Hi kids. The column is now appearing on the regular website, your biweekly dose of irreverence has a refreshing new name and can be found here. Thanks for stopping by.
Dear readers (or, hi Ma),
There’s a federal election coming up in Kuala Lumpur and anything that smells subversive has been shut down for the time being. I’ll continue to post columns once we’re up and running again.
Malaysia, like many scions of the Commonwealth, likes its football. Unlike other well-behaved former colonies, however, Malaysia’s affection for and aspiration to this most British of institutions manifests itself with the haphazard zeal of a dog with a full bladder.
Territory could best be marked with a player in the Premier League, but Titus James Palani seems to have disappeared. Instead, we shall have to make do with other forms of financial incontinence: AirAsia patches on referees’ uniforms, SP Setia popping up on electronic hoardings around the UK, and Tan Sri Tony Fernandes issuing cheques with the same wanton abandon as his tweets.
Tan Sri Vincent Tan – the common prefix doing a fine job of hammering home the post-gentrification appeal of football clubs as billionaires’ playthings – is well aware that Malaysians are watching. But the Berjaya head honcho’s footballing ambitions are more simmering interest than fiery passion, and his pace is deliberate.
Buying into an established Premier League club is expensive and difficult, so his solution was to shop a division lower, in the Championship. English clubs, like players, aren’t terribly cheap either – as Fernandes has proved with London-based Queens Park Rangers – so a Welsh outfit made sense. And thus Cardiff City Football Club was purchased in 2010.
But Tan’s investment was conditional. Cardiff, nicknamed the Bluebirds, had played in a kit of the corresponding colour for more than a century. Tan put his foot down – rumours of a stamp remain unconfirmed – and demanded a change in the team’s colours, failing which he would take his toys back and play elsewhere. Last week, he had to issue a denial after raising the possibility of a name change to the Cardiff Dragons.
Cardiff now sports a red kit, and received a spiffy new training ground and other shiny baubles in return. Their crest has been redesigned; it still features a bluebird, but one that now looks forlornly up at a great honking big dragon. The dragon is a Welsh institution, but the best theory doing the rounds is that the change was based on the Hokkien translation of “Bluebirds”. This is a family newspaper, however, so there shall be no further elaboration.
The best part of the new badge isn’t even the completely arbitrary motto of “Fire and Passion”. It’s the bit that says “EST 1899”, the first three letters managing to make the club seem like a shop on Old Klang Road trying desperately to convince potential customers of its pedigree – for pedigree is a fluid notion.
Cardiff is an old club. It has history, even if much of that history has been spent in the lower leagues. A revival of sorts in the past decade plateaued in the second tier of English football, where the club has remained since 2003. They were on the brink of insolvency before Tan stepped in, and continue to bleed cash – last season the club recorded a £13.6 million loss, and are in debt to the tune of more than £83 million.
Tan knows this. “Have they achieved any success under this Bluebirds brand?” he asked the BBC recently. “So why do we hold on to something that hasn’t achieved much success?”
It’s a good question, and it has much to do with the masochism inherent in following football. There are 72 clubs in the English league, and only a handful of those have a realistic shot at silverware. For fans of the others, support is a Sisyphean ritual; pleasure comes from repetition, with hope as the occasional seasoning. The only way to break the cycle, to compete with the elite, are cash injections.
This financial doping is hardly new to football – nor are changes in strip, ground or location, with vitriol to match – but something different is happening in Wales. This is an effort to make Cardiff more commercially viable, the distillation of a club into a brand that can be tweaked before the global marketing offensive begins.
It must be pointed out that Cardiff, losers at the playoff stage in each of the past three seasons, is now on course for automatic promotion to the Premier League. To some fans, top-flight football is worth any change. To many, however, it is too much to ask, tradition and identity too steep a cost for a shot at success.
Spring Festival in Beijing is loud and quiet all at once. The fireworks start at 6 in the morning and don’t stop until – actually, I’m not sure if they stop at all, so that’s one more thing they have in common with the interminable Katy Perry confection.
It can be quite disconcerting at night, when you hear explosions of uncertain origin. The sounds reverberate off clusters of buildings tall and taller, echo down the dark alleys and endless apartment blocks, and suddenly it seems a bit less like Chinese New Year and more like a full-scale invasion.
But then you look up to see the marvellous pyrotechnical flora unfurling above your head, and all is as right as it is bright. For the past week midnight in the capital has been as vividly lit as midday. More so, perhaps, because gunpowder and phosphorus lift the veil of night far more effectively than the sun can overcome the seemingly permanent blanket of smog shrouding the city.
Maybe this is part of the reason why people are so scarce. For a city so clogged with people that getting on and off the subway involves moves more commonly seen in a UFC cage, Beijing’s streets are eerily empty. Debris from the fireworks is everywhere, but those who lit their fuses are not. Shops are barricaded, restaurants are shut, and occasionally a camera-crew of laowais will excitedly remark upon a sighting of that rarest of species in its natural habitat – the lesser-spotted Beijing taxi.
Venture to any of the major public transport hubs, however, and you will see more than a few signs of life. This phrase “world’s largest annual migration” gets bandied about like alcohol in the bar district, but one of those things is not fake. The queues snake around blocks and out of buildings, on those occasions when there is a queue and not a mass of people doing their best impression of piranhas making their acquaintance with livestock.
This sounds horrible, but it isn’t. People save for the whole year to a buy a ticket back to their hometown, or to make a trip into the big cities. It can be wearying, but there is sweetness to it, the rigours of travel softened with liberal doses of excitement and anticipation.
This is certainly the case for those who flock to Beijing’s tourist sites. Most are from out of town, and their happiness and pride are infectious. Wandering around palaces and temples that existed thousands of years before you and will continue to do so thousands of years after you are gone is humbling and wonderful, particularly in the company of those who have come a long, long way to be there.
It is still cold, and as the day decays the crowds disperse. The smog and neon flirt prettily in the gathering dusk, and for a time all is quiet. Then it is dark enough for the fireworks to start again.
Our high school did this thing where kids were clumped into different groups for BM, English and mathematics based on their aptitude. I’m sure this was meant to be so the bright lights could shine on without suffering those whose aptitude merely flickered, but it sat about as well as a rhinoceros on a bicycle. Nevertheless, Introduction to Segregation had one unexpected benefit.
Shuffling seats around meant that for one class a day, five times a week, I sat behind a girl who shall remain nameless. She had a lovely smile that she would bestow upon me when I cracked wise, neat handwriting that made it a pleasure to copy her homework, and curly hair that she wore short and could never quite tame.
We’d talk a bit, and have the occasional meal at recess together, and we spent time together outside of school exactly once. It was one of those mass outings in which everyone looks strange bereft of uniforms, away from the hermetically sealed environment of the classroom. I don’t even think we spoke on that day, but when we finished high school we started writing letters to each other.
Irritation is the warmest of blankets, and no one should be denied the right to wrap themselves in it. Those who are unamused by Quentin Tarantino’s new joint, Django Unchained, are no exception. So you can understand the stance of director Spike Lee, who is refusing to watch the film on principle – here is a white man, one with a mouth as smart as it is loud, turning his camera on one of the most shameful periods in the US’ history.
Implicit is the criticism that this is not Tarantino’s film to make. But slavery is a difficult sell; it’s hard to argue with Samuel L. Jackson when he says there may have been ideas and attempts at scripts from black filmmakers, but nobody financed them until Tarantino came along.
Django Unchained is an exploitation film about the exploitation of human beings; the message is the medium, if you will. It is violent to the point of caricature, but that is an extension of its director’s wicked wit. The cartoonish gunplay sits at the same bar as much of the outlandish treatment of slaves, until the slow, horrifying realisation that one of these things is exaggerated and the other is very real. It is uncomfortable. That is the point.
So it’s New Year’s Eve in Beijing, which has been enjoying the frosty kisses of snowfall on numerous occasions this past month. I have been very seriously assured by a very serious editor that it is the coldest winter the capital has endured in at least a decade, and it feels like it: Any breath outside that isn’t taken through the veil of a scarf feels like a hit of liquid nitrogen delivered straight to the tonsils. This has the effect of making every Beijinger affect a curiously guttural tone, which is particularly noteworthy when you buy dumplings from a nice lady who speaks to you in a voice exactly like Christian Bale doing that thing he thinks sounds like Batman.
Growling all the way, we don armour against the cold. Goodbyes always take forever this time of year – you wave, and then you spend three to four weeks putting on hats and scarves and coats and gloves and, occasionally, those surgical masks with drawn-on whiskers that you can buy on certain street corners.
My newest and most favourite investment is a trapper hat. I am not sure if the lining is real, but it feels like having hair. Those of you who still have hair do not understand what it is like to not have it and then suddenly feel something miraculously floating about your scalp, even if it is wrapped up in a red-and-green, bear-and-moose encrusted hat that looks like the neglected offspring of a string of Christmas lights and an overly amorous timberwolf. I do not care if I now convey the appearance of one who hunts elk in his spare time. I am warm.
The island state of Tasmania sits at the southernmost tip of Australia. It is home to vistas of retina-searing beauty, ongoing environmental brouhahas that gave rise to the world’s first Greens party, and a number of ancient penal colonies.
One of these, Port Arthur, is among Tasmania’s biggest tourist draws. It is sleepy and peaceful, the bones of old buildings in stately repose among vivid green hillocks. In amongst these, hidden by a curve in the shrubbery, is a more modern structure. This was once the Broken Arrow Café. Now it is clean, quiet, abandoned.
On 28 April, 1996, a man from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart finished a large meal at the café, then pulled a semiautomatic rifle out of his bag and opened fire. He killed 12 people and injured 10 in just 15 seconds. By the time he was captured the next morning, he had killed 35 people and injured 23 more.
Hipsters, hippies, hippopotami. Trying to squeeze a period’s subculture into an all-encompassing label is like trying to squeeze toothpaste back into a tube – it’s incredibly messy, and invariably unsuccessful.
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying, as evinced by this New York Times op-ed from earlier this month. In it, Christy Wampole asserts that the prevailing disease of our times is irony, and its most potent vector is the group of people known as hipsters. She defines this group as trying to complete the eternal quest for individuality not by concepts, but by material things; she says that irony contributes to a generational and societal aversion for directness, and this ethos infects everything from politics to television.
The success of a countercultural movement, as ever, is directly proportionate to the amount of attention (or vitriol) it receives. But listing the attributes of a movement is problematic because of how fashionably frayed its edges can get, and how easy it then becomes to discover those traits in other places.
In 1998, when I was busy pretending to study for the SPM examinations, my father came home one day and announced he had tickets to the World Cup. This caused mass delirium in the Raj household, the solitary exception being my brother, who decided that he was going to be too occupied with PMR to go to France.
Inspired by his sensible outlook, and demonstrating the foresight and sound judgment that has led to more than one of these columns being hurriedly completed on the back of a napkin three minutes before deadline, I declared my candidacy for the spare ticket with some measure of aplomb. And that is how, in the middle of the year, we found ourselves on our way to Paris.