by John Holbo on June 21, 2013

So, in case you are curious, this is what the sun looks like, above the trees, in Singapore, when the haze index hits 401.



So I walked around the neighborhood collecting shots of ghastly tree sillouettes. They have a kind of beauty, so long as you don’t have to breathe it.



My iron lung 06.21.13 at 1:09 pm

John, as one who is soon moving to Singapore, are these fires a strictly summertime occurrence? E.g. one you could avoid by spending summers abroad doing research?


John Holbo 06.21.13 at 1:37 pm

You can avoid the stuff by staying away in summer.

Today is by far the worst ever. It was apparently very bad in 1997, before we got here. There have been a couple bad years since I’ve lived here. That meant: a yucky week. Some years have been completely haze free. Most years there are a couple bad days, a couple times, but nothing seriously unhealthy. This year is one for the record books.


My iron lung 06.21.13 at 2:04 pm

Good to know, thanks!


John Holbo 06.21.13 at 2:23 pm

You shouldn’t rely on my memory for yearly data, of course. I can’t remember what year it was – 2006? That I remember as being as bad as this, but apparently the data say it’s worse now.


Shelley 06.21.13 at 2:45 pm

Reminds me of my dust bowl.

Only worse: that was dust.

This is poison.


dr ngo 06.21.13 at 2:45 pm

My understanding is that, as in Hongkong (where I lived many years) the problem is that pollution, especially of the air, doesn’t recognize borders, so that fires in Indonesia or rampant industry in Guangzhou affect cities that are powerless to restrain them. HK is now, for those of delicate lungs, virtually unlivable.


P O'Neill 06.21.13 at 3:16 pm

It worked for the Impressionist paintings of London. Between this and Brazil on top of all the other problems, it’s looking like an eventful summer.


david 06.21.13 at 3:23 pm

It was worse in 1997; PSI hit 650+.


Eli Rabett 06.21.13 at 4:18 pm

Look at Monet’s paintings of Parliament. The same sort of haze back at the turn of the 20th century from coal burning.


bob mcmanus 06.21.13 at 4:22 pm

Amazes that I go to Wikipedia to look up PSI and today’s Singapore news is already near the top of the page



ex-HK 06.21.13 at 6:23 pm

HK’s pollution isn’t all due to China–they use really cheap coal for electricity generation, cheap bunker fuel for ferries, and the lorries are outdated but a billionaire blocks regulating them. Bastards.


PJW 06.22.13 at 12:58 am

“By day the vanished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” (The Road)


Belle Waring 06.22.13 at 1:38 am

Seriously, it looks like fucking Mars here, people. The swiftly moving terminator means we don’t get a long twilight and never really much sunset, but now, the sun shining through the white curtains at 9:32 am (by which the sun is well up and meant to be pitilessly hammering down on us) is red. Not, you know, sort of orange or something. RED. Bleh. The Indonesian minister in charge is thinking up ever more baroque responses to the situation, such as, “it’s Singapore’s fault too, rich Singaporean companies farm palm oil palms!” OK, not bad, cogent. “Singaporeans are just big wusses and complaining all the time for no reason.” ?? “Singaporeans complain when the air quality is bad, but they never say anything when it’s good.” ???? I guess the guy has a tough row to hoe, really.


Dr. Hilarius 06.22.13 at 1:39 am

The BBC reports Indonesian government officials variously blaming a careless cigarette or small farmers burning forest on land owned by palm oil companies. The palm oil companies also blame small farmers and profess their inability to curb their actions. It’s hard to imagine that these statements are meant to be taken seriously. I’d like to think that human health concerns might lead to some reduction in forest land being converted to palm oil plantations, certainly endangered species and general planetary health don’t matter much.


Salient 06.22.13 at 5:05 am

Not, you know, sort of orange or something. RED.

Wild. Kinda reminds me of that scene at the end of White Noise where everybody goes and sits outside and passes the time gazing in wonder at the crazy purple sky.


Tomas Skov Lauridsen 06.22.13 at 9:46 am

As a part time Beijinger I can only say what you call an emergency, I call wednesday.

Seriously though, I have been here 2,5 months so far and I already have a cough that will not go away, so stay safe.


Sev 06.23.13 at 12:04 am

My first reaction on hearing about this was: biofuels, and sure enough they soon mentioned the burning to clear land for palm oil. Not sure if at this point it’s really biofuel demand driving this.


Omega Centauri 06.23.13 at 12:07 am

I hadn’t realized you were in Sinapore. Those of us across the big pond, we’ve got used to seeing photos of smog choked foriegn cities. I was taken ababck by the use of the word summer -to define time of year. Especially for a place like Sinapore, which I believe is about one degree from the equator. Of course Northern and Southern hemisphere seasons are reversed. Have Austrailians just given up, and simply adopted the calendar seasons of the northern hemisphere?

Hope you can get through it OK. From the few occasions when wildfire smoke hits here, I know I am pretty sensitive.


Belle Waring 06.23.13 at 2:13 am

Tomas–I know. Our daughters have a lot of classmates who are from Beijing and she told us that the index used to only go up to 500, but that in the last 2 years that had changed, because Beijing had experienced days with 700. Aaaaack.


ben w 06.23.13 at 6:05 am

That’s actually quite a lovely image.


Belle Waring 06.23.13 at 9:55 am

Omega Centauri: among expats, those from the Northern hemisphere far outnumber those from the Southern, and as many international schools have a long break at this time, many families go home to America or Italy or Korea or Northern China. Also, when children are taught Mandarin when they are little, the seasons and the things/festivals etc. associated with each season are among the first things they learn, after maybe greetings and numbers and family members. One isn’t really feeling particularly Autumnal during the Autumn lantern festival, but there are the little children parading around the neighborhood with lanterns (Aw!) and there is the gigantic lantern–um–theme park with no rides, sort of? that the Singapore government helps put on each year, with a theme like “Hello Kitty,” resulting in too much cotton candy and 30-foot-high lanterns of Cinnamaroroll and Batz-Maru the Angry Penguin.

The local children must be taught Mandarin in public school, and not, say, the Hokkien or Hakka which they speak at home (as well as English. Or Singlish as the case may be). Even Singaporeans themselves deprecate the standard and accent of local Mandarin, and they aspire to having their children speak Mandarin fluently and with a mainland Chinese accent. The international schools, likewise, recruit their teachers from Beijing. Our younger daughter Violet’s Kindergarten teacher really couldn’t speak any English. She had been randomly sorted into the class that had almost all native speakers. I was worried that it would be a problem–could she understand Miss Jenny? Was she having trouble or feeling sad at school? etc. Violet was totally serene, “it’s fine. I love Miss Jenny!” Miss Jenny was an adorable 21-year-old from Beijing, and every child loves their beautiful, kind, kindergarten teacher, even if they have to infer it’s hand-washing time from others’ actions. So, yeah, the seasons! So important! Drawing snow! Cutting out pretend falling leaves! Singapore fashion magazines also adhere to the fiction as they must present Tom Ford’s spring line…In reality there are four seasons: hot, hotter, wet, wetter.


Tomas 06.23.13 at 12:51 pm

Belle – luckily for me the worst (of this year so far) was over when I got here. I have no idea what I would have done if I had come in february as originally planned.

I have been going to Beijing off and on for years and it has definantly been getting worse since reprieve of the olympics. But this year is worse. The winter seems to have sent half the people I was going to interview (professionals working in Beijing on finance) leaving the city.

I love Beijing, but I don’t think my health can handle me living here full time.


david 06.23.13 at 3:44 pm

Has to be said that Hokkien and Hakka’s grip at home collapsed with the last generation. Speak Mandarin is now more than a generation old, and is itself under siege from English – I think it is now 65%+ English-as-first-language with the current cohort? A far cry from 5% in 1965.


Belle Waring 06.24.13 at 12:37 am

23: this is also true. I have a skewed view of this because I run a business with a Singaporean business partner my age, and almost all our suppliers, runners, contractors, etc. are 60-65+. So it seems like everyone speaks Hokkien. In reality among younger people I realize this is dying out and is more like a few things you could say to your grandma. Still, though, then why are all Singaporeans bitching about how their Mandarin sucks all the time? Oh, we have a terrible accent, it sounds awful, etc. People aren’t ususally so down on their own group that way.


Ponder Stibbons 06.24.13 at 2:42 pm

Re: terrible accent, sounds awful. I think part of it is because the Mandarin entertainment industry is centred around Taiwan, so Mandarin accents deviating from that standard are seen as less ‘cultured’. Entertainers from Malaysia and Singapore who ‘make it big’ in Taiwan tend to drop their native Mandarin accents and acquire a Taiwanese one.

But there’s a similar thing going on with English in that British/American accents are thought to be superior. So the bigger picture is something about post-colonial/small-nation insecurity and the alleged lack of ‘native’ heritage (the standards have always been set from abroad, whether by the British or by the mainland immigrants). In addition I think the ruling party has deliberately encouraged this kind of insecurity—maintaining a constant narrative of struggling against the odds, never being good enough, always needing the help of foreigners, …I could go on.

Also I think it’s true that compared to native Mandarin speakers from Taiwan and the PRC, Singaporeans aren’t that proficient with Mandarin. Most Singaporeans who grew up with Speak Mandarin mainly use English in school/work, so even if they use Mandarin a lot in non-work social contexts, they lack the vocabulary for ‘technical’ concepts used in school or the workplace. It doesn’t help that it’s acceptable (and common) in everyday discourse to simply use the relevant English word if you don’t know the Mandarin counterpart. In this way you can get by as a “native Mandarin speaker” in Singapore while not knowing the Mandarin for many concepts that crop up regularly in occupational contexts.

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