#2062 | life buoy


Male, Maldives

The new semester has begun, as has my rubber-band launch back into the seesaw balance between my academic and professional life. Writing my thesis on a liveaboard in my head was one of the many ways one doubles up social and work life, an efficient use of time, if you will. Dive by day, write by night. I’m sure this wasnt what Papa Hemmingway had in mind but it works, for now. Surprisingly it’s been wonderfully productive. You’d think that an arrangement like that would never work, and it probably wouldn’t long term, but something about the mix of sea air, waves with a chance of dolphin, and literature, makes for a fantastic combination. The beer doesn’t hurt too, nor the dozen Blackmores Travel Calm pills I take per day. What’s a girl to do when she loves to travel but is deathly afraid of plane rides and gets sea sick at the slightest rock of the boat? Not sure if this question were ever asked, but if so, the answer is right here.


#2060 | Cafe (waiting love?)


Starbucks Singapore, Tanglin Mall

Singapore, you were pretty exhausting today.

It is a perpetual struggle to accept that it’s okay to be both fulfilled and exhausted. To love what you do but also want to give everything up for five more minutes in bed. A horse a horse my kingdom for a horse and all that. There are easier routes but none in my head. Life has become a giant check list and my brain, cotton candied mush. How can you ache for something you’ve never had? How can your chest pang for something you know you wouldn’t want if offered? We are walking ironies stitched together by the kindness and love of others. We all hope they will accept us for the ridiculousness that we are.


#2055 | The Golden Years


Los Angeles, America

Back in LA I was given a choice: attend the premiere showing of La La Land (Emma Stone was to make an appearance at the end) or catch Maroon Five live. I chose Maroon Five because I reasoned that I could watch the movie when it broke in Singapore, and also, I’m generally not star-crazy so I was happy to just watch Emma onscreen forever. Ah, this life of privilege. And looking back, I’m kind of glad I didn’t watch it in LA, because I don’t think I’d ever recover from being a mess in front of the international media over there. The show hit me hard, friends. Hard.

I wonder how much of it I can go on about before giving it away. The premise of the film already begged to be loved by my sort – song, dance, and color? And Emma Stone?! Count me in. Emma is incredibly talented – I absolutely adore her work, I love love loved her in Easy A, in The Amazing Spiderman, Crazy Stupid Love, Birdman.. I don’t think she’s ever really been fully utilised to the best of her talent, to be honest, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to see a lot more of her in the coming years. Neither she nor Gosling can really sing, but that adds to the adorable factor of it all, I suppose.

And I also liked that it’s a standalone movie. Not a sequel to yet another Marvel film (which, full disclosure, I also love, but am kind of getting numb to) or a prequel to a huge franchise (Fantastic Beasts) or borrowing from a wealth of popculutre/literary tradition (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Just something fresh, something that resonates with people aching for the nostalgic old films from golden hollywood, something that promises to please..

The film opens on a jammed up freeway, classic los angeles. Everyone is listening to something different on their individual car radio, and a brown girl in a yellow dress leads the first solo. Soon, everyone jumps out of their car and starts dancing. It’s extravagant. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It makes your heart jump. I found it an interesting and deliberate choice that the first two solos of the show’s first song were people of color, which I thought was fantastic, and although I would have liked seeing more people of color as leads in the show (John Legend makes an appearance as a supporting character in the middle of the movie) but yknw, we take what we can get. The musical number soon cleaves to introducing Emma and Gosling, and then we follow them from there.

The movie is essentially the age old tale of the tension between romance and ambition. Emma wants to be an actress. Gosling wants to be a “serious” jazz musician. Boy meets girl, boy and girl dislike each other, boy and girl decide that they kind of really like each other after all, boy and girl admit to Loooove, capital L, multiple Os. But they don’t just like each other, they like the other’s passion for their craft. At one point, someone says: “People like people who are passionate about things they love!” And when different ideas of who should chase what dreams clash, hearts ache.

I found myself in a mess at the end of it all. To be fair, it’s always been a genre that hits me hard – the idea of lost time and big dreams sweetened by sugary sweet showtunes and moony dance numbers. The music plays my heart like a fiddle. The plot smacks me in my big sappy face. And I loved it so much, but I couldn’t listen to the soundtrack without breaking down into tears again. Private crying! You learn to do it as you get older. Cry in the toilet instead of in front of others. Then talk about your feelings on the internet. Thus the modern generation is espoused.

2016 has been a strange, tiring year. Not just for me – for the world, I think. You know what I mean. People were dying left and right – and not that they generally dont, of course, and this is not to say that one person’s death means more than any other. But people become icons that represent something to us, personally. Prince and Bowie gave many struggling kids all over the world representation, and a means of understanding that they can be safe, be accepted, be welcome in a weird world. Alan Rickman is, well, Snape!! The number one icon of love for the Harry Potter Gen! And Christina Grimmie was our best friend, the everyday, relatable, girl next door, who touched people with her open heart and her talent. When these people were lost to us in 2016, the world seemed strange and suddenly alien. Nothing was sacred anymore. This is, of course, rubbish. Statistically 100% of people die. Plus three out of four of the people I mentioned were old, which is when it gets more acceptable to expire. But they were iconic to many, and in their icons they became more than just another person, and so their deaths hurt many. And it’s not just them. Somehow, in 2016 the internet felt more raw and open than ever, a gaping wound that was ready to fight back. Alton Sterling’s death slapped rage and hurt across the world, and people started to stand for fairer, more human treatment of everyone. (At least, it seems that way to me). Women the world over rioted at the outcome of the Stamford rape case – a widely publicised one that triggered in more ways than one women who’ve ever felt harassed, unfairly treated, and plain violated.

And yet for every angry person there were a thousand more anonymous ones brushing these off as no big deal. At the end of the year, people started crying as they watched numbers tick across a vote count that told them they and their problems were possibly no big deal.

Yeah. It’s been an exhausting year.

Will La La Land fix that? Of course not. It doesn’t have the answers. But it does have something else, something almost as precious. It has hope, but not stupid hope – it’s dashed with realism, but at the end of the movie you can smile and choose to be foolish and nod at your younger, sillier self with near respect. At the end of an insane year it’s with something like hunger that I inhaled the film, having forgotten how hungry i was for that kind of silly, sweet hope. It’s another day of sun, the characters sing during the opening number, even when the world lets you down.

Yes. Yes it is. And there are worse ways to close the year than with some tears and a smile.

Recommended: 10/10


#2050 | LA Diaries: Airbnb Murder Mysteries / Trips, Experiences


Taken at The Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles

imagesLos Angeles, America

What are the stories you want to tell?

This is a question that followed me around like a little rain cloud throughout my press trip to Airbnb Open LA 2016. I’ve been working with Airbnb for over a year now, and sometimes it feels like I’ve told most of the stories that can be told. I mean this in the best way possible – I love that people can open up their homes to others, create a micro-economy of their own. That tourists and travellers alike have a way of injecting currency into an economy on a very local level in a way that directly impacts the people who actually offer their homes to you, as opposed to having your virtual money disappear off into the endless loop of commercialised corporations. And host stories are new every trip, of course – each new place I stay in I hope to make friends that give me some sort of insight into their world. But something that I always wonder is – how do our voices evolve – how do we start telling newer, better stories?

And that was one of my small, secret aims of this trip, to try and come away with one good story, one thing that I feel resonates with me and hopefully you guys.

One of the biggest announcements Brian Chesky (CEO of Airbnb) made this Airbnb Open conference was the launch of Airbnb Trips. No longer offering only the opportunity to rent homes, Airbnb is now evolving to become a one-stop travel service. This means booking flights, ordering groceries, making restaurant reservations, all within the app. It means the launch of audio tours, free city e-guidebooks, car rental services. It means the launch of Experiences.

Experiences is without doubt the single biggest thing about Airbnb 2.0, simply because it is so novel, and makes so much sense. Is it a completely new idea to pay a local to bring you around? No. These things exist, and they’re called tours. But is it a new idea to have a local invite you to partake in the intimacies of their lives? Possibly. And now it’s being made so convenient too – to do it all on one app: booking accommodation, food, flights, and having your days planned out for you. This, Chesky announces, to gasps and insane applause, is the future of travel.

As the press con dissolved, I found myself wandering around looking for hosts to talk to, to try and understand what sort of experiences they would actually be offering. I met a dude from Miami who brings guests paddle boarding, diving, and for a boat party, over the span of four days. I met a couple from London who want to teach people to pluck and grow their own organic food. These were all interesting and sounded all kinds of awesome, dont get me wrong. But I kept looking. I was searching for something else.

And then I got a text from Elaine, one of the Airbnb girls.

“Jemma, you here?” she asked, “There’s someone I’d love for you to meet.”


This is Nicole Biondi from Cape Town, South Africa. She’s an author – she’s penned crime thriller novels for the last five years, with more to come, and has worked in tourism for 17 years as the head of the Cape Town tourism board. Elaine introduced me to her because I also write fiction (albeit less successfully with exactly zero novels to my name lol) so she thought it would be interesting. Well, it was – but not for the reason she might have suspected.

What I wanted to know from Nicole was:

1. Did hosting on Airbnb subsidise her artistic endeavours?
I mean, let’s be real. Unless you’re JK Rowling, writing hardly pays the bills. You run on passion, mostly. And your day job – be it working in a cafe, teaching english, or being a train attendant. Or being an instagrammer, lol. What I wanted to know was if Airbnb hosting could be your day job, a supplementary income that got you by while giving you flexibility of time to work on your creative projects.

PS. the answer for her was not really, because she only decides to host on Airbnb twice a year max. (Hosts as in, in her home, not host a Trips experience)


2. What was a crime thriller writer doing hosting an Airbnb Experience, anyway? As an aspiring writer myself I can tell you that any time spent not at your desk writing is frustrating. Why have dinner or watch a movie when you could be working on your writing? As you can tell, my social life has gone out of the window. But I had a strange suspicion about her agenda, which turned out to be more or less true..

Nicole’s experience is called Madame Mystery.

“Tell me about it,” I said. And so she did.

She’s penned a whole story that she’s inviting you into, a mix of fact and fiction, called the Botanist Brigade Murder Mystery legend. You begin with a hike up Table Mountain, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, and a total bucket list item on every traveller’s list. Halfway up, she brings you into Woodstock Cave for a picnic breakfast, and then introduces you to the name carved into the cave wall – J. W, Lawrence, a man who died on the 15th of May, 1965. Your mission throughout the day is to follow the timeline between 1865 and present day, to figure out why and how he died. It’s a real life Cluedo mystery! And, boy – if you like Escape Room games, you’ll love this.

The Experience consists meals and snacks (starting with breakfast in the cave), a gorgeous hike, an artisanal gin-tasting session that also includes a tour of how gin is made, and ends off with a three course south african meal where you become the characters in the story to try and solve the mystery. All this for 2,000 South African Rand, which translates to about $143. Not bad for an all-inclusive, unique experience.

But that still didn’t answer my question – why is she doing this? So I asked her, again, and she looked at me. Aha, she said, and I knew she knew what I was referring to.

“Because they think they’re having fun, these guests. But I’ve tricked them into coming on a little history lesson with me, on South African history, the black community, and how life has changed for those of us living in Cape Town.”

There it was. She was using Airbnb Experiences as a vehicle for social commentary. I wanted to punch my fist into the air. Yessss! I had solved my own little mystery correctly. She went on.

“Writing is exorcism. There are things you need to get out. This is common to every storyteller..”

And storyteller she is – she told me on the side that she not only wrote stories, she also worked as an emcee, a performance poet, and a voice artist.

I nodded. Go on.

“And when I tell these stories, be they on paper or to unsuspecting Airbnb guests, I want to change the way they see the world. Just a little bit.”


Something you need to understand about Nicole – after seventeen long (and I should think, successful) years as the head of tourism, she quit to work in an NGO called Innovation Edge that focuses on developing early learning in children aged 1-6 by funding ideas and initiatives in marginalised communities. It made sense for her, I think, as someone so passionate about social issues, to move from tourism to a non-profit.

“Did it annoy you?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “To have tourists caper up to Cape Town just to look at it as a gorgeous tourist holiday destination without bothering with understanding the social structure or history of the place?”

“Oh my god,” she rolled her eyes. “You have no idea.”

We then spent a good part of the next hour talking about South Africa – mostly her, talking intensely, and me, listening, trying to absorb, and asking the occasional question. Much of this conversation had nothing to do with Airbnb as a platform, therefore potentially majorly irritating the Parisian journalist who was waiting to interview Nicole on Airbnb Experiences. But Airbnb is not a product in and of itself. It is a platform. And this platform you can use to book accommodation, browse listings, read city guides. So why not use the platform to push a social agenda? I totally got Nicole’s rationale behind what she was doing, and loved it. And despite not being technically a part of the official Airbnb Experiences Ethos, it still aligned nicely with Airbnb’s aesthetic of trying to get people to understand each other and cultures, trying to create a more inclusive, loving world (Look at their latest announcement – a mandatory non-discriminatory rule). Just that what Nicole is doing is on a far, far more local level.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post called The Broke Student’s Guide to Being Human. Those of you who remember that will understand why meeting Nicole was so important to me. As someone who comes from a position of privilege (i mean, come on. A chinese woman in Singapore is like being a white person in America), it is easy to forget and important to remember that your privilege often works at another person’s expense. Let’s not play the privilege game – the comparison of who is more, who is less, who is equally privileged. There will always be someone more fortunate. Someone vastly poorer. You are born into a body and social station which is not of your choice, and all you can do is try to be fair, and kind while learning to navigate it.

But in traveling, this is easy to forget. It is so easy to ooh and aah over the gorgeous mountains of cape town while ignoring the incredibly insane income disparity that exists there. So easy to shudder at the gunshots in the middle of the night, that you hear from your rented room in a small town of Medellin, Columbia, thrilled at your authentic local experience. But your holiday experience is another person’s everyday reality. And while it may not be your responsibility to familiarise yourself with the entire social historical context of whatever city you go to, it sure doesn’t hurt.

I wont attempt to explain the social fabric of south africa. Learning about it from Nicole was endlessly interesting to me, but I have no faith in my ability to do it justice, or replicate her words with the same level of conviction that can only come from a lifetime of personal experience. But go. Ask her. Ask any host you stay with, any local you meet on your Airbnb Experience. Ask them for their story. Ask them why they’re doing what they do. If it pans out well, you’ll find yourself enriched, your perspective widened, your capacity for empathy hopefully deeper by the end of it. And if it doesn’t, well. You’ll have a story of your own to tell.

Airbnb Experiences is now available on the updated Airbnb app.


#2048| just a thought


Yesterday at a literary panel about Southeast Asian writing appealing to the world, a woman stood up in the audience and said oh well you know you need to listen to what us readers want and if we don’t want to read this because we don’t like it and it is not entertaining to us then we just DONT. And she was shouting and her hand was on the back of my chair and there was some spit that had landed on my lap and I stared at it for too Long and the moment to turn and address her had passed, and anyway, her comment was not aimed at me it was aimed at the panel.

This woman was old (are we still allowed to say that? Or is that now non-inclusive?) and so one might feel compelled to kind of brush it off or not expect her to change her views while at the same time holding on to the knowledge that she would be full of rage about having been dismissed so easily. Before the panel started, earlier in the evening, I overheard her and her friend talking loudly behind me about “books nowadays being too long, just read a bit from the middle and then go to the end and you’ll know if it’s good. Plus now that (she) teaches in school (she) feels like (she) needs to know what the book is, you know, about”. And when she later stood up and addressed the panel this was something she said again: that she bought but didn’t read books, and she said this with something like a sense of pride. This was very strange to me, both the incomprehensible choice to bring that kind of attitude to a literary festival and also the fact that Teachers like that exist. I hope she doesn’t teach English or literature but life doesn’t always follow your hopes. She spoke like someone highly educated and proud of it, and more likely than not she lectures in a higher degree institution somewhere. Or something. And in that vein this is what I wanted to say to her, that I did not, because I was staring at the spit on my lap. That literature is art and art does not exist to follow your desires.

Of course you can choose to only read what appeals to you. It’s your life and your privilege and your eyes and certainly your brain. Nobody is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to try and understand postcolonial literature or infinite jest. One may subsist his/her whole life on a diet of dan brown, and while it is something I personally disagree with, I have to still say that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Why? Because it’s your life. But when you stand up in a panel to shout (lets face it that was what she was doing, shouting) this at three very accomplished very hardworking very serious novelists then it becomes a problem because 1. You have started a dialogue which must be then receptive to response and 2. You are being rude.

So since a dialogue, shouty or not, has been started, here is a response. You may of course live your life wrapped in the comfort of easy reads that serve to reassure you and your way of life and hold books that you nod at sagely every few lines, thinking, mm, this book gets me, gets my life, is so good and worthy, etcetera etcetera. But art is not here existing to validate your world view. It is here to unsettle you and poke holes in your brain and make you very very uncomfortable. And in that extreme discomfort it might hopefully help you recognise your privilege and understand what other people and communities go through, and help you understand how to care, and how to empathise in a way that is not burdensome to the people on the receiving end of your empathy. I do not have it figured out. I struggle with understanding/ synthesising both the complications of my status as a woman and my privilege as a young chinese able bodied woman in Singapore. I stumble around looking for the right words when trying to articulate my thoughts to and about these things. But I am trying. And I can say that I probably know to try because of the books I have been very fortunate to have been recommended, or given, or that have somehow fallen like blessings into my lap. Learning to embrace this discomfort while putting your pride aside and understanding that it is not always about you is a good and essential life skill when approaching the arts. And this is my view which I do not forcibly foster upon you or shout about in public panels and certainly not shout until my spit lands on the lap of some poor girl who just happens to be within firing distance. But if you want comfort, you should get a blanket.