Friday, December 17, 2010

The New Girl at School

"Look what she's eating!"
They spoke in English but she could understand a little.

The two girls eyed her from afar, inspecting the contents of her half-opened lunch box. Her lunch, it seemed, had aroused their curiosity. But she knew this packed lunch was only an extension of who she was. They'd examined her lunch because it was the only way they could safely observe or judge her - the stranger. Or at least that's what it felt like.

Her ears burnt from shame. She glanced down at the box on her lap with dismay. Was it really so odd? So different?

A packet of Pac Man chips
A mini Snickers
Two ham and beetroot sandwhiches
A muesli bar
An orange juice poppa.

It seemed like a normal lunch. She began to chew self-consciously, tucking her folded legs under her blue school uniform and looking away to avoid the uninvited stares. It was odd how something as universal as eating fell under scrutiny when one was a stranger. A stranger.

Later, after much contemplation, she started to believe that maybe there had been a little too much food in there. After all, those other girls she'd met in class always used to complain about their fat thighs, their fat calves. They'd eat half as much as her and were much thinner. By the end of the year, she would have drastically reduced the food she ate for lunch. By then, she would only pack two crackers with cheese and a muesli bar. But for now, she went home and just told her mum, in French,
"Mum, can you please only make me one sandwhich tomorrow. Also I don't want a muesli bar."
Her mum was confused.

It was 1986. She'd just immigrated to Australia about a month ago and Grade 6 was a confusing world where one could see but not understand. English words became obsessions and every day was a new word.
They changed her name too. Because on the first day, the teacher had quickly told her that her real name was a boy's name.

"I had been expecting a boy," he reproached. "We'd best change your name so that the other school kids do not get confused."
Her auntie translated it all. At first it sounded like fun.
"What would you like to be called?"
"How about Laure? It's close enough to Laurence."
"It's too difficult to pronounce in English," protested the carrot-haired school teacher.
"What about Laura?" suggested her aunt.

Laura it was. In a matter of minutes, an identity can be changed. It's so easy. You just have to adapt.

They called her Laura. She'd just turned 11. She was anxious and ashamed in those first 6 months. And she had a secret back then.

Because she long ached to try those cream buns with their pink coconut icing, the ones they sold every day at the tuckshop. But she'd held back, terrified about what would happen. She'd remembered how those girls had stared at her in the playground when she ate, and the way it had made her feel.

And then one day, it started. When no one was looking, she would hide. She would buy a coconut iced bun at recess and creep inside the toilets. There, she'd find an empty cubicle, lock the door and enjoy the bun, away from sight. It would happen many times. It was odd how something as universal as eating could become a source of shame when one was a stranger. A stranger.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pu'er Tea

Tiger Leaping Gorge

In my novel, The Ming Storytellers, one of the sub characters, a fierce Tibetan tea-horse trader, makes the long arduous journey from Pu'er county in Southwest China, leading his caravan of mules loaded with tightly packed tea bricks. He trades Pu'er tea, long known for its medicinal and well-being properties and avidly sought by the Tibetans for flavouring their yak butter soup, in exchange for horses. Three times a year, alongside other traders and pilgrim monks, Sonam crosses the chamadao, across deep ravines, rope bridges, past ice-capped mountains, in freezing and often capricious mountain weather.

Cha Ma Dao

The cha ma dao, or tea (cha) horse (ma) way (dao/tao) traverses spectacular mountainous terrains in China's Yunnan province, overlooking deep gorges, roaring with torrential waters. One of its legs begins in the Pu'er county and passes through Dali, the mountainous canal city of Lijiang, across the vertiginous Tiger Leaping Gorge and into Tibet, all the way to Lhasa.

Lijiang - resting and trading place for the tea-horse traders

It is the 15th century. The trade is highly regulated. Only licensed traders can take part in it and the government, managed by the emperor's provincial eunuchs has a strict monopoly on the horses gained. License checks are performed at several checkpoints along the road, including Deqin. Horses are primarily destined for the Ming army, to aid the emperor's relentless quest in warding off the Mongol invaders of the North East. Still yet, horses are loaded in the hulls of gigantic lateen sail ships to be traded in the Arabian and South Indian lands, alongside Ming silks and porcelains.

Pu'er tea was, and still is, highly regarded. It is often expensive. Much like wine, the quality of well-prepared Pu'er tea improves with age. This tea also has many health benefits, perhaps better documented by ancient physicians whose records may have been lost after thousands of years. Today Western science is still discovering the health properties of Pu'er tea. But so far they include:

  • Reduction of blood cholesterol.
  • Anti-carcinogenic properties - Pu'er tea has antimutagenic and antimicrobial properties possibly slowing or preventing the growth of cancer cells
  • Counteraction of the effects of alcohol
  • Invigoration of the spleen to inhibit "dampness". According to the Chinese medicine model, this means Pu'er tea can be used to treat diaorrhea and edema.

Zhuan (Brick) Cha (Tea)
Not your ideal looking present but packed with goodness

Much like green tea, Pu'er tea is believed to help with weight loss either by an increase in metabolism or via the reduction of fat absorption in the small intestine.

While writing my novel, I had never really seen Pu'er tea. But on a recent trip to Singapore, I discovered Paragon's Canelet cafe on Orchard Road. While my first reaction was to ogle the Mont-Blanc and the other delightful cakes behind their generous glass display, I was soon drawn by Canelet's fancy tea menu.

Found in Paragon, Singapore

Canelet is one of the cafes offering Pu'er tea experience. This particular menu offered 5 year old Pu'er tea. Note that Pu'er tea can continue to ferment for many years and there exists Pu'er tea leaves that are over 1000 years old.

I wonder about these brave mountain men who long ago, journeyed through such a dangerous road, carrying their precious tea bricks to Lhasa. I do like horses, but in this case, I have to say the Tibetans had the better deal.

Monday, November 29, 2010

I Love Max

Max Brenner opened in Brisbane in October 2010. It's on Stanley Street, South Bank tucked on a side alley, a few steps across from Ginga Japanese restaurant.
You can't miss his sexy bald doodled head, and that chocolate-colored awning beckoning from afar.

Max Brenner is your non-schizoid Willy Wonka. Passionate nevertheless...

The sign inside reads, "I invite you to watch, smell, taste and feel my love story." Makes me want to throw a tantrum like Veruca Salt, stomp my feet and grab it all.

We Brisbanites have to queue for everything. We've queued for San Churro, we've queued for Max Brenner. And after the first Australian Zara fashion store opens in Sydney, mid next year, thirty-five years since the world's first Zara store opened in Spain, we Brisbanites will still be queuing for our own Zara.

The queue.
I told you there was a queue...

I waited a good twenty minutes in that queue while my boyfriend, Shane went hunting for a free table. Both the outside and inside tables were packed. We were lucky to find a seat inside, across a zany splash of colourful Max art.

Good things come to those who wait.

I had Max's signature chocolate souffle with sides of whipped cream and strawberries.
Shane had a sensible hot milk chocolate in a thick Max Brenner mug.
I knew he'd regret not having dessert! Soon enough we were both tucking into the melting white and dark chocolate center of my dense souffle.

I love Max.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Five Annoying Things a Writer Will Hear

1. Have you got a publisher? *Asked by those who know you don't have a publisher but who ask nevertheless...*

I'm amazed by this question. It's creepily pessimistic and ignorant.

I know why some people ask this question and it smells like fermented schadenfreude.
"No, I don't," is my honest reply.
I am sure they are relieved when they realise that I must be a mere mortal after all.

In some cases, this question is asked to remind the first time author who dared to dream that writing is not all art and image, after all, one has to be published to be taken seriously.

No kidding! But thanks for reminding me to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. What was I thinking? Now that the chore of finding a publisher is looming ahead, I realise the error of my ways.

2. I would love to read your book! *And they don't read it.*

I know the usual reason for this. My friends and colleagues are too busy and focusing on a novel takes effort. I totally understand.

But there are other people who say things without meaning them.

I think writing, you see, is not easy and people who say they are writing a novel are a bit out of the ordinary. So when they meet writers, the majority of non-writers are often at odds with what to say. They will often throw a word of encouragement or say something sympathetic to imply that they are interested and they wish you well. They will say, "I would love to read your book."

Then unfortunately because these people are quite normal and have little imagination, they can not conceive that you would actually complete the damned book and sure enough, before they know it, this monstrous thing comprising at least 300 dense pages is waiting for them. A chore.

Don't freaking say it unless you mean it.

3. I would love to read your book when it's published (variation of 2.)

Some well meaning people have said that.

It's actually confusing and annoying at the same time.

It's confusing because I think, well hang on, I've got a manuscript. Would you like to read it?

Or does it mean that unless a manuscript is packaged, distributed on the shelf or available online, it's not a book for you and you won't read it?

I'm sure they intend no harm but for us writers, it's about words not packaging.

It's also annoying because I am incapable of ignoring the phrase, "when it's published". Yet another subtle reminder that my book is seen as worthless and not worth reading, unless it's published. In some cases that is true. But after reading the amount of crap that is actually published these days, I fail to see the correlation.

4. I have loads of fantastic ideas but I just don't have time to write. One day I'm sure I will.
(Said by a true original, who only has to give a shit to become successful.)

Fantastic ideas, huh?

Well guess what? Really, guess! It's a no brainer, honey. You are not a writer. You don't have the grit, perseverance, research potential, thick skin, single mindedness and inclination to write. If you are not bursting to write by now, no matter how much you incubate, honey, it won't come out.

5. *Insert some pretentious vocabulary here.*

Sometimes, when people find out someone is writing a novel, they immediately assume that they must impress them (or compete with them) by using presumptuous vocabulary in their presence.

I have to say this. There is this subtle fascination for the writer's expression among non-writers. It's as if they wait for some fabulously composed prose or the latest word du jour, as if the writer is expected to be a true artist with words. And failing that, well they must not be a very good writer...

It is this assumption that irks me. The assumption that the mere act of writing must be a process of vomiting complex or unique words from the dictionary. As though writers are seen as persons who ought to have such a grand command of the tongue they write in so as to be good at what they do.

I tend to think that today, being a writer is all about:
-EDITING - ensuring that you deliver a piece of work that the publisher will read

So excuse me if I'm too busy to care about vocabulary too much.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

15 Writers

A popular trend among writers on Facebook is to list fifteen influences.

Here are mine:

1. Oscar Wilde - for his truthful, agile wit
2. James Michener - for his humanity, love of travel and cultural understanding
3. Edward Rutherford - for his genius in merging history and storytelling
4. Alexandre Dumas - for creating fine swordsmen and noble causes
5. Baroness Orczy - for the Scarlett Pimpernel and really, for setting in motion dual-identity characters such as Zorro and Batman
6. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - for the Little Prince, his insight and humanity
7. Fyodor Dostoyevsky - for his grasp of human psychology, his darkness and eloquent expression
8. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos - for his diabolical wit and his understanding of human games
9. Hans Christian Andersen - for his imagination, for the Little Mermaid
10. The Brothers Grimm - for their imagination and for bringing horror to Fairy Tales
11. Anne Rice - for scaring the hell out of me with the Mayfair Witches and for her sensual, opulent style. For creating the coolest organisation ever written about: The Talamasca. The true lady of supernatural fiction.
12. William Shakespeare - for his wit, depth and his unsurpassed facility for the English language
13. Charles Perrault - for his imagination
14. David Morrell - for creating characters and plots that have fascinated me
15. Robert E. Howard - for creating Red Sonja and for impregnating my childhood with Sword and Sorcery

China Girl

Some photos of me in a red cheongsam. These was taken before my trip to Hong Kong in October. So I was just getting into the mood!