#2084 | To all the girls I’ve loved before

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This essay was written and published in Her World’s 2018 December issue. Many thanks to David and team for housing it – you can get the issue in stores now. x

Three years ago on Christmas Eve, I got down on one knee in a tiny Italian bistro, the name of which I no longer remember, only that it was dark, candle lit, and had tables squeezed too close to each other. I pulled out a long speech typed on my phone’s Notes app, started and stopped a few times, then abandoned the doomed speech entirely, and asked: “G, it’s been seven wonderful years, the next seven I believe will be equally wonderful, or more, anyway, what I am trying to say is – will you be my friend forever?”

There were tears, gasps, complimentary wine, and way too amused servers. One of them said: “Now I’ve seen everything.” I remember the music in the background: French. I remember thinking it was a strange choice for an Italian establishment. There was a ring, an eternity band in rose gold and silver. We were extravagant in our celebration of friendship that night, and lived like church mice for the subsequent few months. Our friends rolled their eyes at our melodramatic tendencies. And we leaned into each other and giggled right back.

The proposal was based off the popular but questionable myth that any friendship that makes it seven years will last a lifetime. Still, accurate or not, it was about that time that the truth of the underlying principle began to make itself apparent to me: good friendships are rare, they take work, and when done right, are a joy to behold. It is a principle that I live by now, a guiding principle that informs my interactions with people around me, that rules my time with intentionality. Friendship, when enacted meaningfully, can be the stuff of epic romances. Toss out what you know from garden-variety Hollywood infatuations; this is the real deal.

In an essay published earlier this year, Elena Ferrante, best known for her novels on female friendship, breaks down the etymology of the term. “The Italian word for “friendship”, amicizia,” she writes, “has the same root as the verb “to love”, amare, and a relationship between friends has the richness, the complexity, the contradictions, the inconsistencies of love.” Let us note specifically the equivalency she draws between the value of friendship and romances, and the power she attributes to both in a world that focuses frequently on only one. This ability to induce joy and confidence should not be taken lightly – in today’s climate, we need it desperately. The truth is, we all know that very good female friendships are rare and powerful, and it is in our best interests to constantly seek them out, for they will then govern our values, our behavior, our ethics. Our individual bodies and communities become the bearers of these friendships, and we grow and become stronger by them. It makes for not just a better world, but better lives.

This is especially important today in an era of girl squads and cliques that flip to feuds in a matter of seconds. These glamorized friendships do little justice to kinships forged over deep conversations, practiced empathy, and shared experiences: bonds that see you through a life of good times and bad. Clearly we can do much better – especially now when female solidarity is having a moment. In pop culture, literature, and film, there has been increasing demand for more stories of complex, nuanced friendships. I don’t doubt the correlation between this and the happenings in the world – art has always responded to the zeitgeist of the era. 2018 has been internationally recognized as a demanding but defining year for women. It is almost impossible to keep one eye on women in global politics and keep the other eye dry. And in navigating the cesspool of rage the modern world inevitably creates, we have seen women band together the world over, in fury, in tears, and in celebration. It is almost primal, what we are witnessing today, if only we pay attention.

In the light of current happenings, one would think that the value of strong female friendships would be immediately obvious to all. But this is not the case. Too often, significant female experiences are misread as exclusionary or taken as an affront to other forms of relationships. A claim to female solidarity is not a threat to a healthy romantic relationship, for example, though it is frequently read as such. Another thing I have heard said: “Platonic heterosexual friendships are amazing,” as if more than one thing cannot be amazing. Many things are and can be incredible: healthy romantic relationships, solid familial bonds, trusting platonic friendships between men and women, life-long bromances enacted between men and other men. They can be incredible simultaneously; we do ourselves a disservice to assume a limited capacity on this front. It is time for us to also unapologetically include thriving female friendships when taking stock of how far we have come. What female friendships uniquely offer us, individually and together, are a source of strength, derived from shared experience, a way to approach and navigate the world. Something this worthy and powerful has to be earned, and sustaining it takes work. It is not simply an empowering slogan printed on a T-shirt. And there are steps we can take to get there.

Here is how we begin. Recognize the women who have helped you. Help other women. Create communities that encourage and enable mentorship. Consciously, and with intentionality, be a good friend to other women. Articulate this in your language and behavior. Call out toxic behavior constructively. Do not fall into the trap of popularized language and tropes – the generality of the bitch, the slut, the crazy ex girlfriend. Allow other women to be people, and not simply characters. Don’t take your friends for granted. Work at your friendships, and work hard. Celebrate them. (You can even have a few proposals!) I have said this so many times already but I cannot say it enough. Friendship, when done right – it is amazing. Amazing.

x
Jem

#2083 | Clap your hands for tinkerbell

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My time in london has had the unintended effect of endearing candles to me — previously unable to understand why anyone would drop fifty dollars on a scented lump of wax, now I gaze longingly at the likes of the Jo Malone and Diptyque shop windows, painfully aware that I am shedding layers of my skin only for the most basic of chinese girls to emerge. Was this the metamorphosis marketed to me regarding adulthood? One would have hoped for more political astuteness, or clarity of mind, but I suppose there are worse things than a keen appreciation of a citrus scented home environment. You know, the word I think I’m searching for, is hmm.

x
Jem

#2075 | We can handle the Crazy Rich Asian wars. Bring it.

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Hey guys,

So I thought for a long time before writing this post, but here I am regardless.

I don’t know Henry (who plays the main character of Nick Young) personally but he’s appeared on Click before, and I know his wife, Liv, from yoga and etcetera. I absolutely adore Kheng Hua (she plays Rachel’s mother), who I’ve watched onscreen and also met on set for a shoot last year. I also work with Singapore Tourism Board regularly and I assume they are obviously thrilled at the front and center visual representation of Singapore (and to be sure, we do have pretty crazy ass things here). When I produced the Laneige film last year, my art director was from the art department of the Crazy Rich Asians set. Anyway all this is to say that I have very personal and compelling reasons to support the movie and it is all the more frustrating that I am hesitating to do so. And everyone is so, so excited about the CRA movie that I almost feel as though to say something against the movie would be a betrayal of my own community, many of whom are understandably excited to see things about their home that they recognise in a glitzy Hollywood movie.

I am hesitating for the same reasons everyone who is hesitating is. The movie is fun but not perfect. The gap of its imperfections are unavoidable (for nothing is perfect) but still important to acknowledge. When I was thinking about writing this post I asked myself: what can I honestly bring to the table, is it necessary for me to add my voice to an already noisy conversation, is there anything new I can say that would not be completely superfluous?

And the truth is, I actually think the movie was really well done in terms of entertainment. Narratively I wish there were some beats it hit properly, but still it’s fun, dramatic, and over the top in the super extra way chinese families can get. Constance Wu is one of my favorite actresses (fresh off the boat is basically the only show I ever watch on flights) and you cant even tell that it’s Golding’s first acting role. I have zero problems with Golding’s British-Malaysian mixed heritage, which has gained some flak online, because the truth is there are many mixed blood people in Singapore and so what if he’s half white? Being Singaporean is a nationality not a race, and you can be from wherever and still be authentically Singaporean if you were born and raised here. (He’s half-Malaysian but the point stands.) The movie doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not – it doesnt pretend to be a socio-economic documentary on Singaporean culture, and yes, it’s satirical, it’s supposed to be a fluffy rom com anyway.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the phenomenon of Crazy Rich Asians has created a giant international conversation that has reached far beyond its intended genre, and so hiding behind the “it’s all for fun anyway” dismissal doesn’t hold water. The discussion has to be had.

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The movie’s production was energised by an overwhelming desire for Asian-Americans to see themselves onscreen after a long history of being underrepresented and stereotyped, and a friend pointed out that the casting of an Asian-American director in itself should have set our expectations: the movie is for Asian Americans, not for us. And in that aspect, it is a huge win for that community. But you cannot include a side character (in this case, the whole country of Singapore) and then expect that side character to hold her tongue about how she has been portrayed. I found myself laughing and genuinely enjoying moments in the film but also feeling great discomfort at other points. The particularly problematic scene that aimed for humour by leveraging the bodies of two Sikh guards, for example, becomes especially ironic when you consider the fact that this is a film trying to fight for the representation of a marginalised culture, and it has come to a country that similarly struggles with ethnic tensions only to visually reinforce the class privilege of the Singaporean equivalent of white people. I also didn’t like how the movie’s story was basically an Asian American protagonist coming to Asia to tell us how our Asian cultures and values were wrong. Things like clanship and the idea of family before self are big things in Trad-asian culture, but they were exaggerated and villainized in the movie as a foil to the protagonist’s love story. Not saying that they are perfect practices and ideas, but for an AsAm director to use it as the main villain in his story is kind of like going to your friends house and saying their mother’s cooking is not nice, you know?

So yes, I like things about the film, but I also have issues with it. That is fine because we can hold more than one opinion at a time, we live in a nuanced world. But one cannot just criticize, one must provide solutions or direction, or the whole conversation goes nowhere. I ask myself: with all the totally valid wins and criticisms the movie is facing right now, what could the director feasibly have done differently?

Perhaps the sassy best friend character could have been played by a non-Chinese actor (Singapore has plenty of excellent ones, and in Southeast asia? More.), and given proper character development. Perhaps there could have been a bit more self awareness when it came to portraying the class politics onscreen. Perhaps, like, just don’t use dark Asians as a prop or joke.

With that said, I recognise the limitations of the movie – there is only so much it can do when based off an even trashier book that parades an ensemble cast of walking stereotypes and caricatures. And I also recognize that a film’s priority is in the storytelling / entertainment value, not in social commentary, especially since it’s a rom-com. If there is no way they could have responsibly navigated the politics of SEA representation, part of me does think it’s better that they don’t attempt it than that they do it in a damaging manner. Personally I think the best thing the movie’s team could have done would have been to apportion a significant part of their marketing budget to work with major news outlets to use the movie as an opening for a larger conversation on representation in all its nuances, not just AsAm w.r.t. Hollywood, instead of marketing the movie as a straight up representation win. These things can and have been done, and if the movie’s campaigning (separate from the actual film content) was to be so focused on the concept of representation then it absolutely should have been on the list to do this. The supporting media to any pop culture article is very important because it creates a subconscious guideline that the general public takes cues from in forming their own impressions of the movie, so there needs to be some handling of this responsibility in a, well, responsible manner.

Western media outlets would also have benefited greatly from a perfunctory dissection of what the Asian experience is internally to inform their movie coverage – one gets the sense when reading articles produced from the USA that there is a major problem trying to differentiate Asians in Asia from Asians in America. Look, someone who grew up in Southeast asia does not share the same experience as someone who grew up in East Asia. Someone who grew up as a child of immigrants in America does not share the same experience as someone who was born in Asia then moved to America for work or school. I have so many friends who are Asian Americans who struggle with issues that are real and complex. Those issues are significantly different from my Asian (by heritage) friends who were born and raised in parts of Europe. Both of these experiences are also different from the experience of an ethnically Chinese person vs an ethnically Malay person vs an ethnically Indian person vs our famously labelled ‘Other’ person who grew up in Singapore. Yes, there are commonalities in all these experiences – the tiger Mom stereotype, the expression of love through food, the idea of familial currency that consists pressure and expectation. But they also differ in many other ways. Lets have some responsible reporting is what I am saying. And it wouldnt have been a far stretch to expect Crazy Rich Asians to use some of their marketing budget to enable this.

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Hi tiger mom

Also, Western Media, stop calling CRA the asian black panther! The comparison to Black Panther is problematic. Black Panther was based in the fictional state of Wakanda, and the implications of representation become more meaningful and impactful when you map the Wakandian experience onto black culture, much like re-writing a narrative symbolically. Whereas Crazy Rich Asians is based on the culture of an actual, real place, which has been flattened into a singular idea of the rich, chinese, asian. And then this idea, which represents only a fraction of Singapore (a multiracial/cultural country that, while having equality built into its national ethos and pledge, still struggles with limited inclusivity), is taken and flattened further into a backdrop for an Asian American girl’s Cinderella story.. I wont go so far as to say that it is a win for Asian Americans at the expense of actual Singaporeans. But likening it to Black Panther is a bit much.

Where does this leave us? I dont expect Crazy Rich Asians to answer all the questions for us. I dont think the burden should be on the movie to represent one million different types of Asians, and it is not the job of the director or the author (who I understand is from a crazy rich family himself and therefore writes from his own experience, okay, fine) to represent everything about singapore. It is a romcom, not a politically charged film. Yes, it is a huge accomplishment. But it is also a conditional accomplishment, for some people by ignoring other people. This has led to a lot of fired up arguments and online wars between people who think we should just let AsAms have their moment and stop being butthurt about a watershed moment in Hollywood history, and people who think CRA is the worst thing to have happened to Singapore. Let the wars happen, I say. The fact that the conversation is happening is important and good. We are ready for the war. We can take it. Bring it.

Representation is starting to feel like an end-all term rather than an element that can vary in comprehensiveness. There is space to celebrate the win for asian american onscreen representation, hollywood’s slow movement towards diversity, and still acknowledge that there are ways to go in creating nuanced representations of cultures residing outside the Americas, especially if you are leveraging that specific culture to give your piece a unique spin. There needs to be more acknowledgement that diversity is not the same thing as representation. There are ways to do this that can be uplifting as well, ways to commend the movie for what it has done while using the opportunity to shed light on the cultural nuance of the country that didn’t make it into the film. There needs to be more stories – Crazy Rich Asians cannot be the only story about Singapore, about Asians, about Asian Americans – and we need to enable storytellers, be they filmmakers or writers, to come forward and tell these stories so that one day we will have a tapestry of multicolored and textured stories from Singapore, et al, and not just this one story that is expected to do everything. We need to encourage, fund, and make possible the production of these stories, while not dismissing the progress each step has made. Because, yes: Crazy Rich Asians is the first step. But we have a hell of a way to go.

x
Jem

#2073 | Betrayal!

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My life the past month has been characterised by the identity of the wait-ee, I have, essentially, been living in a bubble of anticipatory exhaustion, waiting for life to sort itself out. Things beyond my control have crash-landed into my life this month, certainly life has been fluctuating on the emotional scale lately via said events beyond the horizon of my control, there have been a lot of such extreme emotions, joy, grief, mourning, elation, excitement, exhaustion.. and then this morning I woke up unable to breathe. Nothing romantic about it, it’s not like i woke up breathless from a scary dream or struck by epiphany. I literally woke up with a blocked nose. Finally my body has betrayed me. The final frontier: the physical. I am sick. Time to pop a panadol and go back to bed, with a bit of sour relief and also, disbelief, because the solidity of a body suggests reliability, and the one thing i can grasp and hold on to has turned around and given up on me as well..

As you can tell, the drama queen in me comes out in full force when sick: feather, furs, heels, and all.

x
Jem

#2065 | Focaccia in Folgujemy, Wroclaw

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Wroclaw, Poland

Hello from the obscure highways of Poland, with names i cannot hope to pronounce, all grass and wire, somewhere in between the town of Wroclaw, where I am coming from, and Krakow, where I am headed to on this 5.90Eur flixbus. I have literally had, just two hours ago, the most incredible focaccia, and i felt it my civic duty to open up my chromebook and wax lyrical about the wonders of carbohydrates once the bus had been settled into and was well on its way. And it is. So here we are.

Right across the street from where I stayed there was a tiny cafe called Folgujemy, recommended by my Airbnb hosts via a little printed note I found on my rented desk upon check in – please be quiet from 2200 to 0800, laundry machine is in the adjacent building, folgujemy has wonderful food. Listed like yet another fact of their listing. I briefly considered checking it out yesterday but I was distracted by the rest of the city, I thought, so what if I dont check out one cafe in a sea of many, no big deal. But this morning I woke up, lazed around in bed for a bit (a luxury!), and after packing my bags, realised that i had too little time to venture back to the Old Town for one last stroll, and too much time to do nothing at all before catching my bus back to Krakow. This and that and somehow I ended up dragging my luggage with me 200m across the road to the cafe in search of sustenance and coffee.

I was on the phone with Shane when the waitress came over to take my order, so i just pointed at one of the only things i recognized on the menu – shakshouka with grilled halloumi and toasted focaccia. When it arrived I was still on the phone and so i absentmindedly broke off a piece of the focaccia for dipping and put it in my mouth. Then it registered. Hold up, I told Shane, I gotta go. I gotta eat. Talk to you later. He was used to it; we exchanged affections, and returned to our own lives.

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Shakshouka with added Halloumi (additional 6ZLT), as well as an iced cold brew. Total: 35Zlt/ 12SGD

How good, you must be thinking, can a piece of bread be, to compel one to hang up on one’s partner? After all it’s just bread. The simplest of carbohydrates, tying with the potato for Most Basic Carb. But this bread was not just bread. It was crumbly crust, fragrant, denser than regular bread, yet lighter than cake. Obviously freshly made. I swooned. I am not a fan of bread in general becuse it has such a high propensity to disappoint, but I have been known to sniff the air around bakeries furiously, like some kind of beagle, also, do you know how amazing freshly made bread is, of course you do, when it’s done well it is a revelation.

The main point of the dish was the shakshouka, not the focaccia, but the focaccia stole the show for me. The shakshouka was very good though, one of the better ones i’ve had in recent years. I love eggs so it stands to reason that I would naturally take to shashuka. It’s not that prevalent in Singapore, for some reason we prefer eggs benedict as a nation, which i roll my eyes at, because most places don’t even poach their eggs ben right. Give me shakshouka any day. For those of you unfamiliar with the dish, it varies from place to place but generally means poached eggs in tomato sauce and various spices/herbs for flavor, and it’s usually served in a hot pan. The dish originates from Tunisia and is popular in the Middle east, which is where most of my favorite brunch foods are from, and in recent years I’ve noticed it as an option in many European cafes, finally finally finally. This particular variation was served with grilled zucchini and chopped spring onions, all of which i love. LOVE. The pan fried halloumi was excellent as well, which I think is partly because the chefs just really know how to handle their halloumi (it can go both ways, I’ve had really dry and tough halloumi in places), and partly because poland as a country produces lots of cheese, and enjoys having it as part of their culinary repertoire, so in general you wont go wrong ordering a cheese dish in Poland.

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The mythical focaccia, dipped in shakshouka

So yes, what I mean to assert is, the shakshouka was superb. But I have come to expect excellence from eggs. Bread, though, bread is a wildcard. And this bread, ugh. It was like striking the bread lottery.

Later on as I got up to pay I tried to send my compliments to the kitchen, miming delight since I couldn’t speak Polish. The cashier replied in perfect English: Glad you liked it, we make our own focaccia in house. Ah. In more ways than one, I was enlightened.

Getting on the bus and penning this post I wondered at the point of writing a whole post about a tiny cafe in a corner of a far away city nestled 4 hours out from Krakow. But it is a city worth visiting, and a cafe worth hunting down for its bread. My faith in the carb is renewed, and for what? 35Zloty? A small price to pay for such delight. Thank you, Folgujemy. You will now forever be the standard to which I hold all bread to.

Folgujemy
Kniaziewicza 16, 11-400 Wrocław

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Jem