Orientalism at the Font

by Belle Waring on July 7, 2015

I have a few observations about Asia, and living here and also traveling to nations other than Singapore. I have been mulling them over on this trip alone as I have no one to talk to (except everyone I meet, and it’ll astonish you to know I am a friendly, chatty person. Well, the friendly might surprise you if you think of me as a harpy swooping to scourge my foes with a whip of venom. In truth I smile at strangers, and it took me some little time living in NYC before I could repress the drive to meet with my gaze every person I pass, a practice that actually impedes walking in Savannah, as one frequently knows the person and cannot, under any circumstance, walk past them without speaking briefly. My children think I am “scary,” a not unadulterated good character reference. By this they mean I have a mean glare on me, but that’s part of a mother’s job. If you can’t get somebody to stop fooling around just by looking at them sideways, you have failed to cultivate your maternal powers.) I have been loath to commit them–these ideas you forgot I was talking about just now–to pixels because I feel they are disorganized and perhaps it is not even possible to unwind the tangled skein. However, you are always kind in accepting my scattered thoughts as continuous writing and thus encouraged I will proceed.

African-American culture is one of America’s leading exports. It continuously astonishes me that a people so important should be materially impoverished. Indonesian men use the clothing style of black Americans as a model, and you can see many an improbably white baseball cap canted on the head of a guy smoking cloves and lounging by a row of scooters. Improbable because the alley is filthy. (I am also always amazed when I see, emerging from what really can only be called a hovel, an Indonesian schoolgirl, long shining braids looped with white ribbons at her ears, her school uniform shirt cleaner than a rain washed sky, the white shirt like a lambent cloud. How do the mothers do it?) There is also Indonesian rap music, with whole radio stations devoted to it. As why should there not be, but I am jarred by the ubiquity.

In America there is a stereotype than Asian men in general are feminized and less sexually vital as men. There is sometimes a feeling within the Asian-American community that they are “losing” “their” women to white (and less so, black) Americans. This is borne out in the asymmetry of dating, in which Asian women are paired up with white men much more so than the reverse. In actual Asia this is a nonsensical read of a man or a group of men. There’s no one else to be manly other than themselves. However, the sight of a reed-thin girl with black hair to her waist walking arm-in-arm with a fat white man whose redness of face suggests incipient alcoholism annoys Asian men here in Asia, and western women in Asia also. I myself often think, “dude you are punching way above your weight class here. You brought a knife to a gun fight; why are you sauntering off victor, beprized?”

Obviously different cultures have divergent modes of manliness. Korean guys who’ve had some work done, wearing BB cream, are manly as hell. They look great, too; one always wishes women should be freed of elaborate beauty requirements, but if instead men will be forced to endure them also, the equality produced by pushing in this direction generates lots of hot straight guys and so can’t be all bad. (The stereotype that gay men put more effort into their appearance is problematic, but not entirely false–the male gaze demands conformity to its desires wherever it lands. My brother once won somebody $20 at a party. A group approached and asked if he were gay or straight. The question, they hastened to add, was the subject of a wager on whether the best-looking, best-dressed man at any given party must be gay. The majority supported the premise. Obviously this was flattering; I like to think my brother’s fashion sense was informed by his mom and sisters, who are all waaaaay into vintage cool stuff and overdressing for every occasion.)

It interests me what young Asian men look like when they want to look “hard.” At my gate in Singapore there was a group of obviously Indonesian travelers, mostly guys but young women and a few babies in tow. The guys were trying to look tough, and succeeded. A glare that rejects the advances of another’s lightly touching eye–this is a male thing everywhere. “What are you looking at?” It’s a truculent cast of face. It’s also interesting for me to be afraid of men when the men are basically my height or not much taller. In America men in general are bigger than me, so if I walk by a bunch of dudes lounging with an active show of hostility part of the fear I have rests in all these guys being so obviously able to kick my ass. But a slender Indonesian guy whose 5’7″ could also totally kick my ass. As to why I fear them I am just afraid of men generally; the world would have to shift on its axis for me to unlearn being afraid so late in life. Anyway, this is disorganized but hopefully not useless…

Oh, I remember I wanted to talk about one last thing. Fu Manchu. As a kid I read the collected work of Sax Rohmer many times over. My father had a set bound in black and a golden spiderweb shared the spine with the gilt letters of the title. The main impact on my life they had was to lead me to be deeply disappointed in hash when I first smoked it at 13 (I first smoked pot when I was nine which is insane to me now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. My friend and I could just raid our parents’ stash–and if everybody was smoking weed all day long it must be fun, right? Here I will tell you an unknown fact that I’ve verified with the only other people able to talk about the matter accurately: pot does not effect you when you’re a little kid. Alcohol will get you drunk no problem, but you can smoke all the joints you want and for real nothing will happen. Sometimes I think this is because being a child is like being stoned all the time: music trips you out, you like to lie on the grass watching pillbugs scurry about and periodically pick them up to watch them fold into a tight circle of grey segments, etc. But watch out: you’re going to be 13 or so and you will suddenly be blazed and way not expecting it. I have a troubled course when I consider advice to my children in these matters.) My dad straight-up warned me about the disappointment of hash when I first read the books, but it wasn’t enough. What has always proved satisfactory is the wail of the muezzin at the call to prayer. When I hear it sung out, plangent, and look up to see the Southern Cross I feel perfectly alienated in just the way I wished to bring about when, as a child, I dreamed of going to the tropics. Sax Rohmer told me of the sudden fall of night, so early and swift and invariant through the year, like someone pulled on an old string depending from a light on the ceiling. He was right. I am daily satisfied by the sunset. The dawn comes up like thunder, too, and late enough for everyone else to see it, but I am asleep until 10 or 11 and in any case the dawn is my most hated time of day. I associate it only with the end of night, the panes of glass in the window showing grey, the day used up and burned out.



Val 07.07.15 at 7:04 am

Very beautiful thoughts.

They merit a much better response than that, in fact, but … maybe others can provide it. I’ll have to think on’t.


Val 07.07.15 at 7:13 am

One thing I can say is that now I’m a fairly old woman, a grandmother in fact, I’m rarely scared of anyone in person, including most men and even groups of men. Being a grandmother seems to protect you against most malevolence, except of the psychopathic kind, I guess. Maybe that’s cheering? Some women seem to experience ageing as a loss of relevance, a being-pushed-to-the-side, but I don’t (well not usually).

I think of elephants, who mainly live in groups led by grandmothers. (Male elephants seem to have a rather lonely life once they become adults and have to leave, though)


Anders Widebrant 07.07.15 at 8:31 am

My go-to trolly truths about the US is that it’s in every way a normal European country, except for black culture, which is really the only culturally distinct thing to come out of the whole effort.


Belle Waring 07.07.15 at 8:45 am

It’s the actual, literal “white people walk like this, but black people walk like this stupid joke but in my opinion the rangy bounce that will let you think , as you sit at a cafe in Thailand, “that’s an American guy, not a Swiss one, or a Russsian one” is due to the fact that white Americans walk like black Americans, who are likewise pretty distinctive . When a big Navy ship comes to Singapore you see a group of 3 dudes walking and you know they’re American, not just the big white teeth like polished chiclets.


Val 07.07.15 at 10:17 am

Belle in view of some of your experiences that you’ve talked about in previous posts, I feel my comment @ 2 was insensitive. It was a clumsy attempt at reassurance and I apologise.


medrawt 07.07.15 at 12:26 pm

Black culture has surely had a major impact, but I feel like the “Americans walk distinctively” thing goes back further than that (further than what I take to be the overt influence of African-American culture on cross-ethnic American culture). I have this notion that Europeans used to make fun of American men for carrying themselves like John Wayne, f’rinstance (maybe this was still influenced by African-American culture, but not in a way that the white folks of the time would’ve been conscious of, I think). I think prior to the specific cadence of the walk there’s this thing of taking up space; if I’m not thinking about it consciously (like on planes/trains/buses) I default to occupying as much territory as I can with my limbs; I’m a biggish person and I tend to make myself bigger much more than I tend to make myself smaller (though I try not to be that dude who takes up too much space on the subway and gets memorialized for it on Tumblr). I flip between thinking that’s a very cliched “masculine” thing to do and thinking it’s a particularly “American” thing to do.


hix 07.07.15 at 1:14 pm

A particular vast private space is typical American, definitly.


Belle Waring 07.07.15 at 1:15 pm

Val: no worries! medrawt: an early writer on America noted that Americans walked distinctively but I can’t think who now. It’s not just taking up space on the sidewalk, something drunk Australian dudes can do just fine–confidential to this one guy: don’t go an push me onto Jalan Raya Laskmana or I will get run the fuck over, dude. No, it’s a kind of loping along. Why I think this is coming from Af-Am culture I’m not sure, but… One thing that’s funny about living in Asia is when I see a black person, which is infrequent (and God damn but Asian people can be prejudiced against black people!) I’m always like, “an American person!” Got to think about that a liitttle harder. Zoe mocked me. “It’s not like there’s a huge continent or anything.”


LFC 07.07.15 at 1:17 pm

A bit peculiar to read Anders Widebrandt @3, after the various comment threads attached to the recent Danielle Allen book symposium here.

My go-to trolly truths about the US is that it’s in every way a normal European country
This is, at best, a meaningless statement w/o some specification of what is meant by “a normal European country.”

except for black culture, which is really the only culturally distinct thing to come out of the whole effort.
Even limiting “culture” to its narrowest meaning of, say, music/art/literature, this is not so, I think. Southern ‘gothic’, the ‘Western’ novel, bluegrass, the American Renaissance, etc etc. There’s also Native American culture, don’t forget.

Anyway, since the OP is about Asia, this is all off-topic. I just didn’t feel like letting A. Widebrandt’s comment go w/o response. Not to say that black culture isn’t v. important; it obviously is.


Belle Waring 07.07.15 at 1:28 pm

It’s awesome and funny that my dad warned me against being disappointed in hash, when I was reading the books as a kid. (And that they were racist but kind of duh.) But that’s straight hilarious to be like, “honey, I don’t want you to have unrealistic expectations about hash, like I did after reading this same collected set of Sax Rohmer novels as a teenager.” Sax Rohmer makes that shit sound like LSD on stilts. Vistas of mysterious palaces, sense that your limbs have extended and your hands are too far away to move them. Well, that last isn’t nuts. I guess Sax Rohmer just had the hook-up with a great dealer. His first Fu Manchu books were written before WWI and a glimpse of stocking is, indeed, something shocking. I way love them, like Conan.


Belle Waring 07.07.15 at 1:37 pm

LFC: that’s quite fair and thanks. It was presented as trollery, of which it is not the most strained variety. As to the last, I almost think white America’s fantasies about Native Americans and the frontier have made more impact on our culture than actual Native American culture. Got to name-check the Iroquois Confederacy, tho. Many of my happiest childhood hours were spent looking for arrowheads and potsherds in the sand and clay of South Carolina, happy with a piece of pottery that had been wrapped with string on the outside before firing, to decorate it; thrilled with a bird point; only twice in my life a spear-head. Lots of Clovis points from before easy living in the Low Country made people be like, “eh, fuck knapping a bunch of flint. Let’s just have another oyster roast.”


Ronan(rf) 07.07.15 at 2:13 pm

“My go-to trolly truths about the US is that it’s in every way a normal European country, except for black culture, which is really the only culturally distinct thing to come out of the whole effort.”

That’s something I’ve often wondered(not the first bit, which I think is wrong), and in fact I remember having a conversation about this with someone back in the days of my shallow youth (disclaimer, we were both white, I don’t think either of us had been to the US at that stage – though I watched a fair amount of tv – and we both could have been stoned. Or probably not)
His argument was there was a distinctive African American culture born in the history of slavery, segregation, oppression and racial self sufficiency . Mine was there might be some distinct cultural traits, but there was no homogenous west African culture initially, and everything since has been built in interaction with white America. Therefore the similarities (between white and black America) are going to be more prevalent than the differences.
I don’t know if this interjection makes sense even as a conversation, and where a person puts the emphasis is probably primarily ideological, but I’m interested to be corrected.(unless it’s too off topic, then no correction needed)


Belle Waring 07.07.15 at 2:44 pm

You probably weren’t SUPER-stoned, tho, because hash doesn’t really wreck your shit sideways like how I thought it would when I was 10.

As to whether there can be any meaningful concept of American culture generally that doesn’t incorporate the influence of a black culture separate from and distinct within America, no I don’t think so, but that’s just as much as having it both ways, so, I’m not sure. It’s important to keep in mind the peculiar experience of the South: endless vigilance at the boundaries combined with continual…intercourse and its attendant shared facts like food and music.


tomsk 07.07.15 at 2:59 pm

“the dawn is my most hated time of day. I associate it only with the end of night, the panes of glass in the window showing grey, the day used up and burned out.”

Me too. Lots of people get all hullo clouds hullo sky over the dawn but for me it’s just dispiriting; I can no longer reasonably pretend the night is still young, sober-minded people will now be going about the important business of the day and once again I’ve made a hash of this circadian rhythms business. These days seeing it is generally because I’ve been kept awake all night by a disgruntled infant rather than by dancing in a field, but it’s still not a welcome development.


Bloix 07.07.15 at 3:51 pm

“It’s also interesting for me to be afraid of men when the men are basically my height or not much taller.”

I’m a 5’8″ man, which is well below average for a white man in most of America. And I do feel fear in the usual stereotypical settings – alone at night on a dark street, say. I’ve only once in my life been the victim of actual violence, and that was pretty minor, but the feeling is always there.

Some years ago I spent some time in Guatemala. There is a fuck of a lot of violent crime in Guatemala. One night I was alone in a public square at night and a dark shape emerged from a shadow. At first I had the usual little frisson of fear and then I saw that he was 5’5″ and 120 pounds, and I relaxed. That was irrational – a 5’5″ guy with a shiv could take me apart. But it didn’t matter – I was bigger than him, therefore, no fear.

Another time I was walking down a village street and three tough guys in tight shirts and cowboy boots came strutting past. This was more or less a uniform for informal militia men, a very violent bunch. But they seemed ridiculous – they were what, 5’6″? If they had been 6′, I would have been afraid, for no reason – they would have no beef with an American. But at 5’6″, they seemed like children playing at being tough.

Everywhere, I had none of the mild anxiety tending toward fear that I often feel in the US. It was wonderful to be big. And one of the things that occurred to me was, Oh, so what I feel at home is what most women feel all the time, only worse.


kingless 07.07.15 at 4:31 pm

Nothing to contribute to this discussion, just saying that I’ve been reading your posts since John & Belle Have A Blog (still reachable, good) and I enjoyed this one even more than usual. Fu Manchu at the start of that entrancing last paragraph got me wondering which story ends with him giving the wedding gifts.


Belle Waring 07.07.15 at 4:38 pm

Bloix: yeah, men are just way stronger than women even when you’re the same size. I am surprised you didn’t feel scared in Guatemala but it’s interesting that it’s so. I have next to no reason to be afraid of any Indonesian dudes in Bali–I have been quite literally walking down actual dark alleys in between composing the post and now. An expat got robbed and killed at her house here in Bali five years ago or so and it was front page news in Australia. That was even, I think, an interrupted burglary with the burglar being known to her. Sometimes I feel bad about being afraid of men for no reason, but. Not bad enough to stop, exactly. With all of you that I ever meet being lovely in practice! Well, except the crazy ones, but I mean like you Bloix not you schizo guy on the deserted BART platform. Just…blame every dude I’ve ever known except John. Or my brother! My brother’s amazing. I can temper it by saying it’s inconsistent? I don’t walk around terrified and hateful all the time, at all. I’ve both been hurt by people I know and had my nose broken in a pointless and vicious mugging, among other attacks on my person by people I didn’t know. My step-father was more merely terrifying than downright hurting people for the most part, but he could scare the shit out of you, and he was 6’3″. He’s my beloved sister’s dad so I don’t want to talk smack about him, and it’s not as if he were a being of pure evil. He tried to love us, I think, and he had suffered so horribly. He was just really, really scary when he was drunk and/or angry. Illustrative: I had a little chair made of Brazilian rosewood that one of my dad’s boat-mates made for him to give to me when he was working on a river boat in the Amazon. It was truly child sized. My step-dad was yelling at me one night when I was about twelve or thirteen, sitting up in bed and he picked the chair up by its back and smashed it against the wall just above my head. I didn’t get hurt, just knocked a bit by the falling parts, and he contritely and effectively repaired it the next day, but too much of that makes you permanently tweaky. I sort of wish I could remember what he was mad about but it never really mattered.


TMD 07.07.15 at 4:59 pm

BW: “an early writer on America noted that Americans walked distinctively but I can’t think who now.”

This passage is probably not what you are thinking of, but perhaps relevant to the general theme:

“I was sick in New York. I asked myself where I had already seen young ladies walking like my nurses. I had the time to think of it. I finally found it was at the movies. Back to France, I noticed, specially in Paris, the frequency of this walking : the young girls were French and they walked the same way. In fact, the American ways of walking, thanks to the movies, were beginning to arrive in France. ” – Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body” (1926)


Philip 07.07.15 at 5:53 pm

At school I was bullied, it was mainly low level violence stuff like knocks or digs when a teacher wasn’t looking and the occasional fight. I did make my mouth go and make fun of people, some of which I regret now. The one time I pushed a bully back I got in a fight and got concussion.

I’m a 6′ man and haven’t been involved in violence since school, but am still nervous/afraid in some situations. I am the right size in that I’m not too small to be seen as an easy target and not too big that someone will try and make a point by attacking me. I’ve been lucky in leaving place just before people I was with got in fights or not going out those nights. I will also act to avoid any violence, if I knock into someone at a bar I will immediately put my hands up and apologise, if someone says ‘what are you looking at’ I’ll say ‘nothing, sorry’ and back away.

So when I worked in Italy it was very strange that if you knocked into someone at a busy bar they would have walked off and thought nothing of it, and then there was the men kissing each other as a greeting, but it helped me relax a bit. I still tense up if I sense someone behind me or some comes up behind and touches me, even in a friendly way.

As for America being like a European country except for Black American culture, well it seems to me that it’s pretty influential in Europe as well as the rest of the world.


Rich Puchalsky 07.07.15 at 5:59 pm

The Residents are basically Southern hippies, as far as anyone knows. _The Tunes of Two Cities_ stands as one of the best examinations of how black American culture became American culture.


LFC 07.07.15 at 6:30 pm

Belle @11
…I almost think white America’s fantasies about Native Americans and the frontier have made more impact on our culture than actual Native American culture.

yes, I think a good case could be made for that.

Also tend to agree w comment @13. There is (in many cases) a distinct African-American culture that gets incorporated into and mixed w/ the general culture. I guess a by-now-cliché case would be the various confluences of influence in jazz and the blues, but there are quite a few other examples, some more recent.


Aulus Gellius 07.07.15 at 6:41 pm

Sax Rohmer books are fascinating in their absolutely unsubtle, out-and-proud racism. There’s something almost refreshing about it, if you’re used to racists who are always trying to leave themselves a back door to wriggle out of.

I also always found it interesting that you got a certain amount of what almost looks like anti-racism, as Rohmer is concerned to make his villains intimidating, and to explode the complacency of people who think that Asians can be safely dismissed as inferior. There are all these vast international conspiracies, and people keep on being incredulous that a “Chinaman”, rather than a spy from another European nation, could have stolen the secret plans or whatever. A couple times, IIRC, Fu Manchu is called “the greatest genius of the modern world,” without qualification.* I occasionally think that someone ought to write a secret-history version of the Fu Manchu books (“The Murderous Sir Denis Nayland Smith”), where FM is the good guy, and all the brave white detectives become vicious racist thugs; you’d hardly have to change any of the details, it would mostly be a matter of tone. Not sure anyone but me would read it, though.

*This mostly just applies to Chinese characters; the Black characters in Rohmer are more straightforwardly, uninterestingly racist, and pretty unpleasant to read. Also, all the women, of whatever race. There is something similar to the Fu Manchu thing with the Jewish villain in “Moon of Madness”; he is, obviously, a sinister and dishonest Communist spy, but at one point the narrator comments that although people make jokes about the cowardice of the Jew, this guy walked up to face his enemies without a quiver.


floopmeister 07.08.15 at 1:00 am

Belle – the following video by Lao band Cells sums up the dynamic of ‘punching above their weight’ absolutely perfectly. This is an old but brilliant track – they were around when we were living in Lao around the turn of the century. The chorus (in English) makes it perfectly clear:

White thin rich tall
They love they like
Dark short poor fat
Why don’t they like?

Interestingly this dynamic also applies (as the video shows) to rich Thai middle class men as much as Westerners:


Also you should check out the excellent record shop Straits Records in Kampung Glam to get a handle on some excellent SE Asian metal, rock and punk. For example the Brndls from Indonesia:




Brilliant stuff…


floopmeister 07.08.15 at 1:04 am

Whoops – put the same link to the Brndls twice. The link I wanted to put up was too their single ‘Perak’:


This is one of the most insanely catchy power pop songs I’ve ever heard!


Bill Benzon 07.08.15 at 1:14 am

Belle @ 13: “…peculiar experience of the South: endless vigilance at the boundaries combined with continual…intercourse and its attendant shared facts like food and music.”

I like that. It’s as though the endless vigilance was a condition of the continual intercourse, etc. Or is it that the continual intercourse, etc. produced all that vigilance. It’s one of those mutually reinforcing/causal dynamics.


Ian 07.08.15 at 1:37 am

At my gate in Singapore there was a group of obviously Indonesian travelers, mostly guys but young women and a few babies in tow. The guys were trying to look tough, and succeeded. A glare that rejects the advances of another’s lightly touching eye—this is a male thing everywhere.

“Travellers”? Surely these weren’t middle-class Indonesian students backpacking / motorcycling round SE Asia? The attitude and the babies don’t fit with that. These must have been TKI: Indonesian migrant workers. TKI in Singapore have it relatively cruisy compared to TKI in certain other countries because Singapore provides some minimal legal protections, although I don’t know how far they’re enforced unless employer abuse is publicised (and that brings another set of risks for the victim). But their lives are still shitty. With fairly basic educations, they move from provincial Java to a rich 21st century city that has little place for them outside where they provide their labour and where they sleep. The city is dominated by an ethnic group towards whom they may hold a well-established inherited suspicion. They work 10-12 hour days, or more, and live in boxes or dormitories. Some TKI, I’m told, even have good experiences: what they get in Singapore is still better than anything they could hope for in Jakarta or their home towns. The trade-off is higher wages (if not ripped off by agents and bureaucrats) against the difficulty of making a visit back home during their 2-3 year contracts.

So… why were the guys trying to look tough? Was it just the defensive reaction of the intimidated male? These people are at the bottom of the economic order, in a location they see as socially, culturally, ethnically and religiously discomforting at best, and at worst hostile. Think Eastern European or Sicilian migrants in New York 120 years ago, or young Iraqi or Somali men in Sydney today. They cluster together and assume the rest of the city sees them as non-persons. Sometimes the assumption is validated. And unlike migrants to New York or Sydney, TKI are only going to be in Singapore temporarily, so the incentive to “belong” is absent even for those less inclined to frame their interactions in terms of intimidation.

Sure, that “glare that rejects the advances of another’s lightly touching eye” is a male thing everywhere – but less so with Indonesians than most other peoples. Answer the glare with a smile and a greeting, and the barriers come down faster than anywhere else I’ve experienced. (This is starting to sound like cheesy tourist PR. It’s still true. And I’m not a particularly gregarious or extroverted person.) Maybe, if the group you’re approaching has a strongly exclusive bond – say a teenage gang, or an ultra-conservative religious group – the barriers are harder to erode, but the motives for talking with such groups would be specialist to say the least. In more general cases, a bit of chit-chat with the people who hang round outside your house at certain times of day is natural and expected. I’m presuming TKI in Singapore would still have something of that mentality along with the other baggage of their very transactional presence in the city.


Belle Waring 07.08.15 at 2:44 am

FLOOPMEISTER WHY DID YOU NOT CHANGE MY LIFE SOONER!?! Sooooo good. “Perak” is the song of my summer now; Jason Derulo is just going to have to back the fuck off. The street they are playing cards on, outside the Religion store, is the main street outside where I’m staying right now! The trip through Changi is also a familiar one.


floopmeister 07.08.15 at 4:05 am

The album DGNR8 (that both those singles are from) is a ripper – about half the songs are sung in English and the other half in Bahasa. Picked it up from Straits Records last time we were in Kampung Glam.

The trip through Changi is also a familiar one.

Yeah for us the Xmas period always starts with an amble through Changi, Suvarnabhumi or KLCC – my 8 year old has become a connoisseur of SE Asian airports :)


Belle Waring 07.08.15 at 5:51 am

Once you go Changi, you never come back. When Zoe was 18 months old and we were transferring from the international terminal to the domestic at LAX, she and I used the bathroom and she said in a somewhat awed tone, “mommy, what’s wong with this airpawt?”

Our blog can have meetups, you know. You should hit me up in Singapore sometime. We can have lunch at Komala Vilas, unless you wrongly think another South Indian thali is better, in which case I’ll humor your flawed judgment with an empirical test. I’m just firstname.lastname at gmail. Seriously, you earned a lunch in me for turning me on to that music. I’m in love now.


Belle Waring 07.08.15 at 8:46 am

Ian, this is a really weird thing to say. Why do you think I’m such a socially incompetent and clueless person? Is this your general impression of me, that after living in Asia since 2000 I am totally ignorant of every aspect of SE Asian society? Migrant workers in Singapore, whom I have written about in the past, don’t have their families with them at all. That’s one of the shittiest parts of taking a 2-year stint as a construction worker. Singapore doesn’t allow the families to come, even. Only once in 15 years in did my former maid’s daughter come to stay with us, and it was difficult to arrange–we had to bribe the immigration authorities on the Philippines side for her to get out, and we had to file papers with the Singaporean government saying that she had a ticket back, and that we were financially responsible for her, and would lose a $5,000 bond if she somehow violated her visa status and remained, or got a job. Also, not all Indonesian people are broke. These were very obviously Indonesians living on Bali who had been on vacation in Singapore. Everything about them, from their clothes, to their watches, to the fact that they were flying SilkAir direct to Denpasar rather than one of the budget airlines to Jakarta indicated this. Tl;dr: I am not a fucking moron.

Philip, I’m sorry to hear about your experiences being bullied, that sort of thing is so painful.

Aulus Gellius: I would read that book. I would WRITE that book. Fu Manchu is unequivocally the smartest man in the world, “with the brow of a Shakespeare and the face of Satan.” Our heroes rely on British pluck, not smarts, to foil him.


Belle Waring 07.08.15 at 8:49 am

Ian, also, I quite agree that in general Indonesian guys, like all Indonesians, are really friendly. So quick to smile and laugh with you. I specifically said “when they’re trying to look hard” for this reason–it is not the normal state of affairs and is thus interesting.


Belle Waring 07.08.15 at 8:51 am

I actually don’t know if anyone has ever written a comment so insulting to my intelligence in the entire history of this blog.


Bill Benzon 07.08.15 at 9:52 am

Oh, and on American culture, if anyone’s around to write history in 2200 CE surely African-American musics will rank right up there with Apollo 13 as a contribution to world culture.


bliksem 07.08.15 at 11:07 am

> “an early writer on America noted that Americans walked distinctively but I can’t think who now”.

A few years ago, James Fallows wrote some posts about it over at the Atlantic; some of the reader responses were quite interesting:




JPL 07.08.15 at 11:13 am

Bill Benzon @33

In the evolution of western music as an art form, the incorporation of the rhythmic component from the African tradition — I’m talking about swing! — is a development of momentous proportions; especially for the “classical” (European) form, it will be seen as a watershed moment. (Not to mention the exploratory freedom of jazz) (Well, at the moment it just so happens that I’m listening to Bill Evans.)


Bill Benzon 07.08.15 at 1:50 pm

@JPL. Yes. Though judging what he did in his piano Sonta 32 in C Minor, Op 111 I’m thinking old Ludwig vB could have handled it. There’s a point in the second movement where it sounds like he started channeling Fats Waller or Earl Garner. The first time I heard that my jaw dropped and I had to fly around to the other side of the globe to retrieve it. Then I looked through the scores of of all the piano sonatas and that was the only one that had these funky time signatures like 12/32. 12/32? You’re kidding, no? Good old funky butt Beethoven! There’s a reason why rumours fly around that he’s got black blood in him.

Listen at roughly 16:32 in the following video:



Ben 07.08.15 at 3:06 pm

Oh my god that video, it is magnificent. Thank you.

(In your previous comment though: no one can deny that Tom Hanks has a kind of sweaty Everyman charm that’s appreciated the world over but you probably meant Apollo 11, right?

/space pedant [the best kind of pedant])

Crooked Timber is totally underrated as a music blog. This thread isn’t even about music and it has Jelly Roll Beethoven and The Brandals.


Belle Waring 07.08.15 at 3:42 pm

MIND. BLOWN. Thanks so much Bill!


Bill Benzon 07.08.15 at 3:52 pm

@ Ben: Yeah, 11.

@Belle: LOL! That Ludwig, what a cut-up! As you might imagine there are critics who’ve tried hard to deny that Beethoven wrote that. They just don’t know what to make of it, it’s so, well, you know, jazzy.


gianni 07.08.15 at 4:39 pm

“one always wishes women should be freed of elaborate beauty requirements, but if instead men will be forced to endure them also, the equality produced by pushing in this direction generates lots of hot straight guys and so can’t be all bad.”

This is surely the dream of cosmetics retailers everywhere.


bob mcmanus 07.08.15 at 4:42 pm

36: Errol Garner


Belle Waring 07.08.15 at 4:57 pm

gianni: retailers going to retail. SKII really is great.


Robespierre 07.08.15 at 5:00 pm

Racism and a view of foreigners as cunning and dangerous are quite compatible (cunning more than smart, perhaps, and fierce rather than brave; but these are thin distinctions). Whenever I have read a reactionary/racist rant (don’t ask), I’ve always been amazed at how whiny their paranoid delusions sounded, and how weak they thought “us” to be in the face of “their” menace. It was quite troubling to realise that for some people, genocide really is self defence.


Bill Benzon 07.08.15 at 5:08 pm

Whoops, @macmanus #41. Thanks for catching that.

Back to Beethoven, from my notes: Wilfrid Mellers in his study of Beethoven and the Voice of God notes that, in the second variation “the metre becomes a boogie rhythm, rendered seraphic. This is not a joke. This sonata encompasses spiritual purgation, and that purgation includes energies of the body: the Arietta is at once a hymnic song and a ceremonial dance. . . the mystical release of the movement would not be so awe-inspiring if its latent physicality were less strong.” The third variation, the one which interests me, doubles the time, of which Mellers asserts “The diminutions of the divisions induce ecstasy . . . like tongues of fire . . . ecstasy is synonymous with terror.” I can deal with ecstasy and tongues of fire, but I do not see where he gets terror.


Lasker 07.08.15 at 5:24 pm


I was at that concert!

Trifonov is the real deal and I expect to be watching him for years. At the moment I feel he is strongest in Chopin – but he did communicate the sheer weirdness of late Beethoven more than anyone else I have seen.

I thought the NY times review was unusually perceptive compared to the classical music coverage they usually print, though perhaps unfair to Ms. Wang: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/13/arts/music/daniil-trifonov-and-yuja-wang-play-at-carnegie-hall.html?_r=0


Bill Benzon 07.08.15 at 5:39 pm

For what it’s worth, Lasker, I’d never heard of Trifonov when I picked that particular video. I’d gone for a Richter first, but that was just the first movement. The Trifonov was just convenient. But, yes, he’s the real deal. I was impressed at the way he prepared for those cascades starting a minute and a half before he had to run them.


gianni 07.08.15 at 5:55 pm

I don’t know much about make-up, but as a caucasian who spends a good bit of the year abroad in East Asia, the omni-presence of whitening agents in skin care/makeup/etc always strikes me. I mean, I get the whole thing with the historical relation to class, and – especially in HK – the overlay with colonialism is obviously a factor. But so far as cultural observations go this is still something that really makes me tilt my head.

(sorry if I am totally wandering off course here; but correct me if I am wrong I think this is the point of the thread?)


Doctor Memory 07.08.15 at 6:25 pm

Belle: smoked hashish is disappointing versus the lyrical descriptions in Rohmer and elsewhere.

Consumed hash is… very different. But it’s kind of a 24-72 hour commitment and there is no guarantee that it will be a pleasant experience.


Ian 07.08.15 at 11:30 pm

I actually don’t know if anyone has ever written a comment so insulting to my intelligence in the entire history of this blog.

Ok, that left me a bit shaken, or at least pretty surprised. Belle, I misunderstood the context of what you described in the OP, made a wrong assumption, and I totally apologise. I also came across as lecturing, and it’s no mitigation to say that I started to be conscious of that as I wrote my comment but was too hurried to step back. Not a good choice. I’ve had personal involvement in a TKI issue and maybe that was encouraging me to jump too fast.

The paragraph in your OP was all I had. I didn’t know you’d written previously on migrant workers. Possibly I once registered that and forgot, but for work and technical reasons my blog reading 2007-2013 was spotty, and I don’t remember it.

I know TKIs aren’t allowed to bring families let alone have babies while under contract. For that reason I’d been theorising they might have been illegal migrants, a big issue in Malaysia; but that’s irrelevant now. The hostile vibrations you describe are just puzzling.


Anderson 07.08.15 at 11:43 pm

Belle, I wonder whether you’ve written about Marvel’s Madripoor from your Singaporean perspective before? Not googling it up.


Belle Waring 07.09.15 at 2:39 am

OK, didn’t mean to nuke you from orbit, Ian. It’s just that I felt I was being condescendingly lectured to about a topic I really, obviously, knew about. They were being hostile just because they were good-looking, relatively rich young men who had purposely cultivated an attitude of “don’t fuck with me.” You’re right that Singapore is hostile to its foreign workers, and the Malay minority feels they are discriminated against by the Chinese super-majority. Maybe everyone in every fancy store they’d been in had been assholes and that’s why they were feeling pissed off. People in Singapore would just assume they were reasonably well-off Malay given no other evidence, though, IME. But the attitude relates to the borrowing from African American culture to my mind: what if your model of cool was all and only rap videos? And you decided you needed to look cool? You might well lean back and fold your arms and get your game face on, like I learned to do in NYC.

Doc Memory, you’ve met me in real life. And you just learned my life is so stupid that I started smoking weed when I was nine which, what even? Who lets their nine-year-old smoke weed? What are the odds I’ve never eaten hash? Would you take a big bet at 1000:1 against? You would not. It’s a fair rejoinder, though: edibles will produce more of the effect Sax Rohmer’s going for, for sure. I have a friend whose cleaning lady sneaked two of the delicious cookies on the counter, shortbread made with THC-infused butter. Shortbread. Shortbread is like 40% butter. She had to pull off the road on her drive home and wasn’t able to make it all the way back for a number of hours. When she got home she laid on the rug in her living room for the next 6 hours. Whoops!


Doctor Memory 07.09.15 at 3:09 am

Touché Belle; didn’t mean to add to the list of people underestimating you in this thread.
Although I’ll admit that even despite having lived an occasionally entertaining life myself, I’ve only encountered actual hashish in quantity… Once? Maybe twice? May be a regional or generational thing; anyway point being I wouldn’t be surprised to meet people who were otherwise well acquainted with cannabis who’d never bothered.


Belle Waring 07.09.15 at 7:48 am

Nah, it’s cool. I’ve heard that if you have your own grow operation you can just roll up some Nepalese temple-ball shit in your hands by periodically rubbing them together after dressing all the buds, removing stalks etc. Like, I read about it one time. It’s also just a US/Euro thing–people in Europe don’t hardly have anything BUT hash. I’m not sure why. Needs to be smaller in total volume to be smuggled?


gianni 07.09.15 at 9:35 am

Hash is also really big in the coastal countries of Northern Africa, so I imagine it find its way north very easily. Size/potency also matters, as well as the fact that the Euros like their dope with tobacco (so just add the oil or flakes on top of ur rolly), whereas this can be mighty frowned upon in the US in some circles.


Ronan(rf) 07.09.15 at 12:31 pm

My impression is the same as Gianni’s, that part of it can be explained by what regions are (were?) supplying the European and US markets (which, afaik, is North Africa and Afghan (ie hash) primarily for Europe, and South/Central America and domestic (ie weed) for the US ?) Although I assume what’s produced in a country could be effected by a number of things, like ease to smuggle, path dependance, local preferences etc
I don’t know if the distinction exists as much anymore. Weed seems to be outpopularising hash across Europe these days. Of course all of this is speculation on my part.


Philip 07.09.15 at 2:10 pm

Ronan, yeah kids in the UK are supposed to be smoking weed these days, but hash was definitely more available than weed in the first years of the millennium. Weed was always seen as superior but harder to get, I wonder if that view has changed now hash is harder to get.


Belle Waring 07.09.15 at 6:11 pm

The grass is always greener…


JAFD 07.09.15 at 6:16 pm

On American walks, ISTR there’s a relevant passage in Lee Kennett’s _G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II_ (VG book, IMHO)

Would give you page or quote it, but away from library today.


oldster 07.09.15 at 6:45 pm

Trifonov looks like Stephen Fry.

It’s my impression that one can take most 4/4 compositions and ‘swing’ them, i.e. play them in such a way that they sound jazzy. Conversely, I recall reading in one of Günther Schiller’s books (alas, the late GS we now have to say) that it is pretty much impossible to notate a piece so that the notes tell you to swing it.

This makes me wonder: could one play that same passage of Beethoven in a more squared-off, straight-up-and-down way? Less schrägemusik? Is Trifonov’s barrel-house rendition demanded by the score, encouraged by the score, merely permitted by the score, etc?


oldster 07.09.15 at 7:31 pm

“It was that each man stepped out or swung his arms in his own way, giving European observers an impression of incipient discordance in any body of marching G.I.s. No amount of close order drill could completely erase that impression, for the G.I. never made that ultimate, intimate surrender of the individual to the mass. It was possible to see the lack of parade ground precision in another way. A Czech villager remarked to an American officer as they both watched American troops swing by, “They walk like free men.” p. 83


Bill Benzon 07.09.15 at 8:19 pm

@oldster, #59: The barrel-house is in the score. Beethoven notated those rhythms in time signatures that he didn’t use anywhere else in the piano sonatas. I can only conclude he did that because that was the best way he could figure out for getting the rhythms he wanted. The signatures he used, things like 9/16 and 12/32 if I recall correctly, are highly unusual.

Big band scores are generally notated in straight eighth notes, but the musicians know to swing them. Though just how one swings them is going to vary from one composer/arranger/band to another.


George de Verges 07.12.15 at 2:49 pm

Just a general comment. Ms. Waring, you are not the reason I began reading Crooked Timber, but you certainly are the reason I continue to read Crooked Timber. Thanks.

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