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In Arthur Ponsonby’s The Camel and the Needle’s Eye, published 1910, he describes how industrial progress was affecting the physical and mental health of ordinary people. He drew an immediate parallel to the way in which money controls us:

“Money, by convincing us of its indispensable nature and egging us on in the scramble for more, has, however much we may resent it, got the upper hand and has practically enslaved us. A comparison can be made with the modern mania for speed. The rapidity of the means of locomotion encourages a perpetual rush and deludes people into supposing that the faster they go the more they will accomplish. There is a foolish belief that steam, electricity, and petrol have been turned to our own use and have been mastered, whereas these giant forces are playing with us and stirring us, like ants in a disturbed ant-hill, into an almost ridiculous state of flurry and confusion which is detrimental both to our minds and our bodies, and the sum total of our higher accomplishments is more likely to show a decline than an increase from the days before these forces were let loose. But rapid locomotion is at present too fascinating for us to resist. Just in the same way the allurements of money are carrying us away down a steep incline to unforeseen perils.”

See here for the full work.


There’s a reason we have museums. They show us things from our past that we would otherwise have forgotten, destroyed or left to decay. While certain things should be destroyed, there are other things that shouldn’t be forgotten.

That’s exactly the context in which this collection of images from an 1882 toy catalogue needs to be seen. Published digitally on Project Gutenberg earlier this month, this catalogue from New York-based Automatic Toy Works, which made wind-up toys, is a reminder of the commodities of the cultural imagination of that time.

In an era before intellectual property rights and mass marketing dictated what toys we played with, artisans drew their inspiration from recognisable caricatures of society. In the United States, the lampoonery of the blackface minstrel scene provided plenty of material. The toys in this catalogue predate the wildly popular golliwogs that hit the shelves in the 20th century and the mimicry is not just limited to black people. Also depicted are two pigtailed Chinese laundrymen and a woman’s right advocate as well as more benign characters such as a crawling baby and a mechanised bear.

A warning that most of these images are pretty demeaning. All the same, they shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone who understands the era. What is perhaps more telling is the copywriting. In the 21st century, toys need little introduction – the transcendent cultural capital of Spiderman and a Stormtrooper speaks for itself. Consumers instantly know what they are and why they want them. They have backstories and narratives that are valued at billions of dollars. By contrast, in these 19th century placements, the static sketch and the copywriting are left to do the selling. And in that prosaic explanation of how and why these toys might be amusing comes a disheartening sense of detachment: that these caricatures aren’t representing anything more than a cheap laugh.


“We consider this toy one of the most comically quaint of anything yet made. When seen in motion, laughter is irresistible. The old fellow commences the performance by slowly rocking backward and forward, as if debating what he should play, then suddenly he strikes his “favorite,” and rolling his head from side to side, fiddles in an ecstacy of enjoyment. Funny as it is, there is something almost pathetic in it, too. This toy is well and carefully made, and with ordinary care will last for years.

Price, $2.50.”


“He stands behind a desk, and slowly straightening himself up, turns his head from side to side and gestures vigorously with his arm. As he warms to his work, he leans forward over the pulpit, and shakes his head and hand at the audience, and vigorously thumps the desk. The motions are so life-like and comical that one almost believes that he is actually speaking. The face and dress alone provoke irresistible laughter. He preaches as long as any preacher ought to, and stops when he gets through.

Price, $2.50.”


“Old Aunt Chloe demonstrates that happiness may be found in a wash tub as well as in a palace. She is faithful at her toil, and we commend her to our young ladies as an artist of no mean pretentions, after whom they may pattern if they choose to revive and become proficient in one of the lost accomplishments.

Price, $2.50.”


“This image, with its shaven head, long queue and quaint looking dress, gives a striking and life-like picture of a Chinese Laundryman. When at work, he bends over the tub, and rubs the garment which he holds in his hands with a naturalness so perfect he might easily be mistaken for a real Celestial.

Price, $2.50.”


“In presenting this advocate to the public, and remembering with satisfaction the cordial reception our sterner suffragists and preachers have received, and believing in every respect she is their equal, we shall hope to receive as many calls for her. This woman will not insist upon the last word. Societies supplied with advocates on short notice.

Price, $2.50.”

Some others:

This post was first published on the Story Subway blog. You can buy the annotated Story Subway edition of The Time Machine with illustrations from Mike Schwartz here.

The Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine were like celestial beings who’d lost any sense of earthly usefulness. The Morlocks, in contrast, were an industrious and hungry race of beings that had lost any sense of virtue – they were cruel and predatory and a product of a world that had over generations deprived them of the best that life on earth had to offer.

At night, the Morlocks emerged from their dark and dirty tunnels to stalk Eloi for food. The Morlocks, according to the Time Traveller, were the genetic result of a subordinate class of humans who historically laboured and toiled in badly-lit, poorly-ventilated underground facilities for the upper world class (the ancestors of the Eloi). Their economic relationship with the Eloi as labourers had ceased some generations back though they maintained their industrial infrastructure and expertise and continued to live underground. As a result of their environment, they were pale creatures, averse to sunlight, and experts in underground living.

Like the term Eloi, Morlock is likely derived from Ancient Near East origins: the Canaanite god Moloch, best known as the deity associated with child sacrifice. Tradition depicts Moloch worship to a heated bronze statue that had the body of a man and the head of a bull, into which the cruel sacrifices would be made. While the Morlocks of 802,701 hunted Eloi for food, presumably out of necessity, there is also clear ritualistic and political significance in their killing and consumption of the gentler, more privileged species.

When observing the Morlocks, the time traveller also makes a reference to a ghost story by Grant Allen (1848-1899), Pallinghurst Barrow (1892) In the story, the protagonist is seduced to an ancient burial mound (barrow). There, he is attacked by a horde of bloodthirsty wights who pull him into their barrow to be offered as a human sacrifice, an act that would bring fresh-blood and youth to the undead King of the Barrow. Just as the sacrifice of a living human serves the needs of the undead king that inhabits the barrow, the stalking of the Eloi plays a similar role in the Morlocks’ world.


While Wells’ imagining of the world 800 millennia from now is shaped in large part by Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection, he draws heavily of religious and supernatural imagery to emphasise his ideas about class and race. He saw a clear parallel between ancient rituals of blood sacrifice that fed angry and hungry gods and the ecosystems (organic and manmade) that demanded a form of living sacrifice to sustain it. Many of his stories, The Time Machine included, are about the victims and the terrifying consequences of all-devouring systems.

This post was first published on the Story Subway blog. You can buy the illustrated and annotated Story Subway edition of The Time Machinehere.

H.G. Wells’ The TimeMachine (1895)  imagines the environment and inhabitants of London some 800 millennia in the future. Wells’ science fiction writings asked burning questions about the human race and focused particularly on what the yawning gap between the rich and poor would mean for future generations. One way he thought about privileged classes was as beautiful celestial beings whose near-heavenly perfection made them of very little earthly use.

In The Time Machine, the Eloi are a friendly, childlike race that appear to enjoy a charmed existence, mostly playing, feasting and sleeping in their communal palaces and doing almost no work to ensure their survival. The book’s time travelling protagonist initially concludes that at some point in history, humans must have levelled on a form of “communism” on which to build their social economy that allowed production to meet the needs of all mankind.


The idea of communism in the late 19th century did not carry the same baggage that is does today – the great disasters of communist totalitarian systems would not occur until several decades later. Communism as a more speculative ideology was articulated by Karl Marx in his Das Kapital but also rang through the writings of British philosophers and economists. Wells appears to have been influenced by William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890) about the idyllic agrarian world where there were no squabbles over resources. Such a utopian ideal bore resemblance to how Wells imagined the land of the angels. In his novel The Wonderful Visit (1895), an angel falls to a small English village. There, he befriends a local vicar but struggles to come to terms with the quirks and prejudices of English society. He is described as being beautiful, affable but ignorant. His own world is one of “beautiful dreams”, a rural paradise where angels don’t have to think or work very hard at all.

 Wells saw his Eloi like a privileged class of angels. The word Eloi itself is the Aramaic term for “My God” that Jesus cries out as he dies on the cross in Matthew’s New Testament gospel. It corresponds with the Hebrew word Elohim, used in the Old Testament to refer both to monotheistic God of Israel and the plural concept of “gods” worshipped by other peoples of the Ancient Near East. The term Elohim also referred to the concept of an agent of the God, particularly angels. The 12th century Spanish Rabbi Moses Maimonedes listed the Elohim as the seventh in his 10 ranks of angelic beings. Similarly, the traditions of the Greek gnostics describes Eloiein as one of the seven Archons (servant gods of one creator god).

 Yet unlike the angels of Jewish lore, the Eloi’s earthly privilege did not extend to divine protection. Their state of aesthetic and economic perfection meant they’d become completely reliant on their systems of production. This had dulled their survival instincts and made them particularly vulnerable to predators, as the Time Traveller discovers.

This Quora answer to the question “When will the US lose its status as a superpower?” is glib. But it’s spot on:

America will lose its status as the world’s strongest when…
  • Coca Cola is no longer the top beverage in the world
  • McDonalds is no longer the top food chain in the world
  • Hollywood movies are no longer the highest grossing in the world
  • Americans spend more money on foreign entertainment than their own.
America’s closet ‘rival’ regularly spends hundreds of millions on media that glorifies American might, so US superpower status is secure for now…


The strength of your military or foreign reserves only matters if you also know how to capture the world’s imagination and offer people a new way of doing things (whether it’s the right way or not is another question). Chinese civilisation is rich in detail, narrative, strategic thinking and innovation. It is both majestic and subtle – no argument there. But crucially missing in its five thousand years of history are both the confidence and will to meaningfully project itself cross-culturally…beyond the trading post or the Chinatown.

The next question is – does it need to? Absolutely.

When your economic and strategic footprint is as large as China’s, you cannot afford not to be number one. Even if your intentions are indeed benign, your impact is not. An elephant stomping across the savannah has no desire to hurt or rob others in his quest for existence, but his very heft and presence will always have consequence and make him an object of fear and suspicion.

You have to win hearts and minds to push your agenda – sticks and carrots are not enough. The Greeks, Romans, various Muslim empires, British and Americans all knew this and, like it or not, their cultural fingerprints are visible everywhere beyond their territories of origin (along with their brutal legacies).

As we head into the Lunar Year of the Monkey, I’m reminded of one of my favourite childhood television shows: Monkey, an adaptation of Journey to the West produced between 1978 and 1980.

This children’s show was a ridiculous cult success in Australia and other places but, as far as I can tell, never really in Asia. Few of us in Australia in the 1980s knew much of the Chinese Sun Wukong epic but we were blown away by this brash Asian dude with killer sideburns and a hairy chest who zipped across the sky on a cloud, bashing up demons and pissing on Buddha’s hand. We also loved his friends: a flatulent fish, a horny pig and a young male monk who confused many of us sexually. Little is known about how this series ended up in the hands of the Australian state broadcaster but every mouth-breathing, beer-swilling Aussie knows about The Journey to the West because of this show (not so Romance of the Three Kingdoms). It is as iconic as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or He-Man. Countless front-teeth were lost in big stick fights in backyards across the country because of this show. Now that is cross-cultural penetration.

What we also were probably too ignorant to realize as kids in the 1980s was that this show from the “Far East” wasn’t even Chinese – it was produced by NHK and featured an all-Japanese cast and the English-language edition was dubbed by Brits putting on bad Fu Manchu-style accents in a London recording studio.

For what it’s worth, my wife hates the show and so do most Chinese people who never saw it as children. It’s stupid and crude, it’s tacky and it’s insulting to the original epic, not to mention Chinese culture. Most insulting is the fact that the most globally-recognized adaptation of this great Chinese epic isn’t even Chinese. Yet for many non-Chinese, it is definitively Journey to the West because of its many cross-cultural access points – the disco theme song, crude jokes, sexual innuendo, the monsters – as unpalatable as they seem to some.

It also says something about what Japan learnt in the second half of the 20th century. Though now dwarfed economically and geopolitically by China, Japan has captured the imagination of the world with its animation, design and storytelling in a way China has yet to. And through its soft power (combined with its strong economic and military Cold War alliance with the U.S.), it fostered global goodwill that defies the resentment one would expect after the Japanese record of the Second World War.

To succeed in even just feeding its own 1.4 billion souls, China will need to make something that lifts the human spirit, not just its own GDP. Something that cannot be state-generated – it will need its own George Lucas, its own Walt Disney. It will need to do more than put a man on the moon – it will need to put a man on Mars. Chinese culture already has so much to offer the world beyond money or the goods made in its factories but it needs the confidence and freedom to sell it.

In other words, it will need to be a thought leader, not just for those with Chinese heritage, but for the world. Does it have the inclination to do so in this lifetime? That’s another question.

Gong Xi Fa Cai.

fordsThere’s no excuse in the modern age for not knowing who Harrison Ford is. He is, all at once, Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Rick Deckard. And these three are all at once Harrison Ford. There’s no debate on this whatsoever – no one in this universe ever said “Robert Redford should’ve be Indiana Jones” or “I wish Han Solo was less snarly and and less sarcastic”. If you don’t know Ford, you don’t know 20th century cinema. And if you don’t like Ford, you’re on the side of darkness.

There’s a little more leniency for not knowing who Anthony Ingruber is. The 25-year-old Netherlands-based impersonator makes a respectable splash on YouTube where his best vid (yes, a Han Solo impersonation) has about half a million views.

But he has only just started to make blips on Hollywood’s radar, a part of the world that still has gravity despite the Internet. Ingruber has seized a very important mantle: he is the millennial incarnation of Harrison Ford. He made a strong case for this in the Lee Toland Krieger’s 2015 feature The Age of Adaline. In this magical realist romance, Ingruber plays a younger flashback version of a character portrayed by a 73-year-old Ford (William Jones) with freakish likeness in both look and voice. Ingruber’s screentime in the film is short but his performance is arguably integral to the film’s cinematic storytelling. Ford’s veteran star stature and on-screen persona for a film like Adaline present an intimidating challenge for any actor sharing same character name: you not only have to play your character, you have to play Ford. Anything less could have rendered the pivotal (and beautifully shot) flashback scenes unusable.

There are two uniquely-paired parts to this. Firstly, Ingruber is a deeply talented mimic and not just of Ford. Secondly, he looks astoundingly like a younger Ford with his deep-set eyes and prominent nose (notably, though, Ingruber’s dimply smile is much more baby-faced than Ford’s grumpy scowl).

There are a million impersonators out there and some of the best have launched lucrative careers at open-mic nights. Ingruber’s role in this film is a story of good luck in the age of internet discoverability. But more deeply, his talent for mimicry comes from his childhood experience, learning how to blend in as a perennial “new kid” in new schools and new cultures as he followed his Australian diplomat father from posting to posting across the globe.

It’s not surprising that Ingruber’s name is among the swirl of rumored candidates for Disney’s proposed Star Wars feature that focuses on the early life of Han Solo (due for release in 2018). It’s a long list and a long shot but he has a surge of fan support for the role (Chris Pratt is also among actors rumored to be a possibility). Some Star Wars fans reject the idea of Solo being played by a Saturday Night Live-type impressionist but Ingruber acknowledges the craft of acting is more than just the ability to mimic and his fans argue he is up for the task.

I asked Ingruber some questions about how his experience shaped his talents and where he wants to take them. Below is an edited email interview he was kind enough to grant

What countries have you lived in?

Ingruber: I was born in the Philippines in 1990, and then lived in Canada between 1992-95, Australia 1995-99, Cyprus, 1999-2004, Back to Australia until 2005, then new Zealand until 2011. I went to live in Canada again until 2013 and now I have settled in Holland. This doesn’t count the amount of countries that I have visited in between these times because that list is much longer! My father is actually Australian by Austrian descent, and my mother is Dutch.

Where do you say you come from and where do people think you come from based on your accent?

Ingruber: I usually reply with the opposite of the country I am staying in. It takes so long to give my full biography and confusing nationality. I suppose the country I would call home would be either Holland or New Zealand. I tend to get American as my guessed nationality but at times my accent slips more into an Australian twang.

I think my ability to mimic so many accents is definitely thanks to my international upbringing and experiences. As a teenager, I actually re-learned the Australian accent in order to fit in when my family and I moved back to Australia after living in Cyprus where I picked up the American accent.

What were the challenges of always being a new kid in a new school in a new country? How did your talent for impersonations develop and help you?

Ingruber: It was always really hard having to constantly move and rebuild my life in a completely alien environment at such a young age. Bullying was a problem in some countries when I was younger but I think that taught me the skills needed to adapt and defend myself rather than using physical violence by avoiding it with good social skills.

One of the skills I used was avoid being the “awkward new kid” and instead be the funny guy. When I was 13 I discovered I had a talent for impersonating various actors that I had grown up watching like Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson. I went really fast from feeling like an outcast to being the class comedian and building up a good social life.

I realized during my high school years that acting was something I really enjoyed doing and something that attracted me. The impressions were what started the ball rolling in that direction but as I got older I started to also produce original pieces and work on my skills to try to pursue acting as a career. I always kept doing impressions on the side through YouTube as the fanbase that I grew all really enjoyed my work and it’s wonderful to know that what I’m doing is appreciated.

Given your international childhood, do you think you face the same struggles with identity, loyalties and friendships that other so-called “third culture kids” do? And did you ever consider espionage as a career?

Ingruber: As a kid I did have that James Bond fantasy; going to exotic locations and that sense of danger. As I got older I realized I’d much rather be an actor playing James Bond so there no actual danger and a lot more glamor.

I do feel like I have no real national identity; if there was a war between the countries I grew up in, I don’t know which side I would fight for.

I’m lucky enough to have made some amazing friends in all different corners of the world. My closest are from Cyprus, Australia and New Zealand.

I think my life has been filled with vast experiences in all kinds of different countries and cultures and that’s something some people don’t get to experience. I do feel that I have been forced to leave my best friends behind and that’s really difficult.

As a kid, I tried to fit in but as I got older I decided to just be myself and find people that like me for who I am.

When did people first start saying you looked like Harrison Ford? How did you end up playing a younger version of his character in The Age of Adaline?

Ingruber: When I first started doing the impressions in high school, my friends and even teachers started to point out that I did look quite a bit like him.

I was discovered through my YouTube video by the director, Lee Toland Krieger, himself. I believe he was looking for reference photos of young Harrison Ford in Google and I came up. He then contacted me for a screen test and explained they were looking for someone who not only could convince the audience that this character would grow up to become Ford but was also a competent actor as well. Working with Lee, we found a good balance with delivering a natural performance while also using the mannerisms that the audience identify with Ford.

I think it’s impossible to be a good impressionist without being an actor as well. I feel it is a branch or style of acting the same way drawing and painting are a form of illustration. I think it’s important to always try to build on your strengths as an actor but doing impressions is like being let out to play and have some fun.

I think my first real role was an awesome coincidence that it required me to use the skills I developed as a kid doing my impressions but at the same time showing that I could deliver a convincing performance as well. I hope that it leads to more opportunities and allows me to go after some really diverse roles in great films.

So are you going to be the young Han Solo in a new Star Wars film?

Ingruber: Unfortunately I can’t divulge anything at this time!

leifericssonI just returned from a holiday to Scandinavia last week (Denmark and Norway). It was my first time there and the fulfilment of something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to the peninsula, its geography, scenery, history and unique philosophies. In particular, I’ve always had a thing for Vikings and leading up to this trip, decided to do a bit of reading on their history.

The history of the Vikings is a story of outliers, innovation, picking battles and free-thinking. The lands of the Norse were among the outer chunks of Europe that were not touched by the Roman Empire. This was significant for at least two reasons. Firstly, being on the periphery meant Scandinavia was not drawn into he Empire’s long and tortuous descent into the Dark Ages – it was spared both the inward looking politics of a crumbling Empire and the wrecking ball of hordes such as the Goths, Huns and Vandals. Secondly, not being tethered to Christendom’s stiffening sense of intellectual and moral order (from both Rome and Byzantium) had allowed the Norse worldview to strengthen and find even stronger forms of expression. From these rough people came science, reason, inquiry and technology that mystically transcended the logic of Plato or Archimedes that prevailed in urbanised Europe at the time. From these rough people, whose culture straddled the space between nomadic and feudal, came feats of engineering and exploration that would not be matched for at least another half millennium.

The rise of the Viking age around the ninth century teaches us a lot about ancient concepts of risk and strategy. So does the decline of the Viking age about two centuries later. Here are some loose ramblings on this period:

The edge of certainty

J.C. Dollman's

J.C. Dollman’s “The Ravager”, 1909.

The Norse were a warrior race. As with other Germanic peoples, battle was the highest calling in life and projected in almost sensual terms, in much the same way food, wine, music and sex were. In battle, the Vikings found either spoils and glory from their earthly conquests or eternal gratification in the Valhalla afterlife. And battle was not just a means to an end. According to one 12th century source, for those who had fallen in battle, Valhalla offered the daily joy of slaying each other (again) followed by feasting and drinking. Indeed, battle in its own right appears to be a sacrament and poetic tributes to this age esteem battle with the sort of boyish delight you’d expect from, well, boys.

The Norse had their gods and creation stories that overlapped with other Germanic peoples that brought us characters such as Odin and Thor. But looming large in the Scandinavian cosmology was a sense of chaos that ringed the world the Vikings knew: the chaos of warfare and the chaos of nature. While Vikings appeased their gods through sacrifices (including human sacrifices), even the divine were doomed for destruction in the future Norse apocalypse known as Ragnarok. The eschatology was arguably more bleak and destructive than those of other traditions. Without the dogma, institutions or sense of certainty Abrahamic religions provided, the Vikings saw chaos as an inevitable reality. Rather than seek refuge from chaos in the cloisters of organised religion or ecclesiastically-centered communities, the Vikings embraced uncertainty and sought to ride it as far as it would take them.

Nature’s curves


The Hershey Kiss of Gokstad.

There are few things from the Dark Ages more beautiful than the Viking ship. From the front, the miraculously-preserved Gokstad burial ship (believed to have been built in 890 AD), housed in a museum just outside Oslo, looks like a melting Hershey Kiss with its aquiline curves drawing to a curly tip. There were no engineering schools or great libraries in Scandinavia yet these vessels outclassed anything that Rome, Athens or Phoenicia had ever produced and were certainly better than anything the Anglo-Saxons had made. And by the beginning of the second millennium, Viking ships would be discovering the New World, long before any other European power. The feminine elegance of their curling bows and slender decking belie the longship’s hardiness and versatility in both the high seas and shallow estuaries. It was precisely this ability to cut across to other lands and then slip quietly into protected waterways that made them formidable ships of conquest across Europe and beyond.

The Vikings did not build their ships according to plans or blueprints. Rather, the traditions of the craft followed a keenly observed sense of line and shape that mimicked the buoyancy of waterborne creatures and the curves of the sea’s waves.

The Viking age is generally defined as starting with the raid of the Lindisfarne Priory in Northumberland, England in 793 AD. It was from this savage smash and grab of the monastery’s treasures that the Vikings’ utter disregard for the sacred became renowned throughout the West. And it was the power of their vessels that allowed to them to get the upper hand.

The Vikings were making trans-Atlantic crossings in these stealthy vessels before Southern European ships with much deeper draughts and imposing keels would try the same in the 15th century. Over their age of conquest, the Vikings moved from the Scandinavian peninsula, first to the Faeroe Islands, then to Iceland and then onto Greenland and eventually North America. Straying far from the sight of land, the Vikings relied on natural cues and landmarks to navigate their way to these new lands and the Hauksbok, a 13th century Icelandic manuscript, includes instructions on how to get to Greenland from Scandinavia by following the signs:

From Hernar in Norway one should keep sailing in west to reach Hvarf in Greenland and then you are sailing north of Shetland, so that it can only be seen if visibility is very good; but south of the Faeroes, so that the sea appears halfway up their mountain slopes; but so far south of Iceland that one only becomes aware of birds and whales from it.

The Vikings had a sophisticated sense of natural philosophy that expressed itself not in essays or dialogues, but in practical solutions and forward thinking. Their history of thought was an uninterrupted line from the Bronze Age to the economic and political realities of the Middle Ages. Their intellectual connection to nature was not confined to folk rituals and farming; it shaped and inspired their many political exploits. Unlike other raiders and invaders, their conquests did not come through extensive sweeping lines but followed the natural pathways of coasts, currents and rivers.

Urbanization was as much a life-changing imposition in ancient European civiliization as it is throughout the world today. But being on the periphery and away from the center of the action, as the Scandinavians were, doesn’t mean we have to live in intellectual and cultural cul-de-sacs. In fact, it’s often out in the sticks that we make some of our greatest breakthroughs.


Yes…taken with my iPhone!

A few years ago, Apple’s more affable co-founder Steve Wozniak (not the late, great other Steve) said something naughty about Singapore. Speaking in a BBC interview, he said a technology company like Apple that had ball-breaking innovation and creativity at its heart could never emerge in Singapore (WSJ picked up on it at the time). His words:

Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behavior is not tolerated (and) you are extremely punished…Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great writers?

For Singapore-watchers both on and off the island, there was nothing particularly unique about these off-the-cuff comments. Nasty, horrible people have been saying that Singapore is a gilded dystopia lacking in originality or character for decades. But there were some subtle ironies that went only partially noticed by participants in the debate. For starters, Apple’s original iPod was itself the subject of a legal dispute with a Singapore company, aptly-named Creative Technology, that claimed the iPhone progenitor was a ripoff of its own Zen portable media player (more detail on that case and its outcome here).

More glaring though is the fact that while Woz’s comments focused on the creative impotence of controlled societies, what was never examined was just how similar Apple is to Singapore, culturally and operationally. Both are outrageously successful as corporate entities (and not cheap). Everyday, they draw thousands of applications for people wanting to work there. They were both born out of bold and daring ambitions, created by relentless and ruthless visionaries and at certain points in their histories, almost evaporated into insignificance only to come back stronger than ever. Both run extremely successful international brands and offer beautifully and obsessively integrated operating systems that are dreams to use – they’re safe, shiny, reliable, clean and a lot prettier than most of their competitors.

I won’t comment on what Apple is like as a place to work as I’ve never worked there though there are volumes of commentary on that by Apple alumni in the ether. But observations about its operating system show that its success is as much about what Apple chooses to reject as much as the elegant design of the system itself. The iOS platform offers a broad market place for a big tent of industries. For third-party developers, the iOS platform is about scaling reach to end users and improving productivity. The iOS world creates an open and competitive market place of goods and services for all the world’s most cashed-up industry players and an affordable and accessible point of entry for smaller, indie players. It is, by-and-large, an open system, welcoming of diversity and a range of contributions. Yet at the same time its walls are high, its entry points are limited and tightly controlled and life within its borders is coupled with very binding and at times punitive conditions. Seldom are the voices of dissenters listened to, though there are notable exceptions.


Apple’s own quality control, high standards and sense of purity are what makes it a strong brand and a platform upon which third parties and end users choose to operate. Commentator Jon Evans, in a TechCrunch piece a few days ago, described the organisation and product philosophy as this:

…technology as a centrally controlled hegemony unsullied by tinkerers who want to go outside of their sandbox, a walled garden of an ecosystem that is only permitted to evolve when Cupertino initiates the evolution. Only Apple is allowed to think outside the box in which its users live…

Evans asked other questions about how much one should trust a “benevolent dictatorship” like Apple, given the enormous power and information it has over and on its users.

Anyone that has ever strayed into a debate about Apple operating system will know the feverish pitch that Apple’s fans defend the company and its products. The straight-up defence of Apple’s operating restrictions is that the product works and doesn’t give them any problems, unlike the unstable, unsafe, confusing and inefficient environments of more open systems like Android. At the heart of the debate is not just a geeky fetish for design and UX but an argument about the values of openness and transparency and whether any long-term good comes of them.

Woz may well ask whether Apple could rise up in a society like today’s Singapore, a controlled structure born of a bold visionary.

We may just as well ask whether a bold visionary like Steve Jobs could rise up through a company like today’s Apple.


A Richard Marxist Conspiracy

Credit: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

It looks like I might be wrong.

Two months ago, I wrote that the late Lee Kuan Yew was “the only Singaporean who had something genuinely interesting to say and the unfettered confidence to speak it loudly”. At the time, there was something bubbling away in the basement: Sonny Liew (Malaysian-born, Singapore citizen) was very close to pushing out his oddball opus The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. This graphic novel treats the reader to a meandering, colorful and dense account of Singapore’s political history as seen through the eyes of a talented, struggling and fictitious local cartoonist, Charlie Chan. The book is bold and sometimes unsubtle in its caricature of Singapore’s politics and politicians (one venerated politician in particular).

Liew had actually been working on this for some years now but its launch on May 30, 2015 happened to fall almost smack-bang midway between two key dates in Singapore’s history: the death of its founding prime minister (March 23) and the country’s 50th anniversary of independence (August 9).

Liew has international credibility as an illustrator, has drawn for Marvel and DC and has three Eisner nominations. Anyone wondering whether Singapore’s arts and media wonks were ready to celebrate a book like this got their answer last week: the country’s National Arts Council (NAC) revoked the S$8,000 grant they’d given the book’s publisher, Epigram.

There’s not a lot of color on why the NAC pulled its grant beyond the one reference to “sensitive content” in a few media reports. It’s not exactly wild speculation to guess that now is an awkward time for any government-linked body to be seen endorsing a piece of work that features the late Mr. Lee in a homage to the campy Dan Dare and The Eagle comics (amongst other depictions). If anyone was wondering whether policy decisions like this dissuade public consumption of such media in Singapore, the book’s first (and fairly modest) print run sold out over the course of a weekend.


Credit: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

The Probationary Artistic Licence

One major difference between Charlie Chan and the work of others who have dared to tell alternative narratives in Singapore in recent history is that Liew’s work is both brilliant and fun. But more than that, it has an at times overbearing weight and depth to it: 302 explanatory endnotes in what is ostensibly a work of fiction. Endnotes don’t usually appear in graphic novels until after several print runs and even then they focus on aspects of the work’s artistic development, not its historicity. In Charlie Chan‘s case, Liew’s endnotes appear as context and background for his satire and allegory. They help readers with no knowledge of Singapore’s history and address and clarify the points of academic tension in the historical moments his cartoons refer to. It’s almost as if he’d made joke and has to explain why it’s funny. A quick glance at graphic novels on the shelf that deal with politics and history, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Journalism, shows it’s not industry practice. The graphic novel format is about elevating the narrative above the nuts and bolts of the story using color and character.

None of this takes away from what Liew has achieved. Importantly, it shows how artists navigate an awkward and often treacherous media landscape in Singapore: to make bold, unorthodox statements, artists, politicians and the media must do their homework and buttress their work with substance, even if it’s fiction. And to have global appeal, they must be strong storytellers. This is a reasonable demand to make of anyone who wants their expression to be taken seriously, even cartoonists and comedians. But it does create a psychological barrier of entry for younger, less confident artists to experiment and it means the content that is given free passage in Singapore is toothless and cheesy with no licence to push boundaries of any kind (a theme explored in Charlie Chan). That’s why we pay attention when the beauty and creative strength of a work like Charlie Chan trump the charmless demands of political orthodoxy.

Is there more than one Sonny Liew in Singapore? I believe there is.

UPDATE: The NAC has provided a bit more detail on its rationale to pull its funding. From this article and this letter in Today dated June 3, 2015 :

 “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines. The council’s funding guidelines are published online and well known among the arts community.”

Giant Robot

Credit: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

blade-runnerSingapore gets called lots of things: Disneyland. Toy Town. Pyongyang. China. None of these descriptions were actually coined in the city-state itself, they’re the products of curious foreign onlookers who can’t mind their own business.

The outside world’s version of Singapore’s story has always rankled the state and to a certain extent its people. In 1993, Wired published a blistering essay by sci-fi writer William Gibson that discussed (among other things) the Singapore government’s febrile tendency to outlaw media it didn’t like. The Singapore government responded by banning the publication. Could you make it up? Despite its wondrous economic success, Singapore has always struggled to shake the impression it made on Gibson.

Time and technology have made Singapore a more open place since those times and Gibson’s stuff is today street legal. But despite the relative openness, local prickliness toward foreign commentaries remains as pointed as ever.

The government is still quick to slam anything it deems slanderous, erroneous or inflammatory but at a more conversational level, few things irritate more than foreign jibes about the country’s ban on chewing gum sales. As one local writer moaned on the foreign media’s coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy: “Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin’ chewing gum.”

The ban was introduced in 1992, purportedly because gum could be used to jam the sensors of the city’s then shiny new subway cars. As it happens, many gum haters in the West genuinely respect Singapore’s commitment to order and cleanliness. All the same, the policy tells the story of a government that is not afraid of overreaching and treating its citizens like school children.

Similarly, the story of Michael Fay—a brat from the Singapore American School caned for graffiti around the same time—set the narrative around the country and how the West perceived it for at least a decade to follow. Never mind the fight against the Communists, separation from Malaysia or even the blockbuster horror show that was Japanese occupation, Singapore was simply the place you got birched in the backside for chewing gum and jaywalking (for the record, you don’t).

Singapore is known by other tropes but it’s the authoritarian narrative that endures most stridently in the Western reader’s mind. This is not only because of the West’s own freedom fetishes but also because Singapore is a fantastic source of dystopia porn: the idea that a comfortable, middle class existence may one day be overarched by an intrusive and officious corporatist regime. A country that gives everyone a number, takes their thumb prints, shuffles them into racial and religious folders and determines their destinies from the moment they can talk. Singapore is 1984, Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Running Man, Divergent and The Hunger Games, set in Asia. Singapore on paper presents the future of sci-fi terrors and it was precisely this fantasy that Gibson bottled in both Neuromancer and his Wired piece.

Leaning into the stereotype

Singapore’s government, its co-opted press and some of its intellectuals have always taken umbrage to foreign hyperbole and caricature, even positive ones such as the “economic Cinderella”. Reactionary measures such as censorship, lawsuits or painfully worded right-of-reply letters from the government to set the record straight go some way to controlling the message. But in the long run, they only reinforce the cliche of an establishment that is uneasy with alternative spins on the Singapore story. In short, “the lady doth protest”.

There are two classic retorts to criticisms of Singapore’s sterile and autocratic stereotypes. The first is the country’s own success, which speaks for itself: foreigners come to the country because it is rich, safe and politically reliable. Could you honestly say the same for Europe or the US right now? The second answer is that the city’s global connectivity, media consumption and high levels of education put paid to the myth of a cloistered and uncritical populace. As one Oxford-educated Singapore commentator asked last week: “So where is the trade-off? How are we unfree?”

The irony is that as a globally connected city, Singaporeans are indeed ravenous consumers of imported things, especially digital media. They are informed, educated and entertained by content produced in media ecosystems that are much more liberal than Singapore’s. If the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal reported in the deferential and stenographic manner of The Straits Times. they would not be read by any member of Singapore’s cabinet, including Mr. Lee. Perversely, Singapore’s media landscape demands two conflicting cultures of storytelling: an aggressive global standard for world news and a much safer, co-operative standard for local affairs. At some point, will consumers reject the second standard?

In open and competitive media systems, authority of voice is built up over time and based on merit, not given to you just because you have the backing of the highest power in the land. Some content is strong, some is weak and sure enough, some is not fit for purpose. But it is the competitive challenge to tell the narrative, not the obsession to control it, that creates the drive for credibility.

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