pain that torments was never meant
to be your inheritance

Anna was a dancer
and wherever an echo can resonate
he hears her name
off on another sierra, off on another long ship
off the tips of leaves that flutter like errant tongues
Lord! On the brook
is where everything ended
and began
again

 

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push to enter

plastic electric music
soundtrack to our beating feet
down as we recede
denim jacket
cuffed up at the sleeve
eleven dollars and a cold coffee
salami sandwich
fuel up and laugh
push to enter
up on the 13th floor
is where we belong
you lean in and tell me
you sleep on trains in the day
and can’t fall asleep in bed
are you lonely?
I can imagine
But baby
there’s no way you could love me like I love you
I know so much but I don’t know you (I want to)
I was just passing through
but you ruined me and you know it
now I’m looking so hard for Love
I might have missed it
done and dusted
so what’s the story?
maybe we can be
alone together now

 

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New Year’s Eve

It is the hour
when the intangible thing between
what’s good and what’s great
slips away like an oyster
and yet I am recalcitrant
a person of evaporation
it’s fresh in my veins, the delay
and I’m still trying to find God in the detail
in my mind’s hills and dales and valleys and vales
only to dissolve in the nothingness
of half-sleep
and wordlessness

Tiny Movies / The Art of a Music Video

I remember
We were walking up to strawberry swing
I can’t wait ’til the morning
Wouldn’t wanna change a thing

People moving all the time
Inside a perfectly straight line
Don’t you wanna curve away
It’s such
It’s such a perfect day

It’s such a perfect day

Now the sky could be blue
I don’t mind
Without you it’s a waste of time…

 


 

I forgot how much I enjoy watching good music videos. The kind that’s almost an art unto itself.

It’s not easy to make a good one (I reckon). You’re trying to tell a complicated story in a little more than 3 minutes and most of the time, people don’t have very much to say. But on the rare occasion where one does get it right, even a mediocre song can be elevated to something great. The music videos become tiny movies where the song evolves into the soundtrack of a little piece of film. Two elements sharing a dance on an empty stage.

Anyway, here’s a list of some of my favourites. I’m afraid they’re quite predictable. Most of them have some form of dancing, stop-motion, single shot takes, brilliant colours or just silly, romantic things…

 

Falling Water – Maggie Rogers

They say all Maggie Rogers videos are sort of the same (take a look at the Alaska or On + Off music videos) and while I agree, I just love the way she dances in this one. Half-possessed, half in total control. Hypnotising.

 

Carried Away – Passion Pit

Relatable. Also, Michael Angelakos and Sophia Bush make a cute couple.

 

Someone That Loves You – Honne

Love the direction and cinematography of this video and how it portrays night-time Tokyo, a city of pink and yellow neon, breathing new life into the tired storyline of a one-night encounter with a beautiful stranger. And the scene of the sakura billowing around the male lead at the end is just breathtaking.

 

Lost Things – A Fine Frenzy

Did I mention how much I love stop-motion?

 

Why Do You Let Me Stay Here – She & Him

Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt may be the biggest friendzone of the 21st century, but they do a mean 60s-inspired look and dance together.

 

Friends – Francis & The Lights feat. Bon Iver

Before I started listening to Francis & The Lights, a friend of mine told me that he had caught their live show and had never seen a more enigmatic and compelling artist in his life. He couldn’t be more right. I also never thought I’d live to see the day where Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) agrees to be in a synchronised dance with another grown man while singing a song about friendship. The bromance is strong in this one.

 

It Hurts! – Bad Bad Hats

Two and a half minutes of juvenility. A necessary thing.

 

Chateau – Angus & Julia Stone

Ever since watching Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere some years back, the Chateau Marmont has become an old and untouchable relic in my mind, shrouded in mystery and other dark things. While the cinematography and chemistry between the leads are lovely, I think I just dig this song a whole lot.

 

Dark Blue – Jack’s Mannequin

… And here’s a classic to round things off in style.

The Shape of Our City

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In this dream, I am a giant holding the shape of my city in the palm of my hand. Like a volcano, I must remain dormant, silent — lest the children of the land notice me. I don’t breathe, just watch with my twin vision of the macro and micro: a generation cross an intersection; a gardener cupping a red flower and bending down to inhale its sweet sickly fragrance; a sunrise as it blossoms from the ground up and reaches the top of things — a bank building, glowing metallic trees, the vault of the sky. Tenderness in the concrete.

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When I wake I will wonder why I didn’t see such beauty all along. In a second I will forget and become minute again. Yes?

Once, I was a giant.

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The past few weeks and all of today, I’ve been telling people how beautiful I find Singapore. I used to dislike it — detested everything, from the shiny Central Business District area to the HDB-riddled landscape, where the air was tense and greasy from one life forcibly rubbed against another and another and another.

Always inherently drawn to the romantic and the juvenile, skylines and spaces would form in my head as I read more and watched movies about foreign lands. I unwittingly started to create my own perfect city: beautiful gothic skyscrapers, the openness of the Santa Monica Pier, cobbled streets of some nameless European small town. In this frame I drew a ghost of a place, a bric-a-brac of stolen scenes, and when the time came for me to seek out this mystical city, I went. If I dreamt it, surely I could find it.

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But of course I couldn’t. Not in Paris, not in Stockholm, not in Sydney or London or San Francisco or Athens or Rome. No matter where I went and how beautiful things were — from the monumental to the footsore particular — all I saw was semblance after semblance of my painted city. Where was this? Where was that? Where was home?

A deep sense of dissatisfaction grew with the world.

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A strange thing started to happen. Each time I stepped off the plane at Changi Airport, a realisation grew steadily — that the shape of my city was never meant to be confined to the orderliness of a New York City grid or the curlicue of Parisian arrondissements; never the subject of a Commissioner’s Plan or Haussmann’s renovation.

As a young nation, we’re only just deciding what we’re supposed to look like. It took me a while to come to terms with that. Singapore was never meant to be romantic or orderly — it is what it is. A jumble of things. The feeling of beginning.

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“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Hebrews 13:14

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Just like that, my eyes were open to the beauty of an ever-evolving landscape. Listen, structures and scenes change, but our call to the important things stays the same. The old bones of the city remain — prayer, worship, love, hope, wonder.

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I’d like to think that God really was the giant in my dream, holding Singapore in the gentle crest of his open palm as it shifts. In the verses of Psalms 139, King David talks about God forming his inward parts, knitting him together in his mother’s womb, intricately weaving him into the depths of the earth. In the same way, God is shaping the city as surely as he is shaping you, me, us.

Wonderful are your works; my soul knows very well.

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I feel it all now, the keen sense of home. I feel it when I am crossing the humble intersection between Hougang MRT station and my 5-room flat, and I feel it when I am in a cab hurtling down the East Coast Parkway and watching giant metallic flowers crown from the ground in a distance. Strange how this needle prick of a country can evoke mountains of emotion in a person.

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It all comes down to this moment. Sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as she cruises down St. Andrew’s Road, framed by the lights of the National Gallery on our left and the pitch blackness of the Padang on the right, I sigh and say one more time: Gosh, Singapore is so beautiful.

Silence. No reply from either of my friends.

Of course we know this; we knew it all along. We sit quietly, watch the silver cross tchotchke dangle above the car dashboard, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

 

Originally published on SELAH.
Photos by Marcus Goh & Zann Lee

Postcard: Ho Chi Minh City (from the ground)

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To the bellows and the
hot electronic sound
to carry whole families on
two wheels and then some
politely tapping on metallic
beasts larger than life
the vision of the coming days elusive
tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow
you know
what it’s like
those were tender times…

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I love it; that perfect blend of first world and third world. The fact that you can sit on a tiny stool, elbows resting on knees, have a 90-cent noodle soup thickened with crayfish shells and pig blood on a table balanced precariously on a crooked, potholed pavement, then hop onto a GrabBike and streak across the district, inhaling the sweet petrichor emanating from the tarmac and holding onto the shirt of a stranger so as not to fall off as he makes that final turn only to arrive at a beautiful, refurbished warehouse cafe for Vietnamese coffee brewed in a chemex and order the most American thing – a plate of French fries with Heinz tomato ketchup – all of this in just half an hour is extremely confusing but in a way that makes sense somehow.

Talk about dual worlds, about a divided feeling.

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Come to think of it, I know the feeling well because I straddle both worlds from minute to minute as a middle class citizen in my own home country Singapore, an affluent city state that grew up way too quickly and till today isn’t quite sure what to make of itself. I ride the 8:40am train to work from Monday to Friday with thousands of commuters, work myself to the bone in an air-conditioned office until I can stumble home when the sky has turned into an inky blue-black and eat a takeaway subway sandwich in front of my new MacBook Pro. I am divided in unrest day to day, switching roles so often that I’ve become tangled within, reduced to silent screams.

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A friend of mine asked me recently if being in third-world countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and the like energised me or left me exhausted. I couldn’t give her a straight answer because it’s a little bit of both for me.

In every Singaporean lies a scission. Similarly, in a place like Ho Chi Minh City, the old and the new commingle in a shared space of the present and of the mind, which is why I feel that I carry tension wherever I travel to, especially when things seem too picture perfect or utterly dispiriting. But here, here in this city, tension finally meets tension and like a pair of old friends, they hug and link hands and cross the street into characteristic, Saigon traffic, the dusty motorbikes curling around them till they disappear.

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Postcard: Ho Chi Minh City (from the air)

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Everything looks better from the air.
You can’t see the holes in things
the cracks, the crisp clap

of a city that was born hungry
angry tawdry proud and lovely
I cover my eyes to what

I do not want to see.
Fork to an eyeball, I write stories
that will never again be spoken

or heard. Who’s to say who’s listening
through the cabin window, the thin,
plastic film? Soon I will descend

into thick stickiness and dread
but for now in the cold slickness
devoid of grime, bring me metaphors

and I will hold them up to the light.