20: tiffany sia, queer life in 1920s cairo, kristang curry, yanni: style icon

It feels wild that we’re up to 20 of these already, 22 if you count my own culture diaries. Two years ago, I was told I needed to get a root canal, but then the pandemic (and frankly, the US healthcare system) happened. Today I guess that tooth decided that It’s Time.

There’s a scene in the 2001 Malayalam movie Dubai, starring Mammootty as a big businessman tycoon type. He flies into a tirade against the Clueless Englishman—one day I will write about this stock character—saying something like “you come into MY country [UAE] and you don’t speak to me in MY language [Malayalam]??” My own Malayalam isn’t fluent on the level of ideas and I need to rewatch the film with subtitles, but I’ve been thinking about this scene all day. One of my dream book projects is to write about Gulf Return in a little more nuanced way—maybe someday.

This week’s diary comes from filmmaker, artist and writer Tiffany Sia, who just opened a show at Artists Space, for those of you in New York. The images are from a French silk sample book.

spiky bois

Dying on the waitlist. Covid-19 cases are dropping fast in the US—why? Why does the pandemic seem to be hitting some companies harder than others? Could you get the vaccine injected in your butt? Remote working: what the UK’s last lighthouse keepers can teach us about isolation. Inside DC’s secret Covid morgue. I am fat. To get the vaccine, I had to say I am “obese.” 5 pandemic mistakes we keep repeating. Farmer protests and the importance of mandis. Police killings: how does South Africa compare? Delhi violence unmasked part one. Inside a battle over race, class and power at Smith College. Why Christo-racist nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric are gaining ground in Kerala. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll start to feel better. Constellations of care: on small-scale solidarities. Inside Xinjiang’s prison state.

glouglou & snackchat

The wild and irresistibly saucy tale of the curry con man. Lost in the brine. Smashed. For Malaysia’s Kristang population, the devil is in the curry. Welcome to my Parsi party. How restaurants survive the long pandemic winter. A different kind of room service. How Turkish coffee destroyed an empire. All about ramyeon. Is America finally ready to embrace kelp? These folks hope so. Power in the bread. In Tarkali at the heart of India’s cashew trade. Where the peppers grow. Are caffeinated foods safe to eat for an energy boost? Making Hamantaschen and puns, a pandemic year later. Pressed for space: Muscadine grapes and NASA. The last stand of S.F.’s storied banquet halls. Why Portugal’s marmelada tastes nothing like marmalade. A bun that can be anything, go anywhere. Raising cane. On flavor. Desperate times call for elaborate buttercream. Feast Afrique.

bangers

An oral history of Mundian To Bach Ke. The endless life cycle of Japanese city pop. Right now I’m into Libyan reggae: the music label diving into the Arab world’s back catalogue. Earl King, poet laureate of New Orleans. The best rapper alive, every year since 1979. A meaty history of Goan chouris. 🔊Amping up Uyghur music with the electric guitar. Everybody knows you when you’re down and out. The 2020 club bangers that could have been. 🔊Finding home through Armenian music. To earn his crown, Germany’s tofu king had to overcome sausage and the slammer. Lebanon’s rave revolution. How does it feel. Welcome to Club Harlecore. Omar Khorshid: celebrating the illustrious career of Egypt’s guitar legend. The country sausage that’s going to town.

watermark

In the Atlantic Ocean, subtle shifts hint at dramatic dangers. Following fish-talk through industrial waters. Queer life in Cairo in the 1920s. Death takes the lagoon. Scud missiles in Iraq and biriyani in Iran: how 70 Indians fled the Gulf War. What was the Zanj Rebellion? The city of Kazan and Russia’s non-Slavic future. From rap to trap: the Khaliji migrant finds his aesthetic. Tanakura Bazaar: the Iranian legacy of beloved Japanese Soap Opera Oshin. Shahi Bazaar: the story of old town Gwadar that we missed. Hajj as metaphor. The Mughal temple of Banaras and beyond. The plan to farm fish on the Moon. The African churches of Delhi. Macamathehou in Lincolnshire and evidence for people named Muhammed in medieval England. The Mughal temple in Banaras and beyond. “Like a warm hug from an angel.”

☞\( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)☞ yeehaw

Accidental style icon: Yanni. Biocrusts are an entire world beneath our feet. The dogs that grew wool and the people who love them. Going beyond the veil. Getting an abortion on Guam requires a $1000 eight hour flight. A lawsuit could change that. Attack of the 50-foot women. My brother’s keeper. A brief history of piercings and their controversial beginnings. For dealers unable to travel internationally, Art Basel Hong Kong is offering ghost booths. The victims left behind by genetic genealogy. California’s forage wars. The fight for fifteen at an Orlando McDonalds. When scientists become allergic to their research. Anatomy of an internet shutdown. The politics of blessings.The road to electric is filled with tiny cars.I hope you can help me take care of these ants in the city?

culture diary: tiffany sia

february 14th

Alt text: A computer-generated animation of a map of the globe, shows a flight path of a plane flying over the Arctic ocean, hovering over the border between Russia and Mongolia, with HKG marked as the final destination.

I managed to sleep 4-5 hours on the 15-hour flight. I spent the hours awake watching the Ann Hui films available on the flight. My husband, Andrew, managed to get more sleep than I did. When the plane hit the tarmac, the airline started playing a series of Britpop covers, including a strange lap steel guitar version of a Cocteau Twins song. We landed in Hong Kong around 1pm, and prepared for what I knew would be a long slog at the airport before we could even get to our hotel. 

There is a particular smell to Hong Kong that is most palpable the very moment you transition between the jet bridge to the terminal, and it’s this particularly visceral transition between sense of the air and smell that triggers a mix of nostalgia, but also makes me feel slightly ill when I arrive: The intense wetness of the air. 

Through a labyrinthian series of roped-off lines, bus-rides and inter-terminal monorail trips stretching the whole of the underused international terminal, we were led through a process of temperature checks and rapid COVID-19 testing. Somewhere along the way, we were given a lanyard to wear around our necks and a white bracelet that we were told not to take off until after our 21 days was completed. Shaped like a watch, its face was printed with a unique QR code we had to scan with an app, which we were told to download on our phones. Upon downloading it, the app asks for permission to turn on your location and have access to your camera.I felt strange wearing all black coming off the plane being around all of these government employees. I was already getting claustrophobic. 

Eventually, we were led to a series of rapid test tents. A dozen tents were built around one departure hall, each with a doctor taking one patient at a time. I sat before a male doctor who swabbed the shallow part of my nostrils on both sides first, and then took another swab to test my throat. The medical worker scraped the back of my throat once and paused, and he did it again until he made sure I gagged. “Mmm, good,” he said.

We were led again through a maze of channels to a large departure hall arranged with socially-distanced desks, as though in a mass standardized SAT testing site, where we were told to wait up to 6 hours before receiving our test results. We were told to not take any pictures and given a selection of three different sandwiches and a bottle of water. I found a desk marked the same number as on my lanyard and sat down. Being gluten intolerant, I plucked the cold slabs of turkey covered with mustard out from between the slices of bread and ate it. I was still hungry. 

I began watching a true crime Netflix documentary series. Someone next to me was messaging someone on Signal on his desktop application. I tried to focus on the documentary. Three episodes in, a woman in full PPE came up to my desk and asked, “Can you verify your HK ID and name please? Please show me your Hong Kong ID.” I scrambled through my bag and found my wallet to show her my ID. She gave me my test report back. It said negative. This piece of paper became the most critical document now that would help move me through the airport. Andrew got a negative test report also.

After immigration and another complex system to situate us on our respective shuttle buses directly to our quarantine hotels, we were led to a minibus. Our luggage was loaded, and as we drove away from the airport, the sun was starting to set on the horizon over the highway. 

When we arrived, we were greeted by hotel employees wearing full PPE. After settling our payment and registration paperwork, we were given a chia pet-like boxed toy, containing soil, seeds and a small yellow plastic vessel with a smiley face on it. “You can grow this while you’re in quarantine!” said the hotel staff. I was really trying hard to disassociate from this moment, telling myself that elites in Hong Kong have likened 21-day quarantine to prison so that I could remind myself of how stupid they sound to keep my cool. 

We stepped into our hotel room on the 15th floor, and the door closed behind us. Our room is 150 square feet. Our Valentine’s Day meals were delivered to us soon after in a plastic bag and plastic containers. It was boxed mashed potatoes and slow-cooked beef, which was quite grisly. Dessert was cake, so I couldn’t eat it. We shoved our luggage underneath our bed.

21-day quarantine begins. 

Alt text: A screenshot of a message from a sender labeled, Quarantine, says, “Your compulsory quarantine period has started. Please refer to the Quarantine Order issued to you by the Department of Health for details. Please make sure you complete the activation of the “StayHomeSafe” mobile app as soon as you have arrived at your quarantine location. For information, please visit https://www.coronavirus.gov.hk/eng/stay-home-safe.html.  Wish you good health.  Together, we fight the virus.” 

february 15th

We woke up around 4am from jetlag, antsy waiting for breakfast, which showed up at around 8am. The hotel room has a window in a v-shape that overlooks a series of alleyways of other 20 to 30-story buildings in a dense part of town, Tsim Sha Tsui. We are in the hotel behind the most expensive hotel in town, but from this view, we can see the backs of residential buildings and in the distance, between buildings, a hint of mountains and Kowloon Park.

Breakfast was delivered, and it’s scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages and an orange juice box. As we stared out into this view while eating breakfast, we noticed someone, who looked like a building manager, doing his rounds at the roof of the building adjacent to ours. I joked to Andrew that the man will be an important character in our lives for the next 21 days.

I spent most of the day sleeping from being so tired the day before, in-between editing my responses for an interview for Ocula Magazine

20 more days.

february 16th

I woke up early again and started prepping for my show at Artists Space in New York doing last-minute preparation on the site and giving feedback on installation shots. I saw the man on the opposite building making the rounds again. I texted Jay and Stella about alt text as they get it finalized, and I recorded on my phone reading aloud the alt text for the installation shots that are uploaded onto the website. 

We watched Adam Curtis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head, and I complained to Andrew for the rest of the day about how corny Curtis’ style is. “Like affect theory without theory–and maybe also affect.” 

At night, I texted my colleague that I wasn’t going to make it to the weekly conference call, because it was Chinese New Year and a public holiday in Hong Kong.

february 17th

My show opens at Artists Space tonight Hong Kong time at 1AM. My friend and former Speculative Place resident, Haley Josephs, told me that she had made an appointment for the first possible slot. My parents had also. A few hours later they texted me a picture of them at the show together. 

I trolled Netflix for some truly mind-numbing shit that could keep me preoccupied for the next few days. Andrew and I began binge-watching “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” It was calming to be reminded that although we are stuck in this 150-square-foot room, this is not a survival situation. 

We watched an episode about a man who survived after being lost at sea for 2 months in the Atlantic Ocean. We looked him up after the episode to discover that he’d written a book about the ordeal and has since helped design life rafts, improving their safety features.

We settled in for another 19 days left in quarantine. There are so many days left I actively try not to think about it. 

february 18th

I stayed up late into the night as the show opened. My parents texted me congratulations. I called my mom, who said she was in the middle of writing me a message. My mom said she may not understand art, but she could feel the surging emotion in the work. She said a series of idioms in Cantonese and said she’d text me what they mean. The last Chinese idiom she sent me, she attempted to explain: A dragon in the cloud, with one claw in the East and the other claw in the West. It is impossible to see the total picture, but one is able to assemble it through fragments. 

Alt text: A screenshot of a WhatsApp exchange in Traditional Chinese and English. Inside one of the messages is a screenshot of Google Translate that says, “Use static to express surging thoughts and feelings.” The message says, “I think the translate didn’t addressed my words completely.” The reply writes, “call me back?” Another message in Chinese follows it. 

february 19th

There was a big snowstorm in New York, and there weren’t as many visitors as the first two days. I finalized the exhibition and installation photos for the press kit. 

Emily Verla Bovino, who had interviewed me for Ocula, texted me a picture of her exploring the website from her studio: 

Alt text: In the foreground a computer monitor shows a picture of a website showing the skyline of Hong Kong with a glitch effect in the worm-hole over it. Indiscernible yellow text is sporadically placed across the screen. In the background is an office space with a mannequin in the far corner and a window view of a blue industrial building across the way.

I got lost in a hole on YouTube. 

Alt text: A screenshot of a YouTube video, “Why Fiddler Crabs Have Such Giant Claws.” A fiddler crab is in sharp focus in front of a blurry background on a rock. The crab displays its oversized right claw, and the text below reads, “THE HUGE CLAW COMES AT A GREAT COST.” The play head shows the video is 42 seconds in. 

february 20th

I continued to hear about who came to my show. They were the first messages I woke up to. Andrew did laundry in the bathtub. We watched nearly 6 consecutive episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” I prepared for my talk at AAWW to be recorded the next day.

february 21st

I recorded a talk with Hong Kong writer Rosemarie Ho, also of Lausan Collective, for Asian American Writers Workshop. We talked about Too Salty Too Wet 更咸更濕 and what it means to write for the diaspora and in English. As always, I over-prepared for the talk, and similar to every talk before it, I ran over all my answers in my head after it. I was rambling next to Andrew even after we turned the lights off.

february 22nd

I talked with [REDACTED] for her upcoming book, interviewing her for my contribution for it. I spent most of the day preparing for the interview and watched her archived talks on YouTube, between episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” Andrew and I watched an episode about a man who climbed out of a nearly fatal fall into an ice crevice. 

february 23rd

I’m sick of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” but I love saying the title of the show. I especially love to write it in all caps when my friends text and ask what I’m doing in quarantine, “Watching I SHOULDN’T BE ALIVE.” I have a copy of Stewart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss next to my bed, which I tried to read, but it’s so hard to focus when I’m trying to resist feeling claustrophobic. 

“Marx’s concept of work was to prove particularly controversial for the Frankfurt School. His suggestion was that man and woman need to work to flourish and achieve dignity. Even in a communist paradise, we must work. On the face of it, what Benjamin wrote in ‘Hashish in Marseille’ and One-Way Street about work was in line with this Marxist orthodoxy that humans defined themselves through work; the problem was that the increasingly mechanised, routine and exploitative nature of work under capitalism thwarted any possibility of fulfilment.”

The claustrophobia made it hard for me to accomplish more than one or two medium-sized tasks a day. I didn’t make much of a dent in the book.

At night, I logged onto the weekly conference call for my day-job and updated everyone on delivery schedules. 

february 24th

I felt even more claustrophobic today, so I spent much of it sleeping after I shot off a slew of e-mails. I thought about how much I couldn’t wait to see my dog, so I scrolled through my camera roll and texted Andrew, who was still right next to me, all my favorite pictures of her. He sent some from his phone. 

Alt text: A small long-haired chihuahua nestled between a large pile of pillows gazes sleepily. Its fur coloring highlights a beard around its snout and accents its eyebrows. 

february 25th

My books were delivered to Tai Kwun Contemporary’s BOOKED, the art book fair. My friend picked them up from my house and texted me a picture from the ferry holding a book over the ocean.

Alt text: A view of the sea and islands in the background. In the foreground is a hand holding a book with a reflective mylar jacket, which shows a warped vision of a grey cloudy sky. Peeking out from the mylar sleeve is a dark grey book with a black spine.

I spent most of the day procrastinating but wrote a spurt of e-mails towards the end of the day. Towards the end of the day, my friend texted me that the meeting I helped set up with [REDACTED] went really well.

february 26th

Too Salty Too Wet 更咸更濕 launched in Hong Kong at Tai Kwun Contemporary Art’s BOOKED, which is my favorite cultural event of the year, where all the cute nerds in town gather together to look at artist books. My talk with Elaine Lin, the Head of Asia Art Archive, seemed to go well, but I wished we could’ve talked longer. I wanted to talk more about making connections across struggles globally––that the dangers of affixing cultural authorship to a conservative notion of localism falls into the trap of right-wing political thought. How can we claim a definition of local culture, as a historically diasporic place? I hesitated somewhat making these connections so bluntly to a Hong Kong audience, when I respect some people’s right to defend their cultural stakes. The talk’s hour cap was so restrictive that I spent the rest of the night unpacking my answers with Andrew, and other things I could have said, even after the lights had turned off.

february 27th

I tell myself it’s Saturday, and Andrew and I binge-watched Snowpiercer. My friends texted us that they had an early morning tomorrow to cover the 53 who participated or helped in the primary elections in Hong Kong, or who faced the risk of getting charged under the National Security Law for inciting subversion.

february 28th

By 2:30 PM the story was out that 47 had been charged, which meant that every prominent opposition voice in Hong Kong politics was either in jail, denied bail or in exile. 

I thought by now the news wouldn’t floor me as much, but an intense fatigue and brain fog gathered over my chest and head. I think I might have eaten gluten accidentally, and I spent a lot of the day in bed doomscrolling. I read about every single person who had been charged, and looked at their pictures. A Twitter mutual had assembled them all in a tweet thread: A picture of every single person, their title and sometimes a small fact. Lawrence Lau Wai-Chung, 53 and a barrister, is holding a cat in his arms in a picture. Each person charged under the National Security Law faces up to life in prison.

I spoke with [REDACTED] for a recorded interview that evening, which temporarily brings me out of my brain fog and makes me slightly forget being stuck in the hotel. Makes me less stressed from the news from today. 

march 1st

I woke up and checked Twitter immediately. By 7 AM, there were hundreds of supporters who had lined up in front of the West Kowloon Magistrate. Andrew shared a live-stream link with me, and we watched various videos posted by other Twitter accounts from the scene. Activist Grandma Wong. Diplomats from various foreign consulates. Hundreds of masked Hong Kongers chanted protest slogans, hardly heard in public since the National Security Law since this speech had been deemed seditious. By the afternoon, the police raised a purple flag and a blue flag, asking the crowd to disperse, which is a crowd-control technique that carried over from British colonial police. Purple is a National Security Law-specific flag, and the blue flag was typically hoisted before the police started firing teargas and other less lethal projectiles. The cops did not end up firing teargas or pepper spray. The trials for the 47 went through the night, but I went to sleep early.

I re-read Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Justice, before going to sleep: 

“Indeed, war seems to have established a more or less permanent condition of national emergency and the sovereign right to self-protection outflanks any and all recourse of law.” 

“Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing. But I think it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility… Let’s face it. we ‘re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” 

I hadn’t eaten much all day. A feeling of discomfort in my stomach killed my appetite. When I finally settled into bed, I realized I’d developed a strange skin rash. A small swollen circle on the back of my neck. And a patch on my arm. Maybe it’s a bug bite––but how? Or from the gluten? 

march 2nd

At this point the brain fog was intense. We had 5 more days left in here. I woke up to news about a lawyer representing 9 of the 47 National Security Law arrestees being taken away by police. The trials went so late the night before that 4 defendants were hospitalized from exhaustion at around 3 AM. 

While I ate breakfast, I saw there were repairmen on the roof of the opposite building. This was the most exciting thing that had happened on the roof since we’ve arrived.

[REDACTED] for the [REDACTED] reached out to me for an interview. I told my friend over Telegram, and he reminded me to do a security audit before it goes public. 

march 3rd

The brain fog was mostly gone. I called the hotel front desk and asked when is the earliest time we can checkout on Sunday. Turns out, we can even check out on Saturday 11:59 PM! I can be home by 1 AM, I thought, cuddling with our dog Kimi. The woman who is dog-sitting for us texted us a minute-long video of Kimi snoring. 

4 more days to go. This was how much grass we’d grown so far. Andrew said he doesn’t think the little plot of grass has much longer. 

Alt text: a small yellow plastic pot with a smiley-face design on it overflows with grass, appearing like spiky, long green hair sweeping to the left. In the background is a view through a window into an alley of grey industrial buildings. 

featured creature: yeti crab

It grows its own food in its hair!


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