Monday, October 17, 2016

Missed Manners

Having just come back from a quick trip to Tokyo, I’m pleased to announce that I now see why people are always fussing about Japan.
            I mean, I’ve always had an appreciation for the country. How could one not, I’m always asking myself as I wander around the toiletries and cleaning products aisles of the Japanese supermarket in the basement of Isetan, though with the current renovations, it all feels a bit make-shift.
Everything is packaged in bright shiny wrappers and I usually have no idea what anything does, except I know a lot of it promises cleaner whiter surfaces. As Saffy once observed with approval, the simple image of a sparkling floor translates into any language.
Even the fruits – a brighter shade of red, pink, yellow, whatever, lying there looking all fresh and tempting in their pine boxes lined with straw – promise a nicer and sweeter taste, though again, as Saffy went on to point out, they better be nicer and sweeter for $40 a fruit.
“Who pays $40 for a melon?” she murmured.
That’s the other thing about a Japanese supermarket: You tend to talk in subdued tones. Like you’re in a funeral parlour, or something.
She does, that’s who,” I said out of the side of my mouth, a gentle tilt of my head in the direction of a Japanese matron, perfectly dolled up in a black cardigan, immaculately pressed skirt and sensible shoes. She had two melons in her trolley.
“That’s eighty bucks, right there!” Saffy said, always anxious to show off her maths skills. “How can she afford to buy the rest of dinner?”
So, anyway, my point is, I’ve always had a suspicion that as much as I enjoy the sensation of being in Isetan, I would be even more blissed out in the actual country.
And I was right.
The Japanese just seem to do things better than anyone else. Their immigration line is neat and orderly. There’s not a speck of dust anywhere. You could eat sushi off the streets. And if people aren’t wearing facemasks, they’re wearing gloves, or if they’re really polite, they’re wearing both.
And they’re always bowing. If you’re ever feeling a bit depressed or suffering from low self-esteem, you should show up at Takashimaya just when it opens. All the staff is lined up at their stations and as you pass, they start bowing and smiling and greeting you. I had no idea what they were saying. Probably ‘Good morning’ or maybe even ‘That colour isn’t working for you’, but let me tell you, I was bowed to all the way up to the top floor and I loved every second of it.
The same thing happened the next day at the bank. Everyone from the security guard to the entire floor of foreign exchange bowed. And when I apologetically told the charming lady behind the counter that I only wanted to exchange a measly fifty US dollars into yen, she bowed so low you’d think from the way her nose was almost Hoovering the spotless carpet, I was there to deposit a million dollars.
For all I know, when she took my money back to her desk to change it, she was thinking, “God, I don’t get paid enough to do this crap!”, but if she was, you wouldn’t ever have known it – the smile never left her face. 
Saffy FaceTimed me to ask what the Japanese men were like in their native non-Raffles Place environment. “They’re all very well dressed and groomed,” I told her.
“Ooh, that is so hot!” she crooned.
Amanda stuck her head into the picture. “What about the women? What are they wearing?”
“Afternoon tea at the Ritz-Carlton clothes, but ramped up several degrees of chicness.”
“Oooh, I’m so jealous! I wish I was there. You look like you’re in a taxi.”
“Yes, it’s the cleanest taxi I’ve ever been in. There are white doilies on the seats and the driver is wearing pristine white gloves. And there’s not a Vicks vapour-rub stick in sight!”
Later that night, as I sat on my dinky little red stool in the equally dinky little public bathhouse down the road from my hotel, it occurred to me that there’s something very satisfactory about living in a country that’s so united in its commitment to cleanliness and hygiene that complete strangers will willingly scrub and clean and soak in searing hot water together.
“I could see myself spending some time here,” I later told Sharyn on FaceTime.
“Eeee, doh-wan,” she said eloquently. “No char kway teow, eat raw fish every day, confirm die!”

Saffy says the idea of a naked Sharyn soaking in the public bathhouse would put anyone off their sushi.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

One of the (many) great things about Singapore is that you get to watch movies at the cinema for almost nothing. In London, a ticket costs about £13 at the local Everyman cinema, a fiscal outrage that I’m surprised hasn’t led to a revolution.
            “Hah?” Sharyn said with typical eloquence as we settled in for ‘Revenant’ when it first came out. “Twenty-sick dollar? To watch a movie? Siow!”
            “You don’t even get a biscuit,” I told her.
Anxious not to be left out, Saffy leaned over to derail the conversation. “I’m so glad I remembered to bring a sweater this time. It’s ridiculous how cold theatres get in Singapore!”
“They keep showing the same commercials!” Amanda observed. She held a big tub of popcorn on the lap. The movie hadn’t even started and she was already a third of the way through it.
“Ay, this movie good or not?” Sharyn asked. “I ever watch this Leonardo dee Cah-pree-oh, but long long time ago in ‘Titanic’. Wah, dat time, hor, he so young and han-sum. Now so lao and fat!”
“He’s had a lot of rave reviews,” Amanda said.
“Issit? My son watch last week.”
“Did he like it?” Saffy asked.
“He say got lots of blood. And after he watch, he say he very cold.”
Just then, in the flickering gloom of the cinema, a mother came slowly down the steps, shepherding two little girls before her.
“Do you need to go shee-shee?” the mother asked loudly.
“No need!” one of the girls chimed, her clear voice ringing over the commercial for some crazy app game where you had to match the animal zodiacs.
In row G, seats five to eight turned their attention to watch with interest.
After a while, a collective decision was made. “I don’t mean to be judgmental or anything,” Amanda began, “but isn’t this movie rated ‘R’ or something?”
“Hannor!” Sharyn mumbled through a mouthful of popcorn. “I tell you, ah, today parent got no cow sense, one. How can bring chil-ren to watch this kind of movie? Aiyoh!” she added.
“Totally irresponsible!” Saffy concluded, her voice possessing the same penetrating power of Moses before the Red Sea. A few rows down, the No Cow Sense mother lifted her head and looked up towards us in the gloom, like a ferret sniffing the air. I sank further back into my seat.
“There’s a reason why movies are rated!” Saffy added, her voice rising several pitches.
“Should we complain to the security guard?” Amanda asked me.
I told her I really didn’t want to get involved. “She might be the wife of a loan shark,” I said. “I don’t want gangsters paying us visits in the middle of the night!”
“She’s too well dressed to be the wife of a triad gangster,” Amanda said. “She was carrying a Bottega handbag and she’s got Chanel jewellery on.”
In spite of myself, I was impressed. “You could see all that in this dark?”
Amanda shrugged. “I’m practically Batman.”
Saffy’s voice cut through the dark. “I’m sorry to interrupt this meeting of the Justice League,” she said icily, “but what are we going to do?”
I shook my popcorn tub at her. White confetti sprayed out. “Nothing!” I said desperately. “We’re going to do nothing! Those are not our children. If they have nightmares tonight, that is on the gangster mother! Not on us!”
“Yah, I oh-so say,” Sharyn said. “Not our ploh-blem! Anyway, movie start or-redi!”
Silence descended on row G. On the screen, Chinese logos and symbols flashed up.
“Gosh, Chinese studios funded this movie?” Amanda murmured.
            “Chinese money is everywhere these days. Look at ‘The Transformers’!” said Saffy, veteran movie financier.
“Even the music sounds Chinese!” Amanda said.
On cue, Chinese script scrolled through the screen.
“This is already such a strange movie,” Saffy mumbled.
“Hah? Sun Wu Gong?” Sharyn said suddenly.
“What?” Amanda said.
Behind us, someone leaned over and hissed. “Can you people stop talking, please?”
In the private recesses of my brain, something was politely knocking on the door. When I didn’t answer, it began whispering loudly through the key-hole.
“Oh God,” I said, and began fishing in my pocket for my cinema ticket. In the flickering gloom, I strained to read the details.
“What is going on with this movie?” Saffy complained. “Why are they all wearing Chinese clothes?”
“He looks like a monkey!” Amanda said.
“Ladies,” I said. “We are at the wrong movie!”
“Alamak, this is ‘Monkey King’!” Sharyn announced.
“What’s going on?” Saffy moaned.
“Will you please shut up?!”
“Aiyoh, you don’t so gun-zheong, can? We’re leaving!”
“This isn’t ‘Revenant’?”
“What do you think, Saf?”
“I am so embarrassed!”
From the front of the cinema, a little voice rang out. “Mummy, I want to go shee-shee!”