Sweet Portia

Singapore is a Venetian place: a maritime republic, a trading entrepôt, straddling cultures like a salesman, gateway to the Occident, wielding languages like a nimble lumberjack, protective of its citizens, happy with a respectable facade, tolerating most people so long as they have capital, importing labourers rather less indulgently, multi-racial, sometimes racist, mostly clean and rich in a region mostly otherwise. Above all, it is mercantile. La Republica Pristina.

Singapore isn’t like the Old Venice we visit today, the gorgeous Victorian Disneyland kept afloat for art and tourists. It’s like Young Venice of perhaps the year 1000, the Paduan colony, a trading post perched tenuously in a lagoon to keep Dark Age cavalry at bay, one starting to make a serious go of it, with its conscripted navy and an early grip on eastern Mediterranean trade with Byzantium.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre seize the chance offered by this parallel with Bruce Guthrie’s production of Merchant of Venice. Some Shakespearean plays look hard and get clearer with familiarity, but Merchant for me looked very legible on first encounter, and has got steadily less clear since. Jason Schneiderman captures the ambivalence of its relationships in his elegant The Sadness of Antonio.

The cast is good across the board, but three actors dominate. Daniel Jenkins brings something of last year’s Iago to his Antonio; gentle with his friends but always sneering and insulting to Shylock, even before his life is forfeit. Remesh Panicker’s Shylock has tremendous calm presence, with the production effortlessly substituting Indian chettiar tropes for Jewish moneylender ones, without changing the text. You can imagine his years of practicing his reserve as a survival skill. This means he keeps our sympathy as much as possible, while he faces his posh boy tormentors in court, who made a deal they couldn’t stick to while colluding to allow his daughter to elope. And Julie Wee’s Portia pins her end of the triangle, her lawyer’s brain sharpened on years of study while restrained by her dead father’s will. She explains the quality of mercy … even if it’s a greatest hit, it’s still a beautiful speech … before kicking Shylock as hard as she can while he’s down. You wonder if it’s her revenge on her father, her well-cultivated rage, or just self-righteous racism. This production leaves in her racial jab at her suitor, the Prince of Morocoo:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

This comment, too, comes after the Prince has lost, in his case at a riddle. Unlike Shylock, we never see Portia at a loss, only at a disadvantage. Even the failure of her new trophy husband is used to put him in his place, and teach him a lesson. She never loses, and the mask never slips.

Every major relationship in the Merchant of Venice, and many a minor one, comes with a contract, and every contract comes with a sting. John Kerrigan notes that Marx was encouraged by Shakespeare to see money as a bond that separates, particularly in Timon of Athens. We imbue objects with a symbolic weight and then behave as if the object is magical. Portia’s wedding ring is such a tool, not only with her husband Bassanio, but with his so close friend, Antonio, who ends up swearing his Bassanio will be faithful; a peculiar oath.

Those last few scenes, about the ring – they can be a dizzy little comedic spiral after the horror movie of the court case, if you want, cheeky cross dressing and lovers’ tiffs. Guthrie doesn’t let us get away so easily. Jessica’s stolen dowry is another bond that separates. The quarrel between Krissy Jesudason’s Jessica and Johnson Chong’s petulant Lorenzo has more pain in it, and more regret. Jessica is given the last moment of the play, and she spends it weeping. It’s a shock, this interpretation, but it fits. In sooth, we know why she is so sad, but do her new pretty rich friends?

Some theatrical traditions emphasize the contrast between mystical Belmont and cutthroat commercial Venice, but this production doesn’t really see the need. Everything glitters. In Singapore, Belmont is a condo in Holland V.

Lines of Sight

Architecture can be like a conversation. A very slow, expensive conversation. The centre of cities like New York or Hong Kong are like bustling parties full of people angling for attention but not wanting to veer too far from convention. Some cities like Singapore or Barcelona have made grand fashion catwalks at their centre, so pretty buildings can preen to the appreciative, slightly bewildered, self-congratulatory applause of people with money.

Temple cities are theological arguments, sermons and counter-sermons, schism and revival, self-conscious reinventions of grand traditions. In Angkor, the serene omnipresent faces of Bayon are a Buddhist reply to the Hindu temple mountain of Angkor Wat up the road, punctuated in symbolism and stone. And so too it is in Washington, D.C.

When I visited the Jefferson memorial, an enthusiastic young woman came up to me on the steps to politely and arbitrarily testify her Christian faith. It’s an appropriately argumentative way to exit the monument to a man suspicious enough of religion he edited his own version of the gospels to take out all the miracles. (I doubt she saw a contradiction, and perhaps she should not: American civic experience is a broad church). The monument itself was actually only dedicated in 1943, two hundred years or so after the birth of the figure at its centre. It’s neoclassical, or in other words, pretends to be two thousand years older than it is.

The monument was suggested and dedicated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was an admirer of Jefferson, and also presided over a massive international war, and an expansion of federal government quite opposite to Jefferson’s white-knuckled anti-federalism. Both of them were rather aristocratic and patrician, and both found themselves with the financier class as political enemies; like many farmers, Jefferson was heavily indebted, and hated bankers. FDR could use the monument as a tribute to an American and Southern genius while also getting political cover for his now-established constitutional upheaval of shooting fascists and stopping people starving. FDR’s own memorial is a bit of a disorganized liberal wishlist elsewhere on the pond. It speaks well of the man that his own wish was for no more than a simple plaque.

Jefferson’s statue looks straight at the Whitehouse, the doorway framing his view to see little else. It’s a little unfair. Tommo’s restless mind rarely settled on one thing that long, and he was far from that breed of singleminded politician who only cares for power. Still, if the statue were true to life, under the well armed kindergarten teacher of the modern US state, Jefferson would more likely be furiously scribbling letters calling for blood to run in the streets rather than gazing with sphinx-like detachment across the water at the house of America’s monarch.

While Jefferson watches the Whitehouse, Martin Luther King watches Jefferson. Dr King’s statue is a new addition, but I was in Washington for the first time, so I had the privilege of seeing it as part of the existing landscape, rather than an afterthought. It leaps forward out of a mountain ridge of white marble with the metaphorical literalness of a comic book superhero, or Sun Wukong 孙悟空 bursting out of a stone egg.

Dr King’s statue stands near the water’s edge, letting him keep an eye on a brace of Virginians on the east shore – the Washington monument, George Mason, and then the Capitol itself further in the distance. But it is the small temple housing the slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence that falls squarely in the middle of his gaze. Thomas Jefferson’s statue is not hewn from stone, but cast in neoclassical bronze. So the republic’s third President sails forth in memory clad in black, while his watcher stands in the sun and the snow, in seraphic white.

Safer To Jaywalk

This T-intersection is near my local metro station. I use it all the time.


It has a full set of traffic lights, and a signaled pedestrian crossing with a backwards counter displaying how many seconds left before the green WALK signal switches to STOP. The timer is thirty seconds, which is sufficient for a fully mobile adult, but doesn’t leave much time for dilly-dallying for children or anyone less sprightly, for whichever reason.

The main road is three busy lanes in each direction. The side roads are single lane. Traffic turning right from the single lane has a green light and has to give way to pedestrians. The timers on the north and south lanes’ traffic lights are offset, such that the south lane red light signals a good ten seconds before the north lane. Logically enough, the pedestrian crossing only signals when red lights stop car traffic in both lanes of the main road.

The upshot of all this is that when crossing from north to south, you might want to walk briskly, but there is no particular overlap between cars and people. However, when crossing from south to north, the timing is such that cars and trucks always have to stop a second time for pedestrians. The drivers are, in the most part, polite, but you depend to an uncomfortable extent on their knowing the give way rule. There is no continuous line of sight from pedestrian to car, as the car comes from the back left. There is no continuous line of sight from driver to pedestrian, as it is coming around a corner.

There is a pedestrian bridge, but it is a hundred metres away and adds a few minutes to the journey. Without arguing the psychology of it in detail, people will prefer the fastest way. The bridge is also only accessible by stairs.

The safest way to cross this road from the south is to jaywalk to the traffic island after the southern lane traffic light has turned red, then cross the north lane under the green man signal, before the cars have reached the pedestrian crossing.

This is not a problem that enrages me, but it does scare me, just a little, and it nags at the design-aware part of my brain. Breaking a good, established, law, like the traffic code, bugs me. How do I teach that rule to little people? Surely it’s not right that strangers to the area are put at more risk. Etc. The solution I’d suggest would be to block the right turn for the side street entirely.

There is a U-turn lane near lights a few hundred metres along the main road. The trucks may have to go further up. Another solution would be to extend the timer for the side road red light without changing any other timings, meaning pedestrians have a better chance of crossing before competing directly with traffic.

Now, there are mechanisms for changing this, but they are pretty crude and imprecise. I’m sure there’s a smart civil engineer working for the roads department who could tweak this design to make it better, and maybe point out where my suggestions make well-meaning amateurish errors. I could write a letter to the department, or to an MP, but that is the prioritisation and lobbying end of the problem. There are probably more obviously urgent things to deal with, though this one does have a safety aspect, and a subtle one to explain. It also ends up in a big slush pile of email feedback. Imprecise.

One of the things that makes me sympathetic to the Tim O’Reilly – Daniel Lathrop government as a platform approach is moments like this. If this intersection were a piece of open source software, I could lodge a detailed, public bug report, have it commented on by other users, or even contribute a patch. Some local governments have started to take a genuine crack at this – eg you can raise a pothole bug in Cambridgeshire and at another level of openness and sophistication, the GOV.UK project so embraced an innovative, collaborative spirit, they put all the code on GitHub. This still falls short of what feels right here – a patch for the Civic Infranet of Things.

That is the spirit I think small scale, town hall democracy can have, but for it to scale to a metropolis, some different techs and processes are needed. (Contrary to some critics, this is not inherently an agenda for defunding government or “depoliticising” policy.) Bug reports, their priorities and solutions can be intensely political, and that is a good, human thing. Its localness and specifity keeps a human scale; it changes the texture of civic engagement. Maybe that doesn’t address grand national problems directly. It doesn’t fix collapsed party memberships or dismantle the security-panic-apathy complex. Yet wanting to collaborate in a focused, open way, with the guidance of domain experts: that is a model of responsible, informed self-government.

When I run home I take the bridge.

The city and the city only, owing to these refinements, can never be served openly and without disguise; he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return.
— Diodotus, in Thuycidides History of the Peloponnesian War, Crawley trans.

The Mall

This is not one of 50 Posts About Cyborgs, but it owes much to the series.

The mall is a cybernetic garden at the crossroads of suburbia. It exists as a reconstructed island of metropolitan density in an environment hostile to it. Suburban houses are on a relatively human scale, but suburbia is not. Suburbia in the large is the domain of the automobile.

The city and the mall are cybernetic in that they are self-regulating human structures which take on environmental management in a way that makes it unconscious to users. The mall air conditioning is a clue. With cybernetics we change our environment; as cyborgs we change ourselves.

An informative exercise for those wanting to discover this island of density is to cross a shopping mall car park by foot on a summer’s day. It is striking what a brutally awkward space it is. It is at the intersection of car and person, hostile to both.

The most excellent mall entrance from a carpark I have seen is at Suntec City Plaza in Singapore. As in many Brisbane shopping centres, the underground carpark leads into a large stairwell for the escalators up into the main set of shops. At Suntec City they have expanded the space and included a massive pond. Large Chinese goldfish and carp swish through the water, easing the stress of bustling and queueing that is mall and carpark existence. Small waterfalls provide white noise cover for engines revving in low gear downstairs and muzak upstairs. The water garden of lilypads and shrubs scrub the air of exhaust fumes. The glass of the automatic doors reflect the tranquility into an imaginary middle distance. Fish ponds are not unusual in Singapore, but the enervating context makes this one an underground Hanging Garden of Babylon.

I have more affection for the entrance than the rest of Suntec City, which is otherwise a graceless sprawl of one way escalators and cavernous halls segregated from the metro system (until very recently). It is a confusing space, twisty but without organic paths of use, where assistants have to be paid to accompany the standing maps, as a rescue service for beleaguered shoppers.

More common is placing a mall above an MRT station. Crossroads are common precursors to markets. The intersection of needs is already in place.

City is a recurring suffix for malls in Singapore – Great World City, Turf City, Vivo City – which is a curious intensifying suffix to use in a country which is already a city-state. City in Chinese is 城市, literally a wall plus a market. A mall, too, is that.

To conclude, or perhaps, to make manifest:

The city is a self-regulating human modification for surviving hostile environments.

The mall is a type of internal city which attempts to modify humans to survive the hostile environments of cities.

The inner city and the outer suburbs can both be hostile environments.

Where the city itself is a savannah for metropolitan cyborgs, the mall-spaceship can be dismantled.

The natural environment of man is yet to be built.
John Powers

All Noise And Honesty

野良犬 Nora inu – Stray Dog is named for an animal, but it’s really a film about being a man. This is true in the most general sense – Kurosawa doesn’t stray from his sympathetic humanism. Yet it’s also true in the specific, gender political sense. It’s about what might anachronistically be called manly virtues, but in the modern city.

((Such gender-loaded terms are meant as observations on cultural parallels in Japan 1949 and now, rather than mandates or beliefs. Any admiring note is in admiration of virtue, not of gender.))

The tropes here send the plot in thematic loops around duty, the city, and life post-WW2 Japan. A young policeman, Detective Murakami, has his gun stolen on the bus, and traces it through the underworld. It’s bound for another young man, also a returned soldier, a thief turning murderer. So it’s a coming of age story, a police procedural and an urban quest. The cinematography is beautiful film noir, but the plot is not. There are women, in rich supporting roles, but no femme fatale. There is just the homme fatale of the thief: the stray dog.

“I love boys,” I heard a teacher friend declare recently, “they’re all noise and honesty.” It’s an apt enough description for Mifune Toshiro’s performance in the lead role. He is raw with a sense of failed duty, hunting leads for days on end on little sleep, blurting out truths at embarrassingly high volume. Sympathetic as his colleagues are to his youthful zeal, there’s also a sense he’s not seeing things in proportion. When he gives in his letter of resignation after losing the gun, his boss rips it up. It’s another trope, of course, though we must be close to its invention.

The brief note for this retrospective pointed out the mentor relationship between the lead and senior detective Sato-san. And it’s lovely turn by Shimura Takashi, who was, like Mifune, to become a recurring cast member for Kurosawa. There are at least two other teacher figures though: the young cop’s boss, and the senior detective for pickpockets and petty theft. There are also families – kids and mothers and uncles.

Indeed, almost every plot point here is a hop across vertices in a social network. Kurosawa, who had a hand in the screenplay, weaves a metropolitan mesh out of friends and near strangers. By the end he has drawn geisha girls, rich lawyers, baseball, sleeping children and gun dealers into the same net. It gives an ahistorical reminder of Krystof Kieslowski, like a Japanese Three Colours Black. And by the end of it we strain at the edge of the city, as the stray dog tries to push through the mesh and escape.

It’s a trick Kurosawa had used before, in his debut 姿三四郎 Sugato Sanshiro. Somehow, though the tropes are familiar, Stray Dog never loses its human scale, or falls into Samurai / Hollywood ultra-competence. Being set in summer and remembering to make the whole cast sweat was enough, but it’s also the pieces of life in every scene, the hotelier flirting with his employee, a crying infant tipping people off, the impossibility of talking on the phone in the pouring rain, the way one tiny everyday event cascades into another.

Yet Kurosawa was always good on the little details. The first time I saw this movie was with English subtitles badly translated via Chinese. Kurosawa had such a command of visuals that it was still watchable. Getting to see it this time in its full glory, on the silver screen, was a pleasure, and a privilege.

… how a friend described going to Beethoven’s door and hearing him ‘cursing, howling and singing’ over his new fugue; after a whole hour Beethoven at last came to the door, looking as if he had been fighting the devil, and having eaten nothing for 36 hours because his cook and parlour-maid had been away from his rage. That’s the sort of man to be.

— Wittgenstein quoted in a letter by Russell (from Monk)