Riverfire and 8월의 크리스마스

Five prams fought for wheel space by the car­riage doors. A teenage girl made baby eyes at an infant boy. His big, eigh­teen month old  eyes looked at her briefly, then re-focused back intently on his father’s iPhone. Curi­ously he tapped an icon, then another. His father, a strap­ping fel­low in a navy-blue T-shirt and a week’s stub­ble of whiskers, sur­veyed the car­riage proudly. It was a mot­ley crowd in a very crowded space. There were grand­moth­ers with puffy blotched skin, crop-dusted over with thick makeup. Overfed young women in syn­thetic miniskirts, their arms and legs already dis­fig­ured by the skid marks of wannabe prison tat­toos, picked at their nails. Noisy clumps of teenage boys pok­ing each other in the ribs. At Cen­tral Sta­tion the loud­speak­ers advised pas­sen­gers not to for­get their belong­ings includ­ing their chil­dren. The masses streamed through the turn­stiles, a river join­ing a flood join­ing an ocean of bod­ies. Wtf? Then I remem­bered some­thing called River­fire. It was appar­ently the grand finale to Brisbane’s week of fes­ti­val, and half a mil­lion peo­ple were head­ing for Queen Street river bridge to watch a few buck­ets of fire­works, and say oooohh when a cou­ple of jet fighter planes did a low fly-past.

Me? I was going to see a Korean film at the Tribal The­atre, and down by Roma Street Sta­tion the town was almost empty. In the the­atre foyer, a gag­gle of young Kore­ans in frog green T-shirts tried to be help­ful. A sweet girl pointed me to the box office. The atten­dant put down his cof­fee and looked sur­prised when I asked for  a ticket. “We do stamps” he said, putting a quick kiss of ink on my wrist. We lounged around the foyer, maybe a dozen patrons, until thirty sec­onds before show-time. The girl at the cin­ema door had kept us out. “They are prepar­ing a forum”, she declared impor­tantly. Allowed in at last, I held up my wrist to pass. “Yo bro!” said the girl by the door, slap­ping her palm to mine. The patrons scat­tered thinly amongst the seats. Three peo­ple sat on kitchen chairs, down in front of the big screen. A pale, plump young man intro­duced him­self as a lec­turer in film, and wood­enly read a long, long intro­duc­tion to the two other kitchen chair dwellers. One, a scraggy Aus­tralian of indef­i­nite age had appar­ently men­tioned a Korean film in his blog once. He finally admit­ted that it was the only Korean film he had ever seen. The lec­turer said wasn’t it mar­velous that Aus­tralia had all these for­eign film fes­ti­vals, and he had once brought some DVDs back from Seoul in his suit­case. The real live Korean film maker parked between these two glit­ter­ati was a rather pretty Korean woman in her thir­ties. Cast­ing around for some­thing, any­thing to say, she noted that the Aus­tralian art film scene was rather closed and con­ser­v­a­tive, while New Zealand was much more wel­com­ing. The cul­tural dif­fer­ences from Korea had been much greater than she expected. Korean cul­ture, she noted, was focused on pleas­ing peo­ple, and some of the very vio­lent films in the fes­ti­val weren’t like Korea at all… The panel looked about hope­fully for audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion. A voice from the back said that, well, his wife was Korean. We finally got around to watch­ing the film.

The film was gen­tle and wist­ful. “Christ­mas in August”, 8월의 크리스마스 , it was called, a melo­drama and love story. A thirty-some­thing pho­tog­ra­pher finds a quirky and very pretty traf­fic inspec­tor drop­ping into his stu­dio fre­quently. He lets the rela­tion­ship develop hap­pily, is kind to his cus­tomers, and qui­etly anguished in his heart. She doesn’t know he is dying of an incur­able dis­ease, until one day the stu­dio fails to open. It is quin­tes­sen­tially Korean, circa 1998, sun­shine and shad­ows, and some­how an aeon from the hedo­nis­tic con­sumer cul­ture of South Korea’s last decade. Bris­bane is awash with young Kore­ans but the cin­ema crew apart, they were hardly to be seen at this show­ing.

Back out on the mean streets, I headed up to the CBD mall. The lem­ming tide of human­ity was still stream­ing towards the bridge. This crowd, an engulf­ing blaze, sucked oxy­gen and bod­ies into its maw. Sep­a­rated from their TV sets for an hour or two, these tens of thou­sands of flick­er­ing minds came to find mean­ing in a mass greater than them­selves. I bought a choco­late bar and skirted through back streets, back to the Cen­tral Sta­tion. Set­tled down in a now quiet sub­way car­riage to flick though some for­eign vocab­u­lary on my smart phone, it took a while to notice that the train wasn’t actu­ally mov­ing. After ten min­utes, a laconic  voice came over the loud­speaker. “We are look­ing for the dri­ver”, it announced. “When we can find him, we’ll leave.” Five min­utes later the update announced, “We are still look­ing for the dri­ver. If we can’t find him we’ll get you another one”. A while later, the train bumped into motion, with or with­out a dri­ver. Only in Bris­bane.

Domestic Bliss and an Australian Dream

In spite of wad­dling locals with voices like swamp frogs and the tat­tooed pub denizens, Aus­tralia is not such a bad place. Life is almost too easy, and the facil­i­ties are won­der­ful. It is a pity that it is so damned expen­sive. I could almost, but not quite, break even on the money front. By liv­ing fru­gally, I could gen­tly sink into Aus­tralian poverty for a lit­tle time, while dream­ing of head­ing off, per­haps, to live like a king on my pen­sion in some low-cost cor­ner of the world.

Stranded at yet another celes­tial bus stop on life’s jour­ney, I pon­dered on how to save cash. The solu­tion was famil­iar: split the rent in a share house with some char­ac­ters allot­ted by fate. This time it was three women and an appren­tice uphol­sterer. When I moved in, the lady owner had mes­sages to her god stuck all over the walls, so I had to decon­t­a­m­i­nate my room of holy spir­its imme­di­ately. She was not a bad old stick, and one day sud­denly fell head over heels in love with a plumber, who decided to take her around the world. Con­tinue read­ing

A Neater, Sweeter Maiden

Mut­ton wrapped up as lamb, make a silk purse from a sow’s ear … there are plenty of idioms about ugli­ness want­ing to be some­thing else. Wish­ing Cin­derella style, any num­ber of unlucky maid­ens are cel­e­brated in fairy­tales for a mid­night trans­for­ma­tions, though some­times they have to kiss a frog. Now as one of the world’s cer­ti­fied uglies, the man-brand, I should have flocked together long ago with some of those unblessed ladies. If truth be told though I’ve never been able to get hot and flus­tered about barn­yard ani­mals, cane toads, or moun­tains of human flesh (of either gen­der). Yup, it’s unrea­son­able and polit­i­cally incor­rect, but there you go. In unex­pected cor­ners of the Ark Earth I strike up mar­vel­lous con­ver­sa­tions, meet hero­ines and vil­lains, revel in the human drama with every imag­in­able mishapen kind of crit­ter, but when it comes to the hot flame of romance, the visu­als can stir and quench one’s heart in ways that defy rea­son. In vain my mother, despair­ing at my fail­ure to be decently mar­ried by a proper age, pleaded that all cats are grey in the dark.

These obser­va­tions come from sit­ting on the con­course at Cen­tral Rail­way Sta­tion, Bris­bane, a bum-park­ing spot I’ve come to know well after miss­ing yet another hourly train by thirty sec­onds for the umteenth time. The late evening exhi­bi­tion at Cen­tral is some­thing to behold. Here is the mat­ing parade, Aus­tralian style. These are not mid­dle-aged mums on for­lorn week­end mag­a­zine diets, or the wad­dling moun­tains of flesh a gen­er­a­tion older. No, it’s twenty-one year old chick­ens head­ing off to their com­pul­sory mosh pits of binge drink­ing and bad music. They come wrapped like sushi rolls in frag­ile wisps of cloth that stop two cen­time­tres below their crotches, with the top lopped off for a gen­er­ous bulge of tit cleav­age. Shoals of them teeter past on stilet­tos. I should be vibrat­ing like a tun­ing fork, but it’s limp sausage time, worse, repul­sion. I’m sure they all love their cats and even make their beds some­times, but these girls are FAT, fat as in an overfed, self-indul­gent ani­mal-pop­u­la­tion-out-of-con­trol herd. The genes that forever bar us from movie star good looks, me or them, come with a throw of the cos­mic dice, but the glut­tony and sloth that grows slobs is all our own mak­ing. Maybe the wist­ful eye of blokes like me is not so new either. With his uncanny knack for catch­ing the soul of the Ark Earth in a res­o­nant phrase or two, Rud­yard Kipling said it all in 1890 in Man­dalay:

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Heng­lish driz­zle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ouse­maids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they under­stand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —
Law! wot do they under­stand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Man­dalay …

Carbon Footprint

I live on a quiet street. The traf­fic might be three cars a day. Out­side of my win­dow now though, a huge white truck has just arrived. It must be worth as least $150,000. Three hefty men climb down from the cab. One folds his arm and watches. One picks up a rake from the back of the truck, and one picks up a scoop. I’m a bit mys­ti­fied because this is the kind of street that has nicely trimmed lawns, def­i­nitely a short-back-and-sides street where peo­ple tidily roll out their coun­cil bin once a week and dust their let­ter boxes. The swat team in their flu­o­res­cent jack­ets has seen some­thing though that eluded my care­less gaze. In the gut­ter is a small col­lec­tion of leaves. Heck, there must be twenty leaves. So the man with the rake swats the leaves into the scoop man’s scoop, and the scoop man solemnly tips the leaves into the back of the truck. The super­vi­sor unfolds his arms and they climb back into their mon­ster truck. The machin­ery rum­bles off with an enor­mous roar, enough power to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity for a small town.

Canned Demo’

There is a noisy island of demon­stra­tion in city square, with a small fringe of bored police. This blob of human­ity fills just enough space to fit the view­ing angle of a TV cam­era lens. I can see it 100 metres away, too far to read the plac­ards but you can bet they are mass pro­duced any­way. Pre­dictably, nobody gives the demon­stra­tion a sec­ond glance, but there is some­thing oddly irri­tat­ing about it. Sud­denly it strikes me. The chant­ing itself is pre-recorded and on a tape loop like the canned laugh­ter of a failed com­edy show. This is the sort of thing you’d think gov­ern­ments would stage to prove that they allow true democ­racy. Wow, what­ever their cause, these peo­ple are losers. Maybe the demon­stra­tors are just going through a bio­log­i­cal phase, like the teen girls who want bad-boy boyfriends, the the bad-boy boyfriends with their painted on designer sav­agery, quak­ing inside.

Incorrect Observations

Thurs­day night, bus from a Bris­bane sub­urb. The pas­sen­gers are over­whelm­ingly 20 some­things going into town for a night out. The largest pro­por­tion are eth­nic Indian and Chi­nese. Just inside the door, two trans­port police are being offi­cious, check­ing every­one. Halfway into the jour­ney an old Abo­rig­i­nal man stag­gers onto the bus. He is very, very drunk, can hardly stand up. He takes maybe five min­utes to find a fare in his rags. He smells like a brew­ery. This char­ac­ter lurches down the aisle utter­ing inco­her­ent threats to every­one in gen­eral, the only con­nec­tive word being fuck… fuck… fuck. The trans­port cops look appalled and con­flicted. What should they do? At the next stop they sud­denly dis­cover that they both have an urgent need to be on another bus.

Critter Shock – Reflections on Australia for a Korean Friend

Nice to hear from you Kang. Quite a sur­prise. What’s pay­ing for your bibim­bap nowa­days? Sen­ti­men­tal for old times? That’s not allowed until you have killed all your ene­mies, stolen the king­dom, and retreated with twenty con­cu­bi­nes into lux­u­ri­ous degen­er­a­tion.

Me? I’m in crit­ter shock, try­ing to work out where a place called Aus­tralia went. Yeah, I know, you want to say that it never existed except in my imag­i­na­tion… What­ever. Stuff around here in Aus­tralia is strange. In the twelve years that I was away some­thing has hap­pened to my head, or to the natives, or both. Mem­bers of the species under 30, male or female, are now mostly cov­ered from head to toe (and appar­ently on more pri­vate parts too) with amaz­ingly ugly tat­toos. To har­mo­nize with this, uh, brand­ing, every ori­fice in their body is punc­tured with sil­ver studs, punched through the skin, and no doubt receiv­ing coded mes­sages from another planet. Today I saw one of these beings with a bar-code tat­tooed on her arm. I sup­pose that makes it eas­ier at the cos­mic check­out where they are bought as pets. Mean­while the elders of the orig­i­nal tribe, fed on a pure diet of sugar and pain killers, drift about like enor­mous bal­loons, and make grunt­ing sounds that sound for all the world like swamp frogs. I speak here of my eth­nic fore­bears, the Anglos.

The streets are now also pop­u­lated with huge num­bers of celes­tial cit­i­zens pre­tend­ing to be Chi­nese stu­dents, while the gov­ern­ment, appar­ently in fear that they will wake up one morn­ing to find Beijing’s blood red ban­ner fly­ing on the Prime Minister’s lim­ou­sine, has now admit­ted an equal num­ber of Indi­ans (almost invis­i­ble here twelve years ago) to work in the 7/11 shops when they are not cod­ing math to keep the coun­try run­ning, Orig­i­nal Aus­tralians of course all gave up maths in junior high school, when they had learned enough to fill out a lotto ticket. I guess the devi­ous hid­den mas­ter plan is that the Chi­nese and the Indi­ans can fight each other to the death while the Anglo Aussies get on with drink­ing beer.

Australia Calling Home

Aus­tralia Call­ing Home

I remem­ber burn­ing beaches and the rush of salty waves,
I remem­ber long cool drinks in the shade of old tin shacks.
There were dusty tracks through bush­land to hid­den moun­tain pools,
And brain­less boys who lived to tell of leaps from walls of rock.

We grew to slicked down teens on the hunt for bimbo blondes,
And our rusty hurtling cars were the ter­ror of the streets.
We were care­less of the hard bright sun, of booze and friendly smiles,
Then fell for love, the fix was in, Aus­tralia was our home.

Thor, China
    spring 2008
(Port Mac­quarie beach, NSW; image cour­tesy of www.sydney-australia.biz)
.. for other exam­ples of Thor’s poetry, see Time Pass­ing
at http://thormay.net/literature/poems.html

A Stranger in His Own Country – Adrift at 49


Dreams are tufts of cloud in the blue-black yon­der. One sec­ond you almost have them, the next you have tum­bled a thou­sand metres through space into another wooly con­coc­tion. Is the truth so insub­stan­tial? She was small and grubby and freck­led. If all lit­tle girls are meant to be cute, she was the one god for­got. She stood in my way with fierce deter­mi­na­tion, pulled me down, and said in a tiny voice “I love you.” Then she kissed me lightly on the lips.

We seemed to be in the hall­way of some kind of apart­ment build­ing. There was a sense that her mother had drifted in with another lack­adaisi­cal one-night-stand, and that for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son I was the only per­son around who looked like a rea­son­able human being. No I don’t know what it all means. Only that a very few dreams have a long after­taste.
Con­tinue read­ing

Seventeen in 1962

This longish poem, Sev­en­teen in 1962, is a pretty accu­rate descrip­tion of my first job in Nun­dah, Bris­bane, in 1962. I was a stranger in the city. My fam­ily came from around Syd­ney, and had just retreated, nearly bank­rupt, from a failed migra­tion to north Queens­land where south­ern­ers were unwel­come. The bit­ter­ness of tone per­sisted for much of my first ten years in unskilled jobs after leav­ing high school,  partly per­haps from dis­ap­point­ment after hav­ing topped the school aca­d­e­m­i­cally, then col­lid­ing with the incom­pre­hen­sion of work­ing class par­ents and the indif­fer­ence of gen­eral Aus­tralian cul­ture. The peo­ple I knew or met seemed to resent intel­lec­tual curios­ity. They wanted to be respected veg­eta­bles in a very small gar­den plot. As a com­plete out­sider with­out money or any social skills at all, it was a friend­less time.

                    Sev­en­teen in 1962

The wait was over, the grow­ing done,
Just the fill­ing out to come;
Time of promise, time to fear,
Gan­gling sev­en­teen.

First job, be-clerked, min­nowed and shoaled
With the eight o’clock tide, be-tied.
And the man­ager, Minikin, said marry your­self
To the com­pany, boy-man to be made;
Tuck in your shirt and swear
Here will be done as your elders have done,
Let all debtors be blessed, amen
And wipe the smirk off your face.

Con­tinue read­ing