Nhu “Ned” Kelly – P.M. Newton’s novels

PMnewtonjI’d been wanting to read P.M. Newton’s The Old School for a very long time. Ever since it came out in 2010, actually.

My buddy, Rodney, who is quite the afficionado of Australian crime fiction, had mentioned it to me and I was immediately taken with the idea of a Vietnamese Australian detective in 1990s Sydney.

It took me till 2013 to read The Old School (thanks, @oanh_1)and I included it as part of my AWW 2013 listing. The impending publication of Newton’s second novel with the same lead character – Nhu “Ned” Kelly – spurred me to get a hold of the first. I inhaled the book, with its fast-paced narrative and tough, adeptly attuned characterisations. Then I eagerly awaited the second.

Beams Falling sat on a library shelf one weekend, tempting me with its new-bookish allure. I snatched it up immediately.

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Just a bit of fun

Created by the STARS program at Ohio University (Source: angryasianman - http://blog.angryasianman.com/2011/10/were-costume-not-culture.html)
Created by the STARS program at Ohio University (Source: angryasianman – http://blog.angryasianman.com/2011/10/were-costume-not-culture.html)

I’m a bit slow and only now catching up on the “crying racism” frenzy that was generated by Mia Freedman’s recent piece, “The boy who cried ‘Racist’“.

I’d seen a few tweets fly by about how white people shouldn’t tell minorities how they should be feeling, or set themselves up to be arbiters of what constitutes racism.

When I clicked through and finally read Freedman’s piece, I understood what everyone was going on about.

I also did the unthinkable and read (some of) the comments.

Apart from chuckling at Delta tragics who refused to countenance any besmirching of their idol, there was a fair array of opinions being expressed. Including a fan of Andrew Bolt who – unfortunately for Freedman –  was on her side.

What I want to talk about in this post, however, isn’t whether Delta or Freedman are the anti-Christ. Nor whether the blackface depiction of Seal was ‘intended’ to be racist.

I want to engage with the concept, expressed in the comments, that dressing up is ‘just a bit of fun’ and, by implication, harmless.

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Asians seeking Asians – and underachieving

Dare to dream (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Dare to dream (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

It’s a notorious phenomenon in Asian Australian and Asian American communities:

We don’t tend to register to donate blood, organs, or stem cells as much as other communities.

Particularly in the case of stem cells (bone marrow), this is a life or death situation.

The likelihood of a non-Asian donor matching with an Asian patient is much lower than that of an Asian donor and an Asian patient.

This is an instance where the grey areas of identity and belonging do not hold: for bone marrow donations, Asians need Asians.

You can find out why HERE (American site, but still relevant to Asian Australians and others).

Why am I writing about this at the moment?

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Crowded kitchens

Mum's sayor lodeh (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Mum’s sayor lodeh (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I take my family’s kitchen skills for granted.

I forget how much food and cooking knowledge I’ve gained purely through osmosis, and watching others do their thing.

Like many Malaysian Chinese families (or Asian families more generally?), we’ve always been big on feasting and special occasion meals. Wisely, my siblings and I also snagged partners who were similarly appreciative of sharing food and making meals meaningful.

My mum and dad have always been keen cooks, and my mum has taken formal cooking classes in a broad range of cuisines. She takes on the lion’s share of the household’s dinners, and we have a family dinner every Sunday night. Her collection of cookbooks is formidable, and it includes a lot of bilingual 1960s/70s books from Malaysia. Once upon a time, we used to have regular dinners for 40 or more people at our Brisbane house in Chapel Hill. It wasn’t that large a house, and the 1970s kitchen from which she and my dad produced massive feasts was tiny + very badly designed.

My brother is a chef; he’s been in the hospitality industry for over 20 years. He has worked at a whole range of restaurants, bistros, and cafes – in Brisbane, Melbourne, and around the UK. He’s currently in his cheffing dream job, one that allows him to get home in the afternoon so he can focus on gardening and having a life outside the industry. That said, he’s an obsessive breadmaker (and loves experimenting with sourdough and ciabatta), and loves crossing the back fence to bring us samples. This is a practice we encourage. Greatly.

My SIL is a qualified chef. Of course. She introduced us to the seductions of whole cauliflower mornay and excellent coleslaw. She joins my brother in culinary adventures, not to mention the incredible food hampers we are privileged to get every Christmas. C. also writes a food blog and has overall mad kitchen skills.

My husband is a great cook, he’s the obsessive genius behind our family’s novelty cake series. He’s the kind of person who can turn his hand to anything and, with vague instructions from the internet, make it a success. His Christmas puddings have all been excellent (traditional plum pudding, as well as chocolate), and I remember very fondly the meals he cooked for me when we were dating. They were fab, and – strangely enough – seemed inspired by 1970s Women’s Weekly cookbooks (e.g. beef stroganoff, prawn cocktails).

Why am I telling you all this?

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Flavour’s in the fat

A hoard of bittergourd (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
A hoard of bittergourd (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

So, I got some stick for declaring that I liked sweet and sour pork some posts ago, when I wrote about being a “Bad Asian“.

It made me feel like writing this post that you’re reading now – a post that is a paean to all the ‘bad’ food that I like. Because I’m appropriately exotic and relatively well-travelled, people want to assume that I’m culinarily sophisticated. I’m afraid not.

While I do draw the line at Chiko Rolls (I’ve only ever eaten half of one in my entire life – I couldn’t finish it), I have a simple palate. Just as I constantly disappoint people who expect someone with a PhD in English to be au fait with all the ‘classics’, my affection for things like sweet and sour pork, and char siu bao, is viewed with some regret.

I wouldn’t be the one leading the way to food adventures, Andrew Zimmern-style.

Something that our family – and many other Chinese Malaysian families – specialise in is lots of ways to eat pork-belly. Before various blood pressure and gall-stone scares, you can guarantee that there would always be a slab of pork-belly in our freezer. Always.

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Bad Asian

Sweet and sour academia (from Thesis Whisperer’s tmblr, “Refreshments will be provided”)

When I was chatting with the lovely people at Radio National’s Life Matters program the other week, I realised that what I really want to say about national belonging and cultural citizenship was this:

Having full cultural citizenship as an Asian Australian should mean that it’s fine to be a ‘bad’ citizen, as well as celebrating those deemed ‘good’.

‘Asian’ shouldn’t be the first point of categorisation, and the heaviness of migrant expectation and stereotyping of migrants shouldn’t curtail a person’s liberty to be, say, a slacker.

Or to ‘Anglicise’ their name (sez she, who has a coffee name of “Jen”).

Or – (hushed tones) – to be monolingual.

We’re not all economic ‘bridge-builders’, heart-surgeons, and superhero Senators, though I’m hardly complaining that we can be those.

Where is the liberty and comfort of feeling at home with mediocrity or failure?

And I’m talking here both about the bar being set by the broader community as well as the one cultural communities set for themselves. That ‘Model Minority myth‘ cuts both ways.

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